Talks and Reflections by Brian Boobbyer

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Never Too Old

Lady Antrim
(portrait by Juliet’s mother, Mary Rennell)

In 1944 Konrad Adenauer, the future Chancellor of Germany, was in prison under Hitler. The commissar asked him not to take his own life. 'Why should I?', Adenauer said. The commissar replied that he was nearly 70 and had nothing more to expect from life.

So Adenauer wrote in his memoirs. For 14 years after the war he gave outstanding leadership to Germany and Europe.

Mahatma Gandhi, assassinated at 78, maintained his leadership to the end. Sophocles and Goethe wrote or completed some of the greatest plays in their 80's. Churchill was 66 when he became Prime Minister, and so came to his prime.

This gives rise to the question: 'What is your vision for older people?' In George Macdonald's masterpiece for children, The Princess and the Goblin, there is another heroine, apart from the Princess. Her name is Irene and she is the great, great grandmother. She says: 'It is so silly of people to think that old age means crookedness and witheredness and feebleness and sticks and spectacles and rheumatism and forgetfulness. It is so silly. Old age has nothing to do with that. The right old age means strength and beauty and mirth and courage and clear eyes and strong painless limbs.'

An old friend in her early 90's invited me to speak at her retirement home on 'Birdsong'. There were about twenty ladies present. I began with some of my imitations and then played a tape of the real thing. Some of the ladies were deaf, but I could increase the volume and the birds were in tremendous form!

The first bird on the tape is the blackbird. With his flute-like song he tells us to dream. A great Christian missionary, Temple Gairdner, one of the first to build a bridge with the Muslim world, once said: 'The blackbird's song is the most beautiful thing you ever heard in your life.' You can shut your eyes and dream, as he sings, and allow yourself to be warmed up inside.

The second bird on the tape is the song thrush. He tells us to leave our laziness behind and get into action. His message is 'do'. One of his phrases sounds like, 'Do it, do it, do it, do it.'

I thought as I prepared this talk that these two birds between them have a good message for us. Dream and do. I suggest that there is a blackbird and a thrush in each of us, waiting to express a good medley

John Buchan wrote:

There is the mind that loves law and order and which exults in the continuity of things, and there is the mind that craves adventure and change and likes to think of the world as each morning a new birth. It is the distinction not so much between age and youth as between the conformist temper and the non-conformist: between static and dynamic: between ordered people and disordered ecstasy: or in the words of Isaiah, between those who say 'in quietness and confidence shall be your strength' and those whose cry is 'we shall flee upon horses, we will ride upon the swift'.

Define these two moods by their virtues, and it is the opposition between learning, discipline, tradition, service, the slow labours of art - and freedom and originality: define them by their vices, and it is reaction, ossification, convention, set against revolution, slovenliness, wilfulness, impatience.... It is cool blood against hot blood, sobriety against enthusiasm.

As a matter of fact, of course, the opposition is never complete, for the most fiery voluntary is not independent of tradition, and the most stubborn conservatism has its romantic moments.

Juliet has told me much of her great grandmother, Louisa, Countess of Antrim, who was for twenty years lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria and Queen Alexandra.

When she met the Oxford Group in the 1930s, she said: 'I learned at 80 what I should have learned at 18' - that is to listen to God and change as part of her Christian life. She continued a vigorous friendship and contact with people in public life till she died, aged 94.

Pope John XXIII in his book Journal of a Soul, writes the diary of his life. In 1948 he wrote: 'This year I become 68, I now consider my life has come to its end.' Nine years later he became Pope and initiated the famous Council, known as Vatican II, which opened the doors of the Catholic Church which was a landmark for the Catholic world.

And think what Abraham did after he was 75. When God told him to leave home he did not say, 'I'm too old.' He gave the next decades to found a great nation.

There is no human age limit to the work of the Holy Spirit.

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