Learning to Fall

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM,  July 29, 2017

There seems to be an almost limitless list of ways to fall in this world. We fall for someone as we fall head over heels in love. We fall ill, we fall flat, we fall back and fall away. We fall down on the job and we fall under another’s influence. There is the falling star Perry Como sang about catching, and the falling upward Richard Rohr references for the second half of life. Water falls. Leaves fall. We even have a season we call “fall.”

Last week I was at a christening for my grandnephew, followed by a barbecue at a local state park. Gathered with three generations of family and friends, I began to reflect on falling while watching my fourteen-month-old grandniece delight in the wide open space of the park and the reality that her little legs could take her anywhere. Now with several months of newly learned walking under her belt, she would run, then trip, then fallingtoddlerwalkingbyherself copyoccasionally fall, all with seemingly equal delight and absent of any caution or fear. At the same time I looked at the two generations of adults gathered and reflected that, for many of us, falling meant something entirely different. Seasoned by the reality that what we have in this moment could disappear in another, tempered by our own experiences of letting go, we regarded falling as an experience that might more often result in injury, limitation, perhaps an unplanned or dreaded change in independence and lifestyle.

But the falling that interests me most at this time in my life is what Philip Simmons writes about in Learning to Fall, the Blessings of an Imperfect Life. I’ve read and savored this book, quoted from it and recommended it many times when leading a retreat or giving a presentation.

Simmons was 35 years old, married and the father of two small children, when he was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was given less than five years to live. In the face of his prognosis, he composed, with profound wisdom and without a shred of self-pity, twelve essays that speak to the mystery of life, the joy to be savored, the mud seasons, the lessons that await us at every turn in the road.

Learning to Fall speaks on one level to Simmons’ need to learn how to fall correctly so as not to further injure himself as his balance and mobility decreased. But the title of the book has a larger purpose, one that includes all of us with our own concerns, needs, and sensibilities. We bring all of who we are, Simmons writes, “to the work of learning to live richly in the face of loss—work that I call ‘learning to fall.’”

Learning to fall in this sense is something my little grandniece has not yet experienced, but in the course of her lifetime, she, like the rest of us, will not escape this challenge. The challenge to embrace all of our world, the world as it is and the world as it could be. A world with its madness and mayhem, but also its music. A world both beautiful and broken, at one and the same time full of wonder and marked by wounds.

This learning to fall, learning to live richly in the face of loss, invites us into reflection. How not to run from grief and farewell, limitation and diminishment, loneliness, the painful ending of relationships and the leave-taking of those most precious to us, but falling leaf singleinstead to listen to it, sit with it, sift through and discern its meaning. How to let go, let be, and let grow. How to become practiced and conscious of the art of both living and dying. How to learn from this most unpopular teacher the way to integrate all of our life experiences–the coming to birth and the fading away, the joyful embrace and the painful parting–into the person we continue to become. To mine our losses is to fall into a wholeness, richness, and depth we often can’t envision in our most painful hours.

However our lives unfold, may we all become highly practiced in the art of learning to live richly in the face of loss. May we come to see our flawed and imperfect and profoundly beautiful lives as the blessing they truly are. May the Holy One who never abandons accompany us in our falling.


Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Call to mind a loss or letting go of the past year.
Reflect on the learnings that have come to you through this experience.
Hold in tenderness and prayer all those in our world whose wounds may be fresher than yours.
Offer a prayer or gesture of gratitude for your learnings.


During the month of August, I’m taking time away for my own retreat, some vacation, and also to continue mining my own learnings from a recent fall that fractured my ankle, sternum, and rib.  EPSON MFP image

I won’t be posting any new blogs during August but will resume posting again in September.  

In the meantime, please hold in your prayer my next guided retreat, “Bearing Witness to the Holy,” that I’ll be offering for the Sisters of St. Joseph (Brentwood, NY) August 19-25 in Hampton Bays, NY.

Chris Koellhoffer

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6 thoughts on “Learning to Fall”

  1. Dear Chris, thank you for this most thoughtful and helpful reflection. As we age, it is truly a challenge and I see this all around me in my friends and family members and in myself. I will look into getting the book you suggested also. I hope you have a wonderful month to refresh and rest.
    Blessings and all good. Mary Louise

  2. Thank you, Chris, for these insights that touch both me and my husband. For one winter I called myself the ‘Falling Woman;’ Ray is transitioning to a more challenging stage of MS. We both need to read this book.

  3. Chris, how perfectly you crafted this wisdom piece for our reflection..you have not been far from my thoughts since your fall earlier this summer. The experience has provided you with even richer insights to share, as if that could be possible. Sending love and continued prayer and joy in knowing that you will take time in August to renew and refresh.and be all ready for adventure!
    Peace always, Linda

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