In the course of finding God in all situations, which is the rich discovery of contemplative prayer, we are often surprised to find that God is revealed in sadness as well as joy; in darkness as well as light; in doubt as well as faith.
Falling is an image of darkness and doubt that Richard Rohr uses in his latest book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. As the dust jacket notes suggest, “Climbing, achieving, and performing will not serve us as we grow older . . . eventually we need to see ourselves in a different and more life-giving way. This message of ‘falling down’ is the most resisted and counter-intuitive of messages in the world’s religions, including and most especially Christianity.”
The contemplation of small and large losses that are ubiquitous in life is an opportunity to discover unexpected and special blessings, whether in the context of aging, illness or personal or professional disappointment. The blessings revealed in such situations are profoundly significant. They have the power to deeply transform us and accelerate spiritual development. These are the blessings of mature spirituality.
The key to understanding the message of Christianity in regard to graces that are to be found in “falling upward” is the theological mystery surrounding the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. In order to achieve unfathomable joy, Jesus had to endure unspeakable suffering. While his story may be more dramatic than ours, it is not irrelevant to ours. Some suffering in the human experience is not only inevitable, it is necessary. Carl Jung called this “legitimate suffering.” The evangelist Matthew referred to it with paradoxical wit: “Anyone who wants to save his life must lose it. Anyone who loses his life will find it” (Matthew 16:25).
Philip Simmons’ promising literary career was just taking flight when he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Adjusting to this harsh reality was very difficult, but he chose to claim each moment of life by writing about his experience and agreeing to allow scenes to be filmed for a full year at his home in New Hampshire with his wife and young children. His book is called Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life. The feature documentary, The Man Who Learned to Fall, debuted in Montreal in 1994. A few years ago, I had the privilege of hearing a presentation to a group of therapists by its producer, Gary Beitel.
Part of the process of accepting loss for Simmons was a conviction that there is a silver lining to every cloud. He described a boyhood leap from rocks high above a pool of water ten feet deep:
My eyes are focused downward on the water rushing toward my feet, and I am happy, terrified, alive . . . we are all falling—all of us—falling. We are all, now, in the moment, in the midst of that descent . . . If we are falling toward pain and weakness, let us also fall toward sweetness and strength. If we are falling toward death, let us also fall toward life (Simmons, 12).
The genius of his book is in the word “learning.” It suggests two things. We can learn lessons from falling that help us to get up again, and we can learn how to fall as stuntmen and sportsmen to lessen the risk of serious injury from subsequent falls. We can avoid some falls but we cannot avoid them all. Pain, grief and loss are as much part of the human landscape as joy and growth. We learn to adjust our life strategies. Sometimes we even have to adjust our goals. As Simmons wrote, “Let us pray that if we are falling from grace, dear God let us also fall with grace, to grace” (Simmons, 12).
Like debilitating illness, growing older can feel like defeat, like losing the battle to live abundantly. We cannot achieve as much, as fast or sometimes even as well. We seem less productive, at least by the standard that the modern world measures success. We feel obliged to impress others with contributions that are valued in economic terms but cannot. Paradoxically, falling can be the direction of failure or of deepening. There is a richness to be discovered in what lies below the surface.
Often obscured from view is the underlying meaning of our lives, the thread that ties together the phases of development from cradle to grave. The existence and truth of this integrating principle is layered over by selective memories about the past and virtual unconsciousness about the present moment. Consequently, awareness of our true self, of its ongoing potential and what constitutes our true joy, is denied.
During our “productive” years, we were often narcotised by busyness, obsessively driven to more and more busyness in an illusory pursuit of meaning, security and satisfaction. Aging and the limitations that come with it oblige us to focus on what is rather than on the idealization of what was or on the fear of what may lie ahead.
We are challenged to find meaning in who we are without these extras,” comments Janet Malone in a reflection on aging in religious life. “No longer looking for self-worth, success and status, what we do, how we minister now comes from a truly realized sense of who we are, a self-worth that has been honed and shaped in the desert of letting go, letting come, letting be (Malone, 7).
Joan Chittister writes in The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully, “The task of every stage of life is to confront its fears so that it can become more than it was . . . . For the middle aged, it is dealing with the fear of failure. For those of us who have moved beyond the middle years, it is learning to cope with the fear of weakness” (Chittister, 19). She adds that we typically associate value with productivity that is measured in economic terms. In such a context, aging seems like devaluation. Rather, she proposes, we must redefine what it means to make a contribution to the world through, among other things, more authentic relationships, insightful mentoring and an expanded capacity for forgiveness and gratitude.
With grace, the fear that naturally comes with loss of youth becomes a transformation of the self in serenity and wisdom. Preoccupation with efficiency and achievement is replaced by a serene and loving witness to values that are often perilously overlooked by younger people and the joy that emerges from a deeper understanding of being as opposed to having or doing. Regret gives way to fulfillment.
