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Photo credit: Website for St. Anthony Catholic High School, San Antonio, TX

In his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Franciscan[1] monk Richard Rohr argues that there is “much evidence” that there are at least two major tasks to the human life.

“The first task,” he says, “is to build a strong ‘container’ or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold.”[2] The first “half” of our lives, Rohr says, is spent with the first task; and, the second “half” of our lives, should we choose to enter into it, is richly occupied with the second task.  Forty years as a Franciscan teacher and confessor, working in many settings, religions, countries, and institutions drive Rohr to write on this topic; and fifteen years’ worth of conference invitations have allowed him to speak on it.  Rohr has seen the pattern over, and over again in his ministry at the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which he founded in 1986.

What usually drives a person towards the second half of life is a crisis of some sort.  For many this crisis is mid-life, but not all.  There are plenty of folk under the age of 40 who have experienced life-changing events or catastrophes that rock their world to its foundation, and call everything they thought they knew into question.  Think childhood illness, a parent’s suicide or untimely death, illness or death of a close friend, a natural disaster that destroys everything the person and/or their family owns, and the like.  The list of possibilities is endless.

By whatever means and at whatever age, a person becomes aware that the way they had been living their lives, making their decisions, and determining what is and is not of importance to them is no longer working.  Tried and true methods, assumptions, and explanations become insufficient.  A profession that a person once considered herself made for begins to be laborious.  Long-term relationships can even start to feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar.

This is the cusp of the two halves of lives, this painful, indefinable space.  It is at this point that the person has a choice – wait out the unfamiliarity and return to life as she or he had known it, or trudge ahead into uncharted territory towards what Rohr calls the second half of life.

I call it spiritual and emotional maturity.

Our life purpose, Rohr says, is to find our soul, our deepest identity, our True Self that God gave to each of us before we were born, and to live into our unique destiny to the fullest.[3]  “Our soul’s discovery is utterly crucial, momentous, and of pressing importance for each of us and for the world,” Rohr says.[4]  We are all called to this journey. 

The truth is that the majority of us do not make it to the second half of life.  We “remain stymied,” says Rohr.  Our “concerns remain those of establishing [our] personal (or superior) identity, creating various boundary markers for [ourselves], seeking security, and perhaps linking to what seem like significant people or projects.”[5]

Why the stagnation?  Why do we choose to remain spiritually and emotionally immature?

Blunt answer: the transition hurts. Like hell.

“A Question of Suffering” Photo credit: Roger Upton, April 20, 2012

“The way up is the way down,” Rohr confirms.  In order to grow into the True Self that God created us to be, our False Self, our first-half-of-life self, must die.  And nothing in nature dies easily, without decay, decline, and yes painful loss of previous vivacity.

More from Father Rohr:

We do not want to embark up on a further journey if it feels like going down, especially after we have put so much sound and fury into going up.  This is surely the first and primary reason why many people never get to the fullness of their own lives.  The supposed achievements of the first half of life have to fall apart and show themselves to be wanting in some way, or we will not move further.  Why would we? … The human ego prefers anything, just about anything, to falling or changing or dying.  The ego is that part of you that loves the status quo, even when it is not working.  It attaches to past and present, and fears the future.[6]

And yet, the loss of all that we’ve built up and the pain of suffering and grieving its death is the only way to the God-created Self that lies within us.  Furthermore, inwardly seeking, finding, and living into our True Self is the only way to true shalom with God, ourselves, and the world around us.

Calamity still occurs in our lives, yes, but when we are living as our True Selves we’re much better equipped to cope with pain and disappointment and move on.  There is no way around, under, below, or above the process – only through.

Simply stated, we must. feel. the. pain. if we are to live into God’s design for us.

Can I get a shout out from all who are attracted to this idea?

Yep…crickets.  I empathize.

What about you? Do you believe that suffering is “necessary” for spiritual growth?

Coming on Thursday…some thoughts on the nature of suffering. Does God cause it?

[1]    Most Franciscan priests, including Rohr, are members of a Roman Catholic religious order founded by St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) in 1209.  Franciscans are known for their vows of poverty and humility, their engagement in spiritual disciplines, and their loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church.  In modern times, Franciscans have tended toward more educational roles.

[2]    Richard Rohr, Falling Upward:  A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco:  Jossey Bass, 2011), xii.

[3]    Rohr Falling Upward, ix.

[4]    Rohr, Falling Upward, ix.

[5]    Rohr, Falling Upward, vii.

[6]    Rohr, Falling Upwards., xix, xxiv.