I had wanted to go on a Men's Retreat to explore my relationship with my (now dead) dad. Much of my wariness with other men relates to uncertainties with him. I tell myself I did not doubt his love, but he never expressed it in words. He did lash out however with savage put-downs when upset. The explicitness of his furies seriously undermined what I was trying to read into his actions, as implicit signs of love.
In the carefully constructed processes of the Men's Rite of Passage I was able to sit with what I have long known but never properly comprehended. In teenage I had got to know a little my dad's pa, a twinkling white haired old man, benign and harmless surely. Yet when he was seven my dad's mum died and his pa sent him away to the country to be looked after by his grandmother and his maiden aunt. Dad's pa, my grandpa absented himself from my dad's upbringing. I asked why grandpa was missing from my parents' wedding photo - he was simply not invited.
My dad had little on which to model his fathering for me. Should I blame dad or grandpa? Or is this the crack in the family pattern that lets the light in for me to see how it works and what I might do to make things better for the future?
Richard Rohr upon whose work the Men's Retreat was based, was for a time a prison chaplain. Many of the men inside had issues with either absent or abusive fathers. Fathering should be a sacred trust – but it is too little honoured in western society. There is line in the very funny and 'true' Steve Martin movie Parenthood when a mildly dysfunctional young man explains his upbringing, "You need to get a licence to keep a dog but they'll let any a**hole be a father."
Curious isn't it that many of us subscribe to a faith that makes much use of images of father and son – but we fail to work them through in real life. The key image of unconditional love – God's son Jesus dying on the cross – is not much respected in our relationships. These days amidst the challenges and paradoxes of modern life, individuals seem more likely to assert their right to personal fulfilment, as to recognise the exquisite beauty of unconditional love one for another.
A well run retreat provides the opportunity for reflection and re-integration. Am I dependent on having things in black and white or can I accommodate the messiness of life? One of the dimensions I have to work on is the matrix of judging parent/nurturing parent, stroppy child/playful child. Somehow I keep backing myself into the judgemental parent corner and need to pull those other characters back into a better balance. Where does that come from? Now I comprehend the pattern. Grandpa sends dad out of the way. My dad is heavy handed in his put downs to me, so much so that if I am not careful, I go on telling myself I'm not good enough and should be ashamed of my efforts!
Dealing with wounds is a necessary part of life's hard work. The dominant judging parent ensnares me with delusions of perfection, as so many are trapped. We slave away trying to achieve the successful career, the dream home, the idyllic Meeting community. But we cannot control everything, we are mere mortals. As Leonard Cohen sings in Anthem
"Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's where the light gets in."
(First published in The Friend on 5 September 2008, and republished with permission)
Most blokes don't mind taking off their shirts revealing their manly chests. At one of the camp sites I used as a boy scout there were 'closed to the public' sessions in the swimming pool when we swam nude. I remember how grown-up I felt revealing my all.
In my late teens in the seventies I saw the original London production of 'Hair' and recall the impact of the cast showing themselves completely naked. In the eighties I directed the Quaker Youth Theatre. Several times the script gave cause for nudity: Quakers going naked for a sign; hippies letting it all hang out; gladiators wrestling in the fight school. Each time one or more of the young men willingly stripped off to heighten the drama. They saw it as kind of 'rite of passage' exposing themselves in their full manhood.
I recently attended a Men's Rite of Passage spiritual retreat with sixty seven other men. I explained in the first go-round, that I was wary of men. Not trusting them, I did not expose my emotional life to them. So I had come along to confront this hurdle and hoped to work beyond it. In the first small group I disclosed that even as an adult I cry easily. I was teased about this at my all-boys school. These naked feelings were considered unmanly. It seemed I did not fit in, not being a 'real man'.
In the anonymity and careful structuring of the retreat I felt very safe. There was a grief ritual. I sobbed a lot. At the closing session my group affirmed and cherished my ability to let go of my feelings in tears, several of them wishing they could enjoy this facility. That felt good.
Back in the big wide world my pre-conceptions try to restate themselves. I am a middle-aged husband and father, the chief executive of a charity, an elder of my meeting. Should I not always be rock like, composed and in control?
It is sometimes very hard to stay cool since my once glorious dancing lover now shuffles around, somewhat forgetful, after five major operations around her brain. She suffers from brain tumours and currently has three more developing. We can no longer avoid talking about the probability of her death in the short term. Often my heart feels like breaking and sometimes I am screaming inside. I had surprised myself at the violence with which I beat out my anger in the grief ritual on retreat.
The retreat leader Daniel O'Leary spoke to me after the first go-round commenting on the power of my voice and the truthfulness that lent to what I said about my wariness of opening my feelings to other men. He asked if I would read in a session for him. I demurred, I had read in public so many times. He quietly rejoined that I had a gift from God to be used. Towards the end of the week I did offer to read and was given Corinthians II Ch 12 v 2 -10. The reading turned out uncannily apposite for me concluding... "I just let go and let God. For when I am weak I am truly strong."
When we men reveal our wounds, yes we expose our vulnerability. Yet when we acknowledge our weaknesses, this self-knowledge can liberate and make room for healing. It opens us up to the Light, to the Creator that begat Adam and all the generations down to me ....and beyond me. Life goes on and we men are merely mortals.
(First published in The Friend, and republished with permission)
A visit to a prison revealed the damage that has been done to so many young men, some serving jail sentences, but most imprisoned in other ways. Yet the painful path to true liberation, through death to life, was also pointