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How Men Find God

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Keith Brofsky

What makes men tick? This father of four and theologian takes a look at how men’s relationships shape their spirituality.
 
By Rick Gaillardetz

 

Male Spirituality

Walking With Our Spouses

Looking Back to Our Fathers

Looking Forward to Our Children

Negotiating Our Careers

Beyond Gender

 

A few years ago our family was in a serious car accident on Interstate 10. The whole family was in our van traveling back to Houston from San Antonio. There was a pile-up a half mile ahead, and in the process of braking I lost control of our van, smashed sidewise into a truck pulling a boat and caromed through the grass median into oncoming traffic.

When I finally regained control of the van and pulled off onto the shoulder, I turned around to see all four of my children crying, and one of them, Brian, bleeding profusely on his head and face. It turns out that Brian simply had a minor head laceration and the rest of the children, along with my wife, Diana, were fine. But forever etched in my memory will be the sight of my children crying in fear and pain.

As the driver of the van, I felt responsible for what happened. At a very deep level, I felt as if I had failed them. I had broken some unspoken covenant, a silent agreement ratified by so many acts of care, promising that I would protect them from harm.

The accident—bringing into focus my relationships with my children, my wife, even with the people who formed me—gives me pause to consider what makes men tick. I bring to the question my own experience as father, son and husband, and my professional background as systematic theologian.

Male Spirituality

I am made nervous by any attempt to treat human sexuality as if there were two kinds of humans—males and females. If there is one thing that marriage has taught me, it is how complicated human sexuality really is. Clearly there are some significant differences between Diana and me, but I am not sure that they are all adequately captured in some nice and neat schema like “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus.” The topic of male spirituality has often made me uncomfortable, too.

As will become obvious, I believe that all authentic spirituality begins with Baptism and the common call to discipleship. Nevertheless, we learn to follow Christ as embodied humans. This is the overriding power and even scandal of the Christian belief in the Incarnation. When God became human in Jesus of Nazareth, God gave to ordinary embodied human experience salvific significance. And as embodied, the fact is that we experience ourselves and interact with our world as either males or females.

It seems reasonable to conclude, then, that there are at least some generally typical issues which Christians face in their response to God’s call which will be related to their gender.

Every authentic spirituality is shaped by the concrete circumstances in which we live. I would like to explore the concrete “shape” which Christian spirituality has taken for me, and by extension, I hope, for many other men. I am married, a father of four young boys, and I have a professional career. None of these characteristics pertains to all men, so what follows cannot help but be only one of the many possible forms which spirituality might take for men today.

No spirituality is developed in a vacuum. We develop our relationship with God in our relationships with others. I would like to consider four such relationships as being particularly significant for the development of male spirituality, namely our relationship with our spouses, fathers, children and professions/careers.

Walking With Our Spouses

There is a biblical story with which we are, perhaps, too familiar: the story of the creation of humanity in Genesis 2—3. We are all familiar with the basic outline of the story. God scoops up the earth and breathes into it the breath of life, creating Adam, the first human.

I have always assumed a) that Adam was a male, and b) that “Adam” was a proper name. It turns out, however, that in fact “Adam” is simply the English transliteration for the Hebrew ha adam. Ha adam is itself a wordplay on the word for the earth which is ha adamah. Ha adam means simply “a creature made from the earth.” Moreover, there is nothing in the Hebrew to suggest that this creature yet possesses any gender, male or female.

God then creates various creatures, brings them to Adam, who then names each animal, thereby demonstrating his dominance over the creature. Adam’s need for companionship having gone unmet, God puts this earth creature to sleep. This work of divine surgery renders not just one new creature but two.

First there is the woman, but also a transformed Adam who, in speaking for the first time, now refers to his new partner as ishah, “woman,” and refers to himself now as ish, “man.” Thus we find in this creation story a tale of humanity which finds its fulfillment in that human companionship made possible by human sexuality.

Following this story we find another significant feature; the text says that the two humans were “naked” and they were not ashamed. In the Hebrew Scriptures “nakedness” was generally a metaphor for vulnerability. This suggests that prior to sin man and woman were able to be naturally vulnerable, that is, transparent and powerless with one another. It is only in the final scene of the story, after the first sin, that the first humans become embarrassed by their “nakedness.” One of the regrettable consequences of Original Sin is that vulnerability no longer comes naturally.

