Godtalk: Christian Growing Pains


Man praying with icon of the Trinity

The first half of our journey through life, according to Ronald Rolheiser OMI,  is a struggle with the untamed energies of youth - restlessness, sexuality, the ache for intimacy, the push for achievement,  the search for a moral cause, the hunger for roots, and the longing for a companionship and a place that feels like home.  The second half is more a struggle with God.

It's not easy, he says, especially when we're young, to make peace with the fires inside us. We need to establish our own identity and find, for ourselves, intimacy, meaning, self-worth, quiet from restlessness, and a place that feels like home. We can spend fifty years, after we've first left home, finding our way back there again.

The good news is that, generally, we do get there. In mid-life, perhaps only in late mid-life, we achieve a certain maturity - basic peace, a more integrated sexuality, a sense of self-worth, and an essential unselfishness. We've found our way home.

And there, as once before the onset of adoloscence, we're relatively comfortable again, content enough to recognise that our youthful journeyings, while exciting, were also full of restlessness. We'd like to be young again, but we don't want all that disquiet a second time.  So where do we go from there, from home? 

The second half of life, like the first, also demands a journey. While the first half of life, as we saw, is taken up with the search for identity, meaning, self-worth, intimacy, rootedness, and making peace with our sexuality, the second half has another purpose, as expressed in Job’s epigram: "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I go back."

Where do we go from home? To an eternal home with God. But, to do that, we have first to shed many of the things that we acquired and attached ourselves to during the first-half of life. The spiritual task of the second half of life, so different from the first, is to let go, to move to the nakedness that Job describes.

We need first to detach ourselves from our wounds and anger. The foremost spiritual task of the second half of life is to forgive others, ourselves, life, God. We all arrive at mid-life wounded and not having had exactly the life of which we dreamed. There's some disappointment and anger inside us and unless we find it in ourselves to forgive, we will die bitter, unready for heaven.

Secondly, we need to detach ourselves from the need to possess, to achieve, and to be the centre of attention. The task of the second half of life is to become the quiet, blessing grandparent who is happy simply watching the young grow and enjoy themselves.

Yet we need to learn how to say goodbye to the earth and our loved ones so that, just as in our youth we once gave our lives for those we love, we can now give our deaths to them too, as a final gift. We need to let go of sophistication and become someone whose only message is that God loves us - ‘wise as serpents but simple as doves’

Finally, we need more and more, to immerse ourselves in the language of silence, the language of heaven.  ‘Nothing so much resembles God as silence.’ (Meister Eckhart)  The task of mid-life is to begin to understand that and enter into that language.

It's a painful process, but a central piece within a mature spirituality;   which, like Job, tells us that God's eternal embrace can only become fully ecstatic once we've learned to let go – and see all our heartbreaks as growing pains. 

Peter Knott SJ