Wisdom and integration of all the previous achievements—trust, autonomy, initiative, industry, identity, intimacy and generativity—are the gift and ability,respectively, of the later years of life, as identified in Erikson’s view of psychosocial development. According to Erikson, opposing basic trust is mistrust; autonomy, shame and doubt; initiative, guilt; industry, inferiority; identity, role confusion; intimacy, isolation; generativity, stagnation; ego integrity, despair. This presupposes that the pervasive questions that are proper to each stage have been adequately resolved. The unsavory alternative at this point is despair in the face of diminished capacities and a gnawing feeling that opportunities and even life as a whole have been wasted. The existential question in retirement, therefore, hinges on the intrinsic value of life, rather than the productive value (Psychology Today, 427f).
What illness and aging have in common is vulnerability. The essence of a contemplative attitude seems to be vulnerability, writes Veronica Ward. As often is the case, her experience of personal failure was the fertile soil of spiritual development. But the contemplation of failure is only fruitful if we accept beforehand that such a possibility exists. For many people, failure has no redeeming value and must be thrown behind without the slightest consideration.
She adds, “Suffering is not good in and of itself, but the contemplative person may put suffering to good use” (Ward, 200). Fullness and failure may appear to be opposites. Essentially they are opposites but inextricably tied. They are two sides of the same coin, coexisting in symbiotic relationship. It is in the confidence of knowing, as Saint Paul writes, “whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10), that we can accept failure as merely a milestone on the journey of spiritual progress. But how can we arrive at a genuine understanding of this paradox without a contemplative attitude, one that does not prejudge the value of an encounter with what stands before us or a sudden awareness of what it evokes inside us?
Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston who studies the human capacity for empathy, belonging and love, became aware of the nature of this fragility and focused her work on authenticity and vulnerability. She concluded that frank awareness of our vulnerability is the key to authenticity and honesty in relationships. This principle applies equally to human interactions and to contemplative prayer.
Two years ago, she gave a talk in which she described as destructive the propensity to numb vulnerability. She presented as evidence indebtedness, obesity, addiction and the widespread use of pharmaceutical agents. Her breakthrough insight was to realize that emotions cannot be numbed selectively:
So when we numb (vulnerability, grief, shame, fear, and disappointment), we numb joy, we numb gratitude, and we numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle (Brown, TedTalk).
Numbing extends beyond feelings, Brown says. It also applies to attitudes and values:
Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. The more afraid we are, the more vulnerable we are, and the more afraid we are. This is what politics looks like today. There’s no discourse anymore. There’s no conversation. There’s just blame. You know how blame is described in the research? A way to discharge pain and discomfort.
The better path, argues Brown, is to operate from a conviction that “I am enough,” and to stop fearing our inadequacies. This relaxes the heart and opens the mind to listening without fear. It liberates the power of compassion that naturally seeks to minister not only to others but also to our own wounded self. It makes us kinder and gentler to others and to ourselves, the effect of which is to allow our giftedness to surface and for joy to result from unrestrained deployment of these gifts.
THE LESSONS OF FAILURE
Contemplative prayer doesn’t allow us to dwell in weakness or failure, or remain mired in negativity. Rather, it urges us to recognize that set-backs are real but that they do not define us unless we let them. All situations contain seeds of hope and joy. The contemplative mind sees and nurtures these seeds as the vital gifts of life that are unique to such situations. The contemplative attitude is one of abundance.
The contemplative eye is a healthy one, free from the infection of regret and anxiety, the blindness of ignorance, the myopia of fear and the cataracts of defeatism. It allows light and shadow to reach the soul without judgement and reveal truth unblemished. The contemplative heart embraces light with joy and shadow with the consolation of deeper understanding. The contemplative spirit is alert to truth and love, which are to be found in proportions equal to freedom from falseness. Contemplative prayer expects and finds grace in all situations.
As the prologue to John’s Gospel reads, “A light shines in the darkness, a light that darkness cannot overcome” (John 1:5). Contemplative prayer seeks and finds that light, no matter how faint it appears to be at first. Then, as it draws nearer, the light grows larger and larger until it fills all the dark spaces outside and inside. Sadly, most of us do not know this light; we do not trust that it exists or that it has the power to overcome the darkness.
Light is life. Shadows merely frame it. But like all frames, they can also serve to emphasize beauty, and to attract our gaze and awe. The light that darkness cannot overcome is blinding to those who seek bling instead. In time, the dazzle of human artifices diminishes and finally is extinguished by the despair of certain disappointment. Aging gracefully, accepting defeat graciously and bearing adversity generously are what provide the discernment that is needed to recognize the true light that grows and endures and satisfies our deepest yearning.
Contemplative prayer welcomes success spontaneously but soberly. It also examines failure with humility and care. The lessons of failure are practical and should never become pathological. Failure must never impair hope or injure confidence that is rooted in healthy self-understanding. Nor should it ever be permitted to undermine faith in God, in others or in our true and higher self. When others disappoint us, we must move forward with prudence and perseverance. When we disappoint ourselves, we must continue to advance with optimism.
