Reflections on the reading – chapter 6

Necessary suffering and life on earth

Those who want to save their lives must lose them…Matthew 16:25

All creation groans:  The natural world experiences suffering as the very cycle of life.  The natural world has no choice in the matter; it just lives the message without saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to it.  Human beings always have the freedom to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

We must lose our lives in order to gain them:  Jesus tells us we must ‘lose our lives’ – and Rohr tells us we must lose our ‘false selves.’  The false self is the role and personal image that we have largely created in our own minds.  Our false selves will – and must – die if we want to achieve our true selves.

The True Self is who we are from the beginning, in the mind and heart of God. The True Self is our absolute identity, which can be neither gained nor lost by any technique, group affiliation, morality, or formula.   ‘Necessary suffering’ forces us to surrender our false self in order to find ‘the pearl of great price’ that is always hidden inside this lovely but passing shell.

But we can refuse to say ‘yes’ to our necessary suffering:  Much unnecessary suffering comes into the world because people will not accept the ‘legitimate suffering’ that comes from being human.  Ironically, this refusal of the necessary pain of being human brings to the person ten times more suffering in the long run.   It seems we grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing right. (This is the only workable meaning of ‘original sin’.) If there is human perfection, it seems to emerge from how we handle the imperfection that is everywhere, especially our own.

By denying their pain, many have kept themselves from their own spiritual depths.  The human ego prefers anything to falling or changing or dying.  (The ego is that part of you that loves the status quo, even when it isn’t working.)  Because no one wants a downward path, we have to get this 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 towards first.

Yet two groups are very good at denying or avoiding reality’s surprises: the very rich and the very religious (see next post).

Richard Rohr suggests,

Describe what you have observed in nature that you would call ‘necessary suffering’. Does seeing necessary suffering as part of the natural order of things have an impact on you as you observe the suffering in your own life?  (Companion Journal, p. 72)

Necessary suffering and the church

Rohr pictureRichard Rohr writes (in chapter 6)…

Note:  Remembering that Falling Upward was first published in 2011
(at the end of a decade of rising pain over sexual abuse in the Church),
let’s listen to Richard Rohr:

Anyone who wants to save his life must lose it… Matthew 16:25f
Anyone who prefers father or mother to me is not worthy of me… Matthew 14:37f

The Church teaches us the message of necessary suffering:

To explain why I begin this chapter on necessary suffering with two hard-hitting quotes from Jesus of Nazareth, let me explain a bit about myself.  I must start with my birth relationship with Catholic Christianity…because in many ways it has been the church that taught me – in ways that it did not plan – the message of necessary suffering.  It taught me by itself being a bearer of the verbal message, then a holding tank, and finally a living crucible of necessary (and sometime unnecessary!) suffering. 

The Church is a crucible of necessary suffering:   

A crucible holds molten metal in one place long enough to be purified and clarified.  Church requirements force you to face important issues at a much deeper level.  Catholicism became for me a crucible…  The pedestrian and everyday church has remained a cauldron of transformation for me by holding me inside both the dark and the light side of almost everything, and by teaching me non-dualistic thinking to survive. 

Refusing to split and deny reality keeps me in regular touch with my own shadow self, and much more patient with the rather evident shadow of the church.  Catholicism is the ‘one true church’ only when it points beyond itself to the ‘one true Mystery,’ and offers itself as the training ground for both human liberation and divine union. 

The Church as parent

Like all limited parents, the church has been ‘good enough,’ and thus has taught me how to see that goodness everywhere.  So the church is both my greatest intellectual and moral problem, and my most consoling home. 

All the churches seem to crucify Jesus again and again by their inability to receive his whole body, but they often resurrect him, too.   And I am without doubt a microcosm of this universal church.  The church has never persecuted me or limited  me in any way.  The formal church has always been a half-hearted bride for me, while the Franciscans have been considerably better. 

But the Gospel itself is my full wedding partner.  It always tells me the truth, and loves me through things till I arrive somewhere new and good and much more spacious.  I quote Jesus because I still consider him to be the spiritual authority of the Western world, whether we follow him or not.  And many of the findings of modern psychology, anthropology, and organizational behavior give us new windows and vocabulary into Jesus’ transcendent message.

