For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘journey

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr, Jossey-Bass, 2011, 200 pp.

Falling-UpwardIt’s difficult to write a review of this book. I was drawn to it, and the Spirit spoke to me through it in some powerful ways. At the same time, I found myself with some large disagreements with the premises and arguments it contains.

Rohr describes the spiritual life in two halves. The first half is about building the container that gives shape to your life–your persona, your career, your family, your identity. The second half of life is about the contents of that vessel, the true stuff of life that can be contained by it. However, he argues, you can only begin to address these second half of life concerns when the vessel begins to fall apart, or at least when you stop believing in the container as your true self and source of strength. He uses the example of Odysseus, who spent 20 years on his famous journey trying to get home. It was a first half of life journey, with conquest and titles and power. But The Odyssey doesn’t end there. In the final two chapters, Odysseus must undertake another journey, which involves traveling inland and letting go of his oar, the tool that delivered him safely home. This was a second half of life journey, a letting go which finally allows him to rest at home.

I connected with Rohr’s work because I am finding myself  moving into a different phase of my life. I will be 40 in less than a year. My family and career choices are fairly well settled, and I am happy with both. Yet precisely because so much is now settled, it also feels like there is a new opening in my life, and a desire to live differently and more deeply. Rohr’s book offered several helpful guideposts that pointed me in the right direction for this journey.

In his chapter on the first half of life, he identifies the importance of strong forces to push up against.

Healthily conservative people tend to grow up more naturally and more happily than those who receive only free-form, “build-it-yourself” worldviews, in my studied opinion. Here is my conviction: without law, in some form, and also without butting up against that law, we cannot move forward easily and naturally. (25)

Rohr’s construction reminded me of Freud’s superego, which holds the law for us. We must eventually move beyond it, but it is an important ingredient in our development. Given that so many people are still in the first half of life journey, it made me ponder the role I play as a pastor. Many people look to me to act as their superego or lawgiver. It is a role I am reluctant to assume, because I generally see more gray than black-and-white. However, I wonder if I need to find ways to be more strident in my nay-saying to the destructive forces around us, and give more structure and form to the faith I teach and preach. It is not an encouragement to me to be more black-and-white, but to be bolder in proclaiming right from wrong, even in the face of resistance.

As he begins to address the second half of life journey, Rohr’s various chapters gave me language to talk about many of the concerns that have been on my heart.

  • The Tragic Sense of Life: Life does not move forward in an orderly straight line of progress, but constantly wrestles with sin, failure, tragedy and hardship. 
  • Stumbling over the Stumbling Stone: We must lose something in order to find it. “There will always be at least one situation in our lives that we cannot fix, control, explain, change or even understand.” (68)
  • Necessary Suffering: Incarnation leads to suffering. It is all around us, built into creation. Resurrection requires a dying.
  • Home and Homesickness: “God hides, and is found, precisely in the depths of everything, even and maybe especially in the deep fathoming of our fallings and failures. Sin is to stay on the surface of even holy things, like Bible, sacrament, or church.” (95)
  • Amnesia and the Big Picture: “Life is about practicing for heaven. We practice by choosing union (with God) freely–ahead of time–and now. Heaven is the state of union both here and later. As now, so will it be then.” (101)
  • A Second Simplicity: Similar to Ricouer’s concept of a second naivete, which I have long found insightful. “Simple meaning now suffices, and that becomes in itself a much deeper happiness.” (113)
  • A Bright Sadness: Our happiness is more sober, but our sorrow buoyed by a sense of God’s goodness.  “Your concern is not so much to have what you love anymore, but to love what you have–right now.” (124)
  • The Shadowlands: The persona we create in the first half of life comes with a shadow, that which we try to hide or dismiss. The second half of life requires us to acknowledge and confront this shadow side to ourselves, which always humbles us.

I resonated deeply with many of these realities and concerns, and recognized my own need to engage in this kind of spiritual work at this point of my life.

In spite of its helpfulness to me, I also hold some profound arguments with Rohr’s construction. First and foremost, it is very masculine in its orientation. The model of leaving home, conquering and returning is rooted in the masculine hero myth, and women’s journeys can take a very different path. Similarly, Rohr seems to insist that some crisis, failure or falling apart is required to launch the second half of life journey. While I do agree that something must be shaken or cracked in the steady persona in order to launch that journey, I do not think an earth-shattering crisis is a necessary condition for advanced spiritual development. Yes, one must integrate suffering and hardship and tragedy into a sophisticated spiritual life. Yes, one must let go of the relentless pursuit of status and certainty to reach the second stage of the journey. However, I believe that process may not be a single, shattering earthquake. It may be more like a snake shedding its skin—over and over again, as seasons change, we are required to let go of the old in order to grow into the new. It is painful and uncomfortable and ugly to look at, but in the end we are made new. Not once, but many times throughout our lives.

Rohr’s Falling Upward was not unproblematic, but it was also not unhelpful. I recommend it (with the arguments above) to anyone who feels a sense of restlessness even as they should be settling in to the life they have created, to anyone who is interested an a deeper journey, to anyone contemplating mid-life and beyond.

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The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred, by Phil Cousineau, Conari Press, 1998, 254 pp.

I purchased two books on pilgrimage before my trip, to read along the journey. I wanted this journey to be more than exciting travel—I wanted to encounter the Spirit there. As you can see if you’ve been reading the posts surrounding this one, that hope was more than fulfilled. Cousineau’s book offered the right insights and provoked the right questions to open me to the pilgrimage experience.

