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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. cbm60

    The true meaning of suffering is reading Kimsland's posts.

    September 18, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • kimsland

      Yes I agree, I always speak about religion
      Try to get away from it, please try for gods sake man.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:51 am |
    • Michael

      I don't know what is more idiotic. An Atheist who points at a dead body and says, look as far as we know this person has ceased to function, as souls don't exist. Or the guy peddling, GOD IS MAGIC AND INVISIBLE he promises a magic afterlife, btw everything I have said there isn't a shred of evidence for!

      September 18, 2011 at 9:56 am |
    • Veritas

      @Michael: Obviously, proving the non-existence of anything is impossible, no matter how nonsensical and ridiculous. That is where reason comes in.

      September 18, 2011 at 10:25 am |
    • Veritas

      ...and as for atheists/agnostics commenting on religious matters, it is important since uncontrolled religion can lead to various levels of theocracy (e.g. Iran in the extreme case) which obviously would be detrimental to all of us. Even limited religious influence on politics is something at least I want to prevent as far as possible.

      September 18, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  2. Colin

    Basic Christian theology – (i) good things we don't quite understand were caused by God; (ii) bad things we don't understand were caused by man.

    Where science stops, the simple man's god starts.

    September 18, 2011 at 9:46 am |
  3. Veritas

    Religion is for the weak minded. The rest of trust our own intellect and abilities and don't need rosy fairy tales to solve our problems.

    September 18, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • kimsland

      Religious people are like a child who never leaves its parent
      They are so pathetic.

      Religious people please note, we laugh at your nonsense, you are pathetic.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • cbm60

      A better definition of pathetic is probably someone who feels the need to criticize others who believe differently than they do.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:56 am |
  4. Rebellous

    Earth does not make sense and it traumatizes but we have to survive it somehow .. the OS of this planet has got to be a Beta version and for those who don't get it, don't worry about ... no ill will

    September 18, 2011 at 9:43 am |
  5. Joseph

    it's about money, more sale for books, more people give money, it's a business, self help business. a good one, like the one started by Ron Hubbard.

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

      Yes and also like the one started by churches. What's that one called again.. Oh yeah that's right religion.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:45 am |
  6. teeda

    Well, imagine my surprise when an article about a Catholic does not focus on child abuse. I'm still slightly stunned but Bravo! to CNN for taking the chance. The people of the Catholic Church are about so, so, so much more than the child abuse scandal or the celibacy of priests. There is an amazingly resilient and vibrant spirituality and wisdom that is alive in the Church that informs and guides its followers toward a more fulfilled life. I pray that the Catholic Church will "fall upward".

    September 18, 2011 at 9:35 am |
    • NowHwat

      Did yo u know that on everage atheists know more about bible then religious people, Jews come next...catholics know the least about what is actualy in the bible. It's just statistics.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • LuisWu

      No... they're about ignorant fairytales from an archaic old book of ancient mythology. They're about brainwashing people practically from birth to blindly accept old myths as fact. People need to break free of the indoctrination into fantasy land and use logic and reason as their guide, not 2000 (and more) year old mythology.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • Marcos Vargas

      Totally agree with you!

      September 18, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  7. NowHwat

    God is an awesome terminology, ones you put it in the context the meaning of whatever is being said seems much more credible to some people. This doesn't mean that God doesn't exist it just means that some people use the term to push personal agenda.

    September 18, 2011 at 9:33 am |
    • kimsland

      No that means god doesn't exist
      Wake up man, god is not real
      Although he is really funny to read about

      September 18, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • Todd

      I dunno if God is real or not. The universe came from somewhere, but when I see a phrase like, "Suffering is necessary" spoken by a Catholic priest, given the history of priests getting diddlely with children, I think I'm seeing a little bit of justification by this old yutz.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:41 am |
    • Marcos Abraham Vargas

      I mean no offense, but you do know God can be explained through reason?

      September 18, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  8. PJ

    I should have known CNN would pick someone like this to call attention to. Do a Google search and read what normal people in his church are saying about him.

    September 18, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • PG

      I've been following Richard Rohr for many years. Sure, some old traditional Catholics, those who worship the church and the rules, don't find him appealing. But those who are looking to find and follow a more mature and fulfilling spiritual path love him.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:45 am |
  9. splasher6

    The official sin eater for the mob speaks....

    September 18, 2011 at 9:31 am |
  10. Me

    Maybe in the catholic church, in the Episcopal Church we have the complete opposite problem. The entire church is geared towards the public in their older years.

    September 18, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  11. Paddy O'Furniture

    Recession Survival Guide, Step 1:
    Stop Voting Democrat.

    September 18, 2011 at 9:27 am |
    • Todd

      Because things were just so perfect under Shrub, right?

      September 18, 2011 at 9:42 am |
    • AGuest9

      You mean that recession that just magically started on Jan 20, 2009?

