In you, O Lord, I take refuge. … My mouth is filled with your praise, and with your glory all day long. Do not

cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent. … O God, from my

youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs,

O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come.

– Selected from Psalm 71

This psalm in my study bible, “Lament and praise combine in the prayer-song of an aging musician,” muses upon the encroaching frailty of his body and concern about what to do with this vessel of memories. One day we too shall have aged to where the psalmist now finds himself, though now we may have more pimples than wrinkles. Mystery writer Amanda Cross’s book, “Sweet Death, Kind Death,” includes a 58-year-old woman reflecting upon her life. “I recognize that there is something about aging the human mind cannot take in, certainly not in youth, perhaps ever. What young woman believes she will ever grow heavy and have wrinkles and thin hair? I think I was born into the revelation of being old.”

Though we live in this world just once – our departure a fact already negotiated, we are reluctant to drop all and scurry away like furtive children caught in some misdoing. Writing of aging, the poet Rilke confessed experiencing himself as a man going away, but then stopping upon a far hill which showed him his whole valley one last time. There he turned and lingered. We too, experience this lingering over the past one last time knowing that we live here forever taking leave. How poignant this business of aging toward that realer self hope envisions awaiting us at time’s end.

Essentially, the psalm is an old man’s prayer – his thoughts polished to the shape of poetry – an antidote to his mortality. The psalmist in his reflections is trying to fence in some of the unruliness attendant with the business of aging. He is concerned that his powerlessness may make him prey to the unscrupulous and powerful. And perhaps there are “enemies” abroad – but most certainly within. The psalmist like a poet writes with a broad sweeping of thought. For him, enemies might be abating energy, maybe he’s grieving the loss of a life-companion, experiencing friendlessness, and uncertainty of what may happen to him before and after his death, even a sense of guilt for a misspent life. Depression or fear of dying may be enemies of the aged. Make your own list! The psalmist’s prayer is that God will defend him against the onslaught of these enemies. He desires assurance that he will always be in God’s mind and care; an anxious heart has brought the psalmist to God. This metamorphosis toward eternity is a tough wrestle.

Imaginatively, one sees this poet arriving at this final harbor, sails furled. So shall it be for us. Our hair will have turned gray, our bodies enfeebled. We shall entertain the same fears which haunted the psalmist: intractable illness, waning mental prowess, loneliness and the now and again neglect associated with the aged. It is possible that we too shall take to God our concerns, persuaded that God will strengthen us for facing the extremities of old age. In the words of the essayist Marilynne Robinson, we want our minds in the last to be “a thriving place … full of intention, a sufficiency awaiting expectation, teasing hope beyond itself.” For us the psalm is a cryptic repository of wisdom full of the startling mercy of foreknowledge, inviting us to trust that God will see us through to the end of our days, whether they be long or short.

The Rev. Merle G. Steva is minister of visitation emeritus at First Parish Church in Saco. He may be contacted at [email protected]