I believe that this biblical account is filled with wisdom and insight about a spirituality for men. It suggests that our authentic maleness can only be realized in relationship with another. We cannot realize our vocation in isolation. This means that I will work out my salvation, fulfill my baptismal call, in my relationship with Diana.

The second insight from this passage is that the substance of my working out my salvation will consist in learning to be vulnerable. The power of the “nakedness” metaphor is what it connotes about awkward transparency and powerlessness. I always fancied myself to be strong, yet sensitive.

Ten years of marriage have forced me to acknowledge the profound resistance I have to being truly transparent and vulnerable with Diana. I have had to face my need to always remain “one up” on her, engaging her from some kind of morally or intellectually superior “high ground.” This is, I suppose, why for those of us who are married, our marriage is the real crucible where our identity as disciples of Jesus is forged. Nowhere are we called with such regularity to die to ourselves than in our marriages.

Let me give you a very concrete example. Diana and I are very different persons. I am a very neat and organized person. I take great pride in this. Diana brings, shall we say, different gifts to our marriage. Her energy tends to radiate outward in many directions. Her life is characterized by a continual state of five to 10 family and professional projects in varying stages of completion. Now in my lesser moments I am wholly convinced that Diana’s life would be happier and more fulfilling if she would adopt more of my attitude toward life.

I am coming to believe, however, that this difference between us is an invitation to conversion. It is the place in which I am called to a kind of dying, to a vulnerability in which I must try to enter sympathetically into her view of our family. I am called, without rejecting all that I value, to put aside all of my treasured competencies and proven ways of doing things and to sympathetically entertain her view.

This is a risky venture for me precisely because so much of my self-worth is wrapped up in my assumptions about the intrinsic superiority of my worldview. Yet this is the kind of “nakedness” that we are called to in our marital relationships, this very difficult movement to embrace powerlessness, vulnerability and transparency.

Looking Back to Our Fathers

There is a significant body of literature to support the importance of a man’s relationship with his father. Some of us were blessed with wonderful fathers who were always available to us and were the ideal mentors to help us navigate our way into adulthood. Others had largely absent fathers or fathers who were present but hardly ideal mentors. Most of us fall in between these extremes.

What is indisputable to me is the impact of our fathers on who we are today. Our parents continue to influence us long after we leave home and move away from their immediate physical presence. I would like to propose, then, two considerations regarding our relationships with our fathers: the need for healing and the importance of mentoring.

The Need for Healing. I don’t think I realized how deep and complex my relationship to my father was until I became a parent. Then I discovered something rather painful—that no matter how much I was determined to avoid all the mistakes my father made with me, his influence continued to be felt in my relationships with my wife and children. This was brought home to me as my children came to be involved in organized sports.

One of the “wounds” that I have carried with me from my childhood was my experience of being something of a klutz growing up. My father was quite the “jock” and he did not handle well, by his own admission, my lack of athletic prowess. Searing memories remain of his being embarrassed, if not ashamed, of my poor athletic performance. He would compensate by bearing down hard on me. In one instance he took me into the backyard and began throwing baseballs at me in an attempt to get me over my fear of being hit by a pitch.

Before I had children I would have sworn to you that this was not ever going to happen in my relationship with my children. And yet there I was attending my young boys’ baseball practice, wincing as I saw my own childhood awkwardness in their play. I felt rise up within me the same desire to become their personal coach, screaming instructions at them during their games. And then I knew that I had not left my father behind at all.

It is clear to me now that I cannot be the father I want to be until I negotiate with my past and present relationship with my father. There is a healing that has to take place in that relationship. Some of the healing must actually take place through interaction with my father today, but that is not the whole of it. You see, my dad and I now get along quite well.

Our present relationship has benefited from much healing. More difficult is the healing that must come in my relationship with the dad of my childhood. That is harder because he no longer exists in some ways. For some men this is because their fathers have already died, but for others, like me, it is because my father today is a significantly different person than he was in my childhood.

The father who has such a hold on me in my relationships with my wife, my children and even my work is not my dad today, but the much younger and less mature dad who raised me. Healing of my relationship with the dad of my past can only come through prayer.

Until God can bring me to an acceptance of who my father was, honoring both his gifts and his failings, I am never going to be able to find the freedom to be the father, spouse and professional that I want to be.

