Discharging Your Loyal Soldier: Shadow Work For Elders

Editor’s note: Fr. Richard Rohr, O.M.F., entered the Franciscan order in 1961 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1970. He founded the New Jerusalem Community in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1971 and the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1986 where he presently serves as Founding Director. He is an international speaker, teaching on such themes as male spirituality, adult Christianity, politics and spirituality, and non-dual thinking. He is the author of numerous books, including Everything Belongs; Adam’s Return; and, most recently, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. He lives in a hermitage behind his Franciscan community in Albuquerque.
The Way Up and the Way Down

The soul has many secrets. They are only revealed to those who want them, and are never completely forced upon us. One of the best-kept secrets, and yet one hidden in plain sight, is that the way up is the way down. Or, if you prefer, the way down is the way up. This pattern is obvious in all of nature, from the very change of seasons and substances on this earth, to the six hundred million tons of hydrogen that the sun burns every day to light and warm our earth, and even to the metabolic laws of dieting or fasting. The down-up pattern is constant, too, in mythology, in stories like that of Persephone, who must descend into the underworld and marry Hades for spring to be reborn.1

The way up is the way down

In legends and literature, sacrifice of something to achieve something else is almost the only pattern. Dr. Faust has to sell his soul to the devil to achieve power and knowledge; Sleeping Beauty must sleep for a hundred years before she can receive the prince’s kiss. In Scripture, we see that the wrestling and wounding of Jacob are necessary for Jacob to become Israel, and the death and resurrection of Jesus are necessary to create Christianity. The loss and renewal pattern is so constant and ubiquitous that it should hardly be called a secret at all.

Yet it is still a secret, probably because we do not want to see it. We do not want to embark on a further journey if it feels like going down, especially after we have put so much sound and fury into going up. This is surely the first and primary reason why many people never get to the fullness of their own lives. The supposed achievements of the first half of life have to fall apart and show themselves to be wanting in some way, or we will not move further. Why would we?

Normally a job, fortune, or reputation has to be lost, a death has to be suffered, a house has to be flooded, or a disease has to be endured. The pattern in fact is so clear that one has to work rather hard, or be intellectually lazy, to miss the continual lesson. This, of course, was Scott Peck’s major insight in his best-selling book, The Road Less Traveled. He told me personally once that he felt most Western people were just spiritually lazy. And when we are lazy, we stay on the path we are already on, even if it is going nowhere. It is the spiritual equivalent of the second law of thermodynamics: everything winds down unless some outside force winds it back up. True spirituality could be called the “outside force,” although surprisingly it is found “inside,” but we will get to that later.

Some kind of falling, what I will soon call “necessary suffering,” is programmed into the journey. All the sources seem to say it, starting with Adam and Eve and all they represent. Yes, they “sinned” and were cast out of the Garden of Eden, but from those very acts came “consciousness,” conscience, and their own further journey. But it all started with transgression. Only people unfamiliar with sacred story are surprised that they ate the apple. As soon as God told them specifically not to, you know they will! It creates the whole story line inside of which we can find ourselves.

It is not that suffering or failure might happen, or that it will only happen to you if you are bad (which is what religious people often think), or that it will happen to the unfortunate, or to a few in other places, or that you can somehow by cleverness or righteousness avoid it. No, it will happen, and to you! Losing, failing, falling, sin, and the suffering that comes from those experiences — all of this is a necessary and even good part of the human journey. As my favorite mystic, Lady Julian of Norwich, put it in her Middle English, “Sin is behovely!”. . .
Discharging Your Loyal Soldier

In his work at his Animas Institute in Durango, Colorado, Bill Plotkin takes people on long fasts and vision quests in nature. His work offers a very specific and truth-filled plan for moving from what he calls an “ego centric” worldview to a “soul centric” worldview.2 Like me, Plotkin is saddened by how much of our world stays at the egocentric first stage of life. His work reveals a historical situation in post World War II Japan that demonstrates how people could be helped to move from the identity of the first half of life to the growth of the second half. In this situation, some Japanese communities had the savvy to understand that many of their returning soldiers were not fit or prepared to reenter civil or humane society. Their only identity for their formative years had been to be a “loyal soldier” to their country; they needed a broader identity to once again rejoin their communities as useful citizens.3

So these Japanese communities created a communal ritual whereby a soldier was publicly thanked and praised effusively for his service to the people. After this was done at great length, an elder would stand and announce with authority something to this effect: “The war is now over! The community needs you to let go of what has served you and served us well up to now. The community needs you to return as a man, a citizen, and something beyond a soldier.” In our men’s work, we call this process “discharging your loyal soldier.”

