Falling Upward

 Richard Rohr

Richard Rohr

The story of Abraham is the archetypal standard for the first and the second half of life. In the first half he is not called Abraham, but Abram, and he’s living not in Israel, but in a city called ‘Ur’, which (going back to last week) was a city in the orbit of Babel (in modern day Iraq). There in that pagan city, God calls Abram – ‘Leave your father’s house and go to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you’. Outside of the Bible itself there are many other rabbinical traditions that spring up much later on about Abraham. Here in the Bible you have the bare bones of the story of Abraham, and later writers wanted to fill in some of the blanks. Although in the Bible we are told that Abraham is called from this pagan city of Ur to journey to the place we know as Israel, there is nothing within this mythological narrative about his early years, about his life as a boy in the city of Ur. And so, in the 5th/6th Century, Jewish Rabbis told that story. The story imagines Abram as the son of a craftsman. Though, not just any craftsman, specifically an idol craftsman, to serve the needs of this bustling polytheistic city…

One day, his father left his son in charge of the workshop, the store, for the day, and a man walked in wishing to buy an idol. Abram asked the man how old he was, and he responded, ‘I’m fifty years old’. And Abram said, ‘You are fifty years old and would worship a day-old statue!’ The man, now feeling ashamed, left the store. Later on, a woman came into the store with a food offering for the idols. After she had left, Abram took a stick and smashed all the idols but the largest, and then he put the stick in the hand of the largest idol. When his father returned, he asked what had happened, and Abram explained that a woman came into the store with a food offering, and an argument then broke out amongst the idols over who should be allowed to eat first. The largest idol then took a stick and smashed all the others… ‘Don’t be stupid’ his father responded, ‘the idols don’t have knowledge, they don’t know what’s happening’. Abram then responded to his father, ‘You deny that they have knowledge, and don’t believe they know anything, and yet you worship them?’

 Abraham and Sarah

Abraham and Sarah

This comical story is given to illustrate Abram’s growing sense that the idols were false, and that there is only one true God. Hence why in Genesis 12 when Abram is called to leave his country, kindred, and father’s house, with his wife Sarah and travel to the promised land, he does so without question. Though the story is told as a physical journey - his life was one way, and he had a sense of calling from God and moved across the desert to another place, to another way of life - one can easily imagine this story as symbolising the kind of life transition we all go through in one way or another, as all our life transitions don’t entail physically moving from one place to another. We have a sense that we should go deeper into life’s mysteries and embrace a certain way of being, or a broadening of horizons, or a coming to terms with sufferings endured, and we choose to follow that calling, to enter another phase within our spiritual journeys. We commit ourselves afresh.

In ‘Falling Upward’ by Richard Rohr, he begins by quoting Carl Jung. It reads, ‘The greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally unsolvable. They can never be solved, but only outgrown’. The big problems of life we wrestle with in the first half, we don’t resolve, we just hold them in a different way as we mature; we recognise they don’t need to be resolved, and that itself is a kind of resolution. This idea of two halves of life shouldn’t be thought of literally. Although Carl Jung divided his life from his first into the second at the age of 35, there is no rule about when this does or should happen. Richard Rohr in his book talks about children who, because they have experienced suffering in early life, have already moved into the second half of life. And likewise, men and women older than he, who were still very much in the first half of life. I have certainly recognised that in my own ministry, people a lot older than I, who have not yet entered into the second half of life. It has much more to do with one’s spiritual journey, and contending with the mysteries of life - how much you resist it, and how much you allow it to envelop you. The first half then, as Richard Rohr describes it, has to do with developing your own ego identity, your own sense of self. I am this, I am not that. The process of drawing a distinction between me and the other. The process of containing what you are. It is a necessary process to go through. It’s part of being young, but the problem with it is you become over occupied with your own identity, or your own ‘container’ as Richard calls it, protecting it, and promoting it. A very strong sense of one’s own container in later life - I am this, I like this, I don’t like that, I stand for this, I am against that - these are the hallmarks of spiritual immaturity.