The Need to be Mentored. Let me turn now to a second aspect of our relationship to our fathers, namely our need for mentors. Mark Twain once observed that at about the age of 12 a young boy begins to imitate a man. And he goes on doing that for the rest of his life! I think this has never been truer than in our own time when so few boys are mentored in the difficult process of becoming responsible adult males.

More and more men in our society are becoming involved in what has been generically referred to as “the men’s movement.” It is the type of thing that is prone to caricature. I was briefly involved in that movement some time ago, but before my initial involvement, mention of such “men’s groups” usually brought to mind some imagined Saturday Night Live-style skit about men banging drums and running around naked. Yet in spite of some real limitations, I believe that this movement has tapped into a number of important truths that we ignore at our peril.

Among these truths is the recognition that one of the most significant differences between modern and pre-modern societies is the lack of male rites of passage. They celebrated what it was to be an adult male and gave a religious interpretation or understanding disclosing the ultimate meaning of that passage into adulthood. In the absence of such rites of passage, and the mentors to guide us through these passages, many males suffer today through what can only be called prolonged or even arrested adolescence.

My negotiation with adolescent sexuality was probably more painful and full of unfortunate missteps because there were no men, including my father, in our Catholic Christian community who were able to share their own wisdom and experience about what a mature exercise of sexuality might look like.

My father never discussed anything relating to women and sexuality with me. And the spiritual leaders of our community, the priests who served us in parishes, were sometimes viewed (however unfairly) as sexless spiritual beings. Yet I believe that it is vital for us as men to find a community of men with whom we can be brutally honest about the challenges we face if only so that we might help our sons and, yes, daughters, negotiate this passage with some integrity.

One of the tragedies of our Church today is the lack of Church-sponsored opportunities for that kind of honest sharing and mentoring within the framework of our own Christian faith. The closest thing we find, by and large, is the Promise Keepers movement, but while there is a lot to commend about that movement, there are aspects of it that would be at odds with our own mainstream Catholic tradition. This suggests that a fundamental challenge to the pastoral ministry of the Church is to create a safe place in which Catholic men can draw on the wisdom of other men and so navigate the difficult movement into mature adulthood. It goes without saying that this requires more than annual church-sponsored golf tournaments or men’s club barbecues!

Looking Forward to Our Children

If we ourselves need to be mentored, we must also take seriously our own role in mentoring our children. While the growing public role of women in the workplace and the consequent emergence of two-career families are changing the traditional stereotypes regarding family roles, these changes come slowly.

For many men, honest reflection confirms that we are still deeply influenced by the traditional view of the father as provider and protector. However, this stereotype of father also carries with it some dangers.

The indispensable responsibility to provide for a family, if we are not careful, can blind us to our need, not only to provide for our children, but also to engage them in relationship. I speak freely of my children as living sacraments, effective signs of God’s love. But my children cannot be sacrament to me unless I am present to them.

Moreover, this presence and engagement with my children cannot be strictly programmed. The grace that comes to us in the lives of our children comes to us as a surprise, often in the delightfully unexpected moments: wrestling on the floor, working on the lawn, playing Uno, preparing a meal together, etc. The notion of “quality time” with our children ignores the fact that God’s grace is not subject to efficient programming.

Second, let us consider the traditional role of the father as protector. This is an aspect of fatherhood borne through our genes across the millennia from more primal times when their size and strength made men natural protectors. Even if our modern culture has lessened a family’s reliance on the power and strength of a male, it remains a part of the cultural role with which we have been raised. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is a great gift to our children to offer them a sense of protection and stability, to reassure them that their home is, indeed, both physically and emotionally, a “safe” place. But our role as protector is in the end, I fear, illusory. Remember my story of the car wreck at the beginning of this article.

The experience has forced me to reassess my sense of myself as protector. It made me realize that, in fact, I cannot truly protect them. I cannot promise them that they will never be hurt or feel pain, loss or tragedy. I can only promise them my attentiveness, my compassionate presence, my commitment never to abandon them in their pain.

Indeed, this is all God promises any of us, and to embrace this as a parent is to accept a humble role as an instrument of God’s compassionate presence. Abandoning the role of protector became an invitation for me to enter into the rhythm of the paschal mystery, dying to the presumption that I have any real control over the ultimate destiny of my children.

