If you are thinking of joining our discussion of Falling Upward, here is Richard Rohr’s introduction to the book. (If you find the introduction intriguing, follow the link at the end to order your own copy.)
The greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally unsolvable. They can never be solved, but only outgrown. Carl Jung
First there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall.
Both are the mercy of God! Lady Julian of Norwich
THE INVITATION TO A FURTHER JOURNEY
A journey into the second half of our own lives awaits us all. Not everybody goes there, even though all of us get older, and some of us get older than others. A “further journey” is a well kept secret, for some reason. Many people do not even know there is one. There are too few who are aware of it, tell us about it, or know that it is different from the journey of the first half of life. So why should I try to light up the path a little? Why should I presume that I have anything to say here? And why should I write to people who are still on their first journey, and happily so?
I am driven to write because after forty years as a Franciscan teacher, working in many settings, religions, countries, and institutions, I find that many, if not most, people and institutions remain stymied in the preoccupations of the first half of life. By that I mean that most people’s concerns remain those of establishing their personal (or superior) identity, creating various boundary markers for themselves, seeking security, and perhaps linking to what seem like significant people or projects. These tasks are good to some degree and even necessary. We are all trying to find what the Greek philosopher Archimedes called a “lever and a place to stand” so that we can move the world just a little bit. The world would be much worse off if we did not do this first and important task.
But, in my opinion, this first half of life task is no more than finding the starting gate. It is merely the warm up act, not the full journey. It is the raft but not the shore. If you realize that there is a further journey, you might do the warm up act quite differently, which would better prepare you for what follows. People at any age must know about the whole arc of their life and where it is tending and leading.
We know about this further journey from the clear and inviting voices of others who have been there, from the sacred and secular texts that invite us there, from our own observations of people who have entered this new territory, and also, sadly, from those who never seem to move on. The further journey usually appears like a seductive invitation and a kind of promise or hope. We are summoned to it, not commanded to go, perhaps because each of us has to go on this path freely, with all the messy and raw material of our own unique lives. But we don’t have to do it, nor do we have to do it alone. There are guideposts, some common patterns, utterly new kinds of goals, a few warnings, and even personal guides on this further journey. I hope I can serve you in offering a bit of each of these in this book.
All of these sources and resources give me the courage and the desire to try to map the terrain of this further journey, along with the terrain of the first journey, but most especially the needed crossover points. As you will see from the chapter titles, I consider the usual crossover points to be a kind of “necessary suffering,” stumbling over stumbling stones, and lots of shadowboxing, but often just a gnawing desire for “ourselves,” for something more, or what I will call “homesickness.”
I am trusting that you will see the truth of this map, yet it is the kind of soul truth that we only know “through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12) and through a glass brightly at the same time. Yet any glass through which we see is always made of human hands, like mine. All spiritual language is by necessity metaphor and symbol. The Light comes from elsewhere, yet it is necessarily reflected through those of us still walking on the journey ourselves. As Desmond Tutu told me on a recent trip to Cape Town, “We are only the light bulbs, Richard, and our job is just to remain screwed in!”
I believe that God gives us our soul, our deepest identity, our True Self, our unique blueprint, at our own “immaculate conception.” Our unique little bit of heaven is installed by the Manufacturer within the product, at the beginning! We are given a span of years to discover it, to choose it, and to live our own destiny to the full. If we do not, our True Self will never be offered again, in our own unique form which is perhaps why almost all religious traditions present the matter with utterly charged words like “heaven” and “hell.” Our soul’s discovery is utterly crucial, momentous, and of pressing importance for each of us and for the world. We do not “make” or “create” our souls; we just “grow” them up. We are the clumsy stewards of our own souls. We are charged to awaken, and much of the work of spirituality is learning how to stay out of the way of this rather natural growing and awakening. We need to unlearn a lot, it seems, to get back to that foundational life which is “hidden in God” (Colossians 3:3). Yes, transformation is often more about unlearning than learning, which is why the religious traditions call it “conversion” or “repentance.”
For me, no poet says this quite so perfectly as the literally inimitable Gerard Manley Hopkins in his Duns Scotus-inspired poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.”
