For summer reading this year I picked up Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: a Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. It made for excellent contemplative reading, especially in this year when I celebrated (though slightly in advance) my fiftieth year along with a group of friends who are also at the same age and stage of life. We went camping together, and as we sat around the fire we caught up on each other’s lives, telling stories of our kids, our (just beginning) health challenges, our projects and careers, our struggles and successes in life. We were looking back on the first half of our lives, and pondering together what the second half might bring for each of us.
Rohr says that ‘the task of the first half of life is to create a proper container for one’s life and answer the first essential questions: “What makes me significant?” “How can I support myself?” and “Who will go with me?”’ The first half of life is all about striving, building, and achieving; and looking for security, success, and status. People in this half of their lives are preoccupied with issues of “law, tradition, custom, authority, boundaries, and morality.” They want to know the rules and then follow them for success in life. These are the kinds of things my friends and I shared with each other around the fire – how we had established our homes and families and careers, and how much these things meant to us.
As valuable and important and even essential as the tasks and preoccupations of the first half of life are, Rohr says they are only the foundation and basement of a full and fulfilled human life; building the actual house is the task of the second half of life.
The second half of life seems to be an optional journey for many of us, a journey many don’t or won’t take. It is the “task within the task” of the first half, involving the growth of wisdom, integrity, compassion, and the interior flowering of the free and unique person each of us is created to be. Rohr says that “None of us go into our spiritual maturity completely of our own accord, or by a totally free choice, We are led by Mystery.” And where we are led is somewhere we do not want to go. The possibilities of a second journey in the second half of life seem to open up only when we become conscious of failure or suffering in our first journey. “Normally a job, fortune, or reputation has to be lost, a death has to be suffered, a house has to be flooded, or a disease has to be endured.” When such events come into our lives—and they come into all our lives—we experience a fall. But this fall from the grace of our achievements and successes is the very door to a deeper journey, the journey of the second half of life. Those who make this journey become radiant with compassion. “They have come to their human fullness, often against all odds, and usually by suffering personally or vicariously. As Jesus describes such a person, “from their breasts flow fountains of living water” (John 7:38).”
Around the campfire my friends and I shared the struggles and failures of our lives. Estrangement from children, wounding and doubts in marriages, questioning the value of the things we had invested our energy in for our work, debilitating health problems. These are the kinds of sufferings (Rohr calls it necessary suffering) that open the door to a new path of growth, the door to spiritual maturity. But it’s dark on that path and none of us had any certainty about where it would lead. All we can do is step into the darkness with faith and hope that the way downward will eventually somehow lead up, as Jesus’ path through the cross and the grave led finally to his resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God.
Though still on my first journey in my first half of life, I have hope for the second journey, given my conversations and contacts with members of Hope Lutheran. I get to visit with elders who have experienced successes and failures in their lives, and who now manifest the freedom and wisdom that comes from building the house of the second half of their lives.
Rohr says that “Most of us tend to think of the second half of life as largely about getting old, dealing with health issues, and letting go of our physical life, but… What looks like falling can largely be experienced as falling upward and onward, into a broader and deeper world, where the soul has found its fullness, is finally connected to the whole, and lives inside the Big Picture.” I know that this “falling upward” is possible because I converse daily with elders who have done just that. It gives me hope for my own journey.
Although Rohr is focused on the path of an individual life in his book, I wonder if the same observations could be made about organizations and communities. Especially I have wondered if the same pattern might apply to Hope Lutheran Church in our lifespan. The past sixty years of Hope’s life have been about building the congregation, the church building, and our programs—first half tasks. What will the next sixty years be like? Could we voluntarily enter into the second half of our congregation’s life? What will be our congregation’s “task within the task” in the coming years? How might the suffering of our failures and stumbles be a door to growth and spiritual maturity? How will Hope Lutheran become a fountain of living water for our neighbourhood, city, and world? Although I have few answers, it strikes me that these are the kind of questions we should be asking as we approach the celebration of our sixtieth anniversary on October 30.
Photo by Raul Varzar on Unsplash