Cousineau does not write from a Christian perspective, and he takes a broad view of pilgrimage. A pilgrimage, he says, is a “transformative journey to a sacred center.” (xxiii) That might be the Holy Land, but it might also be any ancient ruins, or a natural phenomenon, or the home of a favorite author, or the grave of a pop star, if those places are sacred for the traveler.  This book aims to help travelers become pilgrims by bringing them to mindfulness or “soulfulness, the ability to respond from our deepest place.” (xxvii)

Through storytelling from famous pilgrims, mythical travelers and ordinary people, Cousineau walks through the various stages of the pilgrimage experience. First, there is longing—the inward desire to see the world differently, to be challenged and changed, to find themselves anew and live life more fully. Then comes the calling and the departure, followed by more about the way of the pilgrim. Unlike tourists, pilgrims travel with intention, with the desire to see the sacred in every moment and discover meaning in every encounter. As such, the practices of reflection, walking, reading, writing, and being present in time become as much a part of the journey as the sights themselves.

Cousineau uses the metaphor of the labyrinth to understand the pilgrimage journey, inviting pilgrims to get lost in the deep places of their spirit, including room for brooding. I read this chapter just after Day Ten of my pilgrimage, and I connected with the struggles he described as a part of the transformative nature of the journey. At the center of the labyrinth is the arrival, the experience of arriving at that sacred place, both inward and outward.

I especially appreciated the final chapter, “Bringing Back the Boon.” Cousineau recognizes that a pilgrimage is not just about the pilgrim. If we are given the opportunity to be a pilgrim, it is not just for ourselves—we have a mission responsibility to return back and share what we have learned and experienced. There is work to be done when we return to help us remember the journey, and all that we learned. I feel like I am doing that work now—looking at pictures, completing blog post reflections, reading and reflecting, preparing to share with my congregation.

Cousineau’s book is an excellent resource for anyone who is interested in moving from a tourist to a pilgrim, and yearning to make their travel a more sacred experience. Pilgrimage doesn’t require a journey halfway around the world. You can engage a pilgrimage spirit for a trip into your own backyard. Cousineau will help show the way.

Tomorrow is the big day—I am leaving for two weeks (16 days, counting travel days) on a Macedonian Ministries Pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

One suitcase, one carry-on bag. Ready to go.

The preparations for this day have been going on for months. I applied to the program last spring, and planned this sabbatical around it last June. Our group (all mid-career pastors) first met for a retreat in October, where we read and talked and prayed deeply about God’s call in our lives. We have met twice since then, and we have studied the history of the region, the violence and conflict, and the three faiths that share the land. We have meditated on the spiritual practice of pilgrimage.

Personally, I have shopped for new shoes and new clothes. The laundry is done, and the packing is almost complete. Bills are paid, childcare arranged, house ordered. During sabbatical, I have read a few extra books, prayed, contemplated, bought a few more books , and even reread the Gospels. Most of all, I have worked to open my heart to whatever this journey might offer. I have tried to let go of excessive expectations, to set aside diligent plans, to leave behind extra baggage (literally and spiritually), and open my spirit to attend to God more carefully on this journey.

And I think that’s what makes me the most nervous this night before departure. Yes, I have normal travel jitters. This is the first time I will leave my child for such a long time, and so far away. I am asking my spouse to shoulder a lot of weight while I am away, and there is always a risk of violence or catastrophe or emergency. I am accustomed to all these small anxieties. There is no reason to worry, because there is nothing I can do about any of them.

The buildup and the expectations to this trip have been very big. My family, my church, my friends—everyone has their ideas about what I will see and what I will experience while I am away, and they are all expecting it to be profound. I share that quest. Will I really meet God there? Will it be the “Holy Land” really feel holy? What if it doesn’t?  What will it be like to see with my own eyes the places that have been a part of my imagination since I was a child? Will the commercialism, the militarism, the tourism disappoint? I feel a bit of stress to make sure that I make the most of this, and wondering if I will be let down. Or if my experiences will let others down, who have so much interest in hearing all about it.

There is another, deeper edge to my travel anxieties. I am haunted by an excerpt from Charles Foster’s The Sacred Journey that one of our leaders read to us at our last gathering. The chapter was entitled, “The Dangers of Pilgrimage.”  The passage talked about how the journey of pilgrimage is a metaphor for our whole life’s thrust toward God. The pilgrimage condenses so much energy into one large block of time that it threatens the familiar and the past. It is almost a certainty, Foster wrote, that nothing will be the same again. (paraphrased from meeting notes)

I am anxious about how this experience will change me. I already feel, over the last several months, that the solid ground beneath my feet is giving way to shifting sands, and God is doing a new thing with me. I don’t know what it is, but it is both exciting and daunting to feel God on the move. As I contemplate the pilgrimage, I realize I’m not really stressed that I won’t feel God’s presence—I’m worried that I will. God’s voice can speak sometimes with comfort, hope and consolation, but I have a feeling this time around that God’s message for me will be of a more unsettling variety. What if God issues a call to repentance, to honesty, to transformation, to trust, to new life, to courage? What if I come home and I am changed? What if God wants me to do something hard, or something I don’t want to do?

I feel the risk, the anxiety—but also the excitement. God is (always) about to do a new thing. I pray that I would have eyes to see, ears to hear and a heart to respond.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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