Falling Upward – Jomari Manzano, SJ

Luke 1:26-38, Fourth Sunday of Advent

In 2011, Fr Richard Rohr, OFM published his book with a catchy title—”Falling Upward.” It talks about directions taken at the two major stages in life or what Carl Jung calls the “two halves of life.” Let us take Mary and Elizabeth as representing the two stages or halves of life. According to Fr Rohr, the first half is the time when we are still building our own identity. He likens this identity to a container that makes up our basic sense of self. The second half of life is about the content. When one advances in age, he or she cannot avoid to ask purpose-of-life questions, “What is it all for? What does it mean to be me?—the things that I have accepted or not accepted about myself these past years of my existence.” Most of us tend to confine the second half of life to just about growing old, and the first half to being at the prime of life. But the reverse is equally true. Mary, at the tender age of thirteen or fourteen, already reached the second half of her life after she said ‘yes’ to the angel.


Pope Francis tells young people that God “does not want us to narrow our horizons or to remain parked on the roadside of life,” but instead he “wants us to race boldly and joyfully toward lofty goals” (November 22, 2020, Christ the King). He tells them to dream big and “to make God’s dreams come true in this world.” But dreaming is not for the young only. Pope Francis, in an exclusive interview recorded for The Tablet likewisesays, “Yet the elderly continue to be our roots. And they must speak to the young. This tension between young and old must always be resolved in the encounter with each other. Because the young person is bud and foliage, but without roots they cannot bear fruit. The elderly are the roots. I would say to them, today: I know you feel death is close, and you are afraid, but look elsewhere, remember your children, and do not stop dreaming. This is what God asks of you: to dream (Joel 3:1).”


Mary must have had her own ambitions and big dreams too. It is necessary for the first half of life. But something like the Annunciation will come to us in one way or another. Let us face it! The angel brought not only good news but also news that was difficult to swallow. It turned things upside down in Mary’s life. There are moments like this when we feel we are not getting any closer to what we dreamed of. Failures weigh us down. But not everything is a loss. It is just the beginning of the transition to the second half of life; we start to “fall upward” so to speak. In the second half of life, it is no longer sufficient to find meaning in successes or achievements. We need a deeper anchor or purpose. Like Mary, it seemed impossible to swallow at first but she trusted in the angel’s words—”the Lord is with you.” After acknowledging her fears, she completely turned her life to God. The first half of Mary’s life culminated with her ‘yes’. She realized what her life was all for. She was transformed from being a young Jewish girl into being the Mother of God.


There are those of us who fall in love but not necessarily with the weight of love. One can tell if it is the weight of love if there is patience… kindness… groundedness. This love endures all things and, above all, it is not selfish. “My love is my weight” says St. Augustine. The requirement in falling upward or downward is the weight of love. Ecclesiastes puts it bluntly, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity” (Ecc 1:2). The Hebrew word, הֶבֶל (heh’bel), which means “vapor or breath” is translated as vanity, i.e., without weight. All is vanity except when there is love. The weight of love is the only thing we can bring with us in our journey back to heaven.
It does not have to be great works, but small works as long as they are done with great love (Mother Teresa). The “magis” or the “more” of every creature is to be seen in view of God’s ever greater love which gives its proper weight. If it is not in relation to God, we build in vain just like a bricklayer who lays the stones but not according to the capstone. Everything gains solidity by virtue of being grounded in Christ—the capstone of the Christian life. It is the only and most secure ground for the whole Christian life. Without love everything can be washed away. Neither is it just dependent on human concepts. No. Concepts and ideas are hollow. That is why when someone is said to have “gravitas” that person has put on the weight of love, not just breath. Gravitas is achieved through the necessary experiences of pain and suffering.

“God is love.” By virtue of this truth love cannot be contained. Or perhaps it is the container together with all the contents. Hans Urs Von Balthasar says about love, “Love means: ‘All my strength and heart and mind are straining themselves to affirm you, O God (and myself only in you), and those whom you have placed beside me as my neighbors’.” Love’s enigma is that, though it can’t be contained, it is already present in one’s heart. Pope Francis uses this imagery in his homily during the First Sunday of Advent. He says, “Charity is the beating heart of the Christian.” Also at the Angelus he says, “Every day. He is at the door of our heart. He knocks.” God has given us a heart of flesh, not of stone, where love could enter and grow.

God has a heart too, for God loved us first. He was first in straining His heart and mind to give the full weight of His love in the person and flesh of Jesus. I believe it is the heart that is the image and likeness of God in us. Having a heart of flesh means God risked we could reject Him. Not only that, God risked being killed for such love is self-sacrificing in its nature. When it is put off it does not become less love, it remains as love. “Love never fails.” It can shine all the more without becoming show off. Never be afraid then even if you think you have not loved God enough; for He loved us already even before we can even love Him back. God did not “talk” love the way humans do. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1). When I was assigned as a parish parish, whenever I would talk or preach about love, I felt obliged to practice love. I felt guilty, with a pinch inside me, when I realized my love was just breath. That is why any “talk” about love is like making a solemn promise to fulfill it which, many times, we fail to do. “They do not love that do not show their love” (Shakespeare, The Two Gentlemen of Verona). When God promised the Word, He fulfilled it.

When we love let us not seek to be loved in return. Jesus says love without expectations to caution us from seeking love of created beings instead of the love of his Father—the most enduring and fulfilling love. Let us say together with St. Ignatius “Give me only the love of you and your grace to fulfill it. That is enough.” “For when God loves, all he desires is to be loved in return; the sole purpose of his love is to be loved, in the knowledge that those who love him are made happy by their love of him” (From a sermon St. Bernard of Clairvaux). For someone who has not transitioned into the second half of life, his or her love tends to be egoistic. Love, in the second half of life, matures and ripens to be more Christ-like and less concerned about oneself. It moves out towards the greatest love from which all life is born. No doubt this is the only weight that we can bring with us back to heaven—the weight of love, a heart full of love. Again let us not fret if we feel like our love is unrequited on earth because these are the true treasures that we have already started to store in heaven even if we are not there yet. God requites it with His unfailing love. Everything else is without weight.

*image from the Internet

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