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Falling Upward

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life
by Richard Rohr
San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2011
240 pages
Reviewed by Jacqueline Leksen
Richard Rohr’s newest book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, draws on his own experience and that of great thinkers throughout the ages to bring us pages packed with wisdom, distilling spirituality and theology to their very essence. Rohr is a beloved Franciscan priest, author, international speaker, and founder and director of the Center for Action and Contemplation. He clarifies a spirituality for the two halves of life, providing understanding and perspective for spiritual directors, and a stirring call to the hope and promise of the second half of life.

The falling upward of the title captures the paradoxical and truly good news of the Gospel, expressed so well by Lady Julian of Norwich: “First there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God!” (58). Rohr believes that everything belongs, and that God uses all the circumstances of our lives to bring us to our real home since “the same passion which leads us away from God can also lead us back to God and to our true selves” (60). The core message of most religions, including Christianity, is that “we grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right” (xxii); this is a “spirituality of imperfection” or the “way of the wound” (xxiv), the paschal mystery. Utilizing ancient stories such as the Greek Odyssey and fairy tales, Rohr explicates a familiar theme of great literature: that “falling, losing, failing, transgression, and sin ... all lead toward home” (67) in the “universal pattern of death and resurrection” (77). 

Rohr explains that most of humanity’s institutions, including our churches, focus on first-half-of-life tasks concerned with identity, survival, and externals such as purity codes, rules, and rituals. But according to psychiatrist Carl Jung, “What is a normal goal to a young person becomes a neurotic hindrance in old age” (xiii), and it becomes time to “step beyond the practices and formulas to the real thing ... and to begin to pay attention to the inner task” of the second stage of life (xv). 

Rohr describes this second half of life as a new way of seeing, an attunement to the voice of God or Mystery. A person in this stage is contemplative and generative, inclusive and egalitarian, able to accept paradox and to forgive self and others, focusing more on the beatitudes of Jesus than on the commandments. They have “fallen into God” (124).

Concluding with a beautiful image, a fitting benediction for our sacred work of spiritual direction, Rohr writes: “Like good spiritual directors do, God must say after each failure of ours, ‘Oh, here is a great opportunity! Let’s see how we can work with this!’” (158). As we “receive and return the loving gaze of God every day ... soon we who are gazed upon so perfectly can pass on that same accepting gaze to all others who need it” (159-160). 

Jacqueline Leksen completed a master’s degree in transforming spirituality with an emphasis in spiritual direction at Seattle University, Washington, USA. She offers spiritual direction in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, where she meets with women involved in ministry and social justice and with those living in transitional housing after a time of homelessness.

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