Fish Eaters: The Whys and Hows of Traditional Catholicism

``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D

Growing Old

It's interesting to read about how the ancients and medievals saw the human life cycle. Irenaeus, for ex., saw five stages in a man's life, while SS. Augustine, Isidore of Seville, and Gregory the Great saw six. Hippocrates, St. Ambrose, Ptolemy, and Shakespeare ("As You Like It" Act II, scene 7) described seven ages of man.1 The medieval love for tetrads, though, predominates in the post-classical Western world: there are four Gospels, four cardinal virtues, four cardinal directions, etc., and, so, there are four stages of a man's life.

Creation being the ordered work of a single Designer, everything was seen as connected to everything else in the medieval world, and the ages of man were no different.They were treated as related to, among other things, the four classical elements and their qualities, the bodily humours, the four winds, the phases of the Moon, and  the years' seasons.

Age Element Qualities Humour Wind Moon
Childhood/adolescence Air hot moist blood Southern
New Moon
Maturity Fire hot dry yellow bile Eastern
First Quarter
Old age Earth cold dry black bile Northern
Full Moon
Senescence Water cold moist phlegm Western
Last Quarter

In his "Golden Legend," Jacopo de Voragine (A.D. 1230-1298), Archbishop of Genoa, explains why we fast during Embertides, which come four times a year: in Spring, a week after Ash Wednesday; in Summer, after the Pentecost; in Autumn, after Roodmas; and in Winter, after the Feast of St. Lucy:

...March is reported to infancy, Summer to youth, September to steadfast age and virtuous, and Winter to ancienty or old age. We fast then in March that we may be in the infancy of innocency. In Summer for to be young by virtue and constancy. In Harvest that we may be ripe by attemperance. In Winter that we may be ancient and old by prudence and honest life, or at least that we may be satisfied to God of that which in these four seasons we have offended him.

Note in the above that each stage of man's life was related to specific virtues: in the order of nature, each age of man has its own special way of being, and each was regarded as equally important.2

Now, as Dante wrote in his unfinished Convivio, "these ages can be longer or shorter according to our temperament and constitution," but

our nature when good and upright develops in us according to what is reasonable, just as we perceive that the nature of plants develops in them; and therefore some manners and some kinds of behavior are more reasonable at one age than at another, during which the soul that is ennobled develops in an orderly manner along a simple path, employing its activities in the periods and ages of life proper to them accordingly as they are directed to attaining its ultimate fruit.

The virtues he ascribes to each of the ages of life as lived by the noble soul are obedience, pleasantness and a sense of shame natural to youth (from birth to 25, according to Dante); strength, self-restraint, love, courtesy, honesty, loyalty, courage, and temperance natural to maturity (26 to 45); and prudence, justice, liberality, and affability natural to old age (46 to 70). The noble soul that reaches senescence (older than 70):

does two things: firstly, that it returns to God as if to the harbour from which it departed when it entered the ocean of life; secondly, that it blesses the journey it has made, because it has proved direct, favourable, and free of bitter storms.

Here it should be noted that, as Cicero says in his book On Old Age, a natural death is as it were a harbour and place of rest after our long journey. This is surely true, for just as a capable sailor lowers his sails on approaching port and progressing smoothly enters it quietly, so we must lower our sails of worldly preoccupation and return to God in our whole mind and heart, so that we reach our harbour in perfect gentleness and peace. Here our own nature provides a major lesson in gentleness, for in a death such as this there is no suffering or harshness; as a ripened apple drops gently from the bough, with no violence, so without suffering the soul parts from the body in which it dwelt. Thus Aristotle, in his book On Youth and Old Age, says that: ‘death in old age takes place without sadness.’ And just as one who returns from a long journey is met at his city gate by the citizens, so the noble soul is met, as it ought to be, by the citizens of the eternal life. This is achieved by contemplating their virtuous works and thoughts: for having already surrendered itself to God and disengaged from worldly matters and preoccupations, it seems the soul sees those whom it believes to be with God. Listen to what Cicero says, in the person of Cato the Elder: ‘I seem already to see, and inspire myself with the greatest longing to see your ancestors whom I loved, and not only them, but also those of whom I have heard.’ The noble soul, then, surrenders itself to God at this stage of life, and awaits the end of life with great longing, seems in departing an inn to be returning to its true dwelling, in arriving from a journey to be returning to its city, in leaving the open sea to be returning to its harbour.

