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Is men's spirituality out of the woods? Beyond the banging drums and clashing symbols, Catholic men have a lot to gain from tapping into an authentic men's spirituality movement.

I was at my local big-chain bookstore one Sunday and decided to check out their books on male spirituality. Having trouble locating that section, I asked the young, multiply pierced woman at the information counter, "Can you direct me to your books on men's spirituality?"

She snorted. "Books on men's spirituality? I've never heard of any. I know we don't have a section on that topic. Maybe you can look under war books. That's quite sizable."

"But you have quite a large section on women's spirituality," I said. Half joking I added, "Is there some sort of discrimination going on here?"

She bristled. "Hey, you're talking to the wrong person about discrimination. I'm a feminist."

"Me, too," I replied. "I think the women's movement has been a great gift to society." Perhaps my voice rose; her colleague, an equally pierced young man, walked over. I pleaded, "But don't you think it would be good for men to take a look at what's going on inside them?"

To which her male colleague piped up, "Now that's a scary thought!"

I guess it is a scary thought to many.

At the end of the 1980s and early '90s many cultural observers were predicting explosive growth for the men's movement and--at the core of that movement--a resurgence of male spirituality.

Here and there an interested observer might find small but significant evidence of that movement. However, after a quick blossoming of "Iron John" gatherings and a few years of filled stadiums of the Promise Keepers movement, much of the buzz around the men's movement has quieted down. Many of these groups continue quietly, and with various degrees of effectiveness, to attract men. But the explosive growth is over, and their impact on society at large appears to have waned.

Looking around, it seems that men are distracted by many other pursuits than spirituality. Judging from the magazine racks, the new movement for young men, at least, is focused on beer, puerile sex, gadgets, or a combination thereof. But the main areas of devotion for men--and an increasing number of American women--are sports and business.

Sports provides the mythic power and totems that tribes have long relied on to make sense of the world and to provide a sense of connection and belonging. Capitalism and the American Dream of acquisition and continual upgrading of a whole list of possessions provide the ordering principle around which lives are built. Though wildly popular, this unholy duo makes for a disappointing and dangerous spiritual path.

What lies beneath

Spirituality is always a process of becoming more aware: of ourselves, of others, of creation, and of the Creator. A big part of the spiritual awakening process for men is to become aware of all those things we keep in shadow.

Robert Bly, author of Iron John (Vintage), the groundbreaking book that brought the secular men's movement to popular view, invites men to notice all the unacknowledged parts of ourselves--anger, grief, fear, tenderness perhaps--we keep in shadow. He says our largely unconscious attempts to hide elements of our own selves from ourselves is like stuffing these emotions into a bag and pretending they're not there. But we drag the bag behind us--heavier and heavier with each passing day. So men die early, commit suicide at a far greater rate than women, and act in ways that surprise ourselves. The energy that gets stuffed tends to come out in unplanned ways.

However, men and women alike are suspicious of all that lies beneath men's taciturn exteriors. That's not surprising considering the high incidence of violence, abuse, abandonment, and controlling that men have wrought. That which is denied retains immense, though unacknowledged, control in our lives. So men can feel stuck, disconnected, out of order. We cling desperately to the parts of our lives we feel comfortable in: work, sports, hobbies, staring at the television. Or we explode.

There are two spiritual approaches to this dilemma. One is to rise above it. The other is to go through it. The first is the way of spiritual disciplines and sublimation. The other is through male initiation.

The first approach and the more common in recent church life has been to round men up, charge them up, give them a noble task, and keep them in check. This is the Promise Keepers model, and it works to some extent because men need two things, says Father Richard Rohr, the popular Franciscan author and workshop leader. "They need respect. And they need a challenge." The Promise Keepers model respects men's roles in the family and the world, and issues clear challenges on how to live a good and decent life.

The other approach is similar to Jesus' 40 days in the desert. It creates a process where men remove themselves from their comfortable world, go out in the wilderness, and face their demons. When a structure is put around this, it becomes a process of initiation--an almost universally practiced rite that cultures have used for many centuries to instruct naive men in what it means to be a true man.

You've got male

In the 1960s men and women both went through a major shift in perceptions of gender identity. Women were finding their voice and their power, and men were discovering their "feminine side."

