By Lois Rogers | Correspondent
Widely regarded for his insights as an author and media commentator on Church history and contemporary Catholicism, Dr. Christopher M. Bellitto has turned a new and inviting page with his most recent book, “Ageless Wisdom: Lifetime Lessons from the Bible.”
Out from Paulist Press at $18.95, the book explores the key roles of elders – both men and women – in the Bible.
Making good use of added insight from related sources – the Jewish commentaries, Christian sermons, Muslim stories, tales from Greek, Roman, Asian and Medieval philosophers – Bellitto deftly illustrates how these examples resonate today.
A professor of history at Union’s Kean University, where he teaches courses in ancient and medieval history, Bellitto – a parishioner in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold – is a prolific author. His books include “Renewing Christianity,” “The General Councils” and the popular “101 Questions & Answers on Popes and the Papacy.”
This new, relatively short work – 139 pages including footnotes and bibliography – is grounded in the scholarship for which he is known and rolled out with the flair that draws wide audiences to the some 30 public lectures he presents annually around the tri-state area.
The Duality of Age
In seven chapters, “Ageless Wisdom” explores familiar and sometimes overlooked stories and sayings of sages, prophets, pilgrims, saints, and frankly, mere mortals, acknowledging that these lessons have largely served as uplifting examples of humanity through the ages.
Some of their stories are warmly familiar, including that of Naomi, the wise and patient matriarch whose matchmaking for Ruth and Boaz guaranteed salvation history by securing the lineage of the House of David, into which Jesus would be born.
As Bellitto steps out of Biblical bounds, some stories may come as new and intriguing testaments to the virtues and challenges that accrue with age.
When he writes about the paradoxical views of age that run the gamut from ancient to modern times, for instance, he uncovers “an essential ambivalence: the sense of the elderly as wise, serene and worthy of being counselors, but just as often being treated as mentally or physically frail and a burden to younger people.”
It’s a concept apt to hit home with many seniors in the Diocese whose daily lives may intersect with a similar ambivalence: well-regarded in parish and town as mainstays of the community, but dismissed as out of touch in the marketplace.
But, to use words embedded in the biblical lexicon, those discomfited by this notion will be uplifted by the many examples of sheer elder wisdom, courage, intelligence and faithfulness along the way.
In a section under the headline, “Don’t Wash the Gray Out,” for instance, Bellitto focuses on the biblical emphasis on white or gray hair as an indicator of the wisdom thought to accompany old age.
In one compelling passage, he writes that in the ancient Near East of Mesopotamia, in the general time and place where “large chunks of the Bible were written,” white or gray hair was “considered so prestigious a mark of age and wisdom that some younger folks dyed their hair these colors.”
Moments with Mentors
Bellitto – who worked as a journalist, including a stint at Newsweek magazine after college – was a Church history professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie) and its Institute of Religious Studies in Yonkers, N.Y. There, he served as the institute’s associate dean. He was academic editor at Paulist Press in Mahwah, while teaching at Fordham’s College of Liberal Studies.
He has appeared on The History Channel, CNN, MSNBC, PBS’ News Hour, NPR and other local radio and TV stations. He is also a member of the Speakers’ Bureau of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities and the former chair of Kean’s History Department. He received a master of arts and a doctorate in history from Fordham University. His bachelor of arts, magna cum laude, is from New York University, where he was a University Scholar with a double major in journalism and politics and a double minor in classics and religion.
Bellitto said the idea of writing this book first came when he was 40 but that he didn’t start to develop it seriously until a decade later.
At 51 – and now a tenured and well-published professor – he said the time had arrived when, “I could write what I wanted to write.”
That it was a time of personal loss motivated him to get the project under way.
Within a span of nine months, Bellitto lost three beloved mentors who had added substance to his life over the years: his father; the professor who mentored him through his doctoral degree; and a teacher of Church history in his high school alma mater, Cardinal Spellman in the Bronx, where he taught English before entering graduate school.
“I have always been blessed with good mentors, and the loss of these extraordinary men started me thinking,” he said, explaining that the gifts the elderly bring to culture often seem to be “thrown away.”
Bellitto envisioned a book devoted to the concept of ageless wisdom. Viewed through the lens of the Bible and other venerable sources, he saw the book as an aid in recapturing reverence for older people.
Wisdom to Share
Bellitto said he began working on the book by reading the Bible cover to cover, focusing on stories of elders and how they dealt with the blessings and burdens of age.
“I began to look at Bible stories to try to uncover what gives us wisdom experience” that sustains the relationship between humanity and God, he said.
He noted that in these tales, wisdom is a quality not exclusive to the old. However, when a younger person such as the prophet Daniel possesses it, he is described as speaking with the wisdom of elders.
Such wisdom, he said, deserves to be recognized and shared, especially in a day and age where demographics the world over indicate elder populations will continue to grow and remain active in the workforce and society longer than ever.
The book dovetails well with insights of popes – St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis – all of whom, he said, called attention to the graces, skills and knowledge of the elderly.
He sees “Ageless Wisdom: Lifetime Lessons from the Bible” as a contribution to what should be an exploding ministry to a population no one is paying enough attention to right now.
“It’s a critical challenge,” he said.