Sabbatical Reflections Part 2: ‘Falling Upward’
“There is much evidence on several levels that there are at least two major tasks to human life. The first task is to build a strong ‘container’ or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold.”
So begins Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward, a book I found myself reading several times while on my sabbatical. Multiple readings of a book usually indicate significance and, personally, this has been the most influential book I have read for
some years. I’ve not been a great one for reading spirituality, preferring the intellectual stimulation of biblical studies. But perhaps such a spark of interest marks a new phase of life that Rohr’s quote implies.
But that is too quick. For those who haven’t come across Richard Rohr, he is an American Franciscan Catholic priest, who has spent many years teaching, guiding and developing spiritual awareness, particularly (but not exclusively) among men.
Working at the boundary place where spirituality and psychology meet (this book relies heavily upon Carl Jung), Rohr has become one of the leading voices in the socalled “Emerging Church” movement, while never letting go of his Catholicism.
Falling Upwardis a book about the two halves of life. The first half, a necessary half, is that part of our lives where we build the ‘container’: education, career, relationships, family, faith. However, says Rohr, very often we stop at building these things, assuming that these are the matters that life are about – having these things.
But, says Rohr, there is a second journey of life to be made as well, one that usually only comes when a crisis takes place that causes us to question whether these things – taken alone – are enough. Rather, he says, these vital elements of our first
half of life, are really only the container. The journey of the second half of life is about discovering what it is we want to put in the container, what these things are for.
Such a journey of discovery can be painful, can seem to threaten the loss of some of these precious elements of life, and indeed such discovery can often be initiated by the crisis of divorce, bereavement, the departure of children to adult life, etc.
However, within the dynamic of God’s grace, says Rohr, we begin to discover new things – and new riches in these things – because of the very experience of crisis and loss. We discover that the second half of life is much more about accepting
mystery, growing while knowing we are limited people, and discovering that our need to self-assert through our well-developed ego is not necessary to flourish and be whole.
There is, of course, much more to Rohr’s book. It may well be that we use some of it, or its themes as part of a study course in the coming year, maybe in Lent. But, in finding such meaning in it myself, I have been given cause to reflect upon my own
mid-life experience, and to ask some searching questions about many aspects of my personality and life: my faith, my ambitions and priorities, my need to be right and much more.
I will give but two examples. In the first, I have begun to notice in my pastoral care and preaching ministry, that too often I draw the conversation back to myself when the focus should rightly be on the other person. I’ve noticed that my own ego is
seeking to impose itself in such moments. I’m seeking ways to try and keep the focus not on myself, but upon the person I am listening to, seeking to allow them to experience God’s presence in our encounter rather than simply mine!
A second example concerns my own ministry. For many years I have lived with the projections of other people about the developing nature of my ministry. Only last week someone said, “you’ll be a bishop soon.” I’ve had that sort of comment many
times over the years and while very flattering, it does not do me any good, spiritually or personally. Reading Rohr’s book has enabled me to see that these comments tell me more about the person saying them than they do about me. While my ego likes
to hear them, in the second half of life they are not the truest or most important things about what needs to take priority. It seems to me to be far more important at this stage of my life to seek to become a better Christian and a warmer person than
to become an archdeacon or bishop, although the thought of being a cathedral dean….you see, there goes the ego again!
But more of that next month, in the final of my three sabbatical reflections. For now, I commend Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward (SPCK). There are few Christian books that have changed my life so significantly.