Standing next to my daughter in front of a mirror used to be a jarring experience for me. I gave birth to her when I was almost 40 years old after many years of infertility; so we have certainly never been mistaken for sisters. Still, her beautiful, young face unconsciously became my beauty standard, and my aging skin could not stand up to the comparison.
In fact, for a few years, I largely avoided looking in the mirror; my face was just a painful reminder that I was sliding into a mushy, crinkly middle age. It wasn't, strictly speaking, a vanity issue. It just seemed better for me to take the attention off myself and focus on the many demands of my life. There was always something more important to think about or do, and helping my daughter blossom into a complex and winsome young woman was certainly more interesting. There was nothing I could do about the aging process, so I turned away from the fading woman in my reflection, rejecting her as a distraction.
We know that women have been acculturated through advertising, film, and television to believe that we should be terrified of aging. The avaricious world gets its hands on our "beauty dollars" by knocking our self-image flat and then hitting us up for costly cures and treatments. What's even more concerning is that, as we age, the distraction of agonizing over our loss of youth can hold us back from growing spiritually; it can prevent us from living boldly in service of the Gospel.
Yet it is possible to be liberated from false, commercialized ideals of beauty, through a simple insight. In fact, about two years ago, in a seismic moment of grace, I came to terms with the aging process and rediscovered my own authentic beauty—which brought with it an amazing and durable peace. I'd like to share the experience with you, through an excerpt from my book, True Radiance: Finding Grace in the Second Half of Life. I was in a hotel far from home, on a business trip, when the unexpected occurred:
I was overtired from the stress of getting my house and family squared away in New York before I left, the last-minute craziness of preparing my talks, and a hectic day of schedules and connecting flights. Running parallel and close to the hotel bed was a large closet with mirrored doors in which, bathed in the bright glow of a large side-table lamp, I could see my image very clearly. There was nothing in my reflection that I hadn’t already noted and cataloged in detail over the previous weeks leading up to my trip, so it shouldn’t have shocked me the way it did.
However, the declining state of my appearance had recently been a source of irritation—ironically while I was intensively interviewing women for this book on authentic beauty. We talked over the many ways the best qualities of prayerful women are enhanced as they age, and I was coming to the conclusion that the second half of life is our best time of all. Yet, from the way my skin had lost its elasticity around my eyes and chin to those annoying extra pounds rolling around my middle, the sagging, middle-aged woman reflected in the hotel mirror brought me up short—and I started to cry.
It’s over, I thought. I’m not young anymore. I look awful, and it’s only going to get worse.
Because a well of grief had been rising for many days, the tears were a gushing relief, and as I prayed and yielded this flood of emotion to God, I sensed him drawing near. In the intimate and surprising way that he sometimes communicates, he showed me something I hadn’t understood before. As I gazed into my own eyes in the mirror, vivid and inviting images filled my mind. I saw the most important relationships in my life for what they have become—through daily acts of love, prayer and sacrifice, sacramental life, and the extraordinary mercy of God. Through a sort of interior vision, I saw how my family life had been flooded with grace and healing: the sweetness of our words to each other, the many small acts of kindness and forgiveness that make our life together immeasurably precious...
The experience of looking into my own eyes and seeing what God saw in me was brief, but suffused with grace. He showed me that I was, at that moment, the most loving person I had ever been and that he was pleased with me. He didn’t remind me of my habitual sins or show me the horrendous failures of my past. He highlighted the changes in me and showered me with an affection that was profoundly reassuring. So in the glow from the lamplight, I no longer saw an aging woman whose looks were crumbling to dust; I saw a woman growing in beauty, even becoming beauty (pp. 14-15).
That small moment of illumination changed my life and helped me to live with more confidence and freedom; it continues to ground me in what is true, good, and genuinely beautiful in myself and in others.
The secret, I now know, is found in the intimate connection with Jesus Christ, in my soul, and I don't see my aging skin and body as signs of failure or distraction, any more. I see them as signs that my walk with God is in a new season and that my time is preciously limited. The call to love is one that can grow stronger every day, if we tune out a sick and grasping culture and tune in to our authentic beauty and dignity in the eyes of God.
I pray that all women will awaken to their own spiritual beauty—and that no one will ever take it away from them again.