So many people over the last year or more have told me I ought to read Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward that I finally gave in. It is, indeed, well worth reading if you are serious about undertaking the spiritual work of later life, which is what I aspire to. At first reading (a phrase which rightly suggests this book feels like wisdom you should re-read and then re-read again) I would say it’s all very well, but it doesn’t actually tell you how to do this work. But Rohr insists it isn’t something we do. It’s something which is done unto us. The book, then, is perhaps more of an encouragement to the older spiritual seeker. It’s saying: Don’t worry, what you are experiencing is perfectly normal. You’re not going mad, or losing your faith or your marbles. This is all a natural part of that further journey we are all invited to make, provided we are open to it.
The second-half-of-life work that Rohr talks about is not literally confined to the last forty years of a fourscore year life. Some people embark on it earlier, others later or never. The crossover point is always some experience which Rohr calls necessary suffering: grief, bereavement, failure or falling, wrestling with our own shadow. “But often (it may be) just a gnawing desire for ‘ourselves’, for something more, or what I call ‘homesickness’.”
The desire for something more, the obscure sense that ‘there must be something more than this’, certainly rings true. Are there any Christians at all who come to faith at some point, and then happily stay at that point, or make steady spiritual growth without a second thought for the whole of their lives? It seems almost a ‘given’ of contemporary Christianity, that we feel something’s missing. Have we been sold short? Is it our own sin or failure that we don’t seem to enjoy God more than we are doing? This is the longing, surely, that fuels the Charismatic Movement, the tradition of renewal or revival meetings, and all the attempts long-time Christians make to find that elusive ‘something more’.
“Is there more to life than this?” has even become one of the main slogans or straplines of Alpha; and when I read this part of Rohr’s introduction, it was a kind of revelation of another part of the reason I don’t like Alpha. It’s great if it’s a slogan which attracts genuine outsiders to the church, spiritual seekers who have really had no acquaintance with the Christian faith, for whom Alpha could be a really life-changing meeting with God. But I suspect that for many – and certainly in the churches where I’ve experienced Alpha – it’s not actually like this. In many of these places, the people who come to Alpha, who loyally support it because the vicar asked them to, are the folk who’ve been faithful Christians for years. And, yes, many of them possibly come because they self-identify with the question, Is there more to life than this?
My big doubt is around whether they will actually find that ‘more’ by sitting through what is effectively another Christian basics course, like so many they may have sat through before. Or will they again go away disappointed, doubting, secretly asking why it hasn’t ‘worked’ for them the way they imagine it has for so many others?
What they need is something that will recognise and build on the knowledge and faith they already have, rather than treat them as if they have to simply make yet another decision or act of commitment to Christ. I believe that something can be found in one of the Church of England’s best kept secrets, the Anglican Cursillo Movement.
Cursillo is a Spanish word meaning a ‘little course’, for the origins of Cursillo were in post-Civil War Spain, from where it spread to Latin America, then to the United States, then to Britain. It provides a method, in some ways similar to early Methodism, by which established Christians can live a more intentional life of Christian discipleship, around the areas of Prayer, Study, and Action. The usual way of becoming a cursillista, a member of the Cursillo movement, is to attend a long weekend which is a refresher course in Christian faith, practice, and prayer. Many participants will testify that it is an immensely affirming and even life-changing experience, when their faith becomes re-awakened in an experience of God’s love for them, and theirs for God. And it doesn’t end with the weekend. The Cursillo ‘method’ involves continuing an active member of one’s own church, but also becoming part of a regular Reunion Group with other cursillistas, to support and pray with one another.
Alpha really may be the best thing since sliced bread for the unchurched person who wants to find out about the Christian faith. But for the many who have done it because they were looking for a renewal or revival of the faith they already have, they would do much better finding out about Cursillo and seeing what it can offer.
In another of Cursillo’s quaint little expressions: Ultreya!1
- Spanish for Onwards and upwards! The words that pilgrims say to others to encourage them on their pilgrimage. ↩