Of those who don't work on becoming virtuous -- well, it's said that there's "no fool like an old fool," and there's a reason for that: the young can be forgiven much silliness; they haven't had time to learn life's lessons. But by the time one has grown old, one has had the time, and one should have put in the effort to become wise and focus one's eyes on eternal things. The medieval world even saw the aging body itself as a sermon on the matter: the waning of physical powers -- the loss of memory, hearing, sight, taste, hair, teeth, strength and vigor -- and the loss of family and friends to death -- these things were seen as glimpses of Hell and as warnings not to cling too closely to the things of this world, to, instead, focus on the afterworld and the state of one's soul in the present one. As always, the Catholic message is "be prepared."

Preparing for Winter

In the medieval world, the elderly qua the elderly weren't regarded as a special part of the population that were either ignored or singled-out for pity.

In the monastery, age was often accompanied by growing authority. The good works expected of the religious individual were the virtues most often attributed to old age—abstemiousness, calmness, chastity, humility, nonviolence and passivity (hatred of one’s will). In rural communities, the liege lord would rarely retire but would continue to acquire wealth and the accumulated surplus from his estates. Within peasant society, it seems unlikely that the precept to honor one’s elders was seriously challenged by younger generations. Even in the late Middle Ages, in the countryside if not in the towns, there is evidence that the wealthier households were characterized by the greater age of the people living in them (Herlihy, 1967, p. 92). In the towns, too, the rise of a merchant bourgeoisie favored a pattern of lifelong accumulation. “Unlike the warrior who reached his culmination at the prime of life, it was in old age that the merchant’s career attained its apogee. For him, whose success was proportional to his wealth, his value depended fairly and squarely on the number of his years” (Minois, 1989, p. 205).

In short, the economy of the late Middle Ages did not place older people at an economic disadvantage. Quite the contrary; within the upper strata of late medieval society, at least, old age was very much associated with the existing economic social and cultural order. 3

With the Renaissance, though, feudalism and a reliance on agriculture gave way to mercantilism, and the way old age was perceived changed, with the aged becoming a special category of social concern, like widows, the sick, and the poor.

With late modernity came even more changes: the post-WWII baby boom brought with it an inordinate focus on youth. The population of the United States in 1964 was 191.1 million -- and 77.3 million of them, over 40% of them -- were between the ages of newborn and eighteen. Hollywood, businesses, and advertisers rushed to tend to their wants and oblige their tastes, and our culture changed from a more sober and mature one marked by cocktail parties and crooners, to a raucous, chaotic one in which rock-and-roll and "beat" or "mod" sensibilities prevailed. At the same time, the parish-based neighborhoods of yore were being broken up, extended families shrank into smaller, nuclear ones, and the demands of business put pressure on people to move away from their hometowns in order to find work.

Throughout all this change and movement, old people were left behind, and aging has come to be treated as a sort of moral failure.
We put our old people in "homes," shunting them off to the side, out of the way. We look past them on the street, or if we do acknowledge them, some of us condescend, calling them "dear" and "cute" as if they're infants. With Botox®, Rogaine®, Viagra®, cosmetic surgery, hormone replacement therapies, hair dyes, and various other elixirs and potions we fight against aging as if we're battling Satan himself. The modern West gives us two options, it seems: the first, the "Logan's Run" option," is to commit suicide when one shows signs of aging so one won't become a "burden," and the second is to "age successfully" -- that is, to have been born genetically blessed, to be rich enough to afford the aforementioned potions, and to grow older without getting wrinkled, going gray, becoming frail, etc., to whit, to not show ones age at all, to pretend one is eternally 35. Neither is a humane, sensible approach.

Like death, time will have its way, and the realities of growing old must be faced in a way that would please God.

But, because of our hyper-focus on youth, and the very nature of the immature, the young tend to be very blinded to some of the harsher realities in life. They live for the day, taking great risks and leaping into things with little thought for tomorrow. So, the harsher realities of age sneak up on them when they come -- a phenomenon partially rooted in the fact, too, that the experience of time goes much more quickly up as one grows older. So far is the reality of aging from the minds of the young that many modern women are truly, deeply shocked when they reach their mid-30s and find that men are no longer attracted to them as they once were. Having put off their much more important personal lives to focus on careers, and now no longer young, fertile, and as beautiful in that youthful, man-attracting way, they "suddenly" find themselves alone in the world, and realize they're likely destined to remain unmarried and childless for the rest of their lives. Aging doesn't affect men as radically or as quickly as it does women in terms of the ability to find a mate and have children, but men who ignore the realities of growing older can find themselves, too, in a bad situation, alone as they become old men.

It's obvious that not all are called to marriage and family life (or to religious or priestly vocations, for that matter), but the point remains no matter your station in life: you need to think about growing older, what it means, what you want your "golden years" to be like, and how to best go about making them what you want. You need to do it while still young. And you need to do it most especially if you believe you're called to be a mother or father -- with time being much more relevant if you are called to be a mother. If marriage and family are your heart's desire, get on with the task of finding your spouse now, before it's too late.