While this movement has, on the whole, been a welcome development for one and all, the process produced a generation of what observers like Bly and Rohr call the "soft male." These men are characterized by a gentle attitude and a receptivity and openness most likely not found in their fathers and grandfathers. "But many of these men are not happy," says Bly. "They are life-preserving, but not exactly life-giving." What they miss is a fierceness, a resoluteness that is needed if a relationship is to flourish. They lack an ability to commit with passion to a course of action based on deep values. Turning their back on masculine energy has left them without vital energy.

American society produces many young men who extend young adulthood well into their 30s and 40s--unattached, uncommitted, playing at life. The culture also produces many young men who form an alternative gang society, mimicking in a twisted way what they needed and failed to receive from the larger society. Workaholics and deadbeat dads abound. And if you look closely, you'll surely see a whole host of men who vaguely sense there's something more to life and who go about living out their commitments, wondering what that something more is.

Will the church "get it"?

Meanwhile, the church seems less and less hospitable to men. In most parishes, 80 percent of the staff are female. Church attendance is lower for men than for women. A lot of the energy in spirituality recently has emerged from the women's movement. Men are on the outs.

In the mid-1990s, Promise Keepers made a big splash in the public consciousness. Who knew that men had spiritual hunger and longed for opportunities to live a more intentionally spiritual life? The men's groups that had flourished within the church earlier in the 20th century were now struggling for survival. Yet, the stadiums bursting with spiritually alive men startled Catholic leaders into action, especially when they learned that a good percentage of the men filling those stadium seats had been born and raised Catholic. Bishops had already noticed how fewer and fewer men were filling the pews in their own dioceses. Something had to be done.

In 1998 two U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops committees--on Evangelization and on Marriage and Family Life--convened a small group of leaders of Catholic men's ministries. Over three days of meetings in Mundelein, Illinois, the men hammered out a few "next steps" they thought would help shape a viable men's movement in the Catholic Church.

They called for more Catholic resources (especially for small groups), for leadership training, and for more support from bishops and priests. They recognized the need to become more welcoming toward different ethnicities and types of spirituality. One result of the meeting was the creation of a National Resource Center for Catholic Men (online at www.nrccm.org).

The goal of these efforts was personal transformation of the men who join and eventually the transformation of society by sharing the Good News. Not surprisingly, considering the big splash Promise Keepers had made, the model they focused on to achieve this was the "funnel model," where large events would attract men and channel them to smaller groups at the parish level.

There was, and continues to be, disagreement about how close a connection the men's movement should have to bishops and diocesan chanceries. Auxiliary Bishop Carl Moeddel of Cincinnati, a participant in the meetings, describes the two sides of this coin. "A connection to church is important. Too distant a relationship can hurt an organization. It appears, however, that too close a relationship impedes getting things done." He has found that movements that don't find a home within the parish can tend to become separate and elitist, dividing people into the "washed" and the "unwashed."

The group met again this past December in West Palm Beach. I sat with a half dozen participants at dinner the first night of the gathering. "Is there a men's movement in the church?" I asked. "No," said James Nolan of Washington Theological Union, one of the speakers at the symposium.

"Only if you understand the term broadly," added Fran Nason from Maryland. The men agreed that there's clearly a need for a response to men's spiritual hunger. But they could see no sure or certain response within the Catholic world.

They've experienced suspicion from others as to why men need a separate spirituality movement. Tom Rinkowski, director of the Family Life Office in Green Bay, Wisconsin, said, "I'm seeing more and more men attending the family and marriage enrichment programs I'm conducting in our diocese. I would hate for men to be siphoned off from those programs into separate programs." Others at the table speculated whether another program was needed at all, rather than a new consciousness.

Some men were convinced that the official church at both the chancery and parish level was clearly perplexed and possibly uncomfortable with fledgling signs of this new movement.

When I later mentioned this to Kevin Shanley, a marketing consultant who participates in men's groups, he said he wasn't at all surprised. "It's a reflection of the leadership," says Shanley. "They're human, too. If they have done their own inner work, they will welcome this. And if they haven't ... don't expect them to greet the prospect of men doing serious inner work with anything other than a desire to avoid or control. Don't expect them to even know what the heck you're talking about."

