Priest offers spiritual survival guide for recession
A priest and author says religious leaders aren't paying attention to older people hit by recession.
September 17th, 2011
10:00 PM ET

Priest offers spiritual survival guide for recession

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - Sooner or later, it happens to each of us, Richard Rohr says.

“There always will be at least one situation in our lives that we cannot fix, control, explain, change or even understand,” the Franciscan priest said.

Maybe you’ve been laid off from a job you held for years. Perhaps you’ve experienced a nasty divorce. Or maybe the crisis is more subtle: You suddenly realized that you’ll never have the life you dreamed of living.

Any life-changing moment can knock a person down. But it can also open doors if, as Rohr puts it, a person learns how to “fall upward.”

Rohr, a 68-year-old Roman Catholic author and internationally known speaker, says older Americans face a problem: Religious leaders aren’t paying much attention to them.

Much of contemporary religion is geared toward teaching people how to navigate the first half of their lives, when they’re building careers and families. Rohr calls it a “goal-oriented” spirituality.

Yet there’s less help for people dealing with the challenges of aging: the loss of health, the death of friends, and coming to terms with mistakes that cannot be undone, he says.

Rohr’s new book, “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,” is his attempt to fill that void. It also functions as a spiritual survival guide for hard times as millions of Americans young and old struggle to cope with “falling”: losing their homes, careers and status.

Rohr says he coined the phrase “falling upward” to describe a paradox. Nearly everyone will fall in life because they'll confront some type of loss, he says. Yet failure can lead to growth if a person makes the right decisions.

“I’ve met people who because of the loss of things and security have been able to find grace, freedom and new horizons,” he said.

If you’re falling in any area of your life, Rohr says, one of the first skills to learn is accepting surprises.

He says it’s easy for people to turn bitter when things don’t go as planned. He sees such people all the time, whether throwing tantrums at the airport because of long lines or flocking to angry rallies in opposition to some form of social change.

“You start attacking anybody else who is not like you,” Rohr said. “If you don’t know how to deal with exceptions, surprise and spontaneity by the time you’re my age, you become a predictable series of responses of paranoia, blame and defensiveness.”

Why suffering is necessary

Rohr’s book may address contemporary issues, but the wisdom is old. He extracts insights from sources as varied as Greek mythology, Catholic mysticism and fairy tales like Cinderella.

Such stories often teach similar lessons about hard times: Suffering is necessary, the “false self” must be abandoned, and “everything belongs, even the sad, absurd and futile parts.” Rohr, who has also written “Quest for the Grail,” a book on mythology, says people have learned these hard lessons for centuries through myth.

The heroes in mythological stories follow the same pattern. They must first experience humiliation, loss and suffering before finding enlightenment. They are often forced on their journey by a crisis.

No contemporary American is going to be asked to fight a monster, but an event like the evaporation of a retirement fund or the death of a spouse can force you to summon strength you didn’t know you had, Rohr says.

The key is not resisting the crisis.

“You have to allow the circumstances of God and life to break you out of your egocentric responses to everything,” he said. “If you allow ‘the other’ - other people, other events, other religions - to influence you, you just keep growing.”

That growth, though, is accompanied by death - the death of the “false self,” Rohr said. The false self is the part of your self tied to your achievements and possessions.

When your false self dies, you start learning how to base your happiness on more eternal sources, he says.

“You start drawing from your life within,” Rohr said. “You learn to distinguish from the essential self and the self that’s window dressing.”

Those who break through the crisis and lose their false selves become different people: less judgmental, more generous and better able to ignore “evil or stupid things,” he says.

It may sound esoteric, Rohr says, but many of us have met older people like this. They possess a “bright sadness”: they’ve suffered but they still smile and give.

“I’ve seen that in the wonderful older people in my life,” Rohr says. “There’s a kind of gravitas they have. … There’s an easy smile on their faces. These are the people who laugh, who heal, who build bridges, who don’t turn bitter.”

Rohr says this bright sadness isn’t confined to older people.

