Falling Upward: A Spirituality of Failure


I think God must be trying to scream a message to me, because the last three books I’ve been asked to review are all about the spirituality of imperfection or failure … of finding grace in our brokenness, and how mistakes and suffering aren’t only inevitable, but required for us to grow in our faith.

Especially comforting was Richard Rohr’s newest book, “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.” Rohr explains that the first half of our life is to create a proper “container” or “identity” for ourselves. We do this by seeking the answers to questions like, “What makes me significant?” Or “How can I support myself?” In other words, we are consumed with establishing an identity, a family, a home, friends, and a community life. The second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold.

Rohr maintains that most people live and die in the first-half mentality, that we live in a “first-half-of-life” culture, where we concern ourselves primarily with living successfully—on whatever platform we have built for ourselves. It is only when we begin to pay attention to our failures—the invaluable lessons that they hold–and to seek integrity in the task within the task we do that we move into the second half of our lives.

So the second half of life is about integrity, and purifying our intentions: examining carefully our motives. And about learning from our failures, and letting our falls be opportunities to learn and to grab Grace by the hand, trusting in God’s abiding love. According to Rohr, “The way up is the way down. Or, if you prefer, the way down is the way up.” Thus, we are called to fall upward.

Rohr clarifies that the same passion that leads us away from God—the actions which cause us to stumble and fall—is the precisely the passion that leads us back to God and to our truest selves. “God seems to be about ‘turning’ our loves around (in Greek, meta-noia), and using them toward the Great Love that is their true object….What looks like falling can largely be experienced as falling upward and onward, into a broader and deeper world, where the soul has found its fullness, is finally connected to the whole, and lives inside the Big Picture.”

I think most of us who live with depression and anxiety have no choice but to enter into the second halves of our lives, because we need to make sense of the suffering and attach it to a greater meaning, or else we become bitter, isolated, miserable and very difficult to live with.

But if the falling—the suffering—is an open invitation to live more grace-filled lives, then we are in luck! Writes Rohr:

Failure and suffering are the great equalizers and levelers among humans. …There is a strange and even wonderful communion in real human pain, actually much more than in joy, which is often manufactured and passing. In one sense, pain’s effects are not passing, and pain is less commonly manufactured. Thus it is a more honest doorway into lasting communion than even happiness….

Many of us discover in times of such falling the Great Divine Gaze, the ultimate I-Thou relationship, which is always compassionate and embracing, or it would not be divine. Like any true mirror, the gaze of God receives us exactly as we are, without judgment or distortion, subtraction or addition. Such perfect receiving is what transforms us. Being totally received as we truly are is what we wait and long for all our lives. All we can do is receive and return the loving gaze of God every day, and afterwards we will be internally free and deeply happy at the same time.

Image courtesy of childhoodfirst.org.uk.

Originally published on Beyond Blue at Beliefnet.com

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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