What Jesus means by ‘hating’ family

How consistently the great religious teachers and founders leave home, go on pilgrimage to far-off places; and how often their parents, the established religion, spiritual authorities, and even civil authorities fight against them! And of course, ‘church family’ is also a family that one has to eventually ‘hate’ in this very same way.   We all must leave home to find the real and larger home. 

Jesus uses strong words to push us out of the family nest and to name a necessary suffering at the most personal, counter-intuitive, and sentimental level possible.  It takes a huge push for people to find their own soul apart from Mom and Dad; so Jesus pulls no punches, saying you must ‘hate’ your home base in some way and make choices beyond it.  It takes therapists years to achieve the same result and reestablish appropriate boundaries from wounding parents and early authority figures, and to heal the inappropriate shame in those who have been wounded. 

What do you think?

Rohr writes, “How consistently the great religious teachers and founders leave home, go on pilgrimage to far-off places; and how often their parents, the established religion, spiritual authorities, and even civil authorities fight against them! And of course, ‘church family’ is also a family that one has to eventually ‘hate’ in this very same way.   We all must leave home to find the real and larger home. 

Thoughts after our meeting – Necessary Suffering

Necessary Suffering
(see Falling Upward, chapter 6)

The tragic sense of life
(see Falling Upward, chapter 4)

A stable lamp is lighted *

A stable lamp is lighted whose glow shall wake the sky;
the stars shall bend their voices, and every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry, and straw like gold shall shine;
a barn shall harbor heaven, a stall become a shrine.

This child through David’s city shall ride in triumph by;
the palm shall strew its branches, and every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry, though heavy, dull and dumb,
and lie within the roadway to pave his kingdom come.

Yet he shall be forsaken, and yielded up to die;
the sky shall groan and darken, and every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry for gifts of love abused;
God’s blood upon the spearhead, God’s blood again refused.

But now, as at the ending, the low is lifted high;
the stars shall bend their voices, and every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry in praises of the child
by whose descent among us the worlds are reconciled.

Stumbling over the stumbling stone
(see Falling Upward, chapter 5)

* To hear the carol, “A stable lamp is lighted”
(Words by Richard Wilbur, music by David Hurd)
go to


Reflections on the reading – chapter 7

Home and homesickness


The idea of ‘home’ points us in two directions at the same time:

Richard Rohr says that memories of “home” point us back toward the union we experienced as we grew in our mother’s body; and hopes for “home” point us forward, to a final union with our Creator:

Somehow the end is in the beginning, and the beginning points toward the end…..Most of us cannot let go of this implanted promise.  Some would call this homing device their soul, and some would call it the indwelling Holy Spirit, and some might just call it nostalgia or dreamtime.  All I know is that it will not be ignored.  It calls us both backward and forward, to our foundation and our future, at the same time.  It also feels like grace from within us and at the same time beyond us.  Wouldn’t it make sense that God would plant in us a desire for what God already wants to give us?  (Falling Upward, p. 88-89)

Our restless hearts

St. Augustine of Hippo writing his Confessions (p
ainting by Botticelli)

Augustine, born in north Africa in the middle of the 4th century, was the son of a devout Christian mother and a pagan father.  As a young man, Augustine searched everywhere for  true fulfillment.  He chased after pleasures, studied various philosophies, and even joined a religious cult – but his search left him so weary he could only cry out, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

At the very moment when he uttered that cry, Augustine’s eye was led to a passage in Romans that showed him how to find God. Shortly afterward, he was baptized.

After years of reflecting upon what had happened to him, Augustine began writing a prayer to God.  That prayer would evolve into his Confessions, which would take him five years to complete.  The  Confessions would become the world’s first spiritual autobiography, Augustine’s testimony to God’s presence in a soul that had found rest in its Creator.

Augustine’s prayer began, “Great are you, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is your power, and your wisdom is infinite…. You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” (Confessions of St. Augustine (Book I, Chapter 1)

Augustine wrote many theological books after he finished writing the Confessions, but that one sentence summarizes the theme of Augustine’s life: “Our hearts are restless, until they rest in you.”

In Falling Upward, Richard Rohr identifies the Holy Spirit as the restless agent and advocate that works within us.  The Holy Spirit works at the deepest levels of our desiring.  The Spirit shows us our True Self in God – that is, who we are when we are ‘at home’; and the Spirit  works in us as a guide and inner compass, always pointing us back to ‘home’.