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying what I do is me: for that I came.
All we can give back and all God wants from any of us is to humbly and proudly return the product that we have been given which is ourselves! If I am to believe the saints and mystics, this finished product is more valuable to God than it seemingly is to us. Whatever this Mystery is, we are definitely in on the deal! True religion is always a deep intuition that we are already participating in something very good, in spite of our best efforts to deny it or avoid it. In fact, the best of modern theology is revealing a strong “turn toward participation,” as opposed to religion as mere observation, affirmation, moralism, or group belonging. There is nothing to join, only something to recognize, suffer, and enjoy as a participant. You are already in the eternal flow that Christians would call the divine life of the Trinity.
Whether we find our True Self depends in large part on the moments of time we are each allotted, and the moments of freedom that we each receive and choose during that time. Life is indeed “momentous,” created by accumulated moments in which the deeper “I” is slowly revealed if we are ready to see it. Holding our inner blueprint, which is a good description of our soul, and returning it humbly to the world and to God by love and service is indeed of ultimate concern. Each thing and every person must act out its nature fully, at whatever cost. It is our life’s purpose, and the deepest meaning of “natural law.” We are here to give back fully and freely what was first given to us – but now writ personally – by us! It is probably the most courageous and free act we will ever perform and it takes both halves of our life to do it fully. The first half of life is discovering the script, and the second half is actually writing it and owning it.
So get ready for a great adventure, the one you were really born for. If we never get to our little bit of heaven, our life does not make much sense, and we have created our own “hell.” So get ready for some new freedom, some dangerous permission, some hope from nowhere, some unexpected happiness, some stumbling stones, some radical grace, and some new and pressing responsibility for yourself and for our suffering world.
What is a normal goal to a young person becomes a neurotic hindrance in old age.
No wise person ever wanted to be younger.
Native American aphorism
There is much evidence on several levels that there are at least two major tasks to human life. The first task is to build a strong “container” or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold. The first task we take for granted as the very purpose of life, which does not mean we do it well. The second task, I am told, is more encountered than sought; few arrive at it with much preplanning, purpose, or passion. So you might wonder if there is much point in providing a guide to the territory ahead of time. Yet that is exactly why we must. It is vitally important to know what is coming and being offered to all of us.
We are a “first half of life culture,” largely concerned about surviving successfully. Probably most cultures and individuals across history have been situated in the first half of their own development up to now, because it is all they had time for. We all try to do what seems like the task that life first hands us: establishing an identity, a home, relationships, friends, community, security, and building a proper platform for our only life.
But it takes us much longer to discover “the task within the task,” as I like to call it: what we are really doing when we are doing what we are doing. Two people can have the same job description, and one is holding a subtle or not so subtle life energy (eros) in doing his or her job, while another is holding a subtle or not-so-subtle negative energy (thanatos) while doing the exact same job. Most of us are somewhere in between, I suppose.
We actually respond to one another’s energy more than to people’s exact words or actions. In any situation, your taking or giving of energy is what you are actually doing. Everybody can feel, suffer, or enjoy the difference, but few can exactly say what it is that is happening. Why do I feel drawn or repelled? What we all desire and need from one another, of course, is that life energy called eros! It always draws, creates, and connects things.
This is surely what Jesus meant when he said that you could only tell a good tree from a bad one “by its fruits” (Matthew 7:20). Inside of life energy, a group or family will be productive and energetic; inside of death energy there will be gossip, cynicism, and mistrust hiding behind every interaction. Yet you usually cannot precisely put your finger on what is happening. That is second- half-of-life wisdom, or what Paul calls “the discerning of spirits” (1 Corinthians 12:10). Perhaps this book can be a school for such discernment and wisdom. That is surely my hope.
It is when we begin to pay attention, and seek integrity precisely in the task within the task that we begin to move from the first to the second half of our own lives. Integrity largely has to do with purifying our intentions and a growing honesty about our actual motives. It is hard work. Most often we don’t pay attention to that inner task until we have had some kind of fall or failure in our outer tasks. This pattern is invariably true for reasons I have yet to fathom.
