A Living Bulwark Interview with Michael Shaughnessy
LB: You are a prolific writer and you have devoted several decades of ministry to young people in our International Kairos Outreach programs. Why have you now chosen to write a book on the last stage of life – aging and dying?
MS: I’m not sure it was my choice. In 2020, COVID-19 hit us like a Star Wars armada coming out of hyperspace. I was asked to give a short meditation on not being afraid of death. I simply said Death is the doorway to eternal life. The door says death but it should say JOY! When I finished I heard the Lord say he wanted me to write an honest book about facing death.
LB: Why is this book different from so many other books on aging and the search to reverse or slow down the process of aging?
MS: Many of those books are palliatives for fear. Should we be afraid of death? Yes – after all it will kill you! Or maybe no – it is God’s ultimate call to entrust your whole existence into his hands. Aging is the process that leads inevitably to death, typically through the stages of “getting old”, “suffering” and “actively dying” but the amazing thing is that there is special, often unforeseeable grace in those stages. My goal in writing was to provide some reflections on where we might be surprised by that grace. There is a grace in going deaf, in declining memory, in suffering new pains. My hope is to identify those graces so people don’t miss them.
LB: Some experienced writers say that old age (sixty plus years) is the happiest stage of life. Doesn’t this notion fly in the face of increasing cynicism, narcissism, fear of isolation, loneliness, and helplessness as aging bodies and minds increasingly become weaker and senile to the point of utterly feeling lost and without purpose in living or dying.
MS: I do address this in the book. People are least happy in their forties. They are most happy in their old age – with this caveat: that they are in long term stable relationships: family, friends and especially community. One of my greatest joys is looking back at my years in youth work. I have so many friends of all different ages and I smile inside when I think about those who are sixty-four and about to hit the speed bump of going on Medicare. I remember the shock: “Medicare is for old people!” I also smile at youth I know from recent YES retreats. They will soon hit 18 or 21 and think, “Wow! I am finally an adult.” Life is full of wonder and it just doesn’t stop – if you see God’s grace.
LB: How does Scripture address these seemingly imponderable dilemmas of advancing old age and eventual death?
MS: Read the book of Job. It is an amazing look at suffering and wanting to die. He is brutally honest but in his wrestling with God he uncovers profound truth and ultimately surrenders far more deeply to him. Ecclesiastes 12 is similar. Solomon grasps at the vanity of life and how we all end up in the grave decaying. He has no eternal-life-in-Christ answer. He says, “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them.’” Yet, he concludes with, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” It might seem like a kind of legalism, but it is also a profound statement about God. We owe him.
LB: Is this book just for older people? Could it be helpful for others as well?
MS: Well, Amazon will sell it to anyone, right? But seriously, I would say I wrote it for older people and for those who care for them. My mother passed away in 2022 and I had some great conversations with her. Some of these reflections are rooted in helping her to see God’s grace in her life as she was aging and dying. Possibly one of the most important was when she asked about why God was keeping her alive when she could hardly do anything for herself anymore. I said, “Mom, one of the greatest things in life is giving unconditional love to those who need it. You gave that to me. Life ends the way it begins: unconditional love. You are important to everyone around you because you are an opportunity for us to show you unconditional love. That is especially important to your great grandchildren. They are at the age where they choose to be selfish or unselfish. They need to see love like this.”
There are a lot of reflections like that, which apply across the age spectrum!
LB: How can people purchase a copy of this book?
MS: This book will be available for purchase on Amazon.com, beginning on December 3rd, 2023. Put in my name, Michael E. Shaughnessy, or simply type in Eternity Bound.
Top image credit: Book cover courtesy of the author, Mike Shaughnessy.
Mike Shaughnessy is a lifelong member of the Servants of the Word, an international ecumenical brotherhood of men living single for the Lord. He is a prolific writer. He has written extensively about youth work and currently leads Grandly, a ministry helping grandparents pass on their faith to their grandchildren. He lives in Lansing, Michigan USA.