Men at work

So what are we talking about? What is this "men's work" that seems so secretive? It's a process of self-awareness and integration. Men often lead one-dimensional lives, unaware of their emotions, swallowing their fear, playing through the hurts. This leaves them less and less able to access their passion and their power.

Men's work is a process that allows men to examine their inner wounds; reclaim the power, passion, and energy that flows from their values; helps them to discover their mission and calling; and gives them structures to live in a deeper way. So often men live without an awareness of crucial, life-giving parts of themselves: their emotions, their passions, their deep yearnings, their fears. Living with these aspects of themselves kept in darkness, or shadow, wreaks havoc on men and the people they live and work with.

Most important, it moves men from self-sufficiency--with the constant suspicion that we're not good enough--to the heart of all spiritual growth, which is vulnerability and reliance on God. This doesn't come easy to men. And often men are asked to achieve the mantle of spiritual goodness only after disavowing their wildness and ignoring their fierceness.

Consider "Jeff," a 40-year-old man who went on a weekend devoted to men's work. To all outward appearances his life was going well--a good-paying job, friends, a great place to live, and a woman in his life he was becoming quite serious about. But he felt stuck. Spirituality, which had once been a great comfort to him, had fallen flat and lately felt oppressive and dishonest. There was no joy in his work, socializing had turned boring, and the relationship that had seemed so promising was slowly showing signs of coming apart--just like all his previous relationships.

He went on the weekend because he sensed he needed to take a major step if anything was going to change at depth.

"On the weekend, ... I faced all the things I didn't want to know about myself," says Jeff. "Through a number of powerful experiences I was able to get out of my head and more into my body and my emotions. I was able to re-experience some painful times from my past that I had stuffed away. I rediscovered a whole lot of energy and commitment to live a larger life.

"My spirituality reawakened with a depth I never thought I would find. I realized that I'd been hiding my true self in hopes I'd be acceptable to God. Through the work I've been doing, I've come to believe that the greatest gift I can offer God is my own truth.... Rather than confirming my suspicion that deep down I was rotten, I've discovered that deep down I'm a good man and I have an important role to play in this world."

There are many elements to men's work, but serious transformation often begins at a place of pain and weakness. Rohr says, "Parsifal [the legendary seeker of the holy Grail] entered the forest at the darkest point." Likewise, authentic male spirituality often begins at the place of our darkest moments and greatest pain. "It's the only honest place to begin," says Rohr.

For many men, that painful place is the "father wound," the sense of emptiness and deep loss they have about their father. "He just wasn't there" is a common statement, describing a father's physical absence, his emotional absence, or both.

But the wound may also be loss of a job, failed relationships, questioning the meaning of life, or simply having climbed the ladder of success only to realize the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.

"I kept thinking there was something wrong with me spiritually," says "Ric," a teacher who has been involved in a men's support group for years. "I had a desire to strengthen my spiritual life, but the devotions that were offered at my church were all too pious and sweet for my taste. I stopped going to church for a while, and then it seemed as though the bottom fell out in my life. A good friend of mine died. I got passed over for a new opportunity at work. I felt as though I'd always played by the rules, but now the rules were working against me.

"I joined this men's group and was blown away by the level of honesty, bluntness, challenge, and accountability. Guys felt free to talk about anything and everything that was on their mind, and there was no one there to shame you. I was able to get in touch with stuff inside me--the good, the bad, the ugly--in a safe place. Now when I go to church, at the offertory, it's really me I'm offering, not some plastic version of myself."

Shanley says, "The best-kept secret in the church today is that men's spirituality is truly an inside job, not external. Fear is the operative energy that lets us do our work. We get past it and become happy, joyous, and free. Men need a place where their fear is welcome. Where all of who they are is welcome."

On the edge

That may be where some of the difficulty for the church lies. The church is fine as long as all the externals look good. It doesn't usually welcome mess. One danger of the church's involvement in a men's spirituality movement is that it will devolve into an attempt to "tame" men, to mute our passion or simply channel it into pre-approved efforts.

My suspicion is that the real fear of the men's movement is what will show up when men explore their shadows. Men's anger needs to be welcome. Men's pain needs to be welcome. Men's sexuality needs to be welcome. But what men often hear is, "Don't bring this or that to the table because it's not welcome here."