Life, if we are honest about it, is made up of many failings and fallings, amidst all of our hopeful growing and achieving. Those failings and fallings must be there for a purpose, a purpose that neither culture nor church has fully understood. Most of us find all failure bewildering, but it does not have to be. My observations tell me that if we can clarify the common sequencing, staging, and direction of life’s arc a bit more, many practical questions and dilemmas will be resolved. That doesn’t mean we can avoid the journey itself. Each of us still has to walk it for ourselves before we get the big picture of human life.
Maybe we should just call this book Tips for the Road, a sort of roadside assistance program. Or perhaps it is like a medical brochure that describes the possible symptoms of a future heart attack. Reading it when you’re well might feel like a waste of time, but it could make the difference between life and death if a heart attack actually happens. My assumption is that the second half of your own life will happen, although I hope it is not a heart attack (unless you understand “heart attack” symbolically, of course!).
When I say that you will enter the second half of life, I don’t mean it in a strictly chronological way. Some young people, especially those who have learned from early suffering, are already there, and some older folks are still quite childish. If you are still in the first half of your life, chronologically or spiritually, I would hope that this book will offer you some good guidance, warnings, limits, permissions, and lots of possibilities. If you are in the second half of life already, I hope that this book will at least assure you that you are not crazy and also give you some hearty bread for your whole journey.
None of us go into our spiritual maturity completely of our own accord, or by a totally free choice. We are led by Mystery, which religious people rightly call grace. Most of us have to be cajoled or seduced into it, or we fall into it by some kind of “transgression:’ believe it or not; like Jacob finding his birthright through cunning, and Esau losing his by failure (Genesis 27). Those who walk the full and entire journey are considered “called” or “chosen” in the Bible, perhaps “fated” or “destined” in world mythology and literature, but always they are the ones who have heard some deep invitation to “something more,” and set out to find it by both grace and daring. Most get little reassurance from others, or even have full confidence that they are totally right. Setting out is always a leap of faith, a risk in the deepest sense of the term, and yet an adventure too.
The familiar and the habitual are so falsely reassuring, and most of us make our homes there permanently. The new is always by definition unfamiliar and untested, so God, life, destiny, suffering have to give us a push usually a big one or we will not go. Someone has to make clear to us that homes are not meant to be lived in but only to be moved out from.
Most of us are never told that we can set out from the known and the familiar to take on a further journey. Our institutions and our expectations, including our churches, are almost entirely configured to encourage, support, reward, and validate the tasks of the first half of life. Shocking and disappointing, but I think it is true. We are more struggling to survive than to thrive, more just “getting through” or trying to get to the top than finding out what is really at the top or was already at the bottom. Thomas Merton, the American monk, pointed out that we may spend our whole life climbing the ladder of success, only to find when we get to the top that our ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.
Most of us in the first half of life suspect that all is not fully working, and we are probably right! It was not meant to stand alone. We were just told to build a nice basement and some kind of foundation for our house, but not given any plans or even a hint that we also needed to build an actual “living” room upstairs, let alone a nutritious kitchen or an erotic bedroom, and much less our own chapel. So many, if not most, of us settle for the brick and mortar of first stage survival, and never get to what I will be calling “the unified field” of life itself. As Bill Plotkin, a wise guide, puts it, many of us learn to do our “survival dance,” but we never get to our actual “sacred dance.”
THE WAY UP AND THE WAY DOWN
The soul has many secrets. They are only revealed to those who want them, and are never completely forced upon us. One of the best kept secrets, and yet one hidden in plain sight, is that the way up is the way down. Or, if you prefer, the way down is the way up. This pattern is obvious in all of nature, from the very change of seasons and substances on this earth, to the six hundred million tons of hydrogen that the sun burns every day to light and warm our earth, and even to the metabolic laws of dieting or fasting. The down up pattern is constant, too, in mythology, in stories like that of Persephone, who must descend into the underworld and marry Hades for spring to be reborn.
In legends and literature, sacrifice of something to achieve something else is almost the only pattern. Dr. Faust has to sell his soul to the devil to achieve power and knowledge; Sleeping Beauty must sleep for a hundred years before she can receive the prince’s kiss. In Scripture, we see that the wrestling and wounding of Jacob are necessary for Jacob to become Israel (Genesis 32:26-32), and the death and resurrection of Jesus are necessary to create Christianity. The loss and renewal pattern is so constant and ubiquitous that it should hardly be called a secret at all.
