Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Gist of Richard Rohr, Falling Upward

Richard Rohr, Falling Upward, Jossey-Bass, 2011

Falling Upward is, in my view, his ‘best yet’ – with more quotable quotes than any of his previous writings.

Here I’ll simply list a pot-pourri of his most memorable sayings, in three sections:

  • The first half of life
  • The second half of life, and
  • The age-old principles for moving from one mode of doing life to the other...


Cultures before the postmodern era valued law, tradition, custom, authority, boundaries and a clear morality... (a lever, with a place to stand – Archimedes).  These gave us the necessary security, continuity, predictability, impulse control and ego structure we need before the chaos of real life shows up. Healthily conservative people tend to grow up more naturally and more happily than those who receive only free-form, ‘build it yourself’ worldviews. Law and tradition are necessary in any spiritual system both to reveal and to limit our basic egocentricity, and to make at least some community, family, and marriage possible.

Cesar Milan, the ‘dog whisperer’ says dogs are happier when they live within very clear limits and boundaries.

The Iroquois Nation asked ‘What would be good for the next seven generations?’

... Climbing the ladder of ‘success’: building a tower of self-importance – a personal ‘salvation project’ (Thomas Merton).

In one sense, as Jesus said, unless we become like a little child, we will not enter the Kingdom of God (Mt 18:3). He says this in response to the egotistic and ambitious question of the apostles, who were asking him ‘Who is the greatest?’

There’s the danger of staying on the same path – even if it’s going nowhere. This is the tragic path of many elderly people who have not become actual elders, probably because they were never eldered or mentored themselves.

Those who whine about parents and authority for too long invariably remain or become narcissists... And unfortunately some stay narcissistic until old age – they never grow up... and it saddens me when old folks are still full of themselves and their absolute opinions about everything... [So] do not waste a moment of time lamenting poor parenting.

The first journey is always about externals, formulas, superficial emotions, flags and badges, correct rituals, Bible quotes, and special clothing, all of which largely substitute for actual spirituality (Mt 23:13-32). But being preoccupied with titles, perks, and religious externals... law, ritual and priestcraft... becomes a compulsive substitute of actual divine encounter or honest relationship. This does not bode well for the future of any church or society.

Unfortunately, most Christians are not well trained at holding opposites for very long, or living with what could be very creative tension. First naivete is the earnest and dangerous innocence we sometimes admire in young zealots, but it is also the reason we should not elect them or follow them as leaders

Notice how no American president can fully admit that his war or his policies were wrong – ever. Popes and clergy have not been known for apologizing.

Almost all groups and institutions are first-half-of-life structures. Don’t expect or demand from groups what they usually cannot give. Doing so will make you needlessly angry and reactionary. They must and will be concerned with identity, boundaries, self-maintenance, self-perpetuation and self-congratulation. That is their nature and purpose. And the religious groups formed in the name of Moses, Jesus and Mohammed mostly define themselves by exclusion and ‘againstness’ because throughout history they have been asking first-half-of-life questions. (Remember that the first half of life defines itself by ‘no’ and the second half of life by ‘yes’). Nothing is going to change in history as long as most people are merely dualistic, either-or thinkers. 


We discover the ladder of success is leaning against the wrong wall.

Falling upward is a secret of the soul not known by talking or proving but by risking.

Finding home and returning there...

We must let our ego-structure go and move beyond it.

Jesus the Jew criticizes his own religion the most, but never leaves it.

Pope John XXIII’s motto: ‘In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, and in all things, charity’.

Psychological wholeness and spiritual holiness never exclude the problem from the solution. If it is wholeness, then it is always paradoxical, and holds both the dark and light side of things.

The death of the false self is often the birth of the soul.

Jesus and the Jewish prophets were fully at home with the tragic sense of life. Life, as the biblical tradition makes clear, is both loss and renewal, death and resurrection, chaos and healing at the same time; life seems to be a collision of opposites... Where you stumble and fall, there you find pure gold (Jung). First there is the fall, and then there is the recovery from the fall – and both are the mercy of God (Lady Julian).

You will and must ‘lose’ at something. This is the only way 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. Three of the parables of Jesus are about losing something, searching for it anew with some effort, finding it, and in each case throwing a big party afterwards.

There will always be at least one situation in our lives that we cannot fix, control, explain, change, or even understand... Many depressed people are [those] who have never taken any risks, never moved outside their comfort zone, never faced necessary suffering, and so their unconscious knows they have never lived – or loved!

Your True Self is who you objectively are from the beginning, in the mind and heart of God, ‘the face you had before you were born,’ as the Zen masters say.

Beyond rational and critical thinking, we need to be called again. This can lead to the discovery of a ‘second naivete,’ which is a return to the joy of our first naivete, but now totally new. Inclusive, and mature thinking (Paul Ricoeur)

Our mature years are characterized by a kind of bright sadness and a sober happiness, if that makes any sense.

By the second half of life, you have learned... that most frontal attacks on evil just produce another kind of evil in yourself, along with a very inflated self-image...  Think of the cold Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov, or the monk who tries to eliminate all humor in The Name of the Rose, or the frowning Koran burners of Florida. Holier-than-thou people usually end up holier than nobody... The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. 

