Today, it is not easy to raise a healthy Christian man. After fifteen years, most parents have handed down significant flaws to their boys. And, many feel out of touch with the decisions their sons continue to make. Fathers and mothers, from all classes, struggle. If it is not gang violence in our cities, it is substance addiction in the burbs. Somewhere in the middle, the average mother, who loves her honors son, hopes he feels like more than a proud shelf of achievements. And, if fathers are happy with their successful corporate sons, they should take a second look. He is probably not free. It is the boys who have gone through significant crises that end up truly thriving. But even our diamonds in the rough seem lost without a map in a trackless desert.
What if mothers and fathers did not have to raise a man alone? What if the body of Christ could help? What if our church found a way to connect our young men with the influence and experience of our elders? What if we were more proactive, as a community, offering our young Christian men a vision of manhood during an undeniable experience of Christian formation? What if we could trust that God was transforming our sons’ deepest scars into gifts for the community?
On the day Jesus died, two men appear from under the shadow of the cross. They are rich men, both with considerable political power. Yet they were both touched at some point in their past by this son of Man. One of them was a religious leader: Nicodemus. We first meet him in the fear of the night. He visits Jesus. Perhaps it is their first meeting. He came with faith.
And almost immediately, as if Jesus trusts him too, Jesus starts talking about being born again, of water and the spirit. For any man who has seen the birth of a baby, it is clear what being “born of water” means. We all have been born of water. But what does it mean to be born of the spirit? We men would do well to wonder this. Was Jesus thinking about his strange teaching when a few months later he would come up on a broken man, blind from birth?
The disciples were there then and asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” When this young boy found his way into the world by water, how did his parents respond? They they want him? Were they abusive? We don’t know. We do know about their answer when the deformities of this boy’s youth had been taken away in the prime of his manhood: “We know this is our son, and we know he was born blind, but how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.”
The young man speaks for himself. The authorities claim, “We don’t know where this Jesus comes from.” His parents were afraid of the authorities but this man who Jesus touched stands up with a bit attitude, “do you want to be his disciples too?” Then he gets real lippy, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They kick him out.
This young man had been born of water and the spirit. And I don’t think his being born of the Spirit was primarily about him coming to see who Jesus was. The young man had a voice now. Something had changed in him, his confidence rose. This is a man of the Cross. He stood up in the day to do what Nicodemus could only do by dark.
More and more people today are claiming that religion is a feminine endeavor.
St. John of the Cross wrote his magnificent poem “Dark Night” during his time in prison, likely during the years 1577-8. His enduring legacy as saint and spiritual master can be seen clearly in his commentaries (The Dark Night and The Ascent to Mt. Carmel)on the first two stanzas of this poem. We perhaps have no other piece of work that can speak to the height of Christian union penned by a man. Like any relationship, like any marriage, intimacy is about more than learning. It is about cultivating a life of shared experiences and appreciation for one another in difficult times. Why do we think that 30 minutes a day will do it? At its base, the problem of the quiet time is that we might be searching for God’s voice in all the wrong places. We open our hearts to introspective individual prayer, but we have not learned the age-old skill of listening for God’s voice in all our experiences. For any person devoted to intimacy with God, the poem speaks for itself.
Our tradition has given us an anemic version of intimacy with God. For our spirits to work well, we have to let go of managing our own spiritual lives and give that back to God and the Spirit who works tirelessly to bring us back to our original form. Dr. Susan Muto puts it so well in her modern day commentary on these works. Her words are an apt introduction to the core texts from which this project draws its insight.
“Many today who seek a spiritual life succumb to the propaganda of New Age gurus who promise instant salvation through one or the other technique of self-actualization. They are prone to run from the cross as fast as fireflies from flame. St. John not only embraces the cross with joy; he says we can never climb to the mountaintop of union with the Divine unless we take up the cross and follow Christ with courage…The night of sadness that never seems to end, the day of depletion that drags on mercilessly, the crisis that tears us asunder like cracked glass—all such occasions that stretch our faith to the limit are, in reality, our greatest teachers…In a society that would confine the life of the spirit to occasional practices of private piety, one might wonder what a mystic and spiritual master like St. John has to say to the masses…the “dark night” is no longer a metaphor we can take or leave, a quaint symbol or the title of an old book. It is our unique and universal reality. It is a description of our world, our neighborhood, our family life. It is about pain and loneliness, anxiety and grief.”
Jesus was not always a badass. Truth and Grace incarnate is not the nickname any followers would give to a rogue vigilante. Nor was he the mild shepherd that others imagine. He was the prime example of the fully human true man. And having studied Jesus these last ten years of my life, I have concluded from his image that true men are healers: filled with life and laughter, grace and truth, in touch with poverty and grief, and bursting with desire to cultivate intimacy with the Father. Jesus left his mother, embodied a fierce compassion, and stood up wisely and decisively against injustice. We must wisely reject the anemic, sentimental and emotive definitions of manhood propagated across the airwaves by experts of male psychology. And we must seriously question the attempt to cajole men to bear their souls to one another with sobs so that they can harden their resolve to keep their promises.