Yet it is still a secret, probably because we do not want to see it. We do not want to embark on a further journey if it feels like going down, especially after we have put so much sound and fury into going up. This is surely the first and primary reason why many people never get to the fullness of their own lives. The supposed achievements of the first half of life have to fall apart and show themselves to be wanting in some way, or we will not move further. Why would we?
Normally a job, fortune, or reputation has to be lost, a death has to be suffered, a house has to be flooded, or a disease has to be endured. The pattern in fact is so clear that one has to work rather hard, or be intellectually lazy, to miss the continual lesson. This, of course, was Scott Peck’s major insight in his best-selling book, The Road Less Traveled. He told me personally once that he felt most Western people were just spiritually lazy. And when we are lazy, we stay on the path we are already on, even if it is going nowhere. It is the spiritual equivalent of the second law of thermodynamics: everything winds down unless some outside force winds it back up. True spirituality could be called the “outside force,” although surprisingly it is found “inside,” but we will get to that later.
Some kind of falling, what I will soon call “necessary suffering,” is programmed into the journey. All the sources seem to say it, starting with Adam and Eve and all they represent. Yes, they “sinned” and were cast out of the Garden of Eden, but from those very acts came “consciousness,” conscience, and their own further journey. But it all started with transgression. Only people unfamiliar with sacred story are surprised that they ate the apple. As soon as God told them specifically not to, you know they will! It creates the whole story line inside of which we can find ourselves.
It is not that suffering or failure might happen, or that it will only happen to you if you are bad (which is what religious people often think), or that it will happen to the unfortunate, or to a few in other places, or that you can somehow by cleverness or righteousness avoid it. No, it will happen, and to you! Losing, failing, falling, sin, and the suffering that comes from those experiences all of this is a necessary and even good part of the human journey. As my favorite mystic, Lady Julian of Norwich, put it in her Middle English, “Sin is behovely!”
You cannot avoid sin or mistake anyway (Romans 5: 12), but if you try too fervently, it often creates even worse problems. Jesus loves to tell stories like those of the publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14) and the famous one about the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), in which one character does his life totally right and is, in fact, wrong; and the other who does it totally wrong ends up God’s beloved! Now deal with that! Jesus also tells us that there are two groups who are very good at trying to deny or avoid this humiliating surprise: those who are very “rich” and those who are very “religious.” These two groups have very different plans for themselves, as they try to totally steer their own ships with well chosen itineraries. They follow two different ways of going “up” and avoiding all “down.”
Such a down-and-then-up perspective does not fit into our Western philosophy of progress, nor into our desire for upward mobility, nor into our religious notions of perfection or holiness. “Let’s hope it is not true, at least for me,” we all say! Yet the perennial tradition, sometimes called the wisdom tradition, says that it is and will always be true. St. Augustine called it the passing over mystery (or the “paschal mystery” from the Hebrew word for Passover, pesach),
Today we might use a variety of metaphors: reversing engines, a change in game plan, a falling off of the very wagon that we constructed. No one would choose such upheaval consciously; we must somehow “fall” into it. Those who are too carefully engineering their own superiority systems will usually not allow it at all. It is much more done to you than anything you do yourself, and sometimes nonreligious people are more open to this change in strategy than are religious folks who have their private salvation project all worked out. This is how I would interpret Jesus’ enigmatic words, “The children of this world are wiser in their ways than the children of light” (Luke 16:8). I have met too many rigid and angry old Christians and clergy to deny this sad truth, but it seems to be true in all religions until and unless they lead to the actual transformation of persons.
In this book I would like to describe how this message of falling down and moving up is, in fact, the most counter-intuitive message in most of the world’s religions, including and most especially Christianity. We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right. That might just be the central message of how spiritual growth happens; yet nothing in us wants to believe it. I actually think it is the only workable meaning of any remaining notion of “original sin.” There seems to have been a fly in the ointment from the beginning, but the key is recognizing and dealing with the fly rather than needing to throw out the whole ointment!
