A Book Review by Vernon Chandler
Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life
John Wiley & Sons, 198 pp.
This past year I facilitated a monthly “Interfaith Contemplative Spirituality Study Group” at the local U.S. Army chapel located near Ansbach, Germany. Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life was one of the contemplative writings we read and discussed during the year. For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the name Richard Rohr, Rohr is a Franciscan priest, a prolific writer of contemplative spirituality, and is founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation located in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Falling Upward was first published in 2011. My initial reading of the book was in 2012 and at the time I thought it was one of the more meaningful books on spirituality and faith development that I had ever read. The book made such an impression that I later wrote and delivered two sermons based upon wisdom gleamed from Rohr’s writing.
Rohr discusses in length what he describes as the two halves of spiritual life. Although he writes from a Catholic perspective, he suggests that this phenomenon in faith development is universal and is applicable to all faith traditions. Rohr often quotes Carl Jung in his description of the spiritual life. It was Jung who first coined the phrase “the two halves of life.” Rohr writes for readers who are comfortable with theism and spiritual language. He freely uses the term “soul” in describing this spiritual odyssey.
According to Rohr, the first-half-of-life spirituality primarily involves building one’s ego and the task of the first half is to create a proper container for one’s life. The major concerns are identity, security, boundaries, sexuality, and gender. The religious faith of those in the first-half-of-life are usually in either/or categories. In the first-half-of-life, we are drawn to rules, order, religious routine, developing habits, and letting ourselves be shaped by the norms and practices of our family and community. There is often a rush to judgment when others do not conform to our beliefs and values.
Moving to the second-half-of-life spirituality is often precipitated by failure and suffering. Some event, person, death, relationship, damaged reputation or other brokenness will enter our lives that we cannot accept or handle with the ego and human container we created during the first-half-of-life. Religious beliefs, creeds, doctrines and values that were integral to our development in the first half become less meaningful and are no longer an unquestionable source of stability. A strong willpower will no longer suffice. Much of the ego-self created during the first-half-of-life must die. As we confront the suffering that marks the beginning of the end of the-first-half-of-life, we often question the role, title, and personal image that was largely a creation of our own mind and attachments. It is in moving through this suffering and falling that we begin to discover a truer self. For Rohr, the way up is the way down. To journey into the second-half-of-life, we must be comfortable with change and be willing to be stretched beyond our comfort zones. We must accept the ambiguity and tragic sense of life. Suffering is unavoidable. Rohr writes, “Nature is much more disorder than order, more multiplicity than uniformity, with the greatest disorder being death itself.”
As we move into the second half of our spiritual lives, we come to affirm that spiritual maturity requires the human experiences of struggle, pain, doubt, sadness, loneliness, failure and loss. We move to a space of spiritual sustenance, peace, and compassion that alluded us during the first-half-of-life. Rohr writes that, “Our mature years are characterized by a kind of bright sadness and sober happiness.” Rohr uses as an analogy the pointing of one’s fingers toward the moon. In first-half-of-life spirituality, the focus is more upon whose finger points most accurately and definitively to the moon. In second-half-of-life spirituality, one is more apt to simply enjoy viewing the moon.
It is Rohr’s observation that the Church, both Catholic and Protestant, is often stuck in the language and structure of first-half-of-life spirituality. Rohr writes that “much of organized religion is itself living inside of first-half-of-life issues.” He further writes, “Many church sermons I have heard my whole life seem never to move beyond this first level of development and do not even challenge it. In fact, to challenge it is called heretical, dangerous, or ill advised.” Rohr observes that “most people facing the transformative issues of social injustice, divorce, failure, gender identify, an inner life of prayer, or any radical reading of the Gospel are usually bored and limited by the typical church agenda.”
Many humans do not make the transition from first-half-of-life to second-half-of-life spirituality. Rohr observes that an individual who stays in the first-half-of-life beyond its natural period often becomes “a well-disguised narcissist or an adult infant . . . both of whom are often thought to be successful ‘good old boys’ by the mainstream culture.” Those who remain in first-half-of-life spirituality will find that their religion always ends up worshiping the status quo and protecting one’s personal ego position and personal advantage.
Also, Rohr writes of the dangers of doing the-first-half-of-life spirituality poorly. How does one move into a mature faith if he or she has not developed one’s ego and a proper container for one’s life during the first-half-of-life? Rohr observes that “they go back and try to do it again – and then often overdo it! This pattern is usually an inconsistent mix of old-fashioned styles and symbols with very contemporary ideologies of consumerism, technology, militarism, and individualism.” Rohr often observed this pattern during his fourteen years as a prison chaplain. He found that inmates who found religion after incarceration were often “overly religious, highly moralistic, and excessively legalistic” in expressing their new found spirituality. With other individuals who created an oppressive life container during their first-half-of-life or for those who created a poor ego and “no soulful container at all,” there much anger can be found. Rohr believes that this misplaced anger is “at the bottom of many, if not most, of the social movements of our age. Building on such a negative foundation inevitably produces a negative building.”
I found much spiritual comfort in reading Rohr’s book. Had someone explained to me the differences in first-half-of life and second-half-of-life spirituality when I was in my twenties, perhaps my rebellion from the church of my childhood would have been less intense. I think many Unitarian Universalists will find much relevance and meaning in Rohr’s observations and thought.