The Psalms give us images of God as “Home”

Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.  Psalm 23 

Here’s a hymn written by Isaac Watts, a paraphrase of Psalm 23:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place, from one generation to another. Before the mountains were brought forth, or the land and the earth were born, from age to age you are God.  Psalm 90

Another hymn written by Isaac Watts, a paraphrase of Psalm 90:

And Jesus promises us a ‘home’

Near the end of his Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples he has to leave them.  They  are deeply afraid, but Jesus comforts them, telling them they will always have a home with him.  In fact, Jesus says he is going to prepare a home for them:

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places….And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”   John 14:1f

What words would you use to describe what “home” means to you?

What is it about “home” that makes it home?

And – who are you when you’re “at home”?


Thoughts after our meeting – chapter 7

God Our Home
Reflections on “Home and Homesickness”

And the Word became flesh and dwelt (tented) among us… John 1:14

What do you see when you think of “home”?

Think of your own home:  It could be where you were born, where you grew up, where you raised your children, or the place in your life where you were happiest.

(For some, the place where we started life might not have been our happiest home.  So, if that’s true for you, think of the place where you have felt most “at home.”)

When you think of “home” what do you see?  What do you feel?  What do you remember?  Who were the people there?  What did you do?

What is it about “home” that makes it home?   Take a moment to write down your feelings, your thoughts about “home”.  Some of you may want to write words, others draw pictures.  Take a moment to do that.  Try to put in words, or pictures, what it is that makes us feel “at home”.

Jesus was at his last supper with his disciples, and he said to them:

 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”    (John 14:1-3)

The disciples were afraid.  They feared for their own lives, but they also feared losing Jesus.  Yet Jesus comforts them, telling them they will always have a home with him.

In fact, they were “at home” with him in that moment, at that hour.  Yes, they were in a borrowed room … no safety, no permanence; and yet they were at home, because they were with Jesus.

In Bible translations, here are different words for what Jesus said to them:  God has a place for them – a house, a home, a dwelling place, a room.  But the important thing is not the word, and not what the place looks like, but that the place includes Jesus: they would always be with him.  Jesus is telling them that to be “at home” is to be with him, who is “at home” with God the Father.

In fact, Jesus is going to prepare it for them…  Some translators have seen the “dwelling place” as a permanent place. Some translators have thought that Jesus is saying he’s going on a journey; his journey will have many stopping places, and at each place there will be room for them, too.

Christians have always had many images, and used many names, for God.

We picture God as Father, Mother, Holy Spirit, Jesus; the Scriptures call God Light, Bread of Heaven, Rock of Ages…   Can we also think of God as Home? (See Psalms 23, 31, 90…)

Our home is the place where we began, our home is the place where we will end,
and our home is step on our journey, because the Spirit of Jesus goes with us wherever we go.

The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days;
O may thy house be mine abode and all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come;
no more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.            

[A paraphrase of Psalm 23, Episcopal Hymnal # 664]



from “The Wiz”, sung by Diana Ross

When I think of home
I think of a place where there’s love overflowing
I wish I was home
I wish I was back there with the things I been knowing

Wind that makes the tall trees bend into leaning
Suddenly the snowflakes that fall have a meaning
Sprinklin’ the scene, makes it all clean

Maybe there’s a chance for me to go back
Now that I have some direction
It would sure be nice to be back home
Where there’s love and affection
And just maybe I can convince time to slow up
Giving me enough time in my life to grow up
Time be my friend, let me start again

Suddenly my world’s gone and changed it’s face
But I still know where I’m going
I have had my mind spun around in space
And yet I’ve watched it growing

Oh, If you’re list’ning God
Please don’t make it hard to know
If we should believe in things that we see
Tell us, should we run away
Should we try and stay
Or would it be better just to let things be?

Living here, in this brand new world
Might be a fantasy
But it taught me to love
So it’s real, real to me

And I’ve learned
That we must look inside our hearts to find
A world full of love
Like yours
Like mine

Like home..


Reflections on the reading – chapter 8

‘Amnesia’ and the big picture

When we’re beginning our spiritual journeys, we really don’t know ourselves. Richard Rohr calls this situation amnesia – we have forgotten who we are and whose we are.   The spiritual journey will call us to find our True Self again – the Self who was created to live in union with God.

Most of us depend on religion to guide us on our journey to our True Self, but religions often turn the journey into a worthiness contest of sorts. Religion, too, can encourage us to climb up the ‘ladder of success’, just as our culture pushes us to ‘succeed’.

