October 25, 2020

The Heroic Journey

Departure of Abraham, Bassano

Departure of Abraham, Bassano

But what are you going to do with your now resurrected life? That is the heroic question.

– Richard Rohr
Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life

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One traditional way of thinking about the course of life has been through the stories of journeys made by heroes or heroines. Richard Rohr notes that those who are portrayed making the heroic journey go through certain recognizable stages:

  • They live in a world that they take as given and sufficient.

  • They receive a call to leave home for some sort of adventure.

  • On the journey, they are forced to deal with dramatic conflicts that force them to grow and change.

  • In the course of these conflicts, they are wounded in some way, and their wounds become the key to their development.

  • The outward events reveal a much deeper flow of life underneath the surface, the “real life” or “true self” of the heroic person, which becomes more and more apparent as the journey continues.

  • The hero or heroine returns home a changed person with new gifts to share with others. As Rohr says, the heroic person’s experience has caused him or her to know a reality beyond the parochial, he or she “lives in deep time and just in his or her own small time,” and is thus able to be a “generative person” — a source of life and wisdom for others. This person becomes an “elder” of the people.

Richard Rohr contrasts this traditional hero with those we honor in today’s more youth and “celebrity”-oriented cultures:

Interestingly enough, this classic tradition of a true “hero” is not our present understanding at all. There is little social matrix to our present use of the word. A “hero” now is largely about being bold, muscular, rich, famous, talented, or “fantastic” by himself, and often forhimself, whereas the classic hero is one who “goes the distance,” whatever that takes, and then has plenty left over for others. True heroism serves the common good, or it is not really heroism at all.

The crucial thing, Rohr notes, is that the hero or heroine must leave home. The heroic journey for our ancestors, according to Hebrews 11, involved becoming “foreigners and exiles on the earth.” From Abraham, who left home when he was called to the disciples along the Sea of Galilee who responded to Jesus’ “Follow me,” there is a “going out,” a “leaving,” a separation from what is comfortable and known in order to move into the unknown. “It’s dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to” (Tolkien).

The next important thing is to keep going. The point of most hero stories, especially those in the Bible, is that the person involved is specifically not strong or well-suited for making a heroic journey. The path is long and hard, and without grace, there would be no ongoing odyssey. So the important thing is to simply put one foot in front of another as long as strength is given, recognizing all that is at stake in the quest. As Nelson Mandela, a hero of our time said, “I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”

In the end of such a journey, when we return home, the gifts others receive through our lives come honestly from our travels.

In this season of my life, this helps me. I long to be “heroic” in this classic sense — not for the purpose of making a name for myself, but so that I might be a more life-giving person to others. I hope I am granted many more years, many more vistas that take my breath away, many more opportunities to engage the enemy in battle, many more conversations with friends as we walk together or cool our feet in rest-stops along the way, but whether I am or not, I know I’m on the homeward portion of my journey. It is the time of life when these “hero” narratives, these “journey” stories take on new significance.

This is the season when the pace slows a bit. Taking on new challenges becomes more and more outweighed by looking back to reflect on what I have become through facing the road’s adventures. Learning to mix past and present together into an elixir that brings refreshment to others is a primary focus of the second half of life.

It is not the kind of heroism that makes headlines but in Christ, perhaps it can help bring life to the world.