July 19, 2017
One day recently, two friends from completely different quadrants of my life sent me a gorgeous Rilke poem that Father Richard Rohr had posted on his website. I had run across the poem myself a few months before, and had already tacked it up over my desk. But when two people sent it to me within an hour of each other, I couldn't help feeling as though someone wanted me to be paying attention -- both to that poem once again, and to Richard Rohr who had posted it.
Then my friend and teacher Rabbi Jeff Fox, with whom I was privileged to study a few weeks ago, recommended Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, by the same Richard Rohr. I ordered the book right away.
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 basic argument of Falling Upward is that most of us get caught up in "first half of life" issues and struggles and never make it to the work of the second half of life -- work that can only be done after one has done the internal work of the first half. Of course these two halves don't necessarily map to chronological age, and Rohr acknowledges that; it's possible to be quite young and already be doing one's second-half-of-life work, and vice versa. (If these ideas resonate, I recommend From Aging to Sage-ing, by Reb Zalman z"l.)
One of the challenges of spiritual life is staying open to being changed. Father Rohr writes:
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...
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.
The Hasidic masters had an aphorism for that one: ירידה לצורך עליה / yeridah l'tzorech aliyah -- descent for the sake of ascent. That's a frequent theme in Torah (the Joseph story is a paradigmatic example), and it's a frequent theme in spiritual life. Often we have to fall in order to rise. We descend or fall further from God (the language of distance is of course metaphor, but it's a good way of describing internal experience, even if we know that God isn't any "further away") and that descent itself sparks the yearning to ascend and seek closeness.
Reading this book during the Three Weeks, I was struck by how Rohr's teachings suit this season in the Jewish calendar year:
By denying their pain, avoiding the necessary falling, many have kept themselves from their own spiritual depths -- and therefore been kept from their own spiritual heights... The human ego prefers anything, just about anything, to falling or changing or dying.
Of course the ego wants to avoid falling or changing or dying -- that's the ego's job. Part of our work is ensuring that one has enough ego to be able to live healthily in the world, without necessarily allowing the ego to be in the driver's seat, as it were. It's natural to resist change and loss and "falling." And yet all of those things are built in to the rhythms of human life. As I learned recently in a beautiful text from R' Shlomo Wolbe, our times of distance and sorrow are an important part of spiritual life too. If we deny our pain and avoid falling, we're slipping into the trap of spiritual bypassing, and that's not a path of genuine growth.
If change and growth are not programmed into your spirituality, if there are not serious warnings about the blinding nature of fear and fanaticism, your religion will always end up worshiping the status quo and protecting your present ego position and personal advantage -- as if it were God! ... This resistance to change is so common, in fact, that it is almost what we expect from religious people, who tend to love the past more than the future of the present.
Change -- or one might say התחדשות / hitchadshut, renewal -- is core to spiritual life. One of my tradition's names for God is אהיה אשר אהיה / Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, "I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming." God reveals God's-own-self to us through the unfolding of perennial change. The voice of revelation always sounds from Sinai, and it's our task to be attuned so that we can continue to enliven the world. That's the work of renewing Judaism, and the work of my rabbinate, and it's the work in which I believe Rohr is engaged, too, on his Christian path. And... I resonate deeply with his words about the profound irony of religious people, who should be pursuing growth, becoming attached instead to the status quo and fearing change.
There's much in this book that puts me in mind of my spiritual direction training and my experiences in spiritual direction, both as someone who has worked for many years with a spiritual director and as a mashpi'ah myself. The Hebrew term for spiritual direction is השפעה / hashpa'ah, which comes from a root connoting divine abundance or flow. In Rohr's words:
More than anything else, the Spirit keeps us connected and safely inside an already existing flow, if we but allow it... 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!"
I love the idea of God as the ultimate spiritual director, sitting across from me and helping me grow. Often on long drives I imagine God sitting in my front seat -- a practice I learned from Reb Zalman z"l, who spoke of imagining Shechinah "dressed down" in blue jeans as his listening passenger -- and I pour out my heart to the One Who always hears me. Sometimes I even hear a response in return. (The title poem of my next collection of poetry came out of that experience...) On that note, the final quote I'll share here is one about being in I-Thou relationship with God, and being wholly seen. Rohr writes:
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.
On the Jewish liturgical calendar we will shift soon (at the end of this Gregorian month -- erev Tisha b'Av is July 31) from the Three Weeks of mourning and brokenness to the Seven Weeks of consolation that lead us from Tisha b'Av to the Days of Awe. The challenge now is to let ourselves experience the "falling" of these Three Weeks, and to let ourselves be fully seen and fully known not despite our falling but even in and through it, so that our falling can be what Rohr might call "falling upward" -- descent for the sake of ascent, and for the sake of growth, and for the sake of becoming who we are most truly meant to be.