Men in search of their souls
MALE SPIRITUALITY IS NOTHING NEW,
but males kept it under wraps until a recent phenomenon called the men's movement arose in response to, among other things, the feminist movement of the late 20th century.
In a genre that scarcely existed until a few years ago, male spirituality books are pushing and shoving each other in search of attention. A click on Amazon.com turned up 68 titles under "men's spirituality," though "male spirituality" delivered only 12 (it's a computer thing).
The gender spirituality landscape rises and falls, the men's movement now supplementing, now jousting with the women's, explains Phyllis Tickle of Publisher's Weekly. Books on the male angle have had a higher profile within the Protestant, especially evangelical, community than among Catholics, and the menu is further spiced by a strong pagan presence. It's not exactly a mountain of new books, Tickle concedes, more like a "good, solid sand dune." The following seven offerings represent both the diversity and unevenness in what is clearly a work in progress.
Patriarchy has been a disaster, everyone seems to agree. "But in righting the balance," William J. O'Malley plaintively reminds the reader in Soul of a Christian Man: A Scriptural Look at Spirituality (Thomas More Company), "we must remember that males have souls, too." The task, then, is rehabilitation: saving male souls "not from some future hell but from atrophy here and now."
O'Malley writes that the hunger men feel is not likely to be appeased in the Catholic Church, yet he writes a Catholic book for Catholics by taking them back to scripture in search of heroes such as Abraham the pilgrim, Moses the warrior, Elijah the wild man, and Jonah the trickster. Towering though these figures are, today's man about town may consider them long ago and far away compared with the heroes, God help us, of television and the National Football League.
What men need from the church is the same thing women have been demanding for years, O'Malley says. He writes: "No married man has any more active contribution to make than any woman [he doesn't count deacons]. . . . they have to defer to the clergy as helplessly as to their plumbers, as if they had nothing to offer but their presence and their pocketbooks."
Men just sail through life, conventional wisdom holds, until the day they round a corner and run smack into their midlife crisis. William O. Roberts Jr., in Crossing the Soul's River: A Rite of Passage for Men (The Pilgrim Press), prefers to call it the "midlife passage" on the grounds that such symptoms as running off with one's secretary or moving to Bali are not part of this enigmatic psychic somersault. Instead, writes Roberts, a "transformation of consciousness" is accomplished by addressing the "four soul tasks" to which he devotes half his book: the breakdown of the persona, the encounter with the shadow, the encounter with the soul mate, and the dialogue with the self. These projects, a mix of psychology and mythology, are the stock-in-trade of recent male spirituality.
Confession, which has fallen out of favor in the Catholic Church, is popular in the men's movement. Roberts, a former clergyman and now a management consultant, confesses he was "middle-age crazy" until he came to his senses and turned the experience to his advantage, including material for this book that "provides a map through the wilderness that has running through its center the 'soul's river.' " But this scattershot account of the rite of passage, the search for a true self with which to shuffle on manfully to life's finishing line, is disconcertingly self-promotional. Roberts loves to talk about himself, so the quest for wholeness gets squeezed out.
Father Richard Rohr's Quest for the Grail (Crossroad) began life as a men's retreat, outdoors at that, in some remote forest. (I must declare myself here: I helped edit this book.) The quest legends came to life in Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries and "developed at precisely the time when the great gospel story was in eclipse and no longer reaching the ears or affecting the souls of baptized Christians," Rohr writes. Though neither churchy nor clerical, they drew wisdom and grace from the Christian collective unconscious, which has a way of living on when the institution is in occasional decline. "Neither did [they] waste time being anti-church or anti-clerical," Rohr goes on. Half the energy of most movements is wasted railing against their opposites, be they prochoice or prolife or your favorite political party. Instead, the Grail stories "moved boldly into a world of mystery and metaphor."
The author harks back to the curmudgeonly Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard, who defined the tragic hero as the servant of conformity. Explains Rohr: "Whoever accepts the conventions for climbing the ladder, the progress myth of money and power, that is our tragic hero." Western males stumble into this trap between the ages of 20 and 35. Then it takes the rest of their lives to extricate themselves.
The Spirituality of Men: Sixteen Christians Write about Their Faith (Fortress Press) is a collection of different Protestant perspectives (one a former Catholic priest), all "active in the church," according to editor Philip L. Culbertson, but for various reasons elbowed out to the margins, "a safer place to be and, interestingly, it is a place where we meet again our Christian sisters who are also struggling."
A surprising number, including clergy, stumble into the men's movement in the wake of divorce. Mark Muesse is typical in other ways as well. He is highly educated. Like a smoker trying out remedies, he searched widely for solutions including the mythopoetic men's movement identified with poet Robert Bly, author of Iron John. Muesse was also typical in feeling lonely, alienated, and a bit desperate. And he is sadly typical in that he found his church of little help: "I had to become estranged from Christianity to find relief from my suffering."