Take care of your physical well-being, keeping in mind a quote attributed to St. Augustine: "Take care of your body as if you were going to live forever; and take care of your soul as if you were going to die tomorrow." 4 Eat well, and don't eat, drink, or smoke too much. Exercise, and take care of your body so that the odds of your spending your aged years in ill health are lowered. Put some money aside, if possible, and make your own funeral arrangments so your family won't be bothered when you die. Write and have notarized a will, buy any necessary life insurance, and arrange for the well-being of those you love after you've gone
(see Preparing for Death: Pragmatic Concerns -- and don't wait to do this until you're ill or old)

Take care of your mind as well. Keep learning new things and meeting new people. Join a club or two. Retain -- or regain -- your childhood ability to wonder by opening the Book of Nature and being grateful for what you see.

Above all, though, take care of your soul by receiving the Sacraments as needed and focusing on developing the cardinal virtues. If you haven't been called to serve God by serving others in family life or the religious life, serve God by serving others in other ways -- e.g., volunteering, becoming a docent, tutoring the young, offering struggling young parents babysitting services, etc.

Work, and serve others so that, when old, you'll become one of those "noble souls" Dante wrote about -- a soul that lives life such that, when old (pray God), it "
returns to God as if to the harbour from which it departed."

Finally, gather the stories your old people tell you -- now, before it's too late. Write out your family tree and family history -- your memories of your grandparents and parents and the stories they told you -- and give it to your children, nieces, and nephews so their words and the lessons they've learned can be handed down through the generations.

Deuteronomy 32:7 
Remember the days of old, think upon every generation: ask thy father, and he will declare to thee: thy elders and they will tell thee.

If you are already old,
keep doing the above. Write out your own stories, and use your skills to serve others as best as you can. As Cicero wrote of the aged in his work "On Old Age":

You can at least help others by your counsel; and what is more pleasant than old age surrounded by young disciples? Must we not, indeed, admit that old age has sufficient strength to teach young men, to educate them, to train them for the discharge of every duty? And what can be more worthy of renown than work like this?

There's an old tale -- attributed to Aesop and to other Greeks, described as an Asian folktale, said to be found in the Talmud and other sources -- of the old man who plants trees under whose shade he can never sit or whose fruit he can never enjoy. As one version of Aesop's stories tells it:

As an old man was planting a tree, three young men came along and began to make sport of him, saying: "It shows your foolishness to be planting a tree at your age. The tree cannot bear fruit for many years, while you must very soon die. What is the use of your wasting your time in providing pleasure to others to share long after you are dead?"

The old man stopped in his labor and replied: Others before me provided for my happiness, and it is my duty to provide for those who shall come after me.

"Plant trees" -- whether literal trees or by handing down what you've learned. And know that the most important thing to hand down is the Faith:

Psalm 70:18
And unto old age and grey hairs: O God, forsake me not, until I shew forth Thy arm to all the generation that is to come

If you're one of the aged who've become sickly and frail, you can still pray for others, and you can still offer up your sufferings for the good of the Church. Be grateful you've been given so many years. Cicero again:

Each one should be content with such time as it is allotted to him to live. In order to give pleasure to the audience, the actor need not finish the play; he may win approval in whatever act he takes part in; nor need the wise man remain on the stage till the closing plaudit. A brief time is long enough to live well and honorably; but if you live on, you have no more reason to mourn over your advancing years, than the farmers have, when the sweet days of spring are past, to lament the coming of summer and of autumn. Spring typifies youth, and shows the fruit that will be; the rest of life is fitted for reaping and gathering the fruit. Moreover, the fruit of old age is, as I have often said, the memory and abundance of goods previously obtained. But all things that occur according to nature are to be reckoned as goods; and what is so fully according to nature as for old men to die? while the same thing happens to the young with the opposition and repugnancy of nature. Thus young men seem to me to die as when a fierce flame is extinguished by a stream of water; while old men die as when a spent fire goes out of its own accord, without force employed to quench it. Or, as apples, if unripe, are violently wrenched from the tree, while, mature and ripened, they fall, so force takes life from the young, maturity from the old; and this ripeness of old age is to me so pleasant, that, in proportion as I draw near to death, I seem to see land, and after a long voyage to be on the point of entering the harbor.
Rest in the peace of knowing that if Christ deigns to save you, your Winter will give way to Spring in due time. A poem to inspire you to seek the spiritual life -- always, but especially in old age:

Sailing to Byzantium
by William Butler Yeats

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.