And so they stand at the doorways in the back of the church during Mass, not comfortable inside, not wanting to totally leave. They stand in that liminal space, hoping that the church founded by a man of great strength, clarity of mission, and tough-love compassion might have a place for them other than behind the altar or on the finance committee.

At the West Palm Beach meeting it became clear that the bishops want to walk a fine line by offering support, caution, and guidance, without taking the reins of what they believe should remain a lay movement. Bishop Moeddel said, "Perhaps the worst thing that could happen would be for every diocese to open up an office responsible for men's spirituality." He predicts such a move would hobble the working of the Holy Spirit, which he sees as the prime force behind these "stirrings," and thus sap the life out of the movement.

Richard Rohr goes a step farther. He says that the radical change that an authentic men's spirituality movement entails will happen only on the edges of the church--"decidedly on the inside of the edge, but at the edge nonetheless."

For more than 10 years Rohr has reached tens of thousands of men in retreat talks and walked more than a thousand men through male initiation rites. He uses the archetypes of wild man, warrior, and King as well as other mythic symbols to convey the truth at the heart of men's work.

"When you use a more masculine set of images, men will respond," says Rohr. Just think of First Communion, he says. "Dressing young boys up in a white suit, white tie, white shoes, is just not a symbol system men respect." At Mass, which often seems bland and disconnected from real life, the worlds and interests that men experience daily are seldom mentioned and thus not brought into the sphere of redemption.

Boys to men

Possibly the most urgent change needed in our day is restoration of some form of authentic initiation of young men in the church. Confirmation just isn't cutting it with either young men or young women. In The Wild Man's Journey (St. Anthony Messenger Press), Rohr and Joseph Martos talk about the necessity of restoring the process of some effective initiation rite:

"In almost all cultures men are not born--they are made.... The boy had to be separated from protective feminine energy, led into ritual space where newness and maleness could be experienced as holy; the boy had to be ritually wounded and tested, and experience bonding with other men and loyalty to tribal values.

"The pattern is so widely documented that one is amazed that we have let go of it so easily. The contemporary experience of gangs, gender identity confusion, romanticization of war, aimless violence, and homophobia will all grow unchecked, we predict, until boys are again mentored and formally taught by wise elders."

Typically, initiation involves separating young men from the protection of society and moving them into a ritual space, normally where they can reconnect with nature. Men conducting the initiation create a challenging atmosphere within a safe climate or "container" where, through a series of demanding experiences and encounter with powerful symbols, the young men face the limitations of their own power.

In youth, the energy is all about ascent, moving up, gaining power. But wisdom and healthy masculine energy begin with descent. The initiation strips away the illusion of invincibility, allowing men the opportunity to face their fears and find and rely on a truer source of power than their own bravado. Much of the work centers on encountering an inner wound. Some call it "returning to the scene of the crime." A member of the ManKind Project, a not-for-profit organization that seeks to "heal the world, one man at a time," put it this way: "There's always a scene of the crime, a place from long ago where pain is frozen solid."

The point of initiation is to humanize the young men. Without initiation, the power of young men is a rogue power. Initiation is the process by which men learn to commit their power to the common good.

Men also need to meet together on a continuing basis in groups that offer accountability, challenge, and support, as we continue to do our own inner work.

And finally, the church should look outside itself to learn what might be working. At the West Palm Beach symposium, which was an important and useful step forward, I asked a number of the men if they had checked out some of the secular men's movement leaders for ideas.

They reacted with great suspicion and unintended arrogance. "What would they have to offer us?" one man said, defensively. In fact, while doing research for this article, I heard many disparaging remarks about men's groups, particularly the "bang the drums in the woods" sorts of men's gatherings. I'm convinced such parochialism and chauvinism is misguided. The church has always learned and borrowed from others. We could learn a lot if we keep our minds and hearts open.

I've attended a men's initiation weekend through the ManKind Project. Yes, it was a weekend out in the woods, and it employed symbols from other cultures that could, to cynical outsiders, seem hokey and pretentious. The truth is that men came away from that weekend with their lives changed. Men who were lost or stuck or heading nowhere fast came out of the weekend with newfound power, direction, focus, and spirituality.

