Let’s start right out of the gate with an unpopular, eyebrow-raising opinion, shall we? I hate, hate, WITH THE PASSION OF A THOUSAND SUNS HATE, manhood/masculinity talks.
If anyone’s unclear what I’m talking about here, I’m talking about those famous Catholic speakers or even just your local go-to guy for giving talks who either gives a talk specifically directed at men from the beginning or brings the men at some conference or retreat into some separate room to talk to them while someone else talks to the women, and then launches into one or a combination of two basic talks.
The first is straightforward enough: “You’re a guy, you’ve probably lusted, you’ve probably masturbated, you’ve probably seen porn, and basically, you’re awful for doing so, so just stop.” This is usually interjected with poorly and non-contextualized quoting of Theology of the Body and frequent repetitions of, “That’s someone’s sister, that’s someone’s daughter, etc., etc., etc.”, and a few choruses of “BE A MAN!”
The second is a little more subtle about its banality: It attempts to actually talk about what it means to be a true man, a man of God, according to this formula: Stereotypical/Secular Masculinity + A Handful of Pre-Selected Virtues Slapped Over the Top = Being a Man of God. Also usually interjected with some poorly and non-contextualized quoting of Theology of the Body and endless, mind-numbingly repetitious reminders that men’s brains are like waffles and women’s brains are like spaghetti (and please don’t ask me to explain because I just may vomit).
Now granted, I may be generalizing just a tad. Maybe. And it’s not like purity isn’t important. But basically, bottom-line, masculinity talks in the Catholic Church tend to work from a societally stereotypical view of masculinity and build a “Christian” vision of manhood from there.
So let me ask a fairly obvious question which apparently never crossed these people’s minds: WHAT IF NOT EVERY MAN FITS THE STEREOTYPE TO BEGIN WITH? WHAT IF THAT STEREOTYPE IS FLAWED?
Not that I have personal experience in that area or anything. OH, WAIT.
Here’s a few easily recognizable traits of the stereotype I’m referencing: loud, unruly, into sports above all, actually proud of being rude, lewd, crude, etc., outgoing, adventurous/reckless, and shies away from anything considered stereotypically effeminate.
Here’s a few easily recognizable traits of yours truly: quiet, unassuming, into music/art/reading above all, actually proud of being caring, respectful, classy, etc., shy, introverted/anxious, and shies away from anything considered stereotypically masculine.
And yet, last I checked, I’m a man.
Here’s my true beef with masculinity/manhood talks: it’s precisely those men who fit that stereotype who wounded me, who led me to believe for years that somehow I was less of a man, that made me feel small, weak, broken, and alone. It was these men that I simultaneously loathed and longed to have approval from. It was these men who, for a time, were the fuel for my hatred of men. And I know for a fact I’m not the only one out there who has experienced this. It’s all too common, and it simultaneously further wounds those already wounded and confirms such men in their continuation of their wounding under the guise that somehow they’re being “true men” according to the Christian vision.
Now let me set the record straight here: I’m not advocating for all men to be men on my terms. If all men were like me, this world would fall apart fast. Men who are strong in the stereotypical sense, who have a love for physical activity, who are loud and outgoing and passionate, who have zeal and adventure in their hearts, they are good men; some of the best men I know can be described this way. Some, though, are quiet and reflective, artistic and sensitive, strong within rather than without, and express their zeal in subtler ways. And this is where the question has to be asked, what is it that defines true manhood, that really makes one a man? What should these speakers really be talking about? How does one actually grow in masculinity?
A few years back, I was asked to give a brief talk at a men’s night for my parish (cue heart attack), so I went to prayer, started reading Scripture, trying to figure out both what I wanted to say and what it actually meant to be a man. I came to Psalm 84, one of my favorites, and one of the passages jumped out at me like never before:
Blessed are the men whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the pathways to Zion. As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength, the God of gods will be seen in Zion. –Psalm 84:5-7
And basically, the talk flowed from there. This, I think, sums up what it means to be a man. There’s so much to this passage, the implicit humility it takes to allow my strength to come from God and not myself, the priority of making “the pathways to Zion” in my own heart, being a source of life and comfort in the desert valleys of the lives of others and the world which so desperately needs it, the love it takes to do so, the continued growth “from strength to strength” not of ourselves but by growth in that humility before and surrender to “the God of gods” who “will be seen in Zion”. And there’s so much more you could sit with here, but look at all that. Nowhere does it talk about any stereotypical traits. Nowhere is athletic ability, recklessness, general volume, or anything of the kind mentioned. It doesn’t preclude them, but it’s nowhere laid out as the baseline for masculinity.