But because setbacks on the journey of life often stop movement that comes from an unconscious drive or reckless will, setbacks should be regarded as privileged moments to deepen our awareness of internal and external dynamics as well as the inter-dependencies between ourselves and others, between ourselves and God and between sometimes conflicted parts of our personality. In the complex operation of the human body, mind and spirit, things may have fallen out of alignment. It is never too late to deal with the conditions that led to failure—lovingly, judiciously and prayerfully.
It takes courage to confess and confront weakness without averting to denial or shrinking into shame or regret. It takes wisdom to stand in the gap between paralysis and growth. Sometimes, it takes the reassuring accompaniment of a friend, a spiritual director or a therapist to take that stand and help us hold that ground; then we can move forward freely.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote,
How surely gravity’s law, strong as an ocean current, takes hold of even the smallest thing and pulls it toward the heart of the world…This is what the things can teach us: to fall, patiently to trust our eaviness (Rilke, 16).
THE CONTEMPLATION OF DOUBT
As with other sources of distress and anxiety, doubt also seems to trigger a response of avoidance or denial. Oftentimes, we rationalize our way through contradictory evidence rather than face the possibility that our assumptions may be wrong. Exceptionally, we confess doubt, especially when the issue is inconsequential. But when doubt threatens a foundational belief, most of us tend to either minimize it or, if it is significant, become discouraged and de-motivated. Confusion or conflict in values and even fear displace the energy required to continue.
Thomas Merton wrote,
Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt. On the contrary, the deep, inexpressible certitude of the contemplative experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many questions in the depths of the heart like wounds that cannot stop bleeding. For every gain in deep certitude there is a corresponding growth of superficial “doubt.” This doubt is by no means opposed to genuine faith, but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious ‘faith’ of everyday life, the human faith which is nothing but the passive acceptance of conventional opinion (Merton, 12).
From this, we may conclude that doubt is a gift. It is a privileged pause in an otherwise mindless consumption of facts that are interpreted to confirm our tenaciously held presumptions. Doubt reminds us that we are not all-knowing and that there are limitations in our awareness, understanding, judgment and decisions about how to treat our daily experiences. Moreover, it invites us to look back and carefully consider how we got to this point before proceeding in a particular direction.
Ironically, doubt pushes into a kind of darkness where the true light resides, beyond the glare of invented brilliance which is often more akin to the gaudily webbed colored light with which we adorn houses at Christmastime than the distant star in the silent night that guided wise men to an epiphany that would change their lives and ours. Merton adds, “The more perfect faith is, the darker it becomes” (Merton, 134).
When faced with darkness, our human instinct is to escape it and, if we cannot, to close our eyes and numb our feelings. The wisdom of true light reminds us that faith is diluted, not strengthened by what Merton calls “the half-light of created images and concepts.” It’s amazing how blinded we become by half-truths and our own fixed ideas about life’s meaning and purpose. Yet, divine insight is possible for those who enter the darkness with faith, which is to say with trust in truth that can only be verified by abandoning defenses and pre-conceptions.
Faith enters the darkness confidently and accepts doubt as the stones with which to pave a new path, one that leads to the true spiritual life that is neither an orgy of pleasurable emotions nor a school of intellectually satisfying clarity but a relentless energy of wisdom and love. Wisdom, more specifically the wisdom of love, then provides a kind of night vision that satisfies the heart with consolation, as Ignatius understood that term (Fleming, 202ff), or “perfect joy,” as Francis of Assisi understood it (Celano, 165). It satisfies the mind with an intuitive knowing that exceeds the limitations of the senses and bounded rationality.
Setbacks in life break down feebly constructed certitudes. In my ministry, I meet a lot of people who are dealing with grief. I tell them that no significant loss will leave them unchanged. Loss that is faced truthfully results in a reconstruction of at least parts of the self, especially on spiritual, emotional and intellectual levels, sometimes even physical. It is as though the person is no longer capable of carrying the experience that shook the very foundations of his or her being. A new container is needed, one that is larger and more resilient; better adapted to the new data. This transformation can never be forced, but it must be allowed for transcendence of the loss to occur (Boileau, 38-43).
Initially at least, change may be resisted because of fear. Even when better alternatives are presented to the psyche, it tends to cling in desperation to what is familiar rather than let go of yet one more thing. Transformation is God’s work. Our job is to accept that circumstances have changed and to apply discernment in the new choices that we now face. Our job is to accept God’s providential love as the breath of life that is far more efficacious than any force that we can muster on our own. We tend to look back nostalgically, not seeking wisdom but wishing for the restoration of the life that existed before. God looks forward, hoping that we will learn something about life from our experiences and be open to new horizons, and always higher levels of consciousness and well-being.
Indeed, God’s Holy Spirit leads the willing to a new level of understanding in which there are, in fresh supply, awe with which to receive wonder, trust with which to face mystery and patience with which to deal with limitations. Love is transformed from a noun to a verb. “Falling” in love becomes a decision to love for better or worse, in sickness and in health. Love becomes a choice to allow the conversion that progressively eradicates unworthy notions from the mind, one illusion at a time; shifts the focus of the heart’s preoccupation from what feels good to what is objectively good. And it sets unity as its highest goal—integrity of the self, solidarity with others and communion with the ultimate Other.
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