He found relief in Buddhist spirituality. Others found it elsewhere—the prevailing pattern, so frowned on by Catholic orthodoxy, is that there is no single solution.
Signposts: How to Be a Catholic Man in the World Today (The Word Among Us Press), by Bill Bawden and Tim Sullivan, is a more cozy approach to men's problems. "It is confusing to be a man today, particularly a Christian man," the authors concede. This book is a series of "lesson plans," carefully orchestrated, beginning with a prayer and ending with another. Each lesson poses a problem. Dan has always been a Catholic. Now he realizes he never felt himself worthy of God's love. What to do? The authors turn to scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. If I were pope, I would send word down the line to these excellent men to jump on a trusty steed and go in search of a more challenging grail.
A title such as A Man's Journey to Simple Abundance (Scribner/Simple Abundance Press) could tempt a man with the same high hopes as the popular prosperity gospel that preaches that if you love Jesus you'll be rich and/or famous in no time. This journey is edited by Michael Segell, who plays second fiddle on the cover to Sarah Ban Breathnach, who is, it seems, a bestselling machine pushing "authentic success," which is less crass than sheer prosperity but still blessedly free from pain and want.
Several dozen men, excruciatingly trendy yet sincere, write of the relationships, events, and issues with which males must grapple in today's world. "I hope," the editor writes, "that on the following pages many men will recognize, perhaps for the first time, their authentic selves, stripped of the posturing, conceits, emotional armor, and macho impedimenta that normally obscure the view."
War photographer Greg Marinovich writes of atrocities witnessed in South Africa. Thomas (Care of the Soul) Moore writes of the joy of sex. Someone else writes about cars. No one writes about spirituality, at least the traditional kind. On the other hand, this may be tomorrow's spirituality in a post-Christian culture where institutional religion is reduced to a silent belfry on the horizon.
There is something self-conscious and at times gauche about men writing just as men. We are not used to it. Since writing began, from Cicero to Shakespeare to the pope du jour, men presumed to write for the whole human race, while women were seen to represent women when they wrote. Deprived at last of this broad brush, men seem at sea in search of a merely male voice.
Meanwhile, that thundering sound you hear is Sister Joan Chittister striding through the wreckage created by male domination. Heart of Flesh: A Feminist Spirituality for Women and Men (Wm. B. Eerdmans) may not seem to fit in this context, but don't dare suggest that to Chittister. Her book is an existential earthquake waiting to happen: "Life here and the way we relate to it, rather than the life to come and how we guarantee it for ourselves, has become the spiritual conundrum of the age," she writes. If the world is a mess, it's because spirituality-as-usual has not worked. "When traditional spirituality requires the invisibility of half the human race, the spiritual resources of the world go bankrupt."
Feminist spirituality, she says, "is geared to the creation of a society that rejects decisions, roles, and categories based on sex alone." The thoroughly quotable Chittister fires off sentences like fireworks on the Fourth of July: "Qualities derided or disregarded in culture because they are feminine are, this book will argue, the very qualities lacking in society today, the very reason that culture is teetering on the brink of its own destruction."
If only she were a cardinal, one is tempted to say. If only she were pope. Not that Chittister isn't ready. The church isn't. Soul of a Christian Man's O'Malley, for example, has reservations: Catholic males are "stranded in a nearly exclusively 'feminine' spirituality which turns them off: butterflies and balloons."
Chittister isn't talking balloons: "This book is about a feminist worldview, about another way of looking at life, about another set of values designed to nurture a dying globe and rescue a forgotten people."
The vision is so vast, the benighted male hesitates to quibble over mere nomenclature. However irresistible the agenda, it will never win the other half of the population, men in short, so long as it's called feminism. Sure, there are many gentle men in the feminist movement, but if they and the women succeed, a great throng of sweaty, grumpy men, including popes and other typical male heavies, would soon be yelling all the fire and brimstone that feminists are now yelling, and soon we would have—you guessed it—more war waged, by men of course.
The new vision may need another name, for starters. And the questing men are perpetuating the male version of the same problem. Is male spirituality not adding another layer to the patriarchy problem?
What, then, to call the new and better paradigm? Chittister drops a clue in the very last lines of her book: "When the filter through which we see the world brings us to openness and compassion for that world . . . then humans become human again. When these are the qualities modeled by churches and valued in society, we will have more than religion; we will have Christianity."
Christianity—now that's an interesting name.
Michael J. Farrell is a freelance writer who lives in Kansas City, Missouri.All active news articles