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When you’ve built a container

20 September 2013

Bruce Duncan looks at a wise guide to the tasks of life's part two

Falling Upward: A spirituality for the two halves of life
Richard Rohr
SPCK £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90  (Use code CT449 )

GROWING older is inevitable. Growing up is optional. We in the West live in a first-half-of-life culture, an adolescent society.

The "two halves of life" are not about age, but about maturity. Many elderly people remain stuck in first-half-of-life concerns, while some young people, notably those who have learned from early suffering, are already in the second half of life. Jesus was a second-half-of-life teacher, speaking truths that his first-half-of-life hearers, then as now, largely failed to understand.

Richard Rohr, an American Roman Catholic Franciscan, writes with clarity and wisdom about the sequencing, the tasks, and the direction of life's two "halves." The book begins with a description of the necessary first-half-of-life tasks. These include creating a sense of self (ego-identity), setting boundaries, and learning to keep the rules. This first journey is about externals, formulas, superficial emotions, flags and badges, Bible quotes, absolute truth-claims, and correct rituals. The first half of life is the time for ideals, certainties, and dualistic, black-and-white thinking. In all these ways we create (in Rohr's terms) a "container."

The second half of life is about "falling upward". It involves painful change and growth in order to discover the actual contents that the container was meant to hold and deliver. This second journey is marked by an ability to stretch or replace the container to hold tragedy, the legitimate suffering that comes from being human, our shadow side, creative tension, paradox, and what Jung calls "a collision of opposites."

True second-half-of-life elders carry a kind of gravitas, sadness, and seriousness, together with a brightness, freedom, joy, and contentment. They are drawn towards a more profound and less dogmatic faith, and to an increasingly introverted, mystical, and contemplative spirituality.

The institutional Churches, Rohr argues, remain preoccupied with first-half-of-life issues. "We have", he writes, "an entire generation of educators, bishops, and political leaders who are still building their own personal towers of success, and therefore have little ability to elder the young or challenge the beginners." Perhaps that is why those on the second journey often find the worship, preaching, and activities offered in most churches increasingly frustrating and irrelevant to their needs, desires, and visions, and move towards what some now call "emerging Christianity".

Although, as he admits, this is a dangerous book to have written, and open to much misinterpretation, the author's integrity, wealth of knowledge, and depth of faithful Christian discipleship shine out of every page. Rohr is a true elder, a wise guide, who deserves to be widely read.

Canon Bruce Duncan was the founding Principal of Sarum College.


FALLING UPWARD: A spirituality for the two halves of life: A companion journal by Richard Rohr offers quotations, questions for individual and group reflection, stories, and suggestions for spiritual practices, to support those who wish to pursue the agenda set out in Falling Upward (reviewed above). The book provides two pages of ruled space for the reader to use in response to each "journaling question" (SPCK, £9.99 (£9); 978-0-281-07057-2).

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