In recent years, there have been several movements and programs designed to appeal to men’s innate desire for authentic masculinity, but have they been truly successful? In their desire to lead men from their enslavement to sin to true freedom in Christ, are they focusing too much on the external manifestations of “manliness”?
One of these new programs is Exodus 90. It was produced by Those Catholic Men, an organization “with a passion for men’s formation” and which believes that men are “enslaved” by the modern world. Exodus 90 is a program designed to help men spiritually follow the Israelites’ path out of slavery and to the promised land. To appeal to men in their marketing materials, they frequently use images of men doing “manly” things, like climbing mountains. Exodus 90’s website autoplays a clip from the movie Braveheart when you open their main page. If you don’t feel the urge to be a “real man” after watching Mel Gibson in warpaint scream at you, then you’re probably a woman.
Those Catholic Men know that men today are frequently confronted by the fact that they lack virility. We have been neutered by our jobs, by the television, indeed, by our sins. We strive to assert ourselves, to reclaim our authentic masculinity, but, in our pride, we all too often fail to give ourselves over to Christ. In the process, we become not men but merely shells of men, bound to crumble at the first real trial of our spirit. In other cases, men continue to puff themselves up, projecting the image of manliness, but the veneer becomes stretched thinner and thinner until, in explosive fashion, it comes undone.
The marketing techniques Exodus 90 and Those Catholic Men use are intentional; theirs is a pastoral approach that seeks to meet men where they are. Over the course of Exodus 90, the spiritual reflections attempt to take the man from his present “enslaved” life to a life that is centered on Christ. For this, the program needs to be commended. But to what extent does it truly leave behind the focus on external signs of manliness? It is a balance that needs to be thoughtfully considered. Arguably, at least in my experience, they were not always successful. I am encouraged, however, by some (but not all) of the recent blog posts on the Those Catholic Men website that point out the importance of an internal disposition to the will of God. It seems that they are aware of the need to achieve this balance, even if they have mixed success in doing so.
Not all Catholics are nearly as successful at presenting an authentic vision of Christian manhood. For example, there are a number of podcasts and blogs that excoriate the man who would gladly do laundry as being unmanly or “emasculated.” These present a false “spirituality of manliness.” Also problematic is the insinuation that “real Catholic men” can be accurately identified by external actions at all, even if they appear “manly” to others.
This is what’s true: men of God will pray. Men of God will be devoted to their families. Men of God will not be burdened by their vices. But each man is called to be a saint in his own way. If a man lacks love, ultimately it doesn’t matter at all what he is doing or how manly he appears to be to others (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:1).
Pope Francis said in Gaudete et Exsultate:
There are some testimonies that may prove helpful and inspiring, but that we are not meant to copy, for that could even lead us astray from the one specific path that the Lord has in mind for us. The important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts (cf. 1 Cor 12:7), rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not meant for them.
Instead of listening to the voice of Christ in prayer and conforming our whole spirit to his will, we can become tempted to model merely our external actions to paragons of manliness. Even if those paragons are the Saints of the Church, it will do no good if we are not living the unique path that God has planned for us. Even if we succeed in looking like men for a time, our manliness will be supported by nothing other than our pride and we will eventually fall. This is a paradox, in a way: we become hardly anything when we try to make ourselves into something, but we become everything when we make ourselves nothing.
This principle, and no other, can be the foundation for any authentic spirituality. A true man does not desire to do “manly things,” whatever those things might be. A true man desires nothing except for the will of God, which man has discerned in prayer. Then, God leads him in the path of virtue, which is desired not for its own sake or to win the praise of others. Rather, our virtue, which is truly ours, is first and foremost the free gift of God in order that we might live out our salvation as true sons of God.
The Imitation of Christ is full of wonderful insights like these. In response to the laxity of the monasteries at the time, Thomas à Kempis wrote in no uncertain terms about the need to be conformed to God in all things, not to be hypocrites, not to give God only part of ourselves. And yes, that would apply even to our so called “leisure.” In modern terms, we binge on Netflix, become absorbed with sports teams, or otherwise give our faith “a break” while we pursue a number of lesser goods. Thomas à Kempis was writing for the monastery, sure, but his biting insights can apply to each of us in our own way.
On this point, Pope Francis says,
Often discernment is exercised in small and apparently irrelevant things, since greatness of spirit is manifested in simple everyday realities. It involves striving untrammelled for all that is great, better and more beautiful, while at the same time being concerned for the little things, for each day’s responsibilities and commitments.
As a man, I can testify to a natural male impulse to seek out and conquer challenges, to better ourselves, to be the best of our peers. Man’s motivations, which can indeed spur one to greatness, must be tempered lest they lead to evil; they must be subordinated completely to the will of Christ, so that in all our activities, we can pursue God in virtue, yes, even including all the mundane chores of work or home. Greatness is defined by humility of spirit, not by our human achievements.
Thomas à Kempis wrote,
A man’s achievements are often discussed, but seldom the principles by which he lives. We inquire whether he is brave, handsome, rich, clever, a good writer, a fine singer, or a hard worker: but whether he is humble-minded, patient and gentle, devout and spiritual is seldom mentioned. Nature regards the outward characteristics of a man; Grace considers his inner disposition. And while Nature is often misled, Grace trusts in God and cannot be deceived.
Death was the punishment for our sins, but Christ has redeemed us by his passion, death, and Resurrection, revealing what perfect love entails. We become true men to the extent that we participate in the love of Christ through the work of the Spirit in everything we do, even the seemingly small or unimportant things, laying down our lives for the good of others. For fathers and husbands like myself, the opportunities to do so are virtually limitless and, indeed, seemingly constant. I certainly do not need to go seek them out. Too much concern about the external manifestations of masculinity, therefore, betrays a fundamentally non-Christian attitude, since truly all our activities can be perfected by the love of God and, therefore, be done with the virtue that befits men of God.
Not all Catholics who purport to show the way to manly virtue are equally concerned about prioritizing a deep relationship with Christ. I would encourage all men, seeking to become the men God has called them to be, to discern whether the resources they are currently using or would like to use are truly conducive to virtue or whether they are more concerned about external indications of “manliness.” We know by faith that Jesus expressed true masculinity. Masculinity must not be confused with one of the “Mad Men” or James Bond; true masculinity is about servanthood, it is about building up communities, it is about continuous sacrifice to the will of the Father. Men are masculine only to the extent that, as St. Paul said, it is “not I but Christ who lives in me” (cf. Galatians 2:20). We should not see true manliness as anything other than the unique path of holiness that God has called us to, a path which can only be discerned in the silence of prayer with Christ.