“I've met 11-year-old children in cancer wards who are in the second half of life,” he said in a recent interview with Amazon.com, “and I have met 68-year-old men like me who are still in the first half of life.”

Learning the ‘grace of failure’

Rohr’s book has found some fans in high places who were touched by his insights.

Father Gerry Blaszczak, a chaplain at Fairfield University in Connecticut, says Rohr’s book challenges the notion that success is a natural result of being religious.

“Our culture is prone to imagine that growth takes place in a sort of constant, upward movement,” he says. “Even our religious culture tends to focus on success and stability as ideals for religious growth.”

Rohr’s book reminds people about the “grace of failure,” Blaszczak says.

“In the Christian tradition, loss, collapse and failure have always been seen as not only unavoidable, but even necessary on the path to wisdom, freedom and personal maturity,” Blaszczak said.

He says he knows older people who struggled to rebuild their identities after they poured much of their earlier lives’ energies into professional and personal success.

“It is not that these professional or personal ideas were necessarily bad in themselves,” he said. “It is more that they proved inadequate. We invested way too much in them. We thought our identities could be formed by them.”

Jim Finley, a retreat leader and Catholic scholar, says Rohr is reminding people about the value of elders.

“Our culture tends to be youth-oriented, and a lot of spirituality is youth oriented,” says Finley, author “The Contemplative Heart.” “But our elders are the embodiment of the wisdom that life matters at a much deeper level than what we can achieve and produce.”

Brian McLaren, author of “The Naked Spirituality,” says Rohr’s book touches on an important paradox that you probably won’t hear in a Sunday morning sermon: “Imperfect people” are sometimes more equipped than “perfect people” to help those who are struggling.

“The person who never makes a mistake and always manages to obey the rules is often a compassionless person, because he sees people for whom the wheels have fallen off and he wonders what’s wrong with them,” he said. “But the person who feels that he has ruined his life often has more capacity for humility and compassion.”

McLaren says Rohr’s book helped reveal to him how much of his youthful spiritual energy was driven by narrow concerns.

“I’m embarrassed as I’m getting older about how much of my energy and vitality as a younger man was driven by ego and a win-lose mentality.”

Today Rohr seems driven by something else: The need for rest.

For years, his life has been a whirlwind. He’s traveled the globe speaking at retreats on everything from men’s spirituality to Catholic mysticism.

He also founded the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, an organization that encourages acts of justice rooted in prayer and respect for other religious traditions.

Yet after almost seven decades of living, Rohr said,  “I am still a mystery to myself.”

Rohr plans on solving some of that mystery. He says he’s going to retire in two years to spend more time at his home in New Mexico. He says he needs more time for contemplation.

“The first half of life, you write the text,” he said. “The second half of your life is when you write the commentary. You have to process what it all meant.”

As Rohr withdraws from speaking and writing, he will be challenged to follow his own advice. He’ll spend less energy on his “false self” as his old identity dissolves.

He says he’s ready, though, to fall upward. If he lost his position as a priest, author and respected speaker, he says he would still feel secure.

“Most of us don’t learn this until it is taken away, like losing the security of your 401(k). Then the learning either starts or you circle the wagons,” he said. “I know who I am beyond my roles.”

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Belief • Books • Catholic Church • Christianity • Church • Economy

soundoff (1,015 Responses)
  1. taizer

    The road to enlightenment is filled with ego. Shed that to find your truth.

    September 18, 2011 at 9:06 am |
  2. Patricksday

    The Evangelical's call GREED a "Blessing" when people build their own Kingdoms on Earth, and horde riches they somehow have favor with "God".

    September 18, 2011 at 9:04 am |
  3. Andrew

    I have a spriritual guide for these tough times. Study ALL religions.

    September 18, 2011 at 9:04 am |
    • Winston419

      One we understand why we dismiss all other possible Gods, then we understand why so many reject the God of Christ.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:16 am |
  4. Lezlie

    This article is very helpful __the Catholic Church is always in need of seeing new and better ways to build up and improve ministry to all her children. The senior members of the church are amazing people and a rich resource for the continued growth and development of the Catholic faith.

