Richard Rohr explores the spiritual gifts of aging


The Franciscan friar Richard Rohr ranks high on many people’s lists of “living saints” because of his courageous and creative spiritual teaching. In two dozen books and decades of classes and retreats, Rohr has tackled the truly big challenges of daily life: finding hope in the midst of tragedy, struggling against injustice and learning forms of prayer that can renew our lives even in the midst of darkness. Now, in Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, he tackles the most dreaded challenge we all face: finding the spiritual treasures of aging.

Interestingly enough, Rohr doesn’t describe “Falling Upward” that way himself. In our Wednesday interview with Rohr, you’ll hear him describe this new book as a holistic overview of the potential spiritual stages throughout a truly good and satisfying life. In these pages, he describes the simplicity of youth, moving through the complexity of mid-life and—if we open ourselves to the best stirrings of the spirit—then there’s the satisfying simplicity of wisdom that comes with older age.

In recommending his book, we prefer to highlight this second half of his new book, because there are so few resources available that help us think about aging as a spiritual gift. We dread getting older in America and, in popular books and films, we treat aging like a disease we must cure—or, at worst, a pitiful disorder we must avoid at all costs.

What a pleasure to discover Rohr’s guiding voice, leading us as a master of spiritual disciplines, to see within aging—not a dreaded monster, but an actual spiritual goal in living. A goal, that is, if we can accept this confident, compassionate wisdom that no longer needs to settle all questions—and no longer needs to sort the world into neat groups of friends and foes. That awareness can come with age, if we understand the power of that spiritual gift, he writes.

Good thing, too! Because, as you’ll learn in our Wednesday interview, Rohr is close to a retirement that he has carefully been planning—so he is betting his own life on this wisdom. On Wednesday, don’t miss our interview with this contemporary sage. Today, we’re quoting a few lines from his new book, “Falling Upward,” to give you a better feel for what he’s teaching now.


Using his own life as an example in Chapter 9, he writes: I began as a very conservative pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic, living in innocent Kansas, pious and law abiding, buffered and bounded by my parents’ stable marriage and many lovely liturgical traditions that sanctified my time and space. That was my first wonderful simplicity. I was a very happy child and young man, and all who knew me then would agree.

Yet I grew in my experience, and was gradually educated in a much larger world of the 1960s and 1970s, with degrees in philosophy and theology, and a broad liberal arts education given me by the Franciscans. That education was a second journey into rational complexity. I left the garden, just as Adam and Eve had to do, even though my new Scripture awareness made it obvious that Adam and Eve were probably not historical figures, but important archetypal symbols. Darn it! My parents back in Kansas were worried! I was heady with knowledge and “enlightenment” and was surely not in Kansas anymore. I had passed, like Dorothy, “over the rainbow.” It is sad and disconcerting for a while, outside the garden, and some lovely innocence dies, yet “angels with flaming swords prevented my return” to the first garden (Genesis 3:24). There was no going back, unfortunately. Life was much easier on the childhood side of the rainbow.

As time passed, I became simultaneously very traditional and very progressive, and I have probably continued to be so to this day. I found a much larger and even happier garden (note the new garden described at the end of the Bible in Revelation 21!). I totally believe in Adam and Eve now, but on about 10 more levels. (Literalism is usually the lowest and least level of meaning.) I have lived much of my subsequent life like a man without a country—and yet a man who could go to any country and be at home. This nowhere land surprised even me. I no longer fit in with either the mere liberals or the mere conservatives. This was my first strong introduction to paradox, and it took most of midlife to figure out what had happened—and how—and why it had to happen. The “pilgrim’s progress” was, for me, sequential, natural, and organic as the circles widened.


In the first half of life, most men and women learn hard realities—the complexities—that can knock us to our knees. Many remain stooped and stressed in those struggles for the rest of their lives. But the world’s great religious traditons teach that a second half of life is possible in which we fall upward. We rely on our faith and growing awareness of the world to humble us and teach us to appreciate the precious mysteries of life. Where does falling upwards carry us?

Rohr writes: In the second half of life, we can give our energy to making even the painful parts and the formally excluded parts belong to the now unified field—especially people who are different, and those who have never had a chance. If you have forgiven yourself for being imperfect and falling, you can now do it for just about everybody else. If you have not done it for yourself, I am afraid you will likely pass on your sadness, absurdity, judgment and futility to others. This is the tragic path of the many elderly people who have not become actual elders, probably because they were never eldered or mentored themselves.

Such people seem to have missed out on the joy and clarity of the first simplicity, perhaps avoided the interim complexity, and finally lost the great freedom and magnanimity of the second simplicity as well. We need to hold together all of the stages of life, and for some strange, wonderful reason, it all becomes quite “simple” as we approach our later years.

In fact, if this book is not making it very simple for you, I am doing it wrong and you are hearing it wrong. The great irony is that you must go through a necessary complexity (perhaps another word for necessary suffering) to return to any second simplicity. There is no nonstop flight from first to second naiveté.

Care to read more on Richard Rohr?

Visit Rohr’s home website: His Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was founded in the 1980s and deliberately places the word “Action” in front of the word “Contemplation.” That’s a key to Rohr’s life-long approach to spiritual teaching.

Get the new book: You can order Richard Rohr’s new Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life from Amazon now.

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Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.


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