“The Promised Land always lies on the other side of the Wilderness”   (Havelock Ellis)


“Life begins at forty,” so proclaimed the original hot-mama, Sophie Tucker.  And it’s true, turning forty, nowadays, is no longer seen as being ‘over the hill!’   Indeed, for many of us (who can remember the milestone) it became a very mystical and transformative midway threshold.

It was as if we had woken up one morning fully grown-up – ‘speaking the language of the natives and knowing how to ride a bicycle’ as author Annie Dillard humorously described it on her tenth birthday.

During our first forty years or so, we traverse what best could be described a circuitous path towards an unknown and undefined future.  We pass predictable milestones and struggle constantly to define ourselves in the eyes of God and the world.

In June this year, I celebrated a significant mile-stone in my life.  It was a great celebration and not too painful an experience!

Early on the morning of my birthday, sitting pensively at my desk gazing out of the window, my eyes lingered on the ghostly trees in the garden below now bereft of their glorious autumn foliage.     In the distance, too, the hills loomed grey and gloomy, capped in a heavy mantle of mist.

I was reminded of Finbar Lynch who wrote in his book, Ageing and Praying, of this ‘winter’s loss: “Now without the leaves of summer, the tree’s inner structure which supported the fruitfulness and summer beauty, is more evident and yields a different beauty to the beholder…”

I understood that the ‘winter’ beauty of our lives depends on how we have travelled the ‘summer’ of our lives.   That whatever has been sown in our earlier years will be revealed to us as we grow older.    This led me into a somewhat melancholy mood.

Up until this particular birthday, I had never seriously contemplated the question:  ‘What do I plan to do with the rest of my life?’  I sat with this question for ages and then other questions popped into my head fighting for answers:

‘If I could foretell the end of my life, would I want to live it differently?’  ‘Would I still open my heart to others knowing they may break it?’   Or would I dare to venture on to new paths that could cause me suffering as well as joy?’

Thankfully, as I have grown older, I have learnt that the seasons of our lives, similar to those of nature, do not always follow in the same order.

It may now be the ‘winter’ season of my life in the physical sense but I know deep in my heart that I can continue to embrace the seasons of spring still to come.     Winter is just part of the journey; it is the final destination that matters.

Another milestone in my life has been the decision to sell our family home.   The home that grew larger as the family increased in size.    The home where all my children were born, and who are now grown up with families of their own.

I remember the special occasions over the years when we managed to be together, our home full of warmth, memories, hustle and bustle, laughter and hugs.      Leaving it will be a sad reminder that I have to accept that there are many things in our lives we cannot hold on to forever.   Not in the physical sense anyway.

Of course, feeling nostalgic is normal yet can often prove deceptive.   Letting go is not easy.    As theologian Frederick Beuchner observed, we become something new by ceasing to be something old.

And it is true – every time we let go of something which restricts us, we allow ourselves to create space for something better.   Surely this is simple wisdom with divine power!

Our ability to let go and move on will allow us to experience new things.   As Isaiah reminds us:   “Do not dwell on the past.  See, I am doing a new thing!   Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?   I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”

For all of us there will come that point in our lives when we need to come to peace with this, or we’ll never reach the Promised Land.     Moses didn’t.   It was the next generation of Israelites who did!

And life does move on.   We pass predictable milestones and we struggle to define who we really are in the eyes of God and the world.

The Israelites of the Old Testament were more fortunate.   They wandered in the Wilderness of life for only forty years and God was with them constantly reminding them how he had provided for them in the past and reassuring them he would continue to care for them in the future.

Throughout our lives, it may seem we are destined to live longer than we’d like when stuck with the choices we made before we knew better.

However, if we keep going, trusting in God to look after us as he did the Israelites, hopefully, we will be able to look back and reflect that just as an oasis is, so too the Wilderness can be a fertile place after all.

Peggy Spencer is an active member of her parish church, St. John the Baptist, in Fern Tree Gully near Melbourne, Australia. Though not a "professional" writer, Peggy has always loved writing.

  • Joan levy Earle
    Posted at 06:38h, 30 January Reply

    A thought provoking article and a good reminder to abandon our future to the Lord. Thank you Peggy for sharing these personal observances. I remember fearing the age of forty, and when it arrived, it turned out to be an exciting decade of life for my family. Now approaching the second half of my seventh decade, I sometimes worry about becoming eighty. Your article has opened my mind once more to the reality of every day being a gift from God.

  • Peter Bisson SJ
    Posted at 14:29h, 30 January Reply

    Thank you Peggy!

  • Shirley McLean, CLC member
    Posted at 22:35h, 30 January Reply

    Thanks for the wonderful article Peggy. Very thought provoking as I approach the second half also of my seventh decade! Blessings to you!

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