Eighteen months later I continue to meet weekly with eight other men from that weekend--all of whom live with more depth, more accountability to the significant people in their lives, more emotion, more energy, and more courage than they ever did before. Each has also deepened his spirituality. They feel it, and they live it.

Throughout the weekend, which was demanding and intense, I couldn't help but seek connections to my own Christian story. They were easy to find: The Paschal Mystery (dying to old life, rising to new); the paradoxical call to both self-love and self-sacrificing love; the sense of vocation and mission (which had been spoken of in my years in the seminary, but which came alive in the powerful work we did in a sacred circle of men); notions like "the first shall be last and the last shall be first."

The fact is that I have never seen men as enthused and alive in the Catholic Church as I did that weekend during the initiation. In the church I have never seen men addressing their pain, their confusions, their fears so boldly and openly. I have never witnessed men treat each other with such respect and honor as I did as this weekend unfolded--willing to stand by each other as we encountered our shadows, faced our fears, and found our power as men. And as we left, we all knew something more--at depth--about our purpose in this world.

So when I heard the story of the firefighters and the chaplain who lost their lives in the collapse of the World Trade Center, I wasn't at all surprised that these men found the strength to sacrifice so for others. They belong to a fellowship that calls that forth, that blesses such service, that honors such self-sacrifice for the good of the community. Men are capable of that kind of common-good commitment every day of our lives.

During that original weekend I came to believe that when men do their honest work in the circle of other men, who create and maintain a safe place for this terrible and holy work to take place, they are likely to come through the other side with newfound power and clarity of mission. The power is for the good of the community, and the mission is to heal the world.

That's why it's a shame that there is no "men's spirituality" section at Borders or Barnes & Noble, and that there's not a vibrant, courageous, authentic male initiation rite in the church, nor widespread structures that help men challenge one another, hold one another accountable, and keep our relationships clear.

The church needs to welcome the wild man. Catholic men need to welcome their shadows into the light of Christ. They need rites and symbols that speak to their deepest needs and fears, and call forth an authentic response in faith, not a begrudging idling in the back of church, missing their mission and ducking their call.

RELATED ARTICLE: Who's afraid of "masculine energy"?

One concern many people, women in particular, have with some variations of the men's spirituality movement is that they can have a reactionary nature. Some men see this movement as an opportunity to lock in strict gender roles with males as heads of the household and women submissive.

My tendency is to dismiss the desire to restore "headship" as simply a defensive and retrograde posture. But if one looks to explore "interests" rather than getting locked in "positions," as the Getting to Yes (Penguin) authors advise, observers may be able to learn something valuable about the intense feelings this debate generates.

What may be at stake here is a respect for and welcoming of masculine energy, which many feel has been on the wane for the past two or three decades.

There's something about healthy masculine energy, just as there is about healthy feminine energy, that is necessary to our wholeness as a society. "In his image God fashioned them; male and female he created them." Any organization needs both masculine and feminine energy to be whole. There's been an admirable amount of creative work being done on feminine energy and what it offers society. For the good of society, men need to disengage from their roles in the current structure, become "outsiders" for a time, and discover what positive masculine energy can offer. And just as feminine energy is not limited to females, neither is masculine energy limited to males. --Tom McGrath

RELATED ARTICLE: The wild man cometh.

The wild man archetype is widely misunderstood. The concept is borrowed from "hero's journey" stories and other myths that continue to be valuable because they contain authentic truths about human life and development.

As Robert Bly says in Iron John, "The hearth and fairy stories have passed, as water through 50 feet of soil, through generations of men and women, and we can trust their images." These images aren't meant to appeal to the brain. "They are meant to be taken slowly into the body. They continue to unfold, once taken in."

The wild man is not a savage, a brute, nor a dominator of others. He's the bearer of strong passion that can be used for mission. He's almost too pagan to feel comfortable within the temple. He is John the Baptist, calling out in the wilderness. Somehow the church needs to tap into the wild man that is dormant in the "nice beige men" sitting out in the pews--for their own good and for the good of the whole church. --Tom McGrath

TOM MCGRATH is a contributing editor of U.S. CATHOLIC and the author of Raising Faith-Filled Kids (Loyola).
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Date:Apr 1, 2002
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