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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. Hypatia

    Yeah well, priests, pastors all of them never pay very much attention to the elderly unless that senior is holding purse strings. After all, how can a person buy snake oil without $ and that's all these con artists want.

    September 18, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Amistavia

      Salvation isn't cheap, is it?

      September 18, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • Pat

      Eloquently said...all empty B.S. that we have listened to our entire lives.None of them have even held a "real job"..their community pays their salaries, so they can live a peaceful,life, undisturbed of any financial stress!

      September 18, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • The Mad Hatter

      "their community pays their salaries, so they can live a peaceful,life, undisturbed of any financial stress"

      You see how the community chooses to give them money?
      Not how they are forced to pay into a fund for others to get paid, if the community chooses to then it is nobodies business.

      Why is it not okay to donate to the church but are required to give to the government for people unwilling to take care of themselves "so they can live a peaceful,life, undisturbed of any financial stress!"?

      Social programs violate every aspect of evolution and self preservation or have you not heard of natural selection, survival of the fittest and Social Darwinism?

      It is morality that gives us the desire to help others, where does our sence of empathy and/or sympathy come from in purely materialistic universe?
      How do you get ethics from only different arrangements of space, time, matter and energy?
      How could there be any objective foundation, any universal standard for good and evil?
      If the God of classical theism existed, an objective foundation for morality would exist. God’s holy and good nature would be the objective standard. God’s nature would be expressed through divine commands which would flow necessarily from his moral nature. Thus we would have moral principles & obligations.

      September 18, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  2. Amistavia

    How much did you smoke this morning?

    September 18, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Awkward Situations

      Trick question?

      September 18, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  3. musings

    Although, as a child of the 60's, I tend to reject any "system" which says that protest is futile (although knowing that getting their own way is what the powerful have always done), I see something here which might be a message for our times.

    Sure, don't give Bernie Madoff your life savings (and if you did, try and get some of it back legally). But Social Security should not be let go so easily, only because your fight to keep your own will help others too, now and later.

    But if you are coming to doubt the "infinite growth paradigm" for all world economies, including the latest rising stars, then you might understand that we have to live in a world of finite resources, and we can ruin our environment if we act as if we don't.
    Mortality is the lot of every human, some surprisingly early. You cannot count on a certain span, and no one is the heir of any living person. You are only the heir apparent of your own parents. You don't have a lock on life. No one does.

    So in that spirit, you can start realizing that it is the human species which will go on, if it doesn't become too self-destructive.

    There are spiritual messages which can help.

    September 18, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • Awkward Situations

      "Spiritual messages" are plagiarisms of actual human experience that have nothing to do with spirits.

      September 18, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  4. Jim

    I don't beleive in UFO's. When I see UFO articles I go right by them and don't read them. Why do Athiest read this stuff if they don't beleive? Don't get it.

    September 18, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • Amistavia

      Because people who chase UFOs don't try to put their crazy into law.

      September 18, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • Colin

      Because a belief in UFOs does not impact my life. Religious superst.itions do.

      September 18, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • kimsland

      We try to help everyone in need.

      Religious people are very sick.
      Yes, they are funny too, but we should always feel sad for them, for they are dumb

      Good luck with getting better

      September 18, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • Colin

      Jim, to take my earlier comment. Here are some areas where religious peope impact government policy. Imagine how you would feel if the following policies were written based on the supposed wishes of a space alien in a UFO.

      (i) a woman's right to choose;
      (ii) teaching evolution in school;
      (iii) medical immunization of teen girls against HPV;
      (iv) assisted suicide;
      (v) gay marriage;
      (vi) my right to view art and theatre deemed “offensive,” “blasphemous” or “obscene” by theists
      (vii) basic $ex education for older school children;
      (viii) treating drug abuse as principally a medical issue;
      (xi) population control;
      (x) buying alcohol on a Sunday;
      (xi) use of condoms and other contraceptives
      (xii) stem cell research.
      (xiii) the prohibition on little 10 year-old boys joining organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America, based on the religious views of their parents.

      September 18, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • gager

      Nothing has brought more comfort to living like science which is the result of reason and logic. I am not interested in returning to an era that was without logic and reason but that is what religion will bring us to if allowed. Atheists protect us from religion .

      September 18, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • Awkward Situations

      Because people who believe in UFOs don't have enough power and money to throw at lobbying the FAA and NASA to change their regulations and disrupt our flight travel patterns and interfere with space exploration.

