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Religious Psychology Wisdom on the Third Age
posted 11.21.2012

By James P. Oberle

Review of The Pilgrimage into the Last Third of Life, by Jane Marie Thibault and Richard L. Morgan

© 2012 Upper Room Books, Nashville, TN

If you are looking for spiritual guidance during the last third of your life or that of a loved one, you will find it in this book.

The authors use the word pilgrimage. As they note, one could substitute journey or another secular term; however, the concept of making a pilgrimage to a religious site connotes a much deeper meaning. The last third of life is the final pilgrimage as one prepares to transition into eternal life.

The book describes seven pathways to follow. Within each pathway are seven short reflections. As the authors note in the preface, seven is a fullness number in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, so seven times seven equals superabundance.

The book should not be read quickly, cover-to-cover, but savored, allowing its wisdom to slowly seep in and inform our lives. As we sit and pray, with each reflection we gain insight on our final pilgrimage. We can ask ourselves how we can make the final acts of our lives meaningful and rewarding for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for those we serve.

The first gateway is to honestly face the aging process and the prospect of death. We must give up the illusion of puer aeternus, or eternal youth, and acknowledge that a substantial portion of our life is behind us. Then we must prepare to make the final ascent to God. We must acknowledge time is limited time and decide how to best invest the time that remains.

From the era of Greek philosophers there has been the desire to return to the One—to our point of origin. It is the eternal quest. As we enter the last third of life we need to be more conscious and diligent in the return. Dignity in old age means that one must remain true to oneself and to one’s ultimate being. Erik Erikson used the term integrity, and this is critical in the last third of life. It is important to acknowledge that what gives dignity to our life is our capacity for eternal life.

The second gateway is to acknowledge our limitations and use them to our advantage. For those of us in the field of gerontology it is one thing to know the literature and quite another to live it. To recognize that while our physical body may be diminishing our spiritual being can always be renewed and flourish. We should never focus solely on doing, but more importantly on being. “I am a child of God and nothing else really matters.” The authors ask us to reflect on John the Baptist (I must decrease so that God can increase) and on Paul (it is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives within me). When we acknowledge these realities, limits no longer pose an overwhelming concern.

In the third gateway we are invited to do the inner work. Perhaps the greatest gift we can give ourselves and others is the gift of forgiveness. While we often see the liberation it allows others, we often fail to see the importance of forgiveness in the one who is gracious or magnanimous. The weight of not forgiving is like an iron ball we carry around, sapping our energy and depriving us of life. The authors also stress gratitude. We so often take things for granted or believe that something is owed to us. When we come to the realization that all is gift, we can be generous with others. Gratitude also liberates us from pride, envy and the need to adopt a persona other than one’s authentic self.

The authors next invite us to reflect on the role of the community. It is important to understand that we always define ourselves via relationships. Thus, I am a son or daughter, husband or wife, and so forth. While we may think we are free and independent, in reality we are always interdependent. We were created incomplete so that we would reach affectionately to God and creation. It is in community that we find wholeness. The authors focus on how we deal with the loss of one community and grow into another. They acknowledge our critical need for stability (rooted in a community) so that we can grow and flourish.

Then comes the section on prayer and contemplation. Sometimes we think that prayer is a waste of time. Indeed it is. We are invited to “waste time” with God. This is not simple passivity; it is hard work. We encounter the awesomeness of God and God’s plan for us. It requires stillness, but not idleness; it requires silence so that we can perceive inner promptings. Ultimately it leads us to a profound sense of appreciation for who we are and what we have been called to be.

In many ways to age is to suffer. None of us seeks it, but one of the definitions for God is compassion. It is via suffering that we can be in solidarity with others. Suffering for the Christian is the final conformation with Christ. It allows us to imagine the totally of the relationship. The authors invite us not to suffer alone. Not to impose it on others, but to offer it as a gift. While we should do everything to alleviate unnecessary suffering, we should not mask it with drugs, alcohol or suicide. It has a purpose. We need to come to understand and appreciate its redemptive value.

Lastly the authors ask us to reflect on the legacy we wish to leave. How do we want to be remembered? One of the authors edits a newsletter for his grandchildren and writes to them about what gave him meaning and purpose in life.

The book provides straightforward wisdom—a type of religious psychology. It is sensitive, and invites reflection on the past so that one can plan the future. It is an excellent resource in every congregation’s library and an important component of any Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program. It will provide the guidance one needs to successfully complete the pilgrimage of life.


James P. Oberle, Ph.D., S.T.L., is chair of ASA’s Forum on Religion, Spirituality and Aging (FORSA) Council, director, spiritual formation, at Holy Trinity Seminary, Irving, Texas and adjunct faculty in the Department of Theology at the University of Dallas.

This article was brought to you by the editorial committee of ASA’s Forum on Religion, Spirituality and Aging (FORSA).

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