If there is such a thing as human perfection, it seems to emerge precisely from how we handle the imperfection that is everywhere, especially our own. What a clever place for God to hide holiness, so that only the humble and earnest will find it! A “perfect” person ends up being one who can consciously forgive and include imperfection rather than one who thinks he or she is totally above and beyond imperfection. It becomes sort of obvious once you say it out loud. In fact, I would say that the demand for the perfect is the greatest enemy of the good. Perfection is a mathematical or divine concept, goodness is a beautiful human concept that includes us all.
By denying their pain, avoiding the necessary falling, many have kept themselves from their own spiritual depths and therefore have been kept from their own spiritual heights. First-half-of- life religion is almost always about various types of purity codes or “thou shalt nots” to keep us up, clear, clean, and together, like good Boy and Girl Scouts. A certain kind of “purity” and self discipline is also “behoove,” at least for a while in the first half of life, as the Jewish Torah brilliantly presents. I was a good Star Scout myself and a Catholic altar boy besides, who rode my bike to serve the 6 A.M. mass when I was merely ten years old. I hope you are as impressed as I was with myself.
Because none of us desire a downward path to growth through imperfection, seek it, or even suspect it, we have to get the message with the authority of a “divine revelation.” So Jesus makes it into a central axiom: the “last” really do have a head start in moving toward “first,” and those who spend too much time trying to be “first” will never get there. Jesus says this clearly in several places and in numerous parables, although those of us still on the first journey just cannot hear this. It has been considered mere religious fluff, as most of Western history has made rather clear. Our resistance to the message is so great that it could be called outright denial, even among sincere Christians. The human ego prefers anything, just about anything, to falling or changing or dying. The ego is that part of you that loves the status quo, even when it is not working. It attaches to past and present, and fears the future.
When you are in the first half of life, you cannot see any kind of failing or dying as even possible, much less as necessary or good. (Those who have never gone up, like the poor and the marginalized, may actually have a spiritual head start, according to Jesus.) But normally we need a few good successes to give us some ego structure and self confidence, and to get us going. God mercifully hides thoughts of dying from the young, but unfortunately we then hide it from ourselves till the later years finally force it into our consciousness. Ernest Becker said some years ago that it is not love but “the denial of death” that might well make the world go round. What if he is right?
Some have called this principle of going down to go up a “spirituality of imperfection” or “the way of the wound.” It has been affirmed in Christianity by St. Therese of Lisieux as her Little Way, by St. Francis as the way of poverty, and by Alcoholics Anonymous as the necessary first step. St. Paul taught this unwelcome message with his enigmatic “It is when I am weak that I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Of course, in saying that, he was merely building on what he called the “folly” of the crucifixion of Jesus – a tragic and absurd dying that became resurrection itself.
Like skaters, we move forward by actually moving from side to side. I found this phenomenon to be core and central in my research on male initiation, and now we are finding it mirrored rather clearly in the whole universe, and especially in physics and biology, which is one huge pattern of entropy: constant loss and renewal, death and transformation, the changing of forms and forces. Some even see it in terms of “chaos theory”: the exceptions are the only rule and then they create new rules. Scary, isn’t it?
Denial of the pattern seems to be a kind of practical daily atheism or chosen ignorance among many believers and clergy. Many have opted for the soft religion of easy ego consolations, the human growth model, or the “prosperity Gospel” that has become so common in Western Christianity and in all the worlds we spiritually colonize. We do grow and increase, but by a far different path than the ego would ever imagine. Only the soul knows and understands.
What I hope to do in this small book, without a lot of need to convince anybody, is just to make the sequencing, the tasks, and the direction of the two halves of life clear. Then you will be ready to draw your own conclusions. That is why I have called it “falling upward.” Those who are ready will see that this message is self-evident: those who have gone “down” are the only ones who understand “up.” Those who have somehow fallen, and fallen well, are the only ones who can go up and not misuse “up.” I want to describe what “up” in the second half of life will look like and could look like! And, most especially, I want to explore how we transition from one to the other and how it is not by our own willpower or moral perfection. It will be nothing like what we might have imagined beforehand, and we can’t engineer it by ourselves. It is done unto us.