 Jesus calls his disciples

Jesus calls his disciples

Jesus called the disciples, saying ‘leave your nets, your livelihoods, your father’s house, and come with me to a new place. Leave behind what was before’. And Abram was called by God out from Ur to go to a new place. What this means is people begin to recognise that the world they have created for themselves, their little ego worlds in the first half of life, their containers, become for them more like prisons from which we need to escape. But many don’t. You’re easily tempted to see your container as superior, and then you never get very far. Richard Rohr says a sizable percentage never leave the first half of life at all. For those who do contend with the mysteries of life, and move in their spiritual journey through to the second half, do so by contending with the suffering within reality, the tragic sense of life, the necessary stumbling stones. Again, Richard Rohr quotes Carl Jung, who says ‘There is a necessary suffering to being a human being, and if you try to deny or avoid that necessary suffering – the irony is you bring upon yourself ten times more suffering in the long run’. If you haven’t learned about the necessary suffering in the first half of life, when you’re older you don’t then have to tools to contend with it, and when you’re hit by whatever it is, the necessary failures in the middle of life, the betrayals, the rejections, the loss of jobs or money or the deaths of others, one cannot contend, and one checks out. The first half of life then represents one part of the journey, the part the world holds in primacy: career success, the acquisition of power, climbing the property ladder, getting an education, getting our money, getting married, having children, having grandchildren. We become so invested in this version of life, we think this is what life is. But there is a second journey. Abraham, at the beginning of the Jewish story, at the beginning of the Muslim story, at the beginning of the Christian story, starts with his land, his wife, his cows, his coats, his success, and then the story begins. It begins by leaving it all, which as Richard Rohr points out is so counter-intuitive. We are for the most part not about leaving things, old ways of being, but about protecting things. But the foundational myth to all three Abrahamic faiths is that this is not true, this is not enough, we must go beyond these things. We must go on a second journey. As T.S. Elliot put it:

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion…

This is the journey of discernment… What is real and what is unreal. What is essential and not. What is wonderful in life, and what is a waste of our time. We can’t just carry on doing the external motions of things, of religion, we must go deeper. We must move beyond the ‘container’ of life, to the content of life - what’s it all for? The final third of the book is about this second journey. This second half of life. The bright sadness. The character of the elder. For, as Richard Rohr puts it, we as a society create a lot of elderly people, but as a society we don’t create a lot of elders. Elders are people with some gravitas, carrying some sadness and seriousness. Someone who can hold all that, all the weight of life, while at the same time carrying a joy, and a freedom, an an okayness with the way things are, an ability to say to the younger, ‘it will all work out in the end’. Someone with wisdom, not locked in either-or thinking, but both-and thinking. People holding the paradoxes of life, and a tolerance for ambiguity. Someone in the second half of life has found meaning in things; not living on the surface, but finding the meaning within, meaning in this world, in nature, in our religion, in our myths.

And this is Richard Rohr’s message, that there is something more, and we’re invited to enter into it, to go deeper, because the second half of the journey never really ends. There is still another intensity, a further union to be had. He quotes the Dalai Lama, ‘Learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly’. Learn what the rules are, but then there is the content, there is how the rule is being applied, what is its purpose in this particular scenario… People who can’t see that and say ‘well the rule’s the rule’, or ‘the principle’s the principle’, are in the first half of life still. It applies to things we may beat ourselves up about too. ‘I did this or said that’ - well yeah okay, but who were you then when you did that thing, what was the content of that, where was your head at? These things matter. We were all young once, we all broke idols in a shop once to make our point, but the world is not black and white, there is a lot of nuance to things. Rohr closes with a poem by Thomas Merton, a poem which sums up the grace, freedom, and compassion of a second half of life person. I will close with it also.

‘The Soul of the Serene Disciple’

When in the soul of the serene disciple
With no more Fathers to imitate
Poverty is now a success,
It is a small thing now to say the roof is gone:
I don’t even have a house.
Stars, as well as friends,
Are angry with the noble ruin.
Saints are departing in all directions.
Be still:
There is no longer any need of comment.
It was a lucky wind
That blew away your halo with all your cares,
It was a lucky sea that drowned your reputation.

Here at this place, you will find
Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.
Now there are no ways,
No methods to admire
Poverty now is no achievement.
Here God lives in your emptiness like an affliction.
What choice remains?
Well to be ordinary is not a choice:
It is the usual freedom
Of men without their ‘visions’.
It’s not either/or
Transcend and Include.

Amen.