“If That’s All There Is,
Then Let’s Keep Dancing”
A review of
Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.
By Richard Rohr
Review by Margaret D’Anieri.
“Learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly” (The Dalai Lama). The thesis of Richard Rohr’s latest book is that spiritual maturity comes only after we’ve lived with the rules and the categories and the knowledge that are necessary to the formation of a self – and then asked ourselves some version of “is that all there is?” The lyrics[i] of this great existential song capture the futility and emptiness of much modern, Western life: We continue to look to experiences, knowledge, status, religion, our own right opinions – even books – to give meaning to our lives. Richard Rohr argues that all of those things that establish our identity are but the starting gate for the spiritual life. Many people never get past establishing and holding on to their identity, and hence never make it past what he calls “the first half of life”. We learn to do only our survival dance, building what Rohr calls a container:
[T]he task of the first half of life is to create a proper container for one’s live and answer the first essential questions: “What makes me significant?” “How can I support myself”? and “Who will go with me?” The task of the second half of life is, quite simply, to find the actual contents that this container was meant to hold and deliver… In other words, the container is not an end in itself, but exists for the sake of your deeper and fullest life, which you largely do not know about yourself! Far too many people just keep doing repair work on the container itself and never “throw their nets into the deep” to bring in the huge catch that awaits them. (emphasis original)
Rohr intends his book as a roadmap, so that those anchored in the “first half” of life can at least see what might be coming. I’m not sure that it would make much sense to most twenty-somethings who are still figuring out what the world is about and where they fit. For those who are starting to ask the questions, or who have been navigating this territory with no language for it, Rohr helps connect the dots. In our current religious culture and practice, we’re all losing out because “the juniors are made to think that the container is all there is and all they should expect; or worse, that they are mature and home free because they believe a few right things or perform some right rituals. The would-be maturing believer is not challenged to any adult faith or service to the world, much less mystical union. Everyone ends up in a muddled middle.” The book is about clarifying the differences and challenges, giving us a language and a framework that removes the muddle.
He uses the term “falling upward” as a way to describe the process (although “process” may suggest more control than is real), because it is mostly done to us, although we have to be willing to change and take risk and explore new territory. The analogy to “falling upward” is “falling in love” – we have to let go of some ideas, have to confront the shadow side of our well-constructed public persona, and let the fiction fall away. To fall is often to fail; it’s only after the failing and falling that we rise up to a new degree of understanding and communion. “The way up is the way down” and vice versa. Most of us will not consciously choose suffering and failure (Rohr prays for a humiliation every day, perhaps a Lenten discipline for next year). It is the wisdom of the ages, and of Scripture, that suffering and sacrificial love are the things that help us to see more clearly into our own soul. Time and grace work underground in us, so that we can only see where we’ve come after the fact, and often are hard-pressed to explain how we got there.
Rohr is, in essence, taking on the modernism and its worldview of order and systems, and argues instead for relationship and story – an understanding that the Church is particularly slow to adapt. As we lost Hebraic wholeness and the Eastern orientation to divinity, and replaced them with Platonic order and Scholastic reasoning, so too we lost room for mystery and union; the mystics have largely been distrusted by the capital “C” Church. “In the divine economy of grace, sin and failure become the base metal and raw material for the redemption experience itself. Much of organized religion, however, tends to be peopled by folks who have a mania for some ideal order, which is never true, so they are seldom happy or content … we clergy have gotten ourselves into the job of sin management instead of sin transformation.” Amidst his criticism of the Church, Rohr also sees it as necessary for our journey (he is a Franciscan priest). “The church’s practice and its Platonic pronouncements create tragic gaps for any person with an operative head and a beating heart …. [she] is my greatest intellectual and moral problem and my most consoling home.” The church helps us form that container, gives us the doctrine, practice, and some sense of the divine that both form who we are, and leave us looking for much more. The church needs its elders, its mystics – not just in monasteries and seminaries, and surely not just the ordained. Some denominations use “elder” for an institutional office, but we know who the true elders are, those who carry the wisdom, the ones that even those most bound to order and system recognize as treasures. The church needs to re-learn what it means to be “stewards of God’s mysteries” (I Cor. 4:1).
As we seem to be more appreciative of silence, as we long more for deep relationship, as we see the holiness of death, find ourselves less attached to stuff and reputation, recognize those who are truly wise – those are some of the signposts of the “second half of life.” Heaven (nirvana, bliss) are those moments, the times when we know that the “God-shaped” hole in us is being filled; that we are arriving home and seeing it anew; that we have moved “into another intensity” (T.S. Eliot). It’s not a one-way ticket, but more a spiral of light and dark, a spiral of pain transformed in a crucible of love, a spiral of insight, falling back into older habits and desires, and then “falling upward” again as we realize that they satisfy less and less. The second half of life is characterized by a “bright sadness”, in which we both “hold the sadness of the larger world” and at the same time realize that what God has created is good, that we can leave the survival dance behind and take part in the sacred dance.
Margaret D’Anieri is an Episcopal priest serving in Norwalk, Ohio
[i] Lyrics by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, performed memorably by Peggy Lee
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com