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
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
Back to Our Fathers
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!
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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”
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