      September 18, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
  12. Rebellous

    Good read

    September 18, 2011 at 9:26 am |
  13. alex

    People of America, and the World. When i was younger I would attend church mass weekly. After a while we stopped attending and I will admit, I feel spiritually and emotionally weaker. This has effects on me in several ways, both in staying focused in these hard times and staying emotionally strong. This article is true.

    September 18, 2011 at 9:25 am |
    • ByWayofBeauty

      Hey, it's Sunday – not too late to turn the tide!

      September 18, 2011 at 9:27 am |
    • Michael

      That is probably because you suffer from a psychological issue, from the sounds of it I would bet you do.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:29 am |
    • kimsland

      Alex we already know that the church prey on the weak minds.
      Where are the stories of people saying they are strong and live a happy life and think they should now turn to the church? Oh yeah that's impossible.
      Churches prey on the weak, everyone in church is pathetic.
      Except for the priest he is making good money to buy another car, every Sunday night he goes home to count his money, from those poor weak fools, god bless them for without churchies priests would not be rich

      September 18, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • Casey

      Hey Alex. I went through the same life sequence... For the past year or 2, I have gotten back into the Church and my Life has been so much better. I went to a program the Catholic Church has called The Right of Christian Initiation (RCIA for short). Tey have this program all accross the Country. I very much recommend it. It is an excellent learning opportunity, and a great way to re-enter the Church, meet some good people, and strengthen your Faith through deeper understanding.

      God Bless.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:49 am |
  14. puhbah

    God is good...all the time.

    September 18, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • kimsland

      yes a good load of sh!t

      September 18, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • Michael

      Except for when he is killing gays, adulterers, non-believers, believers of different faiths, first born sons, and the entire world with a flood.....

      September 18, 2011 at 9:28 am |
    • Rebellous

      God is far more complicated and diverse than the generic term "good", but above all...God is individualized and not Santa Claus

      September 18, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • AGuest9

      Or, is just a figment of many peoples' imaginations.

      September 18, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
  15. Thrive

    Richard Rohr's observations about life are refreshing. He counters popular culture with his attention to the spiritual, universal and eternal. Temporal and material concerns can dominate and consume our lives. A recession experience gives us pause to consider and embrace the bigger picture.

    September 18, 2011 at 9:19 am |
  16. Michael

    Don't worry that you are broke, after you die there is a magical place for you to frolic......if you believe that sh1t you will believe anything.

    September 18, 2011 at 9:19 am |
  17. Rob

    What I always find interesting is how attracted those who don't believe are to articles about faith. No matter where you look, this website, youtube, facebook etc, they come out in droves to spout off their "beliefs." For those of us who know that the longing for God is written in our very souls, it's of no suprise. I would just recommend that you stop fighting it and give in already. You will have way more peace. And if you feel you have peace, then perhaps you should really start to examine why you are trolling religious sites? Listen to that voice that is trying to draw you in, quit fighting it.

    September 18, 2011 at 9:19 am |
    • xmxm

      Do you have peace? Why are you here proselytizing? If you want to believe earth is 6000 years then please do, just don't bother telling others. It is embarrassing.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:35 am |
    • slomoven

      Putting you down for your belief in the divine power is their argument for failing to come to grips with their own spirituality. Yet these people are the ones more likely to seek God on their death bed. Something to think about.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  18. JoeW

    Anyone else notice how very close this article is to basic Buddhist teachings and beliefs?
    Not the fantastic imagery and mythology ment to illustrate a point or demonstrate a principle,
    but the rock bottom basic teachings.

    "distinguish from the essential self and the self that’s window dressing.”

    Certainly sounds like Dogen to me.

    September 18, 2011 at 9:18 am |
  19. Johnson

    I am a practicing Roman Catholic. However, I also want nothing to do with the leaders of our Church. from the top to the bottom they are a negative distraction from Faith. Catholics can use Priests for whatever Sacraments they choose to take. Bishops, Archbishops, Cardinals and the top honcho – should be seen and not heard.

    September 18, 2011 at 9:15 am |
  20. ByWayofBeauty

    Wonderful article! Kudos to CNN for posting it on the front page, front and center!

    September 18, 2011 at 9:08 am |
    • kimsland

      Yes its always good to have a good laugh

      September 18, 2011 at 9:12 am |
    • ByWayofBeauty

      Kimsland – you think people suffering, losing their jobs, their marriages, and in some cases their minds, and needing spiritual relief and meaning in the midst of it, is funny? Chaplin is funny. Brian Regan is funny. But that's not funny.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:29 am |
    • xmxm

      No, it is a little bit funny.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • kimsland

      @ByWayofBeauty

      Oh your mistake you didn't understand my clear point.

      I'm saying god and all of religion and religious ways are pathetic and funny.
      Glad we got that cleared up, for all to know, including you.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:42 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.