Falling Upward: A Review of Richard Rohr’s New Book

In his new book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr catches the wave of interest in spirituality in the second half of life by offering a template for the progression of life stages, using Jungian insights, illustrating the arc of the journey, referencing The Odyssey, and connecting those sources with the teaching of Jesus in the gospels, understood through the lenses he has chosen to use.  Rohr is a writer with wide appeal across Christian traditions and beyond. His life-long calling as a Franciscan educator is served well by the joy and skill he exhibits in framing a paradigm for the spiritual life, and then developing it.

The image that he uses is that the psycho-spiritual task of the first half of life is to create a container for our life, acting on one chore of self-definition after another by embarking on a quest for self-knowledge, definition and location in the wider world. The tasks that need to be accomplished are the ones to which he has given much attention in his writings for the spiritual life for men, following the trail of Odysseus. He offers the critique, not only of individuals, but 21st century North-American culture, when he observes that as a society, we seem to be seeking to accomplish those first-half tasks, but then are unaware that there is a next set of tasks have to do with what we carry in the container of our lives, both personal and communal. It is the task of the second half of life to create or receive the content that we bear in our lives, the spiritual aspect, and for Rohr it is in this task of incarnating spiritual content that we most faithfully live the words and life of Jesus Christ.

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!

About Elizabeth Nordquist

Elizabeth Nordquist is a Presbyterian pastor, teacher, and spiritual director who writes on women's issues, spirituality and Scripture, and what is happening in the world--hers, her neighborhood, the Church and the world. Each day she looks for ways in which the Spirit is moving in and around her.


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