The baseline for masculinity is, I think, right here in this passage, and from there, it grows not in a single direction but branches out in a myriad of expressions. The one and only masculinity talk that didn’t make me die inside was a talk given by a seminarian one of the summers I did Totus Tuus as a teacher; instead of launching into one or both of the usual formulas, he picked four saints whose lives represented one of the four main vocations (priesthood, religious life, marriage, and single life), and simply told their stories as examples of manhood.
THE BASELINE IS SANCTITY.
THE EXPRESSION TAKES ITS FORM IN VOCATION.
THE ANSWER IS STARING US IN THE FACE, AND HIS NAME IS JESUS CHRIST.
We men need to stop shying away from holding ourselves to the standard of authentic holiness, hiding behind our own peculiar weaknesses. Instead, we need to recognize them, and let those weaknesses become the places where Christ becomes our strength. We need to pave in our hearts “the pathways to Zion” by allowing the Holy Spirit to work in us precisely where there are potholes or even gaping canyons. We need to allow Christ not to simply sit over the top of our broken humanity but to truly infiltrate and heal it by filling it with Himself.
If we want to raise true men and grow ourselves in our own God-given masculinity, we need to imitate Christ. If we want to imitate Christ, we have to know, love, and serve Him. That’s all. That’s it. That’s the baseline for manhood, from which we become the men we were made to be.
What does it mean to be a man?
I can discard a bunch of answers right away: it doesn’t mean being physically strong or attractive, it doesn’t mean being obnoxiously loud, and it CERTAINLY doesn’t mean getting with the most women. Sorry, majority of society, but you don’t have a clue what manhood is.
Most prolific writers on what it means to truly be a man are men who came from this point of view to a deeper understanding of masculinity based in faith. They speak mainly to people who are either in this mindset or are attempting to move out of this mindset. Truly, a noble thing, since it speak to a great part of society, and is certainly very necessary in this day and age.
Yet it leaves a particular demographic unaccounted for: those young men who come from a more gentle point of view, those who would never consider being loud or obnoxious if they didn’t have to, those who befriend women rather than trying to get with them, and those who, in general, are just more sensitive. They’re the young men who have trouble listening to talks on manhood, because little of what is said is relatable, the young men who are truly striving to find their manhood but are put off by The Art of Manliness. They’re the young men who have so many questions about what manhood is, and can’t quite hear the answer over the disgruntling war-cries and frustrating half-crudity used to excite another audience.
Does this demographic even exist? Speaking from my own life and the lives of several of my friends, YES, YES IT DOES.
So why is so little being said to us? Because we are, unfortunately, either a minority or greatly overshadowed by our more “macho” counterpart. Plus, we’re the ones still doing a lot of questioning, so there’s not a lot of resources for answers out there.
And no, we can’t just adapt to the messages being yelled from the podiums of men’s conferences across the country. I’m sorry, but I can only take being told that my mind works like a waffle so many more times before I stand up and scream, “LIES. MINE WORKS LIKE SPAGHETTI. WHAT’S WRONG WITH THAT?” (If you don’t get the reference, look in any popular Catholic teens book that discusses the difference between men and women.) I can only take being shown clips of The Princess Bride so many more times before I raise my hand and ask, “Excuse me, Westley’s devotion and courage are great and all, but what about Fezzik’s gentleness and honor?” I’m all for trying to imitate the fatherly protection and fatherly love of Mufasa, but how about the wisdom and persistent devotion of Zazu?
Here’s the thing: not all of us are built to be strapping heroes. Some of us just can’t relate to that. I was asked in my senior year to help lead a short retreat for sophomores that focused on manhood with a focus on Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassatti. Most of my hipster Catholic friends just cheered. It might surprise them to know I almost backed out. I just couldn’t get excited about it. I wasn’t a huge fan of Frassatti–it was super cool that he gave to the poor so freely and prayed a ton, but his athleticism, his rascally nature, his love of smoking and mountain-climbing…none of that resonated with me. The other guys leading the retreat were super psyched, talking about how seeing his example and still being “a normal guy, a man’s man” was so cool. I just thought it was ridiculous. I’m not saying I don’t think he should be a blessed, he absolutely gave a Christ’like example in many ways. I just couldn’t relate to him. I couldn’t identify with him. Nothing that the other guys saw was intriguing to me, it was just off-putting.
But when I went to talk to the head of the team, he encouraged me to stay. He said he recognized this in me, and that there would probably be other guys on the retreat who would feel the same way, and I could be a help to them. Manhood didn’t just lie in that. So I stayed on. I didn’t enjoy the retreat much. At all. But there were some fellow young men I was able to be there for, so it was worth it.
I still didn’t have my answers though. So I want to start writing posts on this topic with the help of a couple friends, exploring from the other side what it means to be a man. This should be a wild ride.
All glory to God.