It’s been almost three years now since the release of Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. But in that short time, it seems that this book has already become something of a minor classic, thanks to its insightful consideration of how the spiritual blessings, challenges, and concerns of people in the “second half of life” differ markedly from those in the first half. The first half is typically about building one’s life: establishing identity, discerning and responding to a sense of calling, finding love and starting a family, and so forth. The second half is more about letting go and loving: mentoring, praying, blessing, and giving to others. If the first half of life is about building the “container” of one’s life, the second half calls us to fill that container with love, compassion, etc. — and then graciously pour it out to those who need it or stand to be blessed by it.
It’s a wonderful, intuitive roadmap of spirituality over the life cycle; and Rohr points out that most institutional religion tends to be so geared toward supporting those in the first half (creating an identity, forming healthy boundaries, and so forth) that it often has little to offer us as we make the transition into the second half (where needs tend to be less about boundaries or identity, and more about compassion, love, and kenosis or self-emptying). So for many people, religion stops working as their needs move away from knowing the rules and into the hunger for radical, transforming love.
If Rohr is right — and I think he is — about the dearth of support for those in the second half of life, then we can give thanks for the new book from Ronald Rolheiser, Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity. This book functions as a sort of sequel to Rolheiser’s The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality (1999). That earlier book functions as a sort of “Christian Spirituality 101” title, examining such basic questions as the centrality of Christ to a Christian spirituality, the role of the church, the importance of social justice, and the thorny issue of how to reconcile sex and spirit. All foundational stuff — and all primarily relevant to that first half of life. So Sacred Fire basically picks up where The Holy Longing left off, exploring how spirituality evolves and deepens as we mature, even to the point of considering the unique spirituality of the end of life — the dying process.
Rolheiser sees the spirituality of maturity in terms of prayer and blessing, and anchors the heart of mature spirituality in the capacity that we develop (or refuse to develop, as the case may be) for truly blessing others. But then he offers a final chapter as a sort of “conversation starter” (he admits that he does not treat the matter fully, and perhaps will do so in a future book) on how, after we bless others with our lives, the day comes when we face our final spiritual challenge: to bless others in our dying. How? By dying well, with integrity, serenity, acceptance, and equanimity. Obviously, there’s no such thing as a perfect death (just like there’s no perfect life), so this is not meant to be a competitive challenge, but rather an invitation: if we foster a life of blessing, we are also preparing ourselves to die in a way of blessing, as well.
Unlike Rohr, Rolheiser’s writing is a bit more formal and reserved, less conversational in its tone. His own theological outlook seems to be broadly inclusive and perhaps a bit cautious; at the book’s end when he addresses the way in which we can sense the presence of loved ones after dying, he seems almost to tiptoe around the matter, as if he were worried about offending those who find it difficult to believe in eternal life. But at times he can be refreshingly candid, as when he approvingly quotes Daniel Berrigan who, when asked about faith, commented, “Faith is rarely where your head is at. Nor is it where your heart is at. Faith is where your ass is at!”
In the chapter on prayer, Rolheiser offers a balanced and wise assessment of the many ways we can pray, including contemplation. I particularly like his idea that contemplation may be necessary at this point in history because of how intrusive our smartphone/internet/television culture has become. We need silence more than ever, precisely because of how noisy our technology has become.
At one point the book seems to carry an apparent mixed message — between Rolheiser declaring that “Perfection, as it is commonly understood, is a human impossibility” (page 116) but then in the very next chapter highlighting the story of a group of priests who meet weekly to support one another in a fight against “slipping into mediocrity” (page 139). The author suggests that these priests are trying to “live like Mother Teresa” and that this makes them happy. It left me wondering if he really expects spirituality to be about perfection after all. I suppose this is yet another kind of spiritual paradox: God loves us unconditionally in our imperfections, and yet invites us to love not in a merely human way, but in a truly divine way. In other words, through a loving and compassionate striving for “greatness,” recognizing that such excellence can only come through grace, we can paradoxically receive a gift of authentic, profound happiness.
As much as I enjoyed this book, my favorite chapter is the final one, which explores the question of “giving our death away.” Even though it admittedly feels provisional, I think Rolheiser is asking the right questions here, and truly understands how dying can be a season of grace. Of course, his model for understanding the spirituality of dying is John of the Cross’s “Dark Night of the Soul.” He acknowledges that death, seen through the eyes of grace, is always an invitation to a deeper life, not only for the person who is dying but for the loved ones left behind. This is a thoroughly orthodox point, and yet one we often gloss over in our thanatophobic culture. Rolheiser reminds us that faith is not only about living well, but dying well too.
So this is a lovely book. Who knows if it will be the “instant classic” that Falling Upward seems to have become; but it’s certainly worth reading for anyone interested in a spirituality that concerns more than just identity and boundaries.
Disclosure: A complimentary copy of this book was supplied to me by the publisher for the purpose of reviewing it. If you follow the link of a title mentioned in this post and purchase it or other products from Amazon.com, I receives a small commission from Amazon. Thank you for doing so — your support keeps this blog going.