Andrew Jackson explores the faith of the world's oldest people
IN A SMALL TOWN in Extremadura, I found a widow sitting in the cool of her parlour. She was a picture of old Spain. Dressed entirely in black, she wore long sleeves and full skirts. Within the week, Paula Baltazar Gonzalez would be celebrating her 99th birthday.
Her memory was sharp. She could recall when the Franciscans took up residence in the monastery on the hill at the beginning of the century. She cheerfully described the simple life of the village as it then was — the covered horsedrawn wagons, the water they carried from the fountain.
Paula was strong, in body and in spirit. As we talked, she stood, leaning gently on the table, sometimes playing with a strand of her white hair which she tied back in a tidy bun. She possessed such an air of calm. Her face was full of creases and kindness, her whole being suffused with serenity. This was, in part, attributable to her faith, her devotion to her Blessed Lady, the Virgin of Guadalupe.
When I met her, I was nearing the end of my pilgrimage. With my wife, Vanella, I had spent two years in search of the oldest people in the world. We travelled through 30 countries. talking to men and women from all walks of life — playwrights, presidents, farmers, midwives and merchants. All had reached their 90s; some were very old indeed. Time after time, we had seen a similar effect. We had observed the comfort which their belief in God brings to those who have reached a fine old age.
Being relative youngsters ourselves, only in our 30s, we had a natural inclination to enquire about the spiritual lives of the old people. We were curious, not just to compare them, but because of our own desire to learn and understand the role that faith played.
Early on, a man named Bo made a lasting impression. He was a Swede, a Lutheran, who once managed sugar refineries. On retiring, he had decided his life wasn't sufficiently enriching in a spiritual sense. So he set about researching philosophy, ethics and the religions of the world. He concentrated solely on this work, and in communing with God. St John of the Cross was his teacher, he told us.
Holding Christ as an ideal, he strove always to improve himself. At the age of 90, he saw each day as an opportunity to develop himself spiritually. In his desire for practical results, he was driven to simplify. Instead of a list of rules as to how we should live our lives, he preferred just two words. Honesty and harmony. Bo used these as a touchstone for his actions.
It was the strength of his conviction that impressed us. Oh, I never die, said Bo, when we asked him about the after-life. Nor do you. His look told me this was something I too had to resolve for myself.
This characteristic of seren ity is a common factor. Paula, Bo — so many of them seemed so assured. Inevitably, in talking to the oldest in the world we found people who belonged to different religions: Christian, Hindu, Moslem, Buddhist. With those who expressed their faith, we could always see a special disposition. They were at peace, at one. They had come to terms with their mortality. They saw each day as God's blessing and so continued to cherish every moment.
Bela Varga revealed a faith of a different kind. As a local Hungarian priest, during the Second World War he helped 200,000 Polish people escape from Hitler by giving them refuge at Balaton. He later became president of Hungary's national assembly, but was forced to flee when the Communists gained power. He spent 46 years in exile before coming home, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He returned, still legally president, and, in his 90s, was made provost of the Catholic Church.
Varga related to us how he had always believed that the Communist regime would fail. His faith was in man, as well as in God. The future of the world, he said, lies with human nature, and human nature is stronger than anything stronger than any government.
To live to such an age requires many qualities. There is no secret formula, no magic elixir. Keeping fit, a sensible diet, moderation, genetic history, adaptability — all such things can play their part. There are parallels also with the stamina displayed by the marathon runner or the longdistance walker. It requires a special mental fortitude to keep on going. Body and mind, it pays to stay active. One lady of 103, in Athens, Georgia, said that she still found learning thrilling.
As the body loses its strength and vigour, so we can maintain and even develop our fitness in mind and spirit.
Fatma Toksoy was 102. She was a Turkish lady who used to recite aloud the Koran ten times every year, start to finish. It was her very life line. Morarji Desai, formerly prime minister of India, could deliver by heart the entire Bhagavad-Gita, the epic poem which is the gospel of the Hindu religion.
In the Span ish town of Guadalupe, Paula was still standing in her parlour as she began to talk about a riddle. She said she had found it in a book. She used to love reading as a child and, because books were so scarce, she would memorise anything which captured her imagination.
I asked if she would tell me this riddle.
"It's very long," she said. "Only one person has ever got the answer. Neither the Father Superior nor Father Sebastian. And he is very clever. Only Father Mora, who was once priest here, he is the only one who has ever got the answer."
I asked her once more and, lightly touching a comb in her hair, Paula drew breath and began to recite: body; neither hands, nor feet, nor head.
Everything that God has created surrenders itself to me.
All the four elements obey me, without me being God, or able to be God, or anything of the sort.
I am he who made God come down from heaven to earth; and God made use of me on many occasions.
God is such a friend of mine that when someone uses me, I can see everything I want without resistance.
The angels in the court cannot compete with me; they would rather withdraw than accept me there.
I stop the waves in the sea, in the worst storms; and I cause the sun to stop in her path.
I change the winds to wherever I wish they should come from, as many sailors will know I make the dry tree flower and bear fruit again; I make the green tree dry and lose its fruit and flowers.
I am the one who tames the fire of lions and makes them humble as cheep.
I am one Oro, for a man found guilty by the supreme rourt, can overturn the verdict and still have it he just.
Devils cannel stand my presence; even to hear my name they are terrified and tremble.
My name isnot Jesus, nor can it be, becauae the re is more between us than between the sky and the ea*.
He who would know my name will lean it from expe.rience.
My name iicontained in only nine letter.
Nine letters,in Spanish or English. It tooktne some time to work out tie an swer for myself. But I believe I have it now. It is yet zother clue to the longevity of the oldest people in the wrld.
The Book °fife: One Man's Search for the Visdorn of Age, by Andrew Jackson, is published by Collancz, price £18.99.