    September 18, 2011 at 9:03 am |
  5. Jimmy

    Hitler was Catholic and Married a Catholic. Very violent religion of Christians.


    September 18, 2011 at 9:00 am |
    • kimsland

      All religious people are violent

      September 18, 2011 at 9:05 am |
    • Lezlie

      Hitler may have been Baptized Catholic but he was not a follower of the Christ ___ don't slam the entire Catholic Tradition because of Hitler - Judas also betrayed Christ, yet - Christ still loved him and went on to die on the cross and rise from the dead. Evil does not prevail - God's love is stronger than man's evil and Satan's power.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:06 am |
    • tsar140

      Hitler actually hated Catholicism, which he considered a religion for the weak. He found the national churches of state Protesentism more to his liking, simply because they were easier for him to control and because they represented the religion of the north German states. But personally he practiced a sort of pagan mysticism based on astrology.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:17 am |
    • kimsland

      Good one Lezlie
      And don't forget to add that god put a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

      Oh and Satan is not real it was made for little kiddies to be scared. Hey that's just like you. Oooo you better watch out.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:17 am |
  6. Winston419

    With all this unconditional love from God, we Atheist won't have to worry about hell... lmao So step it up Atheist. God made us Atheist, who is anyone to question his wisdom?

    September 18, 2011 at 8:59 am |
    • Lezlie

      Belief - to believe in atheism is a form of faith ___ faith is a relationship of trust __ Christians TRUST in Jesus Christ. Jesus said, "Judge not, lest you be Judged." If we practiced Christ's teachings - we can grow in love for one another which is the core teaching of all great spiritual leaders.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:09 am |
    • kimsland

      Thanks for believing in me Lezlie.
      A true atheist doesn't need to prove themselves with fact, religious people already believe in them.
      Wow religion is a contradiction

      September 18, 2011 at 9:20 am |
  7. WhoamI

    Most of these things discussed by Rohr are not new to those who have at least some knowledge of Buddhism. But it's good to read about them articulated differently.

    September 18, 2011 at 8:58 am |
    • tsar140

      That is because the conteplative aspects of Catholic (or Orthodox) sprituality share a lot in commong with Buddism. Their ultimate purpose is differnt-Christians believe in personal salvation from God that cares about each individual–but the process is actually very similar.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:13 am |
  8. LetUsReason

    "He extracts insights from sources as varied as Greek mythology, Catholic mysticism and fairy tales like Cinderella." What about Biblical lessons?!? Catholics, you gotta love 'em...

    September 18, 2011 at 8:55 am |
    • Calves OPlenty

      Rohr's pretty strong on scripture; it's a key part of his studies; this article just doesn't highligh it.
      Please consider checking out his work on Great Themes of Scripture; and more recently ... Great Themes of Paul. Fantastic stuff.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:18 am |
  9. LuisWu

    I've got some advice for the priest. Keep your ignorant fairytales to yourself and stop trying to peddle them to other people.

    September 18, 2011 at 8:55 am |
  10. amigay

    More useless advice from a salesman peddling self help.

    September 18, 2011 at 8:52 am |
    • Calves OPlenty

      It will depend on our experience of course; and how we interpret them.
      I find Rohr (a la Merton and St Paul) - more the opposite of self help.
      Is it possible there is no 'self' to help? An least in the way I tend to see myself as separate and 'apart from' a divine mystery.
      And that's probably Rohr's critique of religion; that it tends to be a lot of self help; outward morality dressing up my illusory sense that I am separate from God (or any part of creation for that matter.) Thus it avoids the heart and mind of the matter.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:34 am |
  11. Fred (Canada)

    I was going to post a comment but thought better of it... There is little room here for respectfull and educated discussion or debate. Some of the comments are just hate riddled commentary with little emphasis on the text of the article.