Finally, I believe that mentoring our children is less about the advice we give than about the example we set. I am reminded of the injunction often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Always preach the word of God—by words if necessary.”

From the point of view of our calling our children to become mature Christians, no aspect of this modeling is more important than our attitudes about prayer and our relationship to God. I believe that one of the most important things I can model for my children is a willingness to talk freely and easily about my faith and the way in which prayer is integrated into my daily life.

Diana and I work very hard to make prayer integral to our family by: a) saying a prayer of blessing over our children before they leave for school, b) praying at meals, c) praying at bedtime, d) celebrating the liturgical and family calendar with prayer and ritual and e) participating in the life of our parish community.

Of course, the work of mentoring our children is not a solitary exercise. While we as fathers bring something distinctive to our relationships with our children, we are partners with our spouses in this important work.

Negotiating Our Careers

One of the most distinctive aspects of the understanding of monasticism found in St. Benedict’s Rule is the emphasis he puts on the importance of not only prayer but also labor for the spiritual life of the monk. Benedict understood the intrinsic value of human labor.

From the time that the first humans were commanded by God to tend the garden, humanity has been invited to share the work of creation with the Father. This means that while our labor helps us support our family, work is not primarily a matter of profit; it is a fulfillment of our human vocation to assist in the building of the Kingdom.

The creative use of our hands, our imagination, our intellect, is a graced participation in the ongoing creation of God’s world. We must ask ourselves: How am I using my gifts in this work in a way which gives glory to God? This does not mean that our work must have an explicitly religious purpose. But if we can say to ourselves that we are helping to build up our world, providing valuable services and engaging our gifts with integrity in ways that always honor and never diminish the dignity of others, then our labor possesses a true spiritual dimension.

Our commitment to our careers, then, need not be the enemy to our spiritual maturation. There are dangers associated with our attitudes toward our careers, however, that can indeed have spiritual implications. In this age of two-career households, I do not want to suggest that what I offer here is exclusive to men. And yet I cannot help believing that there is something distinctive, in general, in the way men deal with their careers.

Whether for reasons of cultural conditioning, or mere testosterone, I do think there is a bit of the “monument builder” in the male psyche. There is something in us that wants to build a lasting monument, something which would stand as a testament to our hard work, our determination, our perseverance and competency.

I have had to deal with this honestly in my own profession. I truly believe that my work as a teacher and a theologian is a ministry in service of the Church. Yet, if I am honest, there is a lot of ego wrapped up in what I do. I take great satisfaction in the thought that other people might value my opinion by either attending talks I give or reading books and articles that I write.

The hard truth for me is that at a significant level, I do not want unconditional love from those around me; I want conditional love. In other words, I want people to love and respect me because I am different from, and in some significant ways, better than others around me. This drive for esteem by others, this determination to be viewed as talented and competent runs deep within us. And while it provides the tremendous energy and enthusiasm that make us capable of great things, it is a drive that needs to be integrated throughout our life.

The great temptation for many men is that our self-esteem, our sense of self-value, can become inordinately attached to our monuments and our reputations. Our monument building can make it difficult to find a place for God. To make a place for God we must empty ourselves of pretensions to a false specialness.

Our uniqueness as God’s creatures is always affirmed within our shared dignity as God’s children. This is what life in the Church is supposed to teach us: that we are loved by God in our sinfulness. We come to the Church not to reaffirm our separateness, but to be reminded of our radical sameness.

Beyond Gender

An authentic male spirituality is in the end merely a subtle variation on the theme of discipleship. The defining feature of any Christian spirituality will never lie in one’s gender, politics or ethnicity. There is a place for discussing a spirituality appropriate to the specific circumstances in which we find ourselves. But in the final analysis, each of us, in the concrete circumstances of our own lives, is invited to the life of discipleship.

Each of us is called to integrate the demands of our faith into our daily concerns however we experience that “dailiness.” Each of us is called to live our faith with passion and integrity. As St. Paul reminds us “...all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28).


Rick Gaillardetz is a free-lance author. He is the father of four and an associate professor of systematic theology at the University of St. Thomas School of Theology in Houston, Texas. His most recent book is Transforming Our Days: Spirituality, Community and Liturgy in a Technological Culture (Crossroad).

 

 


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