This kind of closure is much needed for most of us at the end of all major transitions in life. Because we have lost any sense of the need for such rites of passage, most of our people have no clear crossover to the second half of their own lives. No one shows us the stunted and limited character of the worldview of the first half of life, so we just continue with more of the same. The Japanese were wise enough to create clear closure, transition, and possible direction. Western people are a ritually starved people, and in this are different than most of human history. Even the church’s sacraments are overwhelmingly dedicated to keeping us loyally inside the flock and tied to the clergy, loyal soldiers of the church. There is little talk of journeys outward or onward, the kind of journeys Jesus called people to go on.

The state also wants loyal patriots and citizens, not thinkers, critics, or citizens of a larger world. No wonder we have so much depression and addiction, especially among the elderly, and also among the churched. Their full life has been truncated with the full cooperation of both church and state.

The loyal soldier is similar to the “elder son” in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. His very loyalty to strict meritocracy, to his own entitlement, to obedience and loyalty to his father, keeps him from the very “celebration” that same father has prepared, even though he begs the son to come to the feast.4 We have no indication he ever came! What a judgment this is on first-stage religion, and it comes straight from the boss. He makes the same point in his story of the Pharisee and the tax collector,5 in which one is loyal and observant and deemed wrong by Jesus, and the other has not obeyed the law — yet is deemed “at rights with God.” This is classic “reverse theology” meant to subvert our usual merit-badge thinking. Both the elder son and the Pharisee are good loyal religious soldiers, exactly what most of us in the church were told to be, yet Jesus says that both of them missed the major point.

The voice of our loyal soldier gets us through the first half of life safely, teaching us to look both ways before we cross the street, to have enough impulse control to avoid addictions and compulsive emotions, to learn the sacred “no” to ourselves that gives us dignity, identity, direction, significance, and boundaries. We must learn these lessons to get off to a good start! It is far easier to begin life with a conservative worldview and respect for traditions. It gives you an initial sense of “place” and is much more effective in the long run, even if it just gives you “a goad to kick against.”6 Many just fall in love with their first place and position, as an extension of themselves, and spend their whole life building a white picket fence around it.

Without a loyal soldier protecting us up to age thirty, the world’s prisons and psych wards would be even more overcrowded than they are. Testosterone, addiction, ego, promiscuity, and vanity would win out in most of our lives. Without our loyal soldier, we would all be aimless and shapeless, with no home base and no sustained relationships, because there would be no “me” at home to have a relationship with. Lots of levers, but no place to stand.

Paradoxically, your loyal soldier gives you so much security and validation that you may confuse his voice with the very voice of God. If this inner and critical voice has kept you safe for many years as your inner voice of authority, you may end up not being able to hear the real voice of God. (Please read that sentence again for maximum effect!) The loyal soldier is the voice of all your early authority figures. His or her ability to offer shame, guilt, warnings, boundaries, and self-doubt is the gift that never stops giving. Remember, it can be a feminine voice too; but it is not the “still, small voice” of God7 that gives us our power instead of always taking our power.

The loyal soldier cannot get you to the second half of life. He does not even understand it. He has not been there. He can help you “get through hell,” with the early decisions that demand black-and-white thinking; but then you have to say good-bye when you move into the subtlety of midlife and later life. The Japanese were correct, as were the Greeks. Odysseus is a loyal soldier for the entire Odyssey, rowing his boat as only a hero can — until the blind prophet tells him there is more, and to put down his oar. If you ever read the Divine Comedy, note that Dante lets go of Virgil, who had accompanied him through Hades and Purgatory, knowing now that only Beatrice can lead him into Paradise.

Virgil is the first-half-of-life man; Beatrice is the second-half-of-life woman. In the first half of life, we fight the devil and have the illusion and inflation of “winning” now and then; in the second half of life, we always lose because we are invariably fighting God. The first battles solidify the ego and create a stalwart loyal soldier; the second battles defeat the ego because God always wins. No wonder so few want to let go of their loyal soldier; no wonder so few have the faith to grow up. The ego hates losing, even to God.

