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The Ven Dr Rachel Mann - 13/02/2024

The Ven. Dr Rachel Mann, Archdeacon of Salford and Bolton, shares a Thought For The Day on BBC Radio 4 - 13/02/2024

Good morning. In the midst of various headlines about age and ageing in recent days, my heart was lifted to read about Edie Ceccarelli, America’s oldest person, who’s just held her 116th birthday party. In celebration, locals in her hometown of Willits, California, put on a huge parade. Inevitably she was asked the secret to her longevity. Her answer: “Have a couple of fingers of red wine with your dinner and mind your own business.”

The desire to find the secret to long life is an ancient one. Indeed, there are references to the search for the ‘elixir of life’ in the 4000-year-ago Epic of Gilgamesh, and in medieval Europe the search for the ‘philosopher’s stone’ was the quest for the elixir of life. 

In the Bible, there is an admittedly creepy story about how the vitality of young people might be an elixir for the old. A young woman, Abishag, is brought to the aged King David in the belief that her youthful heat might be transferred to him and thereby revitalise him. Doctors continued to recommend this dubious practice to old men well into the nineteenth century. 

Elixirs of life are, surely, the stuff of fantasy, though increasing numbers of scientists are trying to repurpose diabetes and cancer drugs, as well as off-the-shelf supplements, as anti-ageing treatments. 

Who would not want either to rejuvenate their bodies or endlessly extend their healthy lives? Well, not me for one. I speak as someone with a longstanding and life-limiting disability. At times, I have desired a better quality of life. But I remain suspicious of a search for a formula that could extend my life indefinitely.

Rather I want to be mindful of Jesus’s words when he says God offers ‘living water’. Jesus calls it a spring gushing up to eternal life. This, however, is not the eternal life of mythology and legend, in which our lives are extended indefinitely. Rather the gospels treat this living water as a relationship with God which transforms our lives no matter how long or how brief. It is not an elixir which rejuvenates bodies, but liberates us to inhabit life’s limitations with thankfulness, acceptance, and greater generosity. 

That for me, as a disabled person, is the challenge. Like everyone, I do not know how much time I have left, though experience tells me life is fragile. I am encouraged by Jesus’s promise to be with us in our struggles, whatever our lifespan. Though we won’t all live to the extraordinary age of Edie Ceccarelli, I think life in all its fullness is on offer to us all.

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