The Container and the Contents
Sunday, June 19 , 2016
Theologically and objectively speaking, we are created in union with God from the beginning (e.g., Ephesians 1:3-6). But it is very hard for people to believe or experience this when they have no positive sense of identity, no strong boundaries, and little inner religious experience. Thus, the first part of the spiritual journey is about externals, formulas, superficial emotions, flags and badges, correct rituals, Bible quotes, and special clothing, all of which largely substitute for an actual spiritual journey (see Matthew 23:13-32). Yet they are all used and needed to create the container. Yes, it is largely style and sentiment instead of real substance, but even that is probably necessary. Just don’t devote your entire life to it. This familiar motto, which Pope John XXIII echoed, is apt: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things, charity.” That is second-half-of-life, hard-won wisdom.
In the first half of our lives, we have no container for such content as true love or charity, no wine skins that are prepared to hold such utterly intoxicating wine. Authentic God experience always “burns” you, yet does not destroy you, just as the burning bush did to Moses (see Exodus 3:2-3). But most of us are not prepared for such burning, nor even told to expect it. By definition, authentic God experience is always “too much”! It consoles our True Self only after it has devastated our false self. We must begin to be honest about this instead of dishing out fast-food religion, which only wants consolation–and largely about non-essentials.
Early-stage religion is primarily preparing you for the immense gift of this burning, the inner experience of God, as though creating a proper stable into which the Christ can be born. Unfortunately, most people get so preoccupied with their stable, and whether their stable is better than your stable, or whether their stable is the only “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” stable that they never get to the birth of God in the soul.
As a priest for over four decades, I find that much of the spiritual and pastoral work of churches is often ineffective at real transformation of consciousness. As a spiritual director, I find that people facing the important trans formative issues of social injustice, divorce, failure, gender identity, an inner life of prayer, or any radical reading of the Gospel are usually bored and limited by the typical Sunday church agenda. And these are good people! But they keep on doing what Bill Plotkin calls their survival dance because no one has told them about their sacred dance.  In short, we have not found a way to do the age-appropriate tasks of the two halves of life.
Most churches just keep doing the first half of life over and over again. Young people are made to think that the container is all there is and all they should expect; or that they are mature and home free because they believe a few right things or perform some correct rituals. The would-be maturing believer is not challenged to any adult faith or service to the world, much less mystical union. Everyone ends up in a muddled middle, where “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” as William Butler Yeats put it.  I am convinced that much of this pastoral and practical confusion has emerged because we need to clarify the real differences, the needs, and the somewhat conflicting challenges of the two halves of our own lives.
 Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche (New World Library: 2003), 84-85.
 William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming,” The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, ed. Richard Finneran (Scribner: 1996), 187.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey-Bass: 2011), 12-15.