Over the next five articles, we will embark on a brief exploration of the complex and often overlooked topic of being male. The articles will be reflective and open to discussion, so please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below. Be mindful of one another’s struggles – or their difficulties in speaking about them – and do all you can to encourage each other and to lift each other’s spirits.
Article 1: “Be a man!” To begin with we will look at some of the confusion around what it means to be a man today. Do we cling to narrow, old-fashioned images of masculinity? Have we become too soft? Are we lost in the clamor of society’s gender debate, unsure how to respond? Who or what currently influences our idea of masculinity?
Article 2: Being a man. In this article we consider the things that have shaped our own experiences, struggles and beliefs around growing into a man. We reflect on whether we can change what has influenced us in the past.
Article 3: Becoming more manly. Here we will reflect on ways of understanding and reaching authentic manhood.
Article 4: Beholden to other men. It’s important to learn from the experiences of others. Here we will discover some good resources, writers and role models that will help to develop our understanding of masculinity.
Article 5: “Behold the man!” Finally, we will contemplate the person of Jesus Christ as the embodiment of authentic manhood and masculinity.
Beholden to Other Men
The only way to really understand authentic masculinity is to observe and learn from authentic men. In contrast to a woman’s natural progression to maturity, men have always required some kind of initiation into the realm of the mature masculine. Previously, this was done with experienced guidance from the male elders in the community. These days, however, it’s rare to find positive rites of passage away from the hostile arenas of gangs, peer pressure and alcohol. If we’re lucky, we had (or still have) a father who provided us with an exemplary template for masculinity – although, even involved fathers are often not enough in a society that lacks strong community frameworks and a collective sense of responsibility for the development of young men. Still, in our consideration of how we are beholden to other men for our understanding of masculinity, let’s start with fathers.
Fatherhood is the ultimate purpose and meaning of masculinity. It is the single, most decisive task of each father to demonstrate and personify fatherhood to the best of his ability, so that his sons have the greatest chance of succeeding at manhood (and thus fatherhood) themselves. A boy learns what it means to be a man from his father, so the time fathers and sons spend together is critical; there are plenty of articles online giving excellent advice in this respect. Everything a man does should be oriented towards being the best father possible: his physicality, his practical skills, his objectivity, his vision and leadership, his financial acumen, his emotional attachments, his discipline, his expressions of faith should all be geared towards this ultimate role in life. There is abundant research showing that, by simply being a stable presence in the lives of his children, a father indisputably enhances their well-being and livelihoods. There is also plenty of evidence that shows the devastation caused where there is no father to model authentic masculine values: “If fathers are not role models for their sons, who is? Where does a young soul on the precipice of moral and ethical development look if his father is not or cannot be the man his son wants and needs?”
If you are a father, you need to understand the importance of the profound message you convey not just to your children, but to humanity, simply by living out your paternal vocation in ordinary, daily life. Let me share a moving passage to demonstrate this. It’s from the blog of Joseph Sciambra, a man once caught up in the gay lifestyle but desperate to find a way into authentic masculinity. He has since returned to the Catholic Church and carries out some tremendous work. However, at the time of this description, observe how he discovers his first real portrayal of true manhood. The scene is a beach trip with a friend and the friend’s brother and his wife and children:
“For much of that day, I sat and watched my friend’s brother interact with his kids. This had become a kind of recent obsession with me – wherever I went: paying special attention to men with their families; watching them; as if I were some visiting extra-terrestrial studying humanity in order to report back to the home-world.
“One extraordinary moment occurred, when the dad walked out towards the waves with his two boys: the older one rushing ahead and the little one standing close by, semi-clutching his father’s leg. How I longed to be that little boy. As for mom, she hung back and watched. My eyes darted back and forth between the boys with their dad and the mother. At some point, as the older one went further out into the water, she looked a little concerned. I thought to myself: if this gets out of hand, she is going to take charge. She never did.
“The older son, he stumbled a little when a rogue wave took him by surprise. He turned to gauge his dad’s reaction and for reassurance. He knew he was there: dad was solid and unperturbed. A couple of times, he made his way back to his father – they spoke a few words, and the boy went out again…
“After lunch, the boys started to get weary and stuck close to mom on the blanket. Then, the [younger] brother suddenly had a football which I hadn’t seen earlier. I sighed heavily without making a sound – this was like a sports nightmare from my childhood…
“I lurched myself up and threw the ball. I was awful. It wobbled in the air like a damaged single-engine plane about to crash. No one noticed.