One more warning, if that is the right word: you will not know for sure that this message is true until you are on the “up” side. You will never imagine it to be true until you have gone through the “down” yourself and come out on the other side in larger form. You must be pressured “from on high,” by fate, circumstance, love, or God, because nothing in you wants to believe it, or wants to go through it. Falling upward is a “secret” of the soul, known not by thinking about it or proving it but only by risking it at least once. And by allowing yourself to be led at least once. Those who have allowed it know it is true, but only after the fact.
This is probably why Jesus praised faith and trust even more than love. It takes a foundational trust to fall or to fail and not to fall apart. Faith alone holds you while you stand waiting and hoping and trusting. Then, and only then, will deeper love happen. It’s no surprise at all that in English (and I am told in other languages as well) we speak of “falling” in love. I think it is the only way to get there. None would go freely, if we knew ahead of time what love is going to ask of us. Very human faith lays the utterly needed foundation for the ongoing discovery of love. Have no doubt, though: great love is always a discovery, a revelation, a wonderful surprise, a falling into “something” much bigger and deeper that is literally beyond us and larger than us.
Jesus tells the disciples as they descend from the mountain of transfiguration, “Do not talk about these things until the Human One is risen from the dead” (by which he means until you are on the other side of loss and renewal). If you try to assert wisdom before people have themselves walked it, be prepared for much resistance, denial, push back, and verbal debate. As the text in Mark continues, “the disciples continued to discuss among themselves what ‘rising from the dead’ might even mean” (Mark 9:9-10). You cannot imagine a new space fully until you have been taken there. I make this point strongly to help you understand why almost all spiritual teachers tell you to “believe” or “trust” or “hold on.” They are not just telling you to believe silly or irrational things. They are telling you to hold on until you can go on the further journey for yourself, and they are telling you that the whole spiritual journey is, in fact, for real – which you cannot possibly know yet.
The language of the first half of life and the language of the second half of life are almost two different vocabularies, known only to those who have been in both of them. The advantage of those on the further journey is that they can still remember and respect the first language and task. They have transcended but also included all that went before. In fact, if you cannot include and integrate the wisdom of the first half of life, I doubt if you have moved to the second. Never throw out the baby with the bathwater. People who know how to creatively break the rules also know why the rules were there in the first place. They are not mere iconoclasts or rebels.
I have often thought that this is the symbolic meaning of Moses breaking the first tablets of the law, only to go back up the mountain and have them redone (Exodus 32:19-35) by Yahweh. The second set of tablets emerges after a face to face encounter with God, which changes everything. Our first understanding of law must fail us and disappoint us. Only after breaking the first tablets of the law is Moses a real leader and prophet. Only afterwards does he see God’s glory (Exodus 33:18f), and only afterwards does his face “shine” (Exodus 34:29f). It might just be the difference between the two halves of life!
The Dalai Lama said much the same thing: “Learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly.” Such discrimination between means and goals is almost the litmus test of whether you are moving in the right direction, and all the world religions at the mature levels will say similar things. For some reason, religious people tend to confuse the means with the actual goal. In the beginning, you tend to think that God really cares about your exact posture, the exact day of the week for public prayer, the authorship and wordings of your prayers, and other such things. Once your life has become a constant communion, you know that all the techniques, formulas, sacraments, and practices were just a dress rehearsal for the real thing life itself which can actually become a constant intentional prayer. Your conscious and loving existence gives glory to God.
All of this talk of the first and second half of life, of the languages of each, of falling down to go up is not new. It has been embodied for centuries in mythic tales of men and women who found themselves on the further journey. We will now take a closer look at one of the most famous.
A FOUNDING MYTH
Western rationalism no longer understands myths, and their importance, although almost all historic cultures did. We are the obvious exception, and have replaced these effective and healing story lines with ineffective, cruel, and disorienting narratives like communism, fascism, terror ism, mass production, and its counterpart, consumerism. In other words, we all have our de facto worldviews that determine what is important and what is not important to us. They usually have a symbolic story to hold them together, such as that of “Honest Abe” chopping wood in Kentucky and educating himself in Illinois. “Myths” like this become a standing and effective metaphor for the American worldview of self determination, hard work, and achievement. Whether they are exact historical truth is not even important.
