Often I find the period after Christmas, as we move into what is called “ordinary time,” a rich time to turn to nurturing spiritual reading. I want to recommend a book I find very helpful and illuminating: Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. Rohr argues that “ the first half of life is discovering the script and the second half is actually writing the script.” In the first half of life, we are mainly concerned with issues of identity, first glimpses of vocation, security. For that we need a rule-ordered life. As the old adage for Jesuit novices sounded, in this period, “ keep the rules and the rules will keep you.” Yet, as the Dalai Lama so wisely remarked: “ Learn to obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly.”
Unfortunately, for most of us when we think of spirituality we tend to hue closely to the spirituality for the first part of life. Rohr laments that too often the church is complicit in this. It is good on rules and orientation but does not sufficiently emphasize a different trajectory for the spiritual life as we grow older. The church granted the power of the keys to bind and loose, most often only uses them to bind! Rohr cites Carl Jung: “What is a normal goal to a young person becomes a neurotic hindrance in old age.” Again, as Jung noted: “One cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programs of life’s morning, for what is great in the morning will be of little importance in the evening and what was true in the morning will at evening become a lie.” As James Hollis has noted: “The world is more marginal, less predictable, more autonomous, less controllable, more varied, less simple, more infinite, less knowable, more wonderfully troubling than we could have imagined being able to tolerate when we are young.”
In the first half of life we confront the hero’s journey into a firm identity and vocation; the second must find new ways to move beyond mere rules and the law to new kinds of freedom. In the second part of life, we need a stronger dose of the tragic sense of life. Truth, after all, is about reconciling contradiction. As Julian of Norwich famously put it: “First there is the fall and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God.” In the first part of life we struggle to change ourselves and our world. In the second, as Rohr argues, we come to learn that “faith is simply to trust the real and to trust that God is found within it—even before we change it.” Or, I might add, even when we can not easily change it.
Much is at stake in finding the transition to a new level of spirituality (beyond rules, although honoring them as well). As Saint Gregory of Nyssa noted in the fourth century: “Sin happens whenever we refuse to keep growing.” So, the tasks of the second part of life differ from those of the first. I have already noted it means having a firmer sense of the tragic sense of life. It also entails a stumbling over the stumbling stone. Failure and humiliation are part of any life. They force us to look where we never would otherwise. Hence, they too are graces. We need to break out of some of the rigid expectations of our first half of life. This entails leaving family, safety nets and to launch out into deeper waters.
In the first half of life we need to get rid of our first naivete (to borrow a famous phrase of Paul Ricoeur). In the second half, we move toward a second simplicity, a docta ignorantia (more aware of how much we do not know and never can and comfortable with that). In the second part of life, we are invited, says Rohr, to “a bright sadness.” There is something quite egalitarian about growing older. We learn that we are all equally naked underneath our clothes, we are all sinners, all on a journey.
Jung spoke of the second part of life as a way of embracing our shadow. So Rohr talks about the spirituality of engaging in “shadow-work,” all those things which reveal our denied faults and failings. Often, this means embracing people who are not necessarily so congenial to us (even our enemies) because usually everybody else can see the shadow we are blinded to. The second part of life confronts us with new problems and new distinctions which we need to struggle to confront, understand and embrace. Rohr contends that in the second part of life we need to accept more fully “both-and” thinking, as opposed to the often dualistic mind found in the first phases of life. In the first phase of life we struggle with the dichotomy: the rational versus the irrational. In the second phase we come to discover a third possibility: the trans-rational (which is neither simply rational nor, really, irrational). Rohr cites, helpfully, what he calls the 7 C’s of delusion which must be confronted, as we grow older and also grow spiritually: Delusion “compares; it competes, it conflicts, it conspires, it condemns, it cancels out any contrary evidence and it then crucifies with impunity.” Too often I find the church tends to fall into many of these 7 C’s.
Morality, to be sure, is about rules, principles, norms. But in the second part of life it must learn also to embrace context (attending to persons, places, situations, possibilities as well as conundrums). Rohr’s image of the spirituality of the second part of life as a kind of falling-upward (in the title of the book) reminds us that there is no falling upward without a previous falling down. Yet he likens our falls, failures, inabilities, to a kind of trampoline. “No falling down,” we come to see, “was final but actually contributed to the bounce.”
Rohr reminds us of two central facets of a true spirituality. “By definition authentic God experience is always too much! It consoles our true self only after it has devastated our false self.” In another place Rohr argues that religion must devastate before it consoles (and console even in our flaws and failures). Much as Julian of Norwich argued, our sin and our gift are two sides of the same coin.
If I would press Rohr to write another book on spirituality, it would be to ask him to spell out more clearly what the spirituality of the second phase of life looks like in actual practices, choices, self-determinations. How, in fact, do we navigate this new phase of falling upward? To use a favorite Ignatian phrase, discernment, there is a profound sense that the task of discernment in the first part of life (coming to know what gives life, energy, peace versus what entices but then leaves us flat and desolate) is about starker choices than discernment in the second part of life which tries to reconcile differences, see light in our shadow sides, embrace opposites and put a full trust in the God who is always so much bigger than any of our rules or formulations.