We must first recognize that despite our culture and its averseness to Christ-likeness, God is busy using every day experiences, success, failures and crises to for Christ-like men all across our land. We must recognize it will take a lifetime for a man to reach this destiny. Then we must see Jesus’ example clearly to know something of what God is doing. I am not sure if we are ready for the implications of Christ-like manhood. Women stand to loose their easily placated husbands, mothers their little boys, and father’s their own managed self-image. The risks are high, but the cost is even greater if we cannot soon find a Christ-vision and practice for a generation of men who are grasping for manhood yet blind to its pathway.
Rather than traveling the age-worn path to confidence and true glory, many men in the West are stuck in some form of infantile grandiosity, which leads to childishness, addiction, and often depression. Men seem to have lost their ability to attach themselves and their desires appropriately to God and others. Instead of a fiercely compassionate community of men, we see emerging gang violence, drug abuse, alcoholism, absent fathers, and heavy use of pornography among other problems. These all point to one deafening reality: we are together lost. If we cannot creatively assist males back onto their journey towards manhood, there’s no telling how much havoc our community of grown boys will wreak before all is said and done. We must get our males off their “lazy boys” where they flip through and now flip to their “play boys” and position them to enter into the realm of manhood.
Historian Robert Bly keenly observes the predicament. On the one hand, he notes, definitions of manhood generally adopted by our fathers and grandfathers have proven bankrupt. The stoic father and emotionally absent husband no longer satisfy the awakening sensibilities of our women nor the rebellion of our young people. On the other hand and in response, notes Bly, a type of soft male has emerged: “The male in the past twenty years has become more thoughtful, more gentle. But by this process he has not become more free. He’s a nice boy who pleases not only his mother but also the young woman he is living with.” Both definitions, the stoic and the soft, suggests Bly, lead only to confusion and heartache. Both have lost touch with the deeper contours of man-wisdom passed down from generations gone by. Neither of these ways, I will suggest, reflect the heart of Jesus, whose veiled image should serve as our lodestar. After all, how many men do you know who can strong-arm their opponents with pithy sayings, walk safely through a crowd of people ready to kill him, and willingly walk into the nearest mega-church and overturn the Starbuck’s kiosk, without bringing with him some diagnosable mental disorder or intentions to wound any humans? It is easy to be the uni-bomber. It is easy to have an affair. You cannot become Jesus overnight. We need the generations of initiated men gone by to help us get there, free from the placebo of self-help.
When I graduated college, I left home. It was a reaction to long years of boyish living. At that point I had worked only one real job. It was a mostly a joke. I had a college degree for which I had not contributed one penny. I owned a string of fairly broken relationships and had cultivated a set of derailed dating experiences. And, when I entered into my final college winter, it all came crumbling down. I had been recruited into ministry leadership at a young age, where I had flown high with my childhood wounds buried deep. But then my life unraveled. I had to get away.
I traveled with two friends to 22 countries and spent seven months learning to survive in the largest urban centers and smallest villages our world has to offer. I came home the same boy, but something had just noticeably changed. I had left my mother and father and tasted the first herbs of poverty. True, I traveled on my grandmother’s inheritance, but I came home with priceless lessons about responsibility and self-care. Now, looking back over 5 years of marriage and 4 years of fatherhood, I see in myself an ongoing need to be initiated. Boyishness still lingers. I need more guidance into manhood. I eat up all the wisdom I find, seldom knowing what is true and what is false. I learn the hard way. I wonder: is there not something strong upon which I can build the foundations of my manhood? At this rate, I expect I will feel this way when I am 60. In my honest moments, I know that I measure short of this Son of Man who, on the evening before his capture, heroically faced betrayal, withstood blows to his face, swallowed unjust incarceration, and encountered deep rejection. When I look for my model of manhood in the image of the unjust crucifixion, I see a vision that wholly transcends what the people around me are doing and saying.
When we men approach the powers of our boyhood kingdoms, our families and culture, we must wisely detach ourselves from its forces without succumbing to the false elusion that we have somehow left behind the junk. One form of distortion is what van Kaam calls “Sociohistoricism.” This happens when we blame all of our woes on the failures of our parents or the trappings of our culture. “Our culture hates men,” one fellow remarks, “and if my father would have been more caring, I might believe in God.” I don’t mean to diminish these sometimes-tragic experiences, but as we walk toward the right cross, we will get sucked into the vortex of disappointment and depression if we blame the harshness of life on our traditions.
This is perhaps one reason why some men reject their parents outright. When they do so, they cut themselves off from the likely reality that their parents did at least something right. The good we inherited from our parents gets choked off as we react to our pain. And men stuck here live their lives in a perpetually repeating tragedy. We begin hating something we will never be able to shed. Yes, we are the heirs of a mixed package, but the more we can learn to appreciate the situation into which we were “dipped,” the more we can shrug off the bad and enhance the good. And when we come to see that honoring our parents as adult children does not always mean obeying them, we are free to react less allergically to the ongoing internal force that our culture and heritage have on us.