This is a guest blog post by the fabulous Julia Cato.
A friend of mine recently stopped going to church. She’s 90 and worshipped at the same Church of Scotland congregation in Edinburgh for 84 years. Twice a week she went to church and involved herself deeply in congregational life. Now she says she can’t cope with sitting through a service. Physically, she’s doing extremely well for 90. Mentally, the darkness creeps in. I wonder if the weight of a lifetime of expectations and labels have just become too much. In a time when her faith and the church should be carrying most of her burdens, she seems to be crushed by them.
She still lives on her own in a lovely neighbourhood with plenty of shops, cafés and public transportation at her doorstep. So many lovely people visit her and pitch in with errands and chores. Scotland is part of a national healthcare system that provides her with excellent home care and costs her almost nothing. Imagine that. She is loved and supported. And yet, it is not enough. One of her friends from her church once sadly reflected, “Where is her faith?”
She is often anxious and depressed. No amount of attention, care and love seems to lift the heaviness from her mind and heart. No one can quiet that terrifying loneliness. I sometimes find myself whispering a desperate prayer: “Please don’t let me get old like that.” I don’t want to be that kind of unhappy at the end of my life.
There may be many other reasons why she is where she is, but I wonder, is she a woman whom the Church has failed? She’s been widowed for over 20 years. Her husband played the central role in her life along with the Church, which our religion too often requires of women. Together they wove a complex patriarchal net of expectations of how women should think, act, speak, and worship. She never had children, so she was never a “mother” (another role the Church makes room for), and then when her husband died she went from “wife” to “widow.” Now she is just “old.” She is an old woman with no children or grandchildren. I’m afraid she might be thinking that her church and society no longer have any use for her. And she might be right. There are not many labels left at this stage and without any labels, who is she? Especially in the church, which is not always a welcoming place to single women. God seems so far away. The Church too often stands between us and God, if we allow it. How tragic we so often believe the illusion that we could ever be separated from the love of God.
Things are changing in the Church and, for me, participating in this is a good thing. Being the creators of our own stories and the owners of our own faith is as vital to our lives as the air we breathe. And maybe, if we work to create space for people to be more fully themselves—even without the labels that make us “safe” or “acceptable”—now, things will be different when we reach the age of my friend.
Julia A. Cato holds a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Her background includes women’s issues, human rights, multifaith relations, communications and development, and writing. She currently works as a freelance consultant in Edinburgh and her recent clients include: the Festival of Spirituality and Peace, the Church of Scotland and the Edinburgh Interfaith Association.