“When a seeking man seeks his transformative space, he must let go of both the patriarchal system and a feminine model, which may not speak to his experience.”
—Donald Bisson, FMS
With God there is no need to polarise into patriarchy or matriarchy for guidance on the pilgrimage toward the sanctification of our souls or the formation of our identities.
This ought to be a freeing reality for all people, but particularly for men, as men are often most confused about when and how to appropriately align to their masculinity.
Masculinity, for most men, is a subject shrouded in confusion. Society has made it this way. Most men these days want to be seen as strong, capable, and tough, but also sensitive and gentle. Knowing when and how is the confusing part. Between these two poles there exists a place for every man to be at peace with himself. But he needs spiritual direction.
These areas below are the ways in which we may grow:
1. Grieving as Spiritual Practice
Grief is normal to life as laughter is. But most men are never taught to grieve.
Instead, men find expression in anger in response to their suffering. But violence is never an answer to suffering. When a man understands he is called to suffer, he is able to draw strength from God and he can suffer well. This is the blessed capacity of life.
2. Detoxifying Shame
Put very simply, in aligning with the patriarchal system of identity, men are ashamed of their homophobic fears of seeming or feeling feminine. What results is coldness.
Instead of aligning to a pure patriarchal model for seeing oneself, every man has the opportunity to embark on a journey with God to explore the fragility and beauty of his human soul. With God there is no man and no woman, only God.
Our souls are, therefore, neither man nor woman. It is a paradox to find that when we debunk the patriarchal model we become more fully men. We are more assured as men.
3. Recovering from Trauma and Abuse
So many of us have been abused and neglected, but we suffer in isolation. We hold deep secrets. The unfortunate reality is, in the midst of that trauma and abuse, our images of God have been shaken. We become less sure that God is trustworthy, for how could God let these things happen to us?
Through spiritual direction, or in other terms, mentoring, we can work with an encouraging role model of grace who accepts us and our pasts unconditionally.
We work through the abuse and neglect of our pasts in an environment conducive to safety. As a result we blossom and bloom as men. And as a direct result our images of a holy and trustworthy God are shored up.
4. Looking at the Seasons of Life
There are three discrete seasons where we look for spiritual direction: in the thirties transition, in midlife, and in retirement.
In our 30s we aim to bring adolescence to a close and to anchor our identity. Men seek spiritual direction in this phase with commitment and discernment. They may be riding their first wave of real commitment to God and, therefore, with themselves as subjects for growth.
During midlife men are looking for greater meaning and depth. A man is reforming his spiritual outlook based on what he knows now by his direct experience of life. He urgently seeks connection to the inner life—to be plugged-in to the Spirit inhabiting him.
Crises don’t end there for men. As a man retires possibly his biggest crises are before him. He comes to meet crises of his existence, of incapacity, of relationship, the death of spouse and friends, etc. He knows more of tragedy now than ever. But he has more knowledge, hopefully, of the meaning of life. If he has steadily grown he makes a very good mentor.
5. Renewing Images of God
The aspect of Father in the godhead can be confounding to many men, especially where their images of fatherhood have been interrupted by abuse or neglect.
The image of God as lover of our souls is a strange one for men. Some men need to get over their homophobia to manage this. Such a love in God is gracious and nudging; gentle and convicting; both nurturing and tough. When God disciplines us there is neither fear nor shame, because Divine discipline is always merciful.
6. Discovery of the Inner Reality
When a man can close his eyes in a crowded room upon invitation to dwell within, or he can look himself intently in the mirror and not be scared, he may already value his inner reality. He is not afraid of his true self.
But many men are afraid. But there is nothing to fear. Under good spiritual direction, a man is able to practice the art of stilling himself in his own presence. He begins to accept more of himself, without condition for change. He begins to know himself as God knows him. And then he knows the miracle of God’s interminable Presence.
7. Relational Issues
As we discussed the tussle between patriarchy and matriarchy, many men struggle achieving a balance between independence and dependency. We struggle to achieve interdependence—the ideal blend of independence and dependency, because it is appropriately relational.
Society has done us no favours in this regard. Society sends men mixed signals (and probably women, in this regard, too). It expects men to, on the one hand, be independent. Yet we are also expected to be ‘sensitive’ and ‘available’ and we get this balance wrong by becoming pathetically dependent.
In spiritual direction we can work on models for interdependence. We can begin to understand the need to be independent for the things we are responsible for, but dependent enough that we are caring relationally. Interdependence is wisdom.
8. Ambivalence Toward Organised Religion
Men struggle more with organised religion than women do. Men are the first to ‘walk’. But men, just like women, need the community of faith where they can both give and receive support. Men are challenged to become more accepting of the frailties within community and of the diversity of teaching. Surviving in community is a continuous series of lessons in grace.
Spiritual direction can help men very much on the journey of acceptance.
In coming to know the one and only True God, men are challenged to debunk their ideas of masculinity and femininity. When we truly understand ourselves as made in the image of God we are freed of many false gender preconceptions. We see ourselves more simply and more acceptingly. When we see God we see ourselves.
© 2012 S. J. Wickham.
General Reference: Donald Bisson, FMS, “Melting the Iceberg: Spiritual Direction for Men” in Spiritual Direction in Context (edited by Nick Wagner) (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Morehouse Publishing, 2006).