The Cathedral Within

As we grow old, it seems there are many emotions, insights, and needs we share in common.

Snuck up on me. I was old before I noticed it.

And Old Age speaks to me in a quiet but wise voice…This is a time to pause, reflect on what has been, put your life in context, relive the good and the bad, cry, smile, laugh, and celebrate the moment that is now.

There are hints the sun may rise again this morning as I park my car in one of the seven-car parking spots at the Desert Discovery Nature Trail, just a mile or so from the Visitor’s Center for the Saguaro National Park outside Tucson. My 79-year-old body grabs my cane, beeps the car lock, and enters the ancient world of stillness, rattlesnakes, and turtles, as a Gila Woodpecker awakens in its saguaro cactus home. The sun teases me for a moment then chooses little by little to reveal its presence. The grandeur of the multicolored sky reflects off the desert sand and proudly welcomes a new day. I pause, rest against my old much-loved cane while watching a scorpion seek its prey and admiring the beautiful light-green cholla cactus. Drawing close to the cactus, it reveals a multitude of sharp needles that from a distance appear as soft and luminous as cotton candy. There is danger in the beauty.

Walking on, step by step, into the forgiving, cleansing desert, I rediscover ritual, the sacred dance of cacti shedding morning dew, melodic birds filling the outdoor sanctuary with hope, and lizards scurrying along my pathway in search of something unforeseen. My roof-brain chatter slows then ceases leaving only quiet consciousness and the realization that I am.

In the silence I learn to love and celebrate the desert, its inhabitants, and myself. I discover anew the cathedral within. Peace reigns. Beauty abounds.

My cane guides me deeper into the welcoming ancient land. Javelina walk fifty yards in front of me on a pilgrimage to their own Mecca.

I reach the end of the trail. Too early to leave, I stop, put my cane aside, and rest on a large rock. There is reflection here, reconciliation, insight, and forgiveness. I drink in the sweet air with a touch of dew, hold and release. Repeat, then repeat.

Time stands still, then moves again. My cane and I rise from the natural rock bench and slowly begin the journey back.  I am mesmerized by the familiar rocks, songbirds, the touch of a slight breeze, and the slowly fading remnant of the morning moon.  With a sparkle in its eye, the Sun, a body 4.6 billion years old, invites Cane and me to join it as we stroll along.

I speak to my old sacred friend: “You know, Cane, we have been doing morning walks for a long time. Used to be just you, me, and the sun. Then one day I sensed another presence nearby. A presence so vague, I never mentioned it to you. Now it holds my arm as we walk, sometimes gripping me too tight, creating pain in my back, legs, and neck. I am sure glad you are here, Cane. Old Age can throw me off balance from time to time. You save me from falling.”

Old Age looks at the two of us, shakes his head, and says, “What? You think I can’t hear you? How naïve. Look, I admit I can cause a lot of unwanted pain. It is just part of my nature. But I am more than that. I can help you see your life in a new light. Today I have brought your mind to a quiet place, an eternal now, that was foreign to you in earlier years. I give you freedom to challenge your beliefs, find wonder in each moment, and focus on what true beauty is.  I help you be thankful for the life you have. I provide a new perspective, a time of reflection, the opportunity to know yourself as never before.”

“And yet,” I respond, “you make arbitrary decisions on what makes someone or something old. Look how long the Sun and desert have to age with dignity and beauty. But me, my time is like the prophet Isaiah’s short-lived withering grass (Isaiah 40:8). I humbly ask you: if I agree to not gripe about the pain you bring, will you give me a little more time? Time to see my grandkids as adults? Time to see more of the world? Time to let people know what they have meant to my life? Why can’t I live as long as a saguaro? Can’t you take a few years away from the Sun’s billions and give them to me? The sun certainly won’t miss them. I am not asking for much, maybe twenty years. And, I promise to be a better person.”

Age remains silent, then whispers, “It doesn’t work that way. However, just because you are old in human terms does not mean quality of life has come to an end for you.  Each day grants you opportunity to live as fully as your limitations allow. But in terms of extending your years, no, I am not into bargaining. But what you do have is this moment. Carpe Diem. Seize the day.”

As I reflect on the insights of Old Age, I realize this day contains all I had hoped life would be. The truth is, I now rarely seek great adventure outside my mind, family, and a few good friends (although, confessionally, I still crave great food and a fun car). I am grateful for this moment. It is enough. Peace reigns. Beauty abounds.

The desert is filled with life, even as the sun brings it new beauty and perspective when evening comes. I am content with this truth:

“Every sun has to set.”

              —Arabian proverb

(I am now a year older than my father was at his death. He inspired this reflection.)

Written by: Hartzell Cobbs

Hartzell Cobbs is the retired CEO of Mountain States Group (now Jannus, Inc.), a diverse nonprofit human service organization.  He is the author of the recent book, RavenWind, that is available through outlets such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Archway Publishing. His first book, Thanatos and the Sage: A Spiritual Approach to Aging, is available through Amazon.

More about Dr. Cobbs’ latest book, Ravenwind…

From ancient lore, down millenniums, traveling through worldwide mythologies, legends, and folktales, the mythical raven is entwined in the history of mankind. Most researchers agree that about twenty thousand years ago the first Americans came from Siberia across the Bering Land Bridge to what is now North America. The Siberians and their shamans were accompanied by the mythical raven who mediated between the physical and spiritual worlds.

With the Siberian influence, Northwest Native American mythology speaks of the raven as creator, destroyer, and trickster. As in Siberia, raven soars on the wind between the great spirit/mystery and the physical world. Raven teaches respect for earth and the oneness of all that is.

In RavenWind, author Hartzell Cobbs offers at look at the raven’s role in world history and in Native American myths, legends, and folktales. He tells how the raven of folklore calls one to follow, to listen, and experience life with all its complexity, insight, ambiguity, contraction, and humor. With an emphasis on Native American tradition, Cobbs explores the presence of mythical raven in the mundane.