Falling Upward: A Review of Richard Rohr’s New Book
In his analysis it is only with this spiritual lens of this second half of life that we can truly understand and have the courage to do the things that Jesus commands that feel so counter-intuitive: “the one who is least will be the greatest;” ”you must deny yourself and follow me;” “you must hate your mother and father.” He calls this perspective that leads to action, “Falling Upward,” the title of his book. Yet one of the gifts Rohr brings to the discussion is his enthusiastic encouragement of the second half of the journey, even with what he calls its sense of tragedy, the stumbling stones, the necessary suffering, homesickness and bright tragedy. With clear eye and word, he gives the reader a framework for understanding these inexorable movements, both in human aging and spiritual deepening. He offers hope by describing the gifts that one can offer by falling upward in to the second half of life:
In your second half of life, you can actually bless others in what they feel they must be doing, allow them to do what they must do, challenge them if they are hurting themselves and others–but you can no longer join them in the first half of life. You can belong to such institutions for all the good they do, but you no longer put all your eggs in that basket. This will keep you and others from unnecessary frustration and anger, and from knocking on doors that cannot be opened from the other side. This is what I mean by “emerging Christianity.” (pp. 141-142).
As thought provoking and entertaining as Rohr’s writing is, I found myself wondering about how widely his assumptions can be applied. He refers to the Odyssey as being a male journey, but says several times that he is sure that women will find themselves on the same journey, or at least be able to identify for themselves their corresponding stages. Yet, writers like Maureen Murdock have shown us that a woman’s journey begins and continues with very different locations and tasks. I also wondered if Rohr’s model could apply to those of cultures where spirituality is understood in a more corporate, communal way. I was most jarred by some of his absolute statements about spiritual practices, like spiritual direction, using the Enneagram, and “asking for daily humiliation,” which felt harsh and judgmental to me.
In the main, however, Rohr brings us good hope for a journey with the Holy in our second half of life: we do not travel alone; there is redemption in the pain and loss we all experience; we grow deeper into the heart of God. This is good news as we feel ourselves falling, upward!
A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life
Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation. He is well-known for his many books and recorded teachings. He writes regularly for Radical Grace, his Center's publication,Sojourners and Tikkun. Rohr is profiled on Spirituality & Practice as a Living Spiritual Teacher. For more information on his work visit cacradicalgrace.org.
In this visionary work, Rohr writes about the duties of the first half of life and then charts the adventures of the second half of life where spiritual maturity is the goal. Or to put it another way, the first stage is to create a strong container for identity whereas the second stage is to fill that container with the content of our deepest and fullest self.
Early on our spiritual journey, we are called to establish our security, identity, boundaries, safety, and a minimum of order. The first half of life could be called "early stage religion" which prepares us for the inner experience of God to come. It also manifests itself with the adolescent energy of either/or categories and the tendency to rush towards judgment. The fallout from this brand of dualistic thinking is ever expanding circles of anger, hatred, and violence. Rohr believes that we need a ritual of closure from this stunted first-stage energy. In the men's work he has done, this is called "discharging your loyal soldier." Although it may feel like a loss of self, what is really going on is the death of the false self. Rohr calls this the quiet workings of grace:
"God has to undo our illusions secretly, as it were, when we are not watching and not in perfect control, say the mystics. That is perhaps why the best word for God is actually Mystery. We move forward in ways that we do not even understand and through the quiet workings of time and grace. When we get there, we are never sure just how it happened, and God does not seem to care who gets the credit, as long as our growth continues. As St. Gregory of Nyssa already said in the fourth century, 'Sin happens whenever we refuse to keep growing.' "
The movement into the second half of life begins with the acceptance of the tragic sense of life, dealing with necessary suffering, doing shadow work, leaving our comfort zone and venturing out into the unknown, living with a both/and perspective, being a generative person, seeing our life as more participative than assertive, living simply, and radiating joy. These elements of spiritual maturity don’t come without struggle, pain, doubt, sadness, loneliness, failure, and loss — and they don't happen overnight. That is why most wise people have lived a long life and proved equal to the challenges and the obstacles of the spiritual path.
"Most of us tend to think of the second half of life as largely about getting old, dealing with health issues and letting go of our physical life, but the whole thesis of this book is exactly the opposite. What looks like falling can largely be experienced as falling upward and onward into a broader and deeper world, where the soul has found its fullness, is finally connected to the whole, and lives inside the Big Picture."