      September 18, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  5. Loved Like All

    kimsland, why such anger and hatred? Why not post a reasoned, calm, enlightening piece on why you are so hostile? Really, just wondering who is behind that name.

    September 18, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  6. diggadubdbu

    I think my girlfriend is religious. Everytime I'm with her she always screams......OH GOD! OH GOD! OH MY GOD! That was sooooooooooooooooooo goooooooooooooooooodddddddddddddddddd. HA HA HA HA. I live in a mormon state and it sucks. The mormon church takes 10% of peoples check here in Utah. I can believe in vampires and not pay a dime.

    September 18, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  7. Jim

    The funny thing is when it comes time to answer you will be by yourself, no group to fade into.

    September 18, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • AGuest9

      A.n.s.w.e.r t.o w.h.a.t? T.h.e d.a.r.k.n.e.s.s. I.t's n.o.t s.p.o.o.k.y – y.o.u.'re d.e.a.d Y.o.u.r b.r.a.i.n s.t.o.p.s p.r.o.c.e.s.s...i.n.g. I.t's d.a.r.k, i.t's q.ui.et. I'v.e b.e.e.n t.h.e.r.e .tw.i.c.e. (What's the matter, CNN? Can't handle THE TRUTH?)

      September 18, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Jim, there is no evidence that there is an after life, or any god to be accountable to. Nobody knows for certain what happens when we die, but considering how many gods and afterlives have been proposed in the history of humanity, the chance of the christian god being there to greet us when we die is pretty much the same as finding Anubis greeting us with Ma'at's feather.

      September 18, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
  8. pynhedd

    you believe ia god who can f a r t

    September 18, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  9. Jim

    Correction before that becomes the topic...Religeon not RELIFEON

    September 18, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  10. Jim

    Everyone places all on the RELIFEON..Bapbist, Catholic...... it has nothing to do with that. It is between YOU and GOD. You don't answer for others and others don't answer for you. You answer for you.

    September 18, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  11. jona

    A bgi B S

    September 18, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  12. Loved Like All

    May God bless and help all of us according to our needs. The Church will still be here long after we are gone to assist others who have answered the call. Unless, of course, Jesus returns in our lifetime. Then all of us will have our answers!

    September 18, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • kimsland

      Idiot

      September 18, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • Colin

      Kimsland – either say something meaningful, or shut the f.uck up. You come across as a snotty nosed, self-important little pri.ck. You give us atheists a bad name.

      September 18, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • Amistavia

      They shouldn't let you out.

      September 18, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • Jim

      I'm sure Kim lives in Kimsland. Mr. Athiest, Why are you here?

      September 18, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • kimsland

      I am here to preach the truth.

      Ye all should follow my word.
      Jesus and religion is wrong

      Let me come into you

      September 18, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      you're right the church probably will be there long after any of us cease to exist but it stands to reason that it is going down...as more people come to the realization that the belief in a deity is not necessary to live, the less need there will be for a church to exist. Regardless of that fact it does not mean the church and what it teaches is correct.

      September 18, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • Fred1

      Jesus promised to return within 1 life time after his execution. He is about 1930 years behind on his pledge. I’m not much worried he’s going to come across any time soon

      For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. 28Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. (Matt. 16:27–28)

      September 18, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  13. Mister Dzenan Bozalija

    http://oxsurprise.awardspace.com/nonoxsurprise.html is waiting with many info power of new

    September 18, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Possum

      Link goes to a page of gibberish and a google search of key names on that page brings up more of it. Looks like some pseudo-swami-guru-self-help something-or-other , translated from German or Slavic language with a request for a $10 bank deposit to somewhere in Bosnia?? Yeah, right.

      September 18, 2011 at 11:26 am |
  14. MW

    Wow ... good to see you on the front page Fr. Rohr! Just got your book Falling Upward yesterday. The message that passes through you may not appeal to all ... but it is a welcome relief to those of us who have reached the wall or ceilings in our own lives.
    Love & Prayers,

    Mike

    September 18, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • kimsland

      Ha Ha Ha ha ha Ha Ha Ha ha .

      Good one (wipes tears from eyes)
      Please now tell me you read it, I need another laugh
      Come on, come on....

      September 18, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • Awkward Situations

      Did you read the other books in the series? Straddling sideways and Jumping still?