1  There was also a common depiction of "the 72 years" of a man's life as 12 groups of 6 years, each of the 12 groups being represented by a month of the year. A man's life began in January, peaked in June, began its decline starting in July, and ended in December. See graphic of early 16th c. French woodcuts of this scheme. Note the zodiac signs marking the months. This Danish hymn dated to ca. 1623 summarizes the thought behind the 12X6 model:

January shows no roses, neither is she fruitful or nourishing. Thus when less than six years of age you have nought to boast of, you tumble often and behave childishly.

In February God’s fatherly mercy gives you the warmth of the sun and pleasure. Thus, from six to twelve years of age you learn to read and to write, becoming clever.

March demands diligence in field and garden if fine fruit is to be obtained. Likewise, you should plant your garden with discipline in order to be able to feed yourself when you are grey haired.

April’s banner shows leaves and flowers with no assistance from man, thanks to God. From 18 to 24 years of age is your time to flourish, with gaiety, beauty and less discipline, like the young calves and harts leaping among the grass and bushes, though often stumbling woefully. So I advise you to watch your step between bushes in order to be fearless when you wish to enjoy yourself. Consider the beginning and the end, man and woman! Ill advice has surprised many a man lamentably.

May wishes to join merry April with the finest songbirds. The skylark flies and sings early in the day, telling us: Be pious and think of your death. The goldfinch lifts its sweet voice at noon, reminding you of God’s omnipotence. Towards evening, the nightingale’s loud voice enjoins: Thank God for his divine creation. Likewise, you flower at this age, hastening to many a twittering maid. You make use of wine and salves, but learn that this is vain. Make garlands and wreathes, but let your wreath of honour be unspotted, and let Christ be your friend.

Like as the shining sun takes his highest seat in June, so your best age will be the years from 30 to 36 - you will never reach the same again.

For the hand of July thrusts youth away from you, and you will ask our Lord to guide your thoughts on your death. Lamenting over time past is useless. Put your trust in Jesus, your bridegroom and saviour.

August is for harvesting the crops and filling the barns, while not forgetting your death.

September is for plucking the fruit, while you are tamed and creep into a corner.  Even if you hear the drum inviting you to sword play, you must stay at home and behave with moderation. Therefore, remember the daily penitence for your sins, if you wish to enter the hall of Christ.

In October all is reaped, and the good farmer sows the new seed. Likewise, sow the spiritual seed in your heart in order to bear fruit when God grants you the ultimate reward.

The days are short, the warmth is gone, the trees are bare, November chills. Your years of flowering are brief and soon they vanish, and at 66 you walk and behave miserably. The teeth decay, blossom falls from the almond tree: God calls you from the sea of life. The roses on your cheeks have faded, your golden locks are gone, you have had your fill of this world and sing “Ade, du schnöde Welt”. You forget the merry folksongs you used to sing in your youth. Let them be, think of death. The young people despise you: “Get away, I dislike your manners.” So now you creep to poke the ashes.

At this stage December puts an end to your sad song. No defence, no foothold helps against almighty Death. Poor creature, ask God for mercy, he is your protector and your commander. Let me end my poor song. God show us mercy, so we may forget our sadness and win the crown of honour.

2 In the order of grace, though, the virtues are available to all at any age. Pope St. Gregory the Great, for example, in his Dialogues, describes St. Benedict as "a man of venerable life, blessed by grace and blessed by name, who had even from the time of his boyhood the heart of an old man. In his behaviour he went far beyond his age, never giving himself up to foolish pleasure." And when St. Benedict grew up and wrote the rule for his Order, he elucidated in its 63rd chapter how age in terms of number of years lived isn't what matters when it comes to running a monastery.

And in no place whatever let age determine the order or be a disadvantage; because Samuel and Daniel when mere boys judged the priests (cf 1 Sam 3; Dan 13:44-62). Excepting those, therefore, whom, as we have said, the Abbot from higher motives hath advanced, or, for certain reasons, hath lowered, let all the rest take their place as they are converted: thus, for instance, let him who came into the monastery at the second hour of the day, know that he is younger than he who came at the first hour, whatever his age or dignity may be.

Sacred Scripture makes the point even more succinctly in the fourth chapter of Wisdom:

For venerable old age is not that of long time, nor counted by the number of years: but the understanding of a man is grey hairs. And a spotless life is old age.

3 Gilleard, Chris. (2002). Aging and Old Age in Medieval Society and the Transition of Modernity. Journal of Aging and Identity

4 This is a very popular saying, and is always attributed to St. Augustine. I, however, haven't been able to locate its exact source.

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