A Map of Our Lives
This is the third in a series of reflections on the idea of the hero.
The map above is from Richard Rohr’s From Wild Man to Wiseman: Reflections on Male Spirituality.
The title of it worries me a little, that this is the “male” spiritual journey and maybe implicitly the journey of white men. I don’t know how to deal with that problem except to admit it—it may be, for example, that the main theme of the chart, that we have to give up our power in order to grow in faith, doesn’t apply to people who don’t have the power to begin with.
But I’ll just say that in some way I can’t be completely sure of I think there’s still something true and maybe universal here, something we really need, terribly, at this moment.
Because this chart suggests that to become a hero, to become mature and whole, we have to give up our dreams of power and our dreams of certainty and our dreams of glory and surrender to the mystery of the way things really are. We have to move through disillusionment, to humility, to joy.
The key thing is how the line goes up steadily in youth as the young person works to establish an identity and gain a foothold in the world—and then is blocked, shuts down, when he or she experiences failure, enters into the crisis, as all young people do. Reality hits. Then the key is how to react, either by holding onto the illusion even into old age or by accepting reality and so gaining the freedom to be, just to be.
It’s a deeply Christian progression. It’s the Christian story and the Christian pattern. Rohr is a Franciscan after all. We must die to ourselves, we must take up our cross, and that means moving from an obsession with rules and a black and white view of the world to compassion and flexibility and good humor.
It means moving to what Rohr calls “mellowness,” which sometimes comes in old age, though of course a young person can attain to this wisdom in youth and an old man can fail attain it at all. I move up and down the chart every day, sometimes old and wise and sometimes young and foolish and often just in the middle of still another crisis of limitation, whether I know it or not. I fluctuate, as we all do.
It means discovering, Rohr says, that we need “spiritual guidance because the rules no longer work in their old form.” It means working on “letting go, trust, patience, surrender, holy abandonment, compassion.” It means that we finally become “secure enough to be insecure.”
This is where the Lord calls us, to the present moment. To here. To now. We not only have to observe the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. We have to be like them. Wild. Entirely dependent on the sun and the rain.
This is the story of all the great heroes, Achilles and Odysseus and Aeneas and Dante—all middle-aged when they finally start doing the real work, when they hit the wall, when they crash and burn. They have to break down in order to break through.
It’s the key to the story Augustine tells in his great autobiography, the first autobiography in Western culture, The Confessions, which really should be called the “Testimonies,” because that’s what the word “confessions” really suggests in Latin, not just Augustine telling us his sins but Augustine testifying to how the Lord was speaking to him in what he calls “drops of time,” in these key moments, in time, when he is called by the timeless love of God.
Augustine is in his thirties. He is a great orator and a famous professor of rhetoric, as accomplished and well-known as a movie star. But however much he has risen in the eyes of the world, interiorly the line is going down, interiorly he is falling, he is sad and lost and desolate. And he walks out in the street one day, full of this secret misery, and sees a beggar by the side of the road, and one of these “drops of time” occurs, a startling, unexpected moment of grace, of terrible grace. Because he realizes all at once that the beggar is happier than he is, far happier, even if that happiness is the result of dissipation or drink and isn’t finally deep and lasting. But it’s there. This man is happy, Augustine realizes, is free, and he, Augustine, is not:
I thought of how I was toiling away, spurred on by my desires and dragging after me the load of my unhappiness and making it all the heavier by dragging it, and it seemed to me that the goal of this and all such endeavors was simply to reach a state of happiness in which we are free from care; the beggar had reached this state before us, and we, perhaps, might never reach it at all.
It takes Augustine several more years to work out the implications of this and other moments, but ultimately, through grace, he does, breaking down in a garden in Milan and surrendering himself to the love of God and entering into the great freedom that comes through surrender. And when he does, he gives up all his fame and all the worldly trappings of success and gives himself to prayer and good works—going down in the eyes of the world but rising in his soul– becoming invisible to the world, but visible to God in his love, as he always was and didn’t know it. “For you were with me, and I was not with you.”
I think of two images. The first is of the late representative John Lewis, as a young man, being mowed down by the police on the William Pettis Bridge outside of Selma, Alabama in 1967, and letting himself be mowed down. Standing in front of the line and letting himself be struck, and tumbling on the ground with all the others, in the screaming and the confusion.
And I think of the iconic image of Dorothy Day as an old woman, sitting in her faded print dress in the midst of a protest against nuclear power, the protesters standing all around her. She is wearing a straw hat. She is looking up.
Are these images of surrender or of proclamation? Of failing to stand up or of witnessing?
For when we are weak, St. Paul says, then we are strong.
The call for us is to read our own drops of time, to pray our lives as the sacred texts they are. The call is to face our limitations. The call is to humility. The call is to the courage to accept who we really are and so enter into real life.
The call is to stand up and face oppression, to resist injustice, for ourselves and for others.
The call is to doubt any of the bitter men and the deluded men and the arrogant men who are continually trying to sell us another myth entirely, the myth of acquisition and power, the myth of exploitation and extraction, a myth that can only leave us empty and alone, shells of who we are really called to be.