I have a pastor who is “in his natural habitat” at the altar and at the pulpit. His ars celebrandi (manner of saying the Mass) is so careful and reverent. He has a beautiful and clear voice for speaking and singing various parts of the Liturgy. His homilies are often the kind that make you want to go get in a boxing ring with your enemy, or take up the righteous flag in public witness, or to erupt in cheers from the pew as if your coach just gave a rousing halftime pep talk that gives everyone goosebumps. Not because he’s combative. Simply because it’s rousing to be told the truth in God’s House of Truth, and because we are sadly accustomed to hearing safe pablum instead.
He was made to be a priest. It’s as if God had the habitat of the church sanctuary in mind for his particular gifts as a man. This good pater found his true calling when he received Holy Orders.
This post is an ode to him. It’s also an ode to all priests who do the simple (but difficult and perhaps unpopular) priestly things well, as protectors, as guardians, as truth-tellers to their flock, as dispensers of holy help for this journey. It’s an ode to the men out there in the lay state who manifest the priestly role of masculinity as spiritual and physical defenders of those more vulnerable around them and under their care.
And, finally, it’s a plea to the men who have been bruised and/or lulled by the broken world into hesitation or non-participation. We need you. The truth and power of Christ are there to be harnessed… the power of your manly vocation as protectors and truth-tellers, like the best pastors and husbands and heroes you and I know.
Yes, the most manly thing men do is to stand in the breach.
This epic and iconic scene from Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Gandalf in Lord of the Rings pretty much sums it up:
Man: A sacrifice-offering creature
The role of the man is to provide and protect. For the layman in marriage, that means to provide for and protect his family (spiritually, even before materially and physically). For the unmarried man, even for the boy, being a protector is still something manly and manifestly achievable in a different way. In the case of the priest, being a provider and a protector means especially to offer himself as a sacrifice for the people of God, metaphysically in the sacrifice of the Mass, and in conferring and dispensing the other sacraments, pouring himself out selflessly. Manly priests and priestly men offer sacrifices for the sake of others. They stand in gaps to hold back the enemy, even with their bodies. They put themselves in harm’s way, ready to bear injury or insult in place of those weaker than themselves.
Truth-speech: A metaphysical act of defiance against evil and lies
The priest also preaches, as per my example above. If we’re blessed, we know what it’s like to feel the quickening that comes when we’re listening to a homily and suddenly the words of the priest pierce the veil of our attention. When – exercising his divinely-bestowed priestly duties – the homilist becomes truly a conduit of God’s voice. Mind you, I love priests and I thank God for them, I pray for them, but a banal or yuck-it-up homily is such a wasted opportunity. Not all priests have the gift of smashing oratory, but the laity need fortification from their pastors, now more than ever. We need to be reassured by the truth, even when we already know it.
“In a time of universal deceit,” said George Orwell, “telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” In the case of the priest who preaches unpopular truths from the pulpit, Christ’s truths, I would tweak Orwell’s word “revolutionary.” I want to call the act restorationary. It is the putting back into order of things. It is the proper function of the priest, but also the proper function of language itself. It’s restoring something that was out of order (lies, and people’s credulity thereof). No one in their right mind relishes hearing that all is not well… but, when someone in authority speaks that truth out loud, a truth we all already sense to greater or lesser consciousness, the result is as a preservation of sanity for the listener.
Not only priests, but lay men too must speak the unpopular truths just now. Women and children and other men are waiting to hear it. Lies have had their hour (or several). I like to call it Men-Being-Men. One man being a man (i.e. doing some hard thing, telling some hard truth) gives a sort of metaphysical permission to a multiplicity of “weaker” people around him. His taking the initial burden on himself gives courage, cooperation, and order to an ecosystem of souls around him.
Tank Man v. Tyranny
A rallying cry to men: Going your own way is unmanly
“And I sought for anyone among them who would repair the wall and stand in the breach before me on behalf of the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one.” (Ezekiel 22:30)
Men: You’ve been berated, drugged, subdued, marginalized, ignored and complained about. I’m sorry. We need you. Other men need you. Children need you – boys, to show them how to become men; girls, to show them how they should expect to be loved. Women need you. Society needs you. You need you.
There are hard things that need to be done, which only you can do: Father a child. Show a son how to treat his mother. Physically protect the vulnerable. Shepherd a flock in the priesthood. Consecrate the Precious Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. These things are not body-building, gridiron-smashing, chest-thumping caricatures. They are your God-given telos, your raison d’etre, the task that you must take up in order for the whole great drama of the world to play out as God cast it… as God imagined you.
I want to encourage you as your sister in Christ. Resist the emasculating messages, temptations, narratives and addictions the world would sell you. Fight back against the errors you’ve been steeped in from childhood. They are not entirely your fault, but – once you see them for what they are – you become responsible for making a choice. We are in your corner, ready to lift you up, ready to pray for you (already praying for you). We don’t expect you to be perfect, because we are all – to a greater or lesser extent – victims both of Original Sin and of an ever more wounded culture of formation in society at-large and even inside the Church. But amidst your own weaknesses and insecurities, we need you to suffer for us in doing the hard thing.
As a daughter, a wife, a sister, and a friend of men, I have such a heart for you. As a daughter, a sister, a friend of women – I speak for them when I say, WOMEN NEED YOU, too. Even the ones who balk at your attempts to be manly. Even the ones who lash out in ugly, scoffing ways at your foolishness, at patriarchy, your “privilege.” Even the ones who behave most terribly and who denigrate men most vociferously. But – then, too – there are the gentle, tender, docile, creative, beautiful, feminine, receptive women who are waiting for you to be you. They are women praying for you to come find them and pursue their chaste hearts for marriage. They are longing to make a home for you, to care for and love you, to help you raise children. These women are out there and they are trying to be ready for you. So this readiness is a two-way street. Know they’re out there.
Sam and Frodo v. Mordor
Oh men! Don’t you see? Movie clips are just stories. Facsimiles. Reflections of the full reality of the battle between Good and Evil that we humans live in every day. Your day-to-day life, unremarkable as may meet the eye, is actually an epic opportunity for heroism. “Tank man” in Tienanmen Square is a real-life analogy for the forces of evil and chaos we’re all up against. Jesus Christ, too, is a real-life example, but He’s more than that. He is your brother, your Redeemer and your Lord.
A man made after the model of Jesus Christ
He will bless you. He will protect you. And you will suffer. And there is a reward for that, too. Yoke yourself to Him. Take St. Joseph as your patron. The world is crying out for men to remember their manliness and to restore their own honor and responsibility. Amazing things happen when you begin to cooperate with God’s design.
Thank you for being brave. Thank you for being strong. Thank you for speaking truth and for defending the weak. Thank you for offering yourself in sacrifice rather than hiding, hesitating, or refusing to engage in the struggle. Thank you for being manly priests and priestly men.