The life and death of a human being is so exquisitely calibrated as to automatically produce union with Spirit.
--Kathleen Dowling Singh
I want to talk about notions of maturity, eldership, staging, sequencing, growth and direction or, what I will call, ripening. Where is this thing we call "life" headed? Who sets the standard? Is there any standard?
Beginning with Jesus' four kinds of soil and receptivity (Mt 13:4-9), to John of the Cross' "nights" and Teresa of Avila's "mansions," through the modern schemas of Jean Piaget, James Fowler, Lawrence Kohlberg, Eric Erickson, Abraham Maslow, Carol Gilligan and Bill Plotkin, each clarify that there is a clear direction and staging to maturity and therefore to human life. We live inside of some kind of coherence and purpose, a believer might say.
Unless we can somehow chart this trajectory, we have no way to discern growth or maturity, and no ability to discern what might be a full, fuller or fullest human response. Neither do we have any criteria for discerning an immature, regressive or even sick response. When pluralism itself becomes the goal, a postmodern dilemma is created. There must be a direction to ripening -- one that moves us beyond any exclusive concern with physical aging, because our concerns are much broader than that. We must also recognize that any steps toward maturity are, by necessity, immature. An understanding of ripening basically teaches us the wisdom of timing, love and patience, and allows us to be wise instead of judgmental.
Having said that, and if I am to believe the novels, myths, poems and people that I have met in my life, old age is almost never described as an apex of achievement, hardly ever sitting atop a summit with the raised arms of a victorious athlete. It is something else, almost always something else -- usually something other than what was initially imagined, or even hoped for.
Ripening reveals much bigger or very different horizons than we realize. The refusal to ripen leads to what T.S. Eliot spoke of in "The Hollow Men," lives that "end not with a bang but with a whimper." I trust that you are one of those who will move toward your own endless horizons and not waste time in whimpering. Why else would you even read this article? Hopefully to help you trust that you are, in fact, being led. Life, your life, all life, is going somewhere and somewhere good. You do not need to navigate the river, for you are already flowing within it.
Ripening, at its best, is a slow, patient learning, and sometimes even a happy letting-go -- a seeming emptying out to create readiness for a new kind of fullness -- which we are never sure about. If we do not allow our own ripening, and I do believe it is a natural process, an ever-increasing resistance and denial sets in, an ever-increasing circling of the wagons around an over-defended self. At our very best, we learn how to hope as we ripen, to move outside and beyond self-created circles, which is something quite different from the hope of the young. Youthful hopes have concrete goals, whereas the hope of older years is usually aimless hope, hope without goals, even naked hope -- perhaps real hope.
Such stretching is the agony and the joy of later years, although one can avoid both of these rich experiences too. Old age, as such, is almost a complete changing of gears and engines from the first half of our lives, and does not happen without slow realization, inner calming, inner resistance, denial and eventual surrender, by God's grace, working with our ever-deepening sense of what we really desire and who we really are. This process seems to largely operate unconsciously, although we jolt into consciousness now and then, and the awareness that you have been led, often despite yourself, is experienced as a deep gratitude that most would call happiness.
This movement is the natural and organic inner work of the second half of our lives, especially if we are granted the full "70 years, or 80 if we are strong" (Ps 90:10). Of course, for many the whole process of ripening, and the deepening of desire, is cut short by tragic, untimely death. Yet we have all seen much younger people accelerate the entire process through an early, perhaps fatal, illness. (If the dying process occurs consciously, it is an extremely accelerated ripening, as in a hot house.) Why would any of us ripen until it is demanded of us? For some the demand comes early. Maybe God knows that most of the rest of us are slow learners and need more time to ripen.
Reality, fate, destiny, providence and tragedy are slow but insistent teachers. The horizon of old age seems to be a plan that God has prepared as inevitable and part of the necessary school of life. What is gratuitously given is also gratuitously taken away, just as Job slowly came to accept. And sometimes we remember that his final pained response was "Blessed be the name of the Lord!" (Jb 1:21). We all live in the same cycle of unrequested birth and unrequested death. Someone else is clearly in control, yet most of our lives are spent accepting and surrendering to this truth, and in trusting that this "someone" is good and trustworthy besides. It is the very shape of faith and the entire journey of faith.
If we are to speak of a spirituality of ripening, we need to recognize that it is always (and I do mean always) characterized by an increasing tolerance for ambiguity, a growing sense of subtlety, an ever-larger ability to include and allow, a capacity to live with contradictions and even to love them! I cannot imagine any other way of coming to those broad horizons except through many trials, unsolvable paradoxes, and errors in trying to resolve them.
Without such a gradually-renewed mind and heart, we almost certainly will end with a whimper, not just our own but also the whimpering of those disappointed souls gathered around our sick bed or gravestone. Too many lives have indeed been lives of "quiet desperation" and God must surely rush to console and comfort all humans before, during, and after their passing. Many put off enlightenment as long as they can. Maybe this whole phenomenon is what Catholics actually mean by purgatory. Without such after-death hope, I would go crazy with sadness at all the lives which appear to end so unripened. The All-Merciful One is surely free to show mercy even after we die. Why would God be all-loving before death but not after death? Isn't it the same God? I've seen no one die perfectly "whole." We are all saved by mercy, "wound round and round," as Merton said. Some do appear to float into pure love in their very final days among us.
A ripening mind and heart is most basically a capacity for non-dual consciousness and contemplation. Many might just call it growth in compassion, but surely no growth in compassion is likely unless one learns how to forgive as a very way of life, and to let go of almost everything as we first imagined it had to be. This is possible as we grow in the more truly Jewish, and eventually Christian, notion of faith, where not-knowing (the apophatic way) must be carefully paired with knowing (the kataphatic way). The Judeo-Christian tradition balanced our so-called knowing with trust, patience, allowing, waiting, humility, love, and forgiveness, which is very nearly the entire message and surely the core message necessary for the possibility of ripening. Otherwise, we all close down, and history freezes up with all of its hurts, memories, and resentments intact.
Non-dual consciousness was largely lost after the in-house fighting of the Christian reformations (16th century) and the defensive posturing of the Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries). Henceforth we thought we had to know or, at least, pretend that we did know to prove the others wrong. We deemed full certitude as a total need, and even a right and obligation! How strange and impossible it is when you think about it.
We now study the Scriptures, but only with great difficulty do we share in the actual consciousness of Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Job, Jesus, and the many Marys of the New Testament. They became pious stories of an idyllic time rather than reflecting a level of consciousness. In between, there have been thousands of years of history, religious reformations, and rational thinking. For the most part, we no longer "understand spiritual things in a spiritual way" (1 Cor 2:13) -- which is truly the only way to understand them. A non-dual way of knowing in the moment gives us a life process and not simply momentary dualistic answers, which always grow old because they are never totally true.
So my guidance is a simple reminder and recall to what we will be forced to learn by necessity and under pressure anyway -- the open-ended way of allowing and the deep meaning that some call faith. To live in trustful faith is to ripen, it is almost that simple. Let's start practicing now, early in our life, so we do not have to take a crash course in our final years, weeks, and days. The best ripening happens over time.
Adapted from Richard Rohr's Introduction to the Fall 2013 edition of Oneing, the publication of the Rohr Institute, copyright © 2013, Center for Action and Contemplation.