(We are all proud of the achievements that mark our progress in life – whether it’s a trophy from our first soccer team when we were seven years old, or a year-end bonus from our boss when we’re 40.  Yet we have to learn not to confuse these achievements with signs of our spiritual growth.)

When we turn back to Scripture, we are reminded that God invites us “to share in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).  The early church called this divinization – that is, God has invited us to take on divinity, to become like God.  What Peter and the other early Christians were discovering is that divinization actually becomes possible through God’s Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus.

What ‘good news’ this Gospel is!  But for people who live in a future-oriented, product-oriented, win-lose world, this good news seems just too good to be true.

‘Heaven’ and ‘Hell’

Spiritual growth is much more about unlearning old attitudes than learning new things.  For instance, we have to learn again about ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’.  In Scripture, ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ come near to us in this life;  as he begins his ministry, Jesus says, “the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15).  Drawing near to God has been called ‘heaven’ by most traditions – and falling away from God has been called ‘hell.’   But through our ‘amnesia’ – forgetting that God invites us into union now, in this life – most of today’s Christians believe that ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ are still waiting for them in a future life.

Rohr says, “If you have been taught to believe in a God who punishes  – or even eternally tortures – those who don’t love him, then you are living in an absurd universe, where most people on this earth end up being more loving than God!”  The true Gospel (the one we hear, read, and see in Jesus) is telling us that God doesn’t want to exclude anyone from union.  God does allow us the freedom to exclude ourselves; that means no one is in hell unless they themselves have chosen to be finally alone and separated.

Think it through for yourself:  Why would Jesus’ love be so unconditional while he was in this world, and suddenly become totally conditional after death?

God’s ‘economy’

Our human ego clearly prefers an economy of merit – where we can divide the world into winners and losers, workers and idlers – to any economy of grace, where merit or effort or worthiness loses all meaning.

But remember Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard: the laborers who only worked for an hour were paid the same as those who worked hard all day. (Matthew 20:1-16)  What kind of economy is Jesus describing?

Vineyard Harvest Celebration
Everyone is invited!


Reflections on the reading – chapter 9

A second simplicity

Beyond rational and critical thinking, we need a ‘second naiveté’ –  we need to return to the joy of our first naïveté, but now with totally new, inclusive, and mature thinking.     Paul Recoeur

Richard Rohr believes that a kind of second simplicity, a ‘second naiveté’, is the goal of mature adulthood and mature religion:

“The first naïveté may be the best way to begin the journey, but a ‘second naïveté’ is the easiest way to continue that journey without becoming angry or alienated…”

During our ‘first naiveté’ we all think we are the very center of the universe.  The very meaning of the word universe is to “turn around one thing”.  But none of us is at the center of this universe; we are all a part of the Big Picture.

Mature religions, and now some scientists, say that we are hardwired for the Big Picture, for transcendence, for ongoing growth, for union with ourselves and everything else.  But many of us get stopped and fixated in our ‘first naiveté’, which gives us a comfortable (but false) certainty about the universe and our place in it.

Anxiety and doubt

Creative doubt keeps us with a perpetual ‘beginner’s mind’, which is a wonderful way to stay humble and keep growing. Yet this uncertainty, this quiet inner unfolding of things, seems to create the most doubt and anxiety for many believers.

The only price we pay for living in the Big Picture is to hold a bit of doubt and anxiety about the exact how, if, when, where and who of it all.  Unfortunately, most Christians are not well trained in holding opposites for very long; they haven’t learned to live with what could be very creative tension.

But basic religious belief is a trust in some coherence, purpose, benevolence, and direction in the universe.  Faith in any religion is always somehow saying that God is One and God is good, and if so, then all of reality must be that simple and beautiful too.

But in the face of our daily reality, holding onto this belief requires us to stretch our minds. So the the Jewish people made it their creed, wrote it on their hearts, and inscribed it on their doorways (see Deuteronomy 6:4-5), so that they could not and would not forget it.

Some ‘true believers’ cannot carry any doubt or anxiety at all.   It is probably necessary to eliminate most doubt when we are young  –  it’s a good survival technique.  But such worldviews are not true – and they are not wisdom.   The wise learn to live happily with mystery, doubt, and ‘unknowing,’ and living in this way helps them live with the mystery.