First we fall, and then we recover from the fall, and both reveal the mercy of God (Dame Julian).

Great people come to serve, not to be served. It is the twelfth and final and necessary step of the inspired Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Until and unless you give your life away to others, you do not seem to have it yourself at any deep level. By the second half of life you learn to tell the difference between who you really are and how others can mirror that or not. This will keep you from taking either insults or praise too seriously. In the second half of life people have less power to infatuate you, to control you or hurt you.

Mature spirituality has invariably insisted on soul friends, gurus, confessors, mentors, masters, and spiritual directors for individuals, and prophets and truth-tellers for groups and institutions. 


The second law of thermodynamics: everything winds down unless some outside force winds it back up.

God hides holiness where only the humble and earnest will find it.

The human ego prefers just about anything to falling or changing or dying.

It is not love but death that makes the world go round (Ernest Becker).

Never forget ‘the way of the wound’ (‘when I am weak then I am strong’ –Paul) is the first step to spiritual growth (Francis, Therese of Lisieux, AA). There is always a wounding, and the great epiphany is that the wound becomes the secret key, even ‘sacred’, a wound that changes one dramatically, which, by the way, is the precise meaning of the wounds of Jesus! [In classical mythology] the hero or heroine finds eros or life energy, and it is more than enough to undo thanatos, the energy of death.

The opposite of rational is not irrational but trans-rational – bigger than the human mind can process (eg. love, death, suffering, God, infinity). ‘People are so afraid of being considered pre-rational that they avoid and deny the very possibility of the trans-rational. Others substitute mere pre-rational emotions for authentic religious experience, which is always trans-rational’ (Ken Wilber)

It’s often when the ego is most deconstructed that we can hear things anew and begin some honest reconstruction.

One cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning (Jung).

We need to construct strong wineskins for new wine.

Your shadow is what you refuse to see about yourself, and what you do not want others to see. The more you have cultivated and protected a chosen persona, the more shadow work you will need to do... Neither our persona nor our shadow is evil in itself; they just allow us to do evil and not know it. I have prayed for years for one good humiliation a day, and then I must watch my reaction to it.

The saint is precisely one who has no ‘I’ to protect or project. His or her ‘I’ is in conscious union with the ‘I AM’ of God.

Democracy is not the best form of government, just the safest (Plato, Jefferson). But a truly wise monarch might be better at getting things done (‘no hate letters please’).

You can’t step more than one level beyond your own consciousness. So those ideas/people much higher/deeper will invariably appear wrong.

Religious people tend to love the past rather than the future or the present.

Prophets don’t care whether you’re ready to hear their message. They say it because it has to be said and is true.

In the ‘muddled middle’ “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” (W B Yeats).

Both God’s conditional love and also God’s unconditional love are found in the same Scriptures, like Deuteronomy and John’s Gospel. The only real biblical promise is thatunconditional love will have the last word. Jesus is never upset with sinners (check it out!); he is only upset with people who do not think they are sinners! Organized religion has not been known for its inclusiveness or for being very comfortable with diversity.

The only consistent pattern I can find is that all the books of the Bible seem to agree that somehow God is with us and we are not alone.

‘Infantile grandiosity’ (Dr Robert Moore)... recurring Greek hubris. Some even appear to make it to the ‘top’, but there is usually little recognition of the many shoulders they stood on to move there, the many gratuitous circumstances that made it possible for them to arrive there, and sometimes the necks they have stood on to stay there. They ‘gained the whole but lost their soul’ as Jesus put it.

There are finally only two subjects in all of literature and poetry: love and death.

If you accept a punitive notion of God, who punishes or even eternally tortures those who do not love him, then you have an absurd universe where most people on this earth end up being more loving than God.... Jesus touched and healed anybody who asked for it; there were no prerequisites for his healings. Check it out yourself. Why would Jesus’ love be so unconditional while he was in this world, and suddenly become so conditional after death?

The classic spiritual journey always begins elitist and ends egalitarian (Ken Wilber). The ego clearly prefers an economy of merit, where we can divide the world into winners and losers, to any economy of grace, where merit or worthiness loses all meaning.

Either God is for everybody and the divine DNA is somehow in all of creation, or this God is not God by any common definition, or even much of a god at all.

Disclosure: I’ve read 8-10 of Richard Rohr’s books, been listening to him on cassette tapes then CDs and at conferences for nearly 30 years, attended his week-long retreat for men in Arizona, lunched with him on the day John Paul II was buried, and entertained him as a friend in our home.

Rowland Croucher

August 2011

1 comment:

Ceska said...

Falling Upwards challenges the reader to examine his life experience and re-evaluate his path. This is a superior book about human spiritual growth and approach to contentment. How do I grow? What is my road to serenity - to happiness? How can I best adjust to my problems? Why do I sometimes feel conflicted when I am not secure? When I lose? When I make a mistake?

Considering that the author is a Franciscan Priest, one might expect this book to be religious and focused upon the Catholic Church. It is not. Falling Upwards is a spiritual text with pearls of wisdom that transcend religion. It is spiritual in the sense that it focuses upon our individual spirit and our growth to true happiness. Falling Upwards is deeply psychological. It helps us focus upon the growth of our psyche and our search for maturity.


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