“From behind his mother, the once slumbering older boy saw what we were doing and ran over. He got between me and his father and watched as the football flew overhead. Then, as the ball passed from his dad to me – he ran successively to each of us. By throwing around that inflated piece of brown cowhide, by doing something this boy couldn’t yet do, I was like his father. When the boy ran towards me, he looked at me like he looked at his dad – he looked at me as if I were a man. That startled me. I thought – Joe, you are stupid, how else is the kid going to look at you?
“That was when I truly began to heal.”
To one degree or another, the father alone cannot fulfill all the needs of the son. Once, growing up in an assembly of men meant a boy was exposed to a wide array of skills, objective advice and emotional detachment from difficult situations that his individual father may have lacked. If he couldn’t turn to his father for something that interested or bothered him, he could turn to uncles, grandfathers, neighbors, elders. In medieval times, boys were sent to other households to be pages or squires; master craftsmen took on apprentices who lived in their households and were taught all the skills of the trade until they became masters in their own right.
In this day and age, we need to look harder for our mentors, but as the second half of this excellent article, Every Man Needs a Man Mentor, suggests, we can find them in four main categories: the Older Friend Mentor, the Professional Mentor, the Spiritual Mentor and the Intellectual Mentor. I would add one more, the Skilled or Practical Mentor, someone adept at a traditional craft that comes alive when passed on to the next generation, or someone who knows how to fix the plumbing, wire a house or build a workshop. A useful quote from the article is this:
In addition to providing some guidance in navigating through life as a man, mentors can expand one’s view of what it means to be a man. Every man has had different life experiences and been exposed to different philosophies and worldviews. They’ve been brought to their knees by different trials, been carried away in different joys, and have learned unique bits of wisdom. They can help you see things a different way, inspire you to dare greatly, comfort you when you grieve, and help you become a better man.
I bumped into my old Head Teacher at church a few years ago, a guy with a fierce reputation for the behavior management of his students. I remember being sent to his office for skipping classes, and it was a scary experience. He’s now a great friend and a professional mentor as I make my own way through the teaching profession. I was also allocated a business mentor from one of our national banks as I was setting up my tuition business, provided by a voluntary organization that offers business mentors for start-ups. It was a fascinating experience being able to tap into the knowledge and expertise of this man, and the accountability meant that I achieved a huge amount of work under his guidance.
It’s worth taking the time to read and contemplate good books on masculinity, written by men. There are many available on Amazon, both secular and religious, but let me suggest a small sample to try.
1. King, Warrior, Magician, Lover. Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine, by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette.
This is a predominantly secular book with Christian undertones, based on the psychology of Carl Jung. Read it with some caution as not all the conclusions it reaches are well-suited to the Catholic faith. However, the first part of the book does a tremendous job in picking apart the differences between boy psychology and man psychology, and the process of transition we need to go through to put to death our juvenile ego so the mature man can emerge. It is a great introduction to the modern recognition that all boys must still go through a specific process of change to become men. It was the first book I read that made a tangible impact on my understanding of what it meant to become a man. If you are concerned that I might be misdirecting you with pop-psychology, then read this endorsement of Robert Moore’s work, or this one, both by Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, the priest whose own writings introduced me to him.
2. Manhood, by Steve Biddulph
I include this in the line-up, as Steve Biddulph is a renowned psychologist, author and speaker on men’s issues, and you are likely to come across his books and articles the more you look in to masculinity. Again, some caution is advised as, although he writes from a Christian perspective, his views on sexuality are not what the Catholic Church teaches. However, it is a very readable book, with particularly excellent chapters on You and Your Father, Men and Women, Being a Real Father, Finding a Job with Heart, and Real Male Friends.
