Book Review: Listening to what our lives tell us

By J.E. Helm
The Sooner Catholic

The book’s cover says he is “a writer, editor and publisher in his eighth decade,” and so he would be well qualified to write about the end of life, but “Vesper Time” by the now retired Frank J. Cunningham is so much more than just “about” the end of life.

He comes across as well read and well spoken. He references Kierkegaard, Henri Nouwen and John of the Cross, and he also is familiar with Thomas Merton and Andrew Greeley. What makes the reader so comfortable in this book, however, is the way he shares the details of his life.

“Vesper Time,” primary, is a look back at his life from what he calls “a new vantage point.”

He sees these last days as “time left, time to get it right, vesper time.” As he explains it, the hour of Vespers is “the sixth of Christianity’s prayerful celebrations of the day’s progressions … the time of the lighting of the lamps just before the dark descends.”

In the truly beautiful prose that is typical of this book, Cunningham writes that “the evening of my life has granted me a freedom unknown since youth.” This is a time, he says, of “listening to what our lives have to tell us.”

Reading the book is a lot like having a conversation with a good friend over coffee. He writes about a trip to “McManus and Riley’s men’s store for his first suit – a white one with short pants” for his First Communion. He tells about crossing “the Atlantic by ship, barely 22 years old, a one-way ticket and $400” in his pocket, tagging along “with a college mate who planned to finish his French requirements at a summer course in the Sorbonne.”

Bravely, too, he explains about his “two older brothers who both endured COPD and lung cancer,” about “a friend who watched her spouse disappear into the clouds of dementia,” about another friend whose “hands are withering, reducing touch-typing the two-finger hunt and peck, to lifting a drinking glass with both hands.”

In all of the wonderfully uplifting pages of his book, Cunningham wants to make sure he doesn’t give the impression that he’s naïve about the ultimate diminishments that rob us irreparably of physical and/or mental capacities. He wonders if his optimism about aging as a spiritual exercise will evaporate in the face of real debilitating suffering.

Cunningham reflects on all of this in a very well-ordered way that focuses on “five experiences of aging:” memory, intimacy, diminishment, gratitude and acceptance.

In “Memory,” he says that “remembrance is the entitlement of age.” He cautions against a nostalgia that can be “sentimental and cloying.” Instead, he says, we should look back for “the storyline that fostered our growth and now helps us understand who we are.”

In “Intimacy,” he explains that the great mystics sought “intimacy with the transcendent attribute of God,” but that all that is, for him, “beyond imagining.” “My hope lies in recognizing human intimacy as an opening to God,” he writes, and recommends walking as a way to experience “intimacy with nature,” with God’s handiwork.

His third experience is one of “Diminishment.” He writes about how “most of us seniors become invisible,” about how we are no longer seen as important. “People just make assumptions about us older folks,” he writes.

What to do? “Why not let go of life’s apparent illusions?” He tells about a friend who wrote to say, “I will accept the limitations of age, but I do not and will not define myself by my illness … I’m a child of God and take that as my identity.”

Ch. 4 is on “Gratitude,” something he says is “the starting point of our spiritual awareness.” He calls it “this wonder drug that costs nothing.”

Finally, there is “Acceptance.” This is not easy, he says, pointing out that “the acceptances necessary late in life are not so trivial,” but we should simply ask, “What choice do we have but to give our assent, our agreement?”

This is not offered gloomily or despairingly. Instead, this is the time to “find worth in waiting,” waiting as Tielhard de Chardin’s poem says, “for God to bear me away within (Himself).”

Cunningham concludes with, “What a promise to ponder. What a beautiful image to wait with – one day we will become one with God.”

J.E. Helm is a freelance writer for the Sooner Catholic.