      September 18, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  15. Steven Bulcroft

    There is a book written for young people called "The Knight in Shinning Armor" that years ago coined the term "falling up". It talked about "letting go" and when the knight did let go he fell upwards and experienced a conversion of his spirit. So, basically this author appears to have adapted this concept for older people too! There really isn't anything new under the sun, just re writes and variations on the theme. In fact, this can be said of most stories.

    September 18, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • Colin

      Agreed. Most biblical stories were adoptions of earlier myths and legends, such as the virgin birth, creation and Noah's flood.

      September 18, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • kimsland

      Yes because the bible hasn't been re-written for the 3rd time just yet.

      It is extremely old, out of date, not in line with present society, and above all it's not helpful.

      So religious people have to steal old stories, they don't have any new information.

      September 18, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  16. Davidr

    These comments have mostly degenerated into people's responses toward religious dogma. The article is not about that. As to belief systems, I personally think that we believe what we want to believe, and we gravitate towards places where we can be told what we want to hear. Simple as that. This article is about what you have to face when your belief system no longer sustains you! Give that one some thought next time your "false self" starts believing false data.

    September 18, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • TheBlackSheep

      That is why some people jump from one cult to another, they do not believe in themselves.

      September 18, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • kimsland

      "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 ..."

      The article is religious, read it again.

      September 18, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  17. Amistavia

    So basically the moral of this article is- "It's great that people fall on their face. It gives the church the chance to provide them with false hope at a vulnerable moment, thus adding another paying member."

    September 18, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • Loved Like All

      They are donations, unlike some churches that require you to bring your tax forms and committ to paying a set amount each week.

      September 18, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • Andacar

      Ah, another stunning detour from the well known frothing at the mouth anti-Catholic. Careful, you'll get a hernia.

      September 18, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • Amistavia

      Andacar: If a were a boy in the Catholic Church, a hernia would be the least of my concerns.

      September 18, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • Awkward Situations

      Religion loves to capitalize on the suffering of people and chastise them for not being devout enough to avoid their unfortunate circ'umstances. I've heard this same tune when bible pushers comes to the door and say "Having a shi'tty live? Well, that's because you haven't found Jesus and you're a sinner! If you accept Jesus in your heart your troubles will go away."

      September 18, 2011 at 11:37 am |
  18. Frangible

    Ah yes, evangelical atheists. Typically the product of a very conservative Christian upbringing and a verbally abusive father. They move to San Francisco, become gay, and zealously preach the gospel of atheism whether people want to hear them or not... all the while thinking how much different and better than daddy they are. But the apple never falls far from the tree, and they're just as annoying as their parents were. Bravo, you've come a long way, baby.

    September 18, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • TheBlackSheep

      Yes, Frangible, Atheist are evil, and that is why, as Zip put it, you should follow "the largest organized pedophile ring" in the world.

      September 18, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • tallulah13

      You have any proof to back up that story? Or are you just making things up because you are afraid if you think too hard about what you believe, you will start to doubt it yourself, and then you'll have to face the fact that when you die, you'll just be dead?

      September 18, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  19. WakeupAmerica!

    Humanity as a whole, has always been, is and will always be MEAN !

    September 18, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • Steven Bulcroft

      I disagree "humanity" by and large are caring, compassionate, social animals and when they act this way they are healthy and happy, but the media and other sources continue to show us the worst side of people thus making the impression that we are mean and hateful. When left to our own we tend to be compassionate and loving.

      September 18, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • Jim

      I agree, ppl are MEAN and SELFISH by nature. That's where God comes in. As he gets removed society becomes meaner. You can argue all you want but the proof is in the pudding.

      September 18, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • Fred1

      So Jim: Tell us about all about how the people of Sweden have become meaner and more selfish as they have removed god from their society. Especially compared to the Iranian government since it became a theocracy

      September 18, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Show us this pudding, Jim. Certainly the natives of the Americas weren't better off when Europeans and their god showed up.

      September 18, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  20. zip

    Hard to accept religious instruction from the largest organized pedophile ring in the history of the planet.

    September 18, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • Loved Like All

      Yes, and what are your sins and will they be forgiven? Your choice and action on this very question will be your choice that determines your destination for eternal dwelling.

      September 18, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      @LLA: eternal dwelling?? he/she will be dead either in an urn or a coffin...I'm certain he/she won't care much at that point

      September 18, 2011 at 10:36 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.