The loyal soldier is largely the same thing that Freud was describing with his concept of the superego, which he said usually substitutes for any real adult formation of conscience. The superego feels like God, because people have had nothing else to guide them. Such a bogus conscience is a terrible substitute for authentic morality. What reveals its bogus character is its major resistance to change and growth, and its substituting of small, low-cost moral issues for the real ones that ask us to change, instead of always trying to change other people. Jesus called it “straining out gnats while swallowing camels.”8 It is much more common than I ever imagined, until I myself began to serve as a confessor and spiritual director.

There is a deeper voice of God, which you must learn to hear and obey in the second half of life. It will sound an awful lot like the voices of risk, of trust, of surrender, of soul, of “common sense,” of destiny, of love, of an intimate stranger, of our deepest self, of soulful “Beatrice.” The true faith journey only begins at this point. Up to now everything is mere preparation. Finally, we have a container strong enough to hold the contents of our real life, which is always filled with contradictions and adventures and immense challenges. Psychological wholeness and spiritual holiness never exclude the problem from the solution. If it is wholeness, then it is always paradoxical, and holds both the dark and light sides of things. Wholeness and holiness will always stretch us beyond our small comfort zone. How could they not?

So God, life, and destiny have to loosen the loyal soldier’s grasp on our soul, which up to now has felt like the only “you” that you know and the only authority that there is. Our loyal soldier normally begins to be discharged somewhere between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-five, if it happens at all; before that it is usually mere rebellion or iconoclasm.

To let go of the loyal soldier will be a severe death, and an exile from your first base. You will feel similar to Isaiah before he was sent into exile in Babylon, “In the noontime of my life, I was told to depart for the gates of Hades. Surely I am deprived of the rest of my years.”9 Discharging your loyal soldier will be necessary to finding authentic inner authority, or what Jeremiah promised as “the law written in your heart.”10 First-half-of-life folks will seldom have the courage to go forward at this point unless they have a guide, a friend, a Virgil, a Tiresias, a Beatrice, a soul friend, or a stumbling block to guide them toward the goal. There are few in our religious culture who understand the necessity of mature internalized conscience, so wise guides are hard to find. You will have many more Aarons building you golden calves than Moses’s leading you on any exodus.

Normally we will not discharge our loyal soldier until he shows himself to be wanting, incapable, inadequate for the real issues of life — as when we confront love, death, suffering, subtlety, sin, mystery, and so on. It is another form of the falling and dying that we keep talking about. The world mythologies all point to places like Hades, Sheol, hell, purgatory, the realm of the dead. Maybe these are not so much the alternative to heaven as the necessary path to heaven.

Even Jesus, if we are to believe the “Apostle’s Creed” of the church, “descended into hell” before he ascended into heaven. Isn’t it strange how we missed that? Every initiation rite I studied worldwide was always about “dying before you die.” When you first discharge your loyal soldier, it will feel like a loss of faith or loss of self. But it is only the death of the false self, and is often the very birth of the soul. Instead of being ego driven, you will begin to be soul drawn. The wisdom and guidance you will need to get you across this chasm will be like Charon ferrying you across the river Styx, or Hermes guiding the soul across all scary boundaries. These are your authentic soul friends, and we now sometimes call them spiritual directors or elders. Celtic Christianity called them anam chara.

Remember that Hercules, Orpheus, Aeneas, Psyche, and our Odysseus all traveled into realms of the dead — and returned! Most mythologies include a descent into the underworld at some point. Jesus, as we said, also “descended into hell,” and only on the third day did he “ascend into heaven.” Most of life is lived, as it were, on the “first and second days,” the threshold days when transformation is happening but we do not know it yet. In men’s work we call this liminal space.11

St. John of the Cross taught that God has to work in the soul in secret and in darkness, because if we fully knew what was happening, and what Mystery / transformation / God / grace will eventually ask of us, we would either try to take charge or stop the whole process.12 No one oversees his or her own demise willingly, even when it is the false self that is dying.

God has to undo our illusions secretly, as it were, when we are not watching and not in perfect control, say the mystics. That is perhaps why the best word for God is actually Mystery. We move forward in ways that we do not even understand and through the quiet workings of time and grace. When we get there, we are never sure just how it happened, and God does not seem to care who gets the credit, as long as our growth continues. As St. Gregory of Nyssa already said in the fourth century, “Sin happens whenever we refuse to keep growing.”