Such myths proceed from the deep and collective unconscious of humanity. Our myths are stories or images that are not always true in particular but entirely true in general. They are usually not historical fact, but invariably they are spiritual genius. They hold life and death, the explainable and the unexplainable together as one; they hold together the paradoxes that the rational mind cannot process by itself. As good poetry does, myths make unclear and confused emotions brilliantly clear and life changing.
Myths are true basically because they work! A sacred myth keeps a people healthy, happy, and whole even inside their pain. They give deep meaning, and pull us into “deep time” (which encompasses all time, past and future, geological and cosmological, and not just our little time or culture). Such stories are the very food of the soul, and they are what we are trying to get back to when we start fairy tales with phrases like “Once upon a time” or “Long ago, in a faraway land.” Catholics used to say at the end of their Latin prayers, Per omnia saecula saeculorum, loosely translated as “through all the ages of ages.” Somehow deep time orients the psyche, gives ultimate perspective, realigns us, grounds us, and thus heals us. We belong to a Mystery far grander than our little selves and our little time. Great storytellers and spiritual teachers always know this.
Remember, the opposite of rational is not always irrational, but it can also be trans-rational or bigger than the rational mind can process; things like love, death, suffering, God, and infinity are trans-rational experiences. Both myth and mature religion understand this. The trans-rational has the capacity to keep us inside an open system and a larger horizon so that the soul, the heart, and the mind do not close down inside of small and constricted space. The merely rational mind is invariably dualistic, and divides the field of almost every moment between what it can presently understand and what it then deems “wrong” or untrue.! Because the rational mind cannot process love or suffering, for example, it tends to either avoid them, deny them, or blame somebody for them, when in fact they are the greatest spiritual teachers of all, if we but allow them. Our loss of mythic consciousness has not served the last few centuries well, and has overseen the growth of rigid fundamentalism in all the world religions. Now we get trapped in destructive and “invisible” myths because we do not have the eyes to see how great healing myths function.
The story of Odysseus is a classic trans-rational myth, one that many would say sets the bar and direction for all later Western storytelling. We all have our own little “odysseys,” but the word came from the name of one man, who fought, sailed, and lived a classic pattern of human, tragic, and heroic life many centuries ago.
In Homer’s tale The Odyssey, written around 700 B.C., we follow the awesome and adventurous journey of the hero Odysseus as he journeys home from the Trojan war. Rowing his boat past seductive sirens, with detours because of the one eyed cyclops and the lotus eaters, on through the straits of Scylla and Charybdis, through the consolations and confusions of both Circe and Calypso, Odysseus tries to get back home. Through trial, guile, error, and ecstasy, chased by gods and monsters, Odysseus finally returns home to his island, Ithaca, to reunion with his beloved wife, Penelope; his old, dear father, Laertes; his longing son, Telemachus; and even his dying dog, Argos. Great and good stuff!
Accustomed as we are to our normal story line, we rightly expect a “happily ever after” ending to Odysseus’s tale. And for most readers, that is all, in fact, they need, want, or remember from the story. Odysseus did return, reclaim his home, and reunite with his wife, son, and father. But there is more! In the final two chapters, after what seems like a glorious and appropriate ending, Homer announces and calls Odysseus to a new and second journey that is barely talked about, yet somehow Homer deemed it absolutely necessary to his character’s life.
Instead of settling into quiet later years, Odysseus knows that he must heed the prophecy he has already received, but half forgotten, from the blind seer Teiresias and leave home once again. It is his fate, required by the gods. This new journey has no detailed description, only a few very telling images. I wonder, in 700 B.C., before we began to fully understand and speak about the second-half-of-life journey, whether Homer simply intuited that there had to be something more, as Greek literature often did.
