Interview with Fr. Richard Rohr on A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life

 Next Thursday, January 12,  Father Richard Rohr, the well-known Franciscan priest, author, speaker and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, will be at the Cathedral of St Philip at 6:30 p.m. for a book signing of  Falling Upward. Sponsored by the Cathedral Book Store, the event will include a lecture by Fr. Richard as well as an open question and answer discussion. There is no charge for this event, but please R.s.v.p. to the Cathedral Book Store at 404-237-7582 or cbs3@mindspring.com

 

The author of more than 20 books, Fr Rohr graciously took some time from his busy schedule for a phone conversation to discuss Falling Upward, in which he explores the paradox of our confronting loss and failures particularly in midlife, which can undermine the sense of control and achievement we've established as part of our identity, as leading to growth and finding grace, freedom and new horizons in the second half of our lives. The challenge, writes Rohr, is in understanding the journey, and he draws upon the wisdom from myths, literature, great thinkers and sacred religious texts, for insight.

Q: Falling Upward has received rave reviews and is selling briskly. CNN, for one, has dubbed it a "spiritual survival guide" for the recession as millions of American struggle to cope with "falling" - losing their homes, careers and status. What was your inspiration for writing the book?

Rohr: I hadn't heard CNN calling it that. My inspiration certainly wasn't the recession, though I'm very glad it fills that bill. I did a conference almost fifteen years ago on this subject and we made a CD that's continued to sell well. Then I did another conference with Father Ron Rolheiser, the theologian from San Antonio, Texas, about this topic, and I saw that it allowed me to answer so many practical and pastoral questions by distinguishing the tasks and needs of the two halves of life. So when the publisher Jossey-Bass approached me about putting this in book form, I'm glad they did because it forced me to clarify the topic with more coherence on paper. But I didn't know it would come at such a time. I'm certainly aware the Baby Boom generation is going to be facing these issues. So in that sense, it did seem timely to me. If it helps people, that's my only concern. As a Franciscan, I don't make any money off of it anyway. I just want to get the message out.

Q. For most of us, the crisis of loss can be devastating. Tell us a little more about the meaning of the title.

Rohr: As I say in the first part of the book, to me , the message of "falling" - failure, death, crucifixion, whatever you want to say - is not really that. Some sort of falling is really found in all the world's religions, just in different languages. Nature religions, for example, speak of summer, fall, winter, and spring. They see the downward path as the necessary prelude to any kind of upward path again. Our vocabulary is different. We Christians speak of the death and resurrection of Jesus. But unfortunately, we've projected it all onto Jesus and it didn't become a life agenda for the rest of us. So when I choose the title, which was my favorite title, I felt sure there was going to be a dozen books maybe with that name already because it's so obvious to me that that's the message. I was surprised it hasn't been the title of a single book. Well, there is a Shel Silverstein children's book called Falling Upwards. But no one has chosen Falling Upward as a title and I'm very happy it's right on the cover.

Q: You certainly give a new framework for people to think about their spiritual paths. As you travel and speak about the book with people, what kind of feedback are you receiving?

Rohr: The talk I gave in Oakland, California last weekend comes to mind. People wanted to me to describe more about what I call "the container," and then describe what the second half of life feels like. The need to know more has been consistent with other audiences. What I wish I had said in the book is that part of the attraction of conservative religions, such as Mormonism, Mennonite, Amish, groups we would consider very traditional, is that they actually do the first half of life very well. They are often very happy people. When you do the first half of life well, you have a good sense of yourself. Most of our mainline Christian denominations, in my opinion, don't do the first or second halves very well. We don't really give people a good container, we give them a bunch of legalisms. And we don't have much wisdom about the second half when things really open up and end up looking a lot more progressive. In my own Catholic church, for example, we're sort of circling the wagons today by thinking that more moral strictures, more exclusionary rules on this or that, that that's going to do for the first half of life. I don't think it really does.

Q: Since we always try to fix or manage a crisis when it comes along, can you give us an example of the type of wisdom you pass along in the book to help guide us through the transition to the second half?

Rohr: You don't usually do it consciously. It's done to you. If you stay in the mainstream of life, in other words, you let in the suffering of the world that invariably enters all of our lives by the time we're in our middle years, when we've experienced a few deaths and read a few headlines. Famine, poverty, abuse, you can't keep that all blocked out. If you let those things teach you, influence you, change you, those are the events that transition you without you even knowing it to become more compassionate. In other words, you hold onto your values, but you do it much more inclusively, humbly and in an open ended way. Suffering takes you there.

Q: In the book, you write of most churches as institutions dominated by first half life thinking, and that's leaving a lot of people in the second halves of their lives no longer satisfied with doctrine or dogma and feeling spiritually adrift. What are some solutions?

Rohr: After 32 years as a priest , I think its fair to say that most institutional churches are very limited in addressing higher levels of spiritual consciousness. If you're the head of the organization that has to pay salaries, bills and keep the money coming, you have to be concerned with pleasing the middle. I find it means you have to dumb down your message to something less radical than the gospel. It can't be the real gospel. It has to be "churchiness" that pleases everyone, so they come back next Sunday and keep putting money in the collection plate. I don't mean that in a cynical way. I just think it's what happens. To keep the middle coming back, you can't say some radically conservative or radically progressive things. That's been the bane of organized religion. It makes me wonder if Jesus' first definition of the church as "two or three gathered in my name" is not still the best way. So many people I know who are doing truly helpful and healing ministry find their primary support from a couple of enlightened friends, and only secondarily, if at all, from the larger organizations.

Q: Your work has certainly been a target for the more conservative factions of both the Catholic and Protestant churches, since you don't rely exclusively on the Bible or church doctrine, to explore Christian spirituality. How do you react to the criticism?

Rohr: Christianity is seen by more and more people as a negative message: anti gay, anti immigrant, anti abortion (as the only life issue), anti gay marriage, anti the Democratic party. How did we get into such a small and unfriendly boat? It seems we are suffering from a very narrow and self serving reading of the Gospel right now. I'm not trying to make political statements here, but theological statements. How can religion get itself so identified with one political party, exclusionary world views, or with "pelvic morality" as the defining issues of the Gospel? Jesus surely didn't. Jesus said to "preach the gospel to all nations", which means we do not just talk to ourselves. G.K. Chesterton, who was part of a Catholic conservatism that was kind and loving, not reactionary or hateful, said "We're all in the same boat in a stormy sea and we owe each other a terrible loyalty." I think that's profoundly true, yet it's difficult to have civil dialogue right now with other Christians, so how can we possibly talk to "all the nations"? In the last years, I've been reading the Eastern fathers, the older mystical writings, a rich, deep, and truly traditional Christianity which most Western Christians know almost nothing about. It is very mystical and prayer centered Christianity, with a strong social conscience. I think it's important to remember that by the second half of our lives, we are meant to see in wholes, and no longer just in parts. So many people who attack me know so little of that larger Tradition, and end up being not very traditional at all. When you invoke the whole and great Tradition, you end up scaring people who call 1950 America "traditional" Christianity. It is just what they are used to in their one limited lifetime. We hope to see you next week!

Peace, The Rev. Beth Knowlton Canon for Liturgy and Prayer The Cathedral of St. Philip If you have any questions, please contact Jeannie Mahood at jmahood@stphilipscathedral.org or 404-365-1034.

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