Finding a deeper happiness

In the second half of life, we are no longer demanding our American constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness; rather, simple meaning now suffices, and that becomes in itself a much deeper happiness.

This new coherence, our ability to hold the paradoxes together, is precisely what a second-half-of-life person develops over time.  This new coherence can even feel like a return to simplicity, after we have learned from the complexities of our lives.

The great irony is that we must go through a necessary complexity (perhaps another word for necessary suffering) to return to any second simplicity.  There is no nonstop flight from first to ‘second naïveté’.   (see Falling Upward, p. 114)

Reflections on the reading – chapter 10

Luminous darkness

There will still be darkness in the second half of our lives. But as we grow spiritually, we developed greater ability to hold the darkness creatively and with less anxiety.  (This is what St. John of the Cross called “luminous darkness” – deep suffering and intense joy can coexist within us.)

In the second half of life, the boundaries of our container have been enlarged by the constant addition of new experiences and relationships.  (We are like expandable suitcases, and our lives have stretched us, almost without knowing!)

In the second half of life, it is good to be a part of the general dance; we no longer have to stand out on the dance floor.  We are able and eager to generate life from our own abundance and for the benefit of following generations. (This is what Erik Erikson called the “generative” stage of life. )

In the second half of life, we’ve learned to fight things only when we feel directly called and equipped to do so.  We have learned ever so slowly, and with much resistance, that most frontal attacks on evil just produce another kind of evil in ourselves.   (And we now know that daily life requires prayer and discernment more than knee-jerk responses.)

And, ironically, in this second half of life we’re more able than ever to change people – but we don’t need to, and that makes all the difference.  Now we can aid and influence other people simply by being who we are.  In the poet’s wonderful words, we’ve found that:

…  nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems and Prose


Reflections on the reading – chapter 11

The Shadowlands

Spiritual maturity is largely a growth in seeing – but learning to see fully seems to take most of our lifetime.

When we are young, we all identify so strongly with our personas that we become masters of denial – and we l earn to eliminate or deny anything that doesn’t support our self-image.

By the second half of life, we’ve all bumped up against our shadow selves; regular contact with our shadows gradually detaches us from the personas we worked so hard to construct in the first half of life.

Neither our persona nor our shadow is evil in itself; they just allow us to do evil and not know it.  (Remember, hypocrite is a Greek word that simply means “actor”, someone playing a role rather than being “real”.)

Our shadow is what we refuse to see about ourselves, and what we don’t want others to see.

Our persona (which is Greek for “stage mask”) is what we choose to identify with, what other people want from us – and reward us for. This “stage mask” is not bad, or necessarily egocentric; it is just not “true”.

So our self-image nothing more than that – an image – which isn’t worth protecting, promoting, or denying.  Our self-image is not substantial or lasting; it is just created out of our own minds, desires, and choices – and other people’s choices for us!

As Jesus said, if we can begin to “make friends” with those who bring us challenging messages, we’ll begin to see some of our own shadow.  But if we aren’t willing to see our shadow, we’ll miss out on much-needed wisdom, and end up “imprisoned” within ourselves or “taken to court” by others:

Make friends with your opponent quickly while he is taking you to court; or he will hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and the officer will follow you into prison.  You will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5:25-26)

The “opponent taking us to court” is a telling metaphor for what we allow inner stories to do to us.  We can create entire and self-justifying scenarios of blame, anger, and hurt – toward ourselves or toward others.  But Jesus is saying, “Don’t go there!”

Moving to second-half-of-life wisdom comes through healthy self-critical thinking, including necessary shadow work.  Gradually, we learn to see ourselves beyond our own shadows/disguises.

Shadow work in humiliating work, but properly so.  And I am sorry to report that it continues until the end of life, the only difference being that we are no longer surprised by our surprises or so totally humiliated by our humiliations!

The saints learn and grow from encountering their shadows.  A saint is someone who no longer has an “I” to protect or project.  They saints learn they will never be perfect – and they’ll never be perfectly right; so they just try to live in right relationships.  In other words, they try above all else to be loving.

The reason that mature or saintly people can feel so peaceful – so accepting of self and others – is that there is not much hidden shadow self left.  (There is always and forever a little more, however!  No exceptions.  Shadow work never stops.)

Shadow work is almost another name for falling upward, because the closer we get to the Light, the more of our shadow we will see.   Lady Julian of Norwich put it best of all:  “First there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall.  Both are the mercy of God!”