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Excerpts from “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life” by Richard Rohr

7 May

Sooner or later, if you are on any classic “spiritual schedule,” some event, person, death, idea, or relationship will enter your life that you simply cannot deal with, using your present skill set, your acquired knowledge, or your strong willpower. Spiritually speaking, you will be, you must be, led to the edge of your own private resources. At that point you will stumble over a necessary stumbling stone, as Isaiah calls it; or to state it in our language here, you will and you must “lose” at something. This is the only way that Life-Fate-God-Grace-Mystery can get you to change, let go of your egocentric preoccupations, and go on the further and larger journey. I wish I could say this was not true, but it is darn near absolute in the spiritual literature of the world.

Any attempt to engineer or plan your own enlightenment is doomed to failure because it will be ego driven. You will see only what you have already decided to look for, and you cannot see what you are not ready or told to look for. So failure and humiliation force you to look where you never would otherwise. What an enigma! Self-help courses of any type, including this one if it is one, will help you only if they teach you to pay attention to life itself. “God comes to you disguised as your life,” as my friend Paula D’Arcy so wisely says.

In much of urban and Western civilization today, with no proper tragic sense of life, we try to believe that it is all upward and onward—and by ourselves. It works for so few, and it cannot serve us well in the long run—because it is not true.

Japanese communities created a communal ritual whereby a soldier was publicly thanked and praised effusively for his service to the people. After this was done at great length, an elder would stand and announce with authority something to this effect: “The war is now over! The community needs you to let go of what has served you and served us well up to now. The community needs you to return as a man, a citizen, and something beyond a soldier.” In our men’s work, we call this process “discharging your loyal soldier.”

Paradoxically, your loyal soldier gives you so much security and validation that you may confuse his voice with the very voice of God. If this inner and critical voice has kept you safe for many years as your inner voice of authority, you may end up not being able to hear the real voice of God.

The loyal soldier cannot get you to the second half of life. He does not even understand it. He has not been there. He can help you “get through hell,” with the early decisions that demand black-and-white thinking; but then you have to say good-bye when you move into the subtlety of midlife and later life. The Japanese were correct, as were the Greeks. Odysseus is a loyal soldier for the entire Odyssey, rowing his boat as only a hero can—until the blind prophet tells him there is more, and to put down his oar. If you ever read the Divine Comedy, note that Dante lets go of Virgil, who had accompanied him through Hades and Purgatory, knowing now that only Beatrice can lead him into Paradise.

The first battles solidify the ego and create a stalwart loyal soldier; the second battles defeat the ego because God always wins. No wonder so few want to let go of their loyal soldier; no wonder so few have the faith to grow up. The ego hates losing, even to God.

Our loyal solider normally begins to be discharged somewhere between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-five, if it happens at all; before that it is usually mere rebellion or iconoclasm. To let go of the loyal soldier will be a severe death, and an exile from your first base. You will feel similar to Isaiah before he was sent into exile in Babylon, “In the noontime of my life, I was told to depart for the gates of Hades. Surely I am deprived of the rest of my years” (38:10).

The world mythologies all point to places like Hades, Sheol, hell, purgatory, the realm of the dead. Maybe these are not so much the alternative to heaven as the necessary path to heaven. Even Jesus, if we are to believe the “Apostle’s Creed” of the church, “descended into hell” before he ascended into heaven.

Remember that Hercules, Orpheus, Aeneas, Psyche, and our Odysseus all traveled into realms of the dead—and returned! Most mythologies include a descent into the underworld at some point. Jesus, as we said, also “descended into hell,” and only on the third day did he “ascend into heaven.” Most of life is lived, as it were, on the “first and second days,” the threshold days when transformation is happening but we do not know it yet.

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