3. Be a Man! Becoming the Man God Created You to Be, by Fr. Larry Richards
The first of my recommendations of books specifically for Catholic men. This is written in a wonderful, free-flowing conversational style by Fr. Larry, who has a wealth of experience in ministering to men. It is, in fact, a great handbook for discovering authentic manhood, with each chapter on an aspect of masculinity ending in three tasks to accomplish and three questions and actions for reflection and discussion. At the end of the book is a checklist, summarizing the tasks, and providing an excellent template for implementing masculine integrity into our lives.
4. Behold the Man, by Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers
This is a more academic book, but one that takes many of the themes that Fr. Larry introduces and sets them in a strong theological context, covering such topics as Biblical Manhood, Covenant Relationship and the Theology of the Body. It’s not a book that you can quickly or easily dip in and out of, as it demands your full attention and time for contemplation. However, the rewards are great as it is packed with outstanding teaching for men striving to live an authentic Catholic male spirituality.
5. The Three Marks of Manhood. How to be Priest, Prophet and King of Your Family, by G. C. Dilsaver
I found this to be the most challenging book for Catholic men. Dilsaver swiftly and aggressively deals with the centuries of inadequate and excuse-ridden attitudes that men have had towards their divinely appointed task of fatherhood, and moves men urgently in the direction they should be taking:
“[T]he installation of purity requires more than prayer and devotion; it requires mortification of the body and appetites. It is here that the young man must do ‘violence’ unto himself, and embrace the Cross of Christ. He must know Christ crucified through self-control and self-discipline, and view any shirking of these traits as emasculating and disloyal to Christ … Once a man has done [this] and stands firmly in the presence of God, he is ready to wield the sceptre of authority and stand humbly in His stead and govern others.”
He sees the role of fatherhood as a divine commission and any failure in that regard is a failure of our innate duty and very reason for being. Reading the book will make Catholic men take a long hard look at themselves and realize how far short of their God-given responsibilities they are falling. Harsh but necessary – but no one said life as a spiritual Marine would be easy.
6. The School of Nazareth. A Spiritual Journey with St. Joseph, by Mark Hartfiel
“There is a beautiful tradition in the Church that St Joseph lived on the Earth with Jesus and Mary for thirty years. Thirty years to adore the face of Our Lord and Savior, thirty years to contemplate the mystery of the Incarnation, and thirty years to be a true father. Joseph experienced a life that no man in history can parallel. Joseph knew Jesus and Mary intimately. Not only that, in many mysterious ways, he led them” (Introduction to The School of Nazareth).
If there is only one book that you buy on authentic Catholic masculinity, ever, make it this one! Because you are buying more than just a book; you are buying a 30-day retreat, 30 classes, a month-long workshop; you are going on a 30-day journey, to arrive at the end a different person to the one you set out as; you are discovering the best earthly example of masculinity and the best mentor for men that you’ll ever come across; if you struggle to fit in time for prayer, or want to build a habitual, daily time of reflection then you’re accessing a useful framework of brief, 2-3 sides of instruction, personal reflection and short prayer; and, if you’re someone who never seems to finish a book you’ll be celebrating the fact that you’ve achieved cover to cover in the space of a month. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll find out about St. Joseph, given that the man has not been recorded saying a single word in the Bible. But actions count more than words and, for under $10, this will be the most value-for-money call to action you’ve ever invested in.
If you don’t have the time or inclination for books, there are some excellent websites for Catholic men, some of which you may already know. Head over to The New Emangelization and you’ll find a comprehensive list of sites on their homepage, some of the more prolific being Those Catholic Men, The Catholic Gentleman, Fraternus, That Man Is You, and Roman Catholic Man. One useful site that appears to be missing from the list is Exodus 90. And, if you haven’t already come across the Christian-influenced, but more secular Art of Manliness, then you’re in for a treat. Happy exploration!
There is little point trying to discover mature masculinity on your own, even with all the above recommendations. You need to find a group of Catholic men with whom you can share, pray, discuss, be active and be at leisure with. Some of the websites mentioned above, such as The King’s Men, run activity weekends, or work to build parish groups, such as That Man is You. But it may be that you simply gather with a few men from your parish for regular times of prayer and social activity. As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. You will be able to observe other men being men and being good at it. You will observe what binds you together and what makes you an individual with your own particular strengths. You will feel the power of being in community and under the leadership of Christ. As sons together, you will find your way to the Father.