Then came also the ghost of Theban Teiresias, with his golden sceptre in his hand .… When you get home you will take your revenge on these suitors of your wife; and after you have killed them by force or fraud in your own house, you must take a well-made oar and carry it on and on, till you come to a country where the people have never heard of the sea and do not even mix salt with their food, nor do they know anything about ships, and oars that are as the wings of a ship. I will give you this certain token which cannot escape your notice. A wayfarer will meet you and will say [your oar] must be a winnowing shovel that you have got upon your shoulder; on [hearing] this you must fix the oar in the ground and sacrifice a ram, a bull, and a boar to Neptune. Then go home and offer hecatombs [one hundred cattle] to the gods in heaven one after the other. As for yourself, death shall come to you from the sea, and your life shall ebb away very gently when you are full of years and peace of mind, and your people shall bless you. All that I have said will come true.”
Teiresias’s prophecy, which Odysseus half heard earlier in the story, seems to be an omen of what will happen to all of us. Here is my summary of the key points for our purposes, which I hope you will find very telling:
- Odysseus receives this prophecy at the point in his story when he is traveling through Hades, the kingdom of the dead and thus “at the bottom,” as it were. It is often when the ego is most deconstructed that we can hear things anew and begin some honest reconstruction, even if it is only half heard and halfhearted.
- Teiresias is “holding a golden sceptre” when he gives Odysseus the message. I would interpret that as a symbol of the message’s coming from a divine source, an authority from without and beyond, unsolicited or unsought, and maybe even unwanted by Odysseus himself. Often it takes outer authority to send us on the path toward our own inner authority.
- After all his attempts to return there, Odysseus is fated again to leave Ithaca, which is an island, and go to the “mainland” for a further journey; he is reuniting his small “island part” with the big picture, as it were. For me, this is what makes something inherently religious: whatever reconnects (re-ligio) our parts to the Whole is an experience of God, whether we call it that or not. He is also reconnecting his outer journey to the “inland” or his interior world, which is much of the task of the second half of life. What brilliant metaphors!
- He is to carry the oar, which was his “delivery system” as one who journeyed by ship in his first life. But a wayfarer he meets far from the ocean will see it instead as a winnowing shovel, a tool for separating grain from chaff! When he meets this wayfarer, this is the sign that he has reached the end of his further journey, and he is to plant the oar in the ground at that spot and leave it there (much as young men bury their childhood toys at a male initiation rite today) and only then can he finally return home. The first world of occupation and productivity must now find its full purpose.
- Then he is to sacrifice to the god Neptune, who has been on his trail throughout the first journey. The language of offering sacrifice is rather universal in ancient myths. It must have been recognized that to go forward there is always something that has to be let go of, moved beyond, given up, or “forgiven” to enter the larger picture of the “gods.”
- He is to sacrifice three specific things: a wild bull, a breeding boar, and a battering ram. I doubt whether we could come up with three more graphic images of untrained or immature male energy. (Women will want to find their own counterparts here.) You cannot walk the second journey with first journey tools. You need a whole new tool kit.
- After this further journey, he is to return home to Ithaca, “to prepare a solemn sacrifice to all the gods who rule the broad heavens.” In human language, he is finally living inside the big and true picture; in Christian language, he is finally connected to the larger “Kingdom of God.”
- Only after this further journey and its sacrifices can Odysseus say that he will “live happily with my people around me, until I sink under the comfortable burden of years, and death will come to me gently from the sea.” Death is largely a threat to those who have not yet lived their life. Odysseus has lived the journeys of both halves of life, and is ready to freely and finally let go.
Talk about the wisdom of the deep unconscious! God did not need to wait until we organized human spiritual intuitions into formal religions. The Spirit has been hovering over our chaos since the beginning, according to the second verse of the Bible (Genesis 1:2), and over all creation since the beginning of time (Romans 1:20). Homer was not just a “pagan” Greek, and we are not necessarily wiser because we live twenty seven hundred years later.
Now put this powerful myth in the back of your mind as we dive into this exciting exploration of the further journey. It can operate as a sort of blueprint for what we want to say. Just remember this much consciously: the whole story is set in the matrix of seeking to find home and then to return there, and thus refining and defining what home really is. Home is both the beginning and the end. Home is not a sentimental concept at all, but an inner compass and a North Star at the same time. It is a metaphor for the soul.
And yes, my female readers, it is an old male story and reflects issues from that side of the gender divide. But it is true for you too, in ways that you will discover.
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