    September 18, 2011 at 8:51 am |
    • herbert juarez

      Maybe you could find a news network in your own country?God bless

      September 18, 2011 at 8:53 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      @Herbert: when you become moderator of this site then and only then can you dictate who comes here and comments...seems to me that Canada is the USA's closest ally you moron...you need them.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:10 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Hey, herbie, when are you going to toss Addled off this site? She's not a US citizen, either, dumbkopf.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:28 am |
  12. Winston419

    "Mr. preacher man don't tell me that heaven is under the earth. I know you don't know what life is really worth" so stand up ..stand up, stand up for your right. Bob marley

    September 18, 2011 at 8:49 am |
    • puhbah

      Bob Marley: "One Love...let's get together and feel allright..." Jesus Christ

      September 18, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  13. Buddy Kowalski

    They want a piece of the action that the gov't has: taking advantage of desperate, gullible serfs.

    September 18, 2011 at 8:45 am |
    • Jesus

      It's all about scarfing up as many benjamins from the already down and out as possible. The religion business and their hucksters have been hit hard by this recession and are looking for any overlooked cash cows that they can con into forking over more of their money.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:02 am |
  14. CFalasco

    Peace be with you; be not afraid. God loves us so much, and anything we suffer in life God has suffered first, and far worse. He is with us always and knows and loves us without end. Yes, there will be times when life will be difficult, painful even, but He is there to help and guide us and has thankfully given us each other, so that family, friends, neighbors, fellow religious, talented professionals, and caring others can do what they do to be with us in difficult (and happy) times. Maybe if we all try a little more to be of help to everyone, to see God in every face we meet, we might make problems such as the ones in this news article a little easier, a little more manageable. Perhaps Father Rohr's book will spark discussions among church congregations and elsewhere that lead to positive changes in how we try to meet the needs of others, especially the elderly. That would be a good thing, and God will be there as we try. Like the parting greetings in French, Spanish, and Italian ("Adieu, Adios, Addio"), "God be with you as go" forward/ falling upward/ proceed on ...

    September 18, 2011 at 8:45 am |
    • Jesus

      Ask yourself this my gullible friend, have you ever got a receipt from God himself (not some religion huckster) for any money that you've given to Him?

      September 18, 2011 at 9:05 am |
  15. NJreader

    Smart man. I find wisdom in such thinking, and I love the analogy about first half is text, second half is commentary. I do think, though, that there are whole bunches of people who were not false selves chasing after more and higher-but just trying to live their lives from one day to the next. I also think that "judgmental" is a word that should be retired. It means nothing anymore. But what has always been true is that we were born with powers of making judgments, making observations and forming conclusions, and I think to let such a given power just sit rotting on a shelf somewhere is like not walking and letting perfectly good legs atrophy into useless attachments.

    September 18, 2011 at 8:37 am |
  16. TG

    In extracting "insights from sources as varied as Greek mythology, Catholic mysticism and fairy tales like Cinderella", Mr Rohr has followed in the steps of the religious leaders of Jesus day, who "made the word of God invalid because of your tradition".(Matt 15:6)

    Catholicism is built upon Greek mythology, for it absorbed "Limbo" and "Purgatory" from the ancient Greeks.(Orpheus—A General History of Religions, by French scholar Salomon Reinach ) Christmas was absorbed from the Roman festival Saturnalia, whereby gifts were exchanged from December 17-24, and ending with the observance of the birthday of Mithra on December 25.

    According to The New Encyclopædia Britannica, the one called St.Augustine’s “mind was the crucible in which the religion of the New Testament was most completely fused with the Platonic tradition of Greek philosophy; and it was also the means by which the product of this fusion was transmitted to the Christendoms of medieval Roman Catholicism and Renaissance Protestantism.” Thus, much of Catholicism was founded upon mythology.

    September 18, 2011 at 8:28 am |
  17. kimsland

    God is NOT real

    Get it through your thick heads.

    September 18, 2011 at 8:13 am |
    • ja

      Prove it.

      September 18, 2011 at 8:48 am |
    • amigay

      If God were real we wouldn't have Republicans.

      September 18, 2011 at 8:51 am |
    • kimsland

      I'll prove god is not real.

      If god is real I pray he will kill all religious people right now.
      What? Those idiot religious nuts are still here?
      Prayer is useless, I want my money back.

      There you go, you have been made a fool of and I laugh at you
      Ha Ha Ha Ha ha

      September 18, 2011 at 9:09 am |
    • Jesus

      Ja, you believe God exists because you have a very weak mind. If you apply basic principles of logical reasoning, scientific inquiry, and rational thinking, you would come to the conclusion – God does NOT exist!

      September 18, 2011 at 9:11 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      @JA (stands for jacka$$)...we're not the ones claiming there is a god, so the burden of proof falls to the believer.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:12 am |
  18. Paul NYC

    The worst thing about any religion is the teaching that people should be happy with their lot in life because it's God's will. Yes, you're a lowly serf but that's the way God wants it so get out in the field and toil so that your master can reap the benefits. God likes him better. What a load of rubbish.

    September 18, 2011 at 8:03 am |
    • Jill

      Paul – I do not think you understand the teachings of the churches you are condemning.

      September 18, 2011 at 8:26 am |
    • herbert juarez

      This guy would have trouble understanding a don't walk sign at an intersection.(that is were two roads cross paul) God bless

      September 18, 2011 at 8:52 am |
    • puhbah

      Boy, have you missed the point!

      September 18, 2011 at 9:28 am |
  19. sustain_with_God

    Does anyone know why Earth and are other planets look so perfectly round from far away? Rule of thumb to sustain longest you have to have a system that is self sustain. Once you become one (create a circle) with your Creator, you will know that everything that I'm talking about. Atheist or Christians, you must understand this concept since you get to live physically/spiritually only once (unless you know you existed before). Old people are not afraid to die, they're just looking for the source that've created them....hence complete the circle. This is not a thinking match. We must love each other because that is what the Creator probably wants. Whose parents want their children to gun each other down??? Peace and love to you all. I am a 34 yr old being living on September 17, 2011. Who are you and where are you from? Thank God for life. We must Love.

    September 18, 2011 at 8:01 am |
    • kimsland

      Even something jaggered looks smooth from far away.
      And by the way planets are (reasonably) smooth and round because they turn around all the time, and when the gases were forming together they obviously didn't create a box!

      LOVE can be given and received by Atheists. Do you think that atheists can't love each other? How dare you accuse them of this, what an insult. I bet you hate gays too

      September 18, 2011 at 8:11 am |
    • Jay

      Your thoughts have some elegance to them, but the foundation seems hollow. Who/what do you mean by the Creator? What is your basis?

      September 18, 2011 at 8:13 am |
    • kimsland

      Jay, you sound like you are trying to prove god is wrong to a christian?

      God is not real, and we don't need evidence to justify this churchy nonsense, we need to tell them they are wrong and they should go away.

      Go away religion, we feel sorry for you, seek help and stay away from children until you're better.

      September 18, 2011 at 8:17 am |
    • George

      don't thank god for life because he DOESN'T EXIST, if you want to thank someone for your life thank your parents or the people who raised you, stop wasting your time and effort thanking nobody

      September 18, 2011 at 8:43 am |
    • ja

      "Kimsland your an idiot" – God

      September 18, 2011 at 8:53 am |
    • kimsland


      You're an idiot. Fairy god mother

      September 18, 2011 at 9:01 am |
  20. SCAtheist

    A good guide for recession would be not to give your remaining pennies to a church

    September 18, 2011 at 7:54 am |
    • kimsland

      Church response: We have enough money now, no more please, you know there are OTHER religions.
      The church says no, and so do I

      September 18, 2011 at 7:56 am |
    • George

      could not agree with you more

      September 18, 2011 at 9:42 am |
    • puhbah

      I love giving to my church. Like most churches, the books are open to see where we can see where every penny is spent including the pastor's salary...we fund the poor in our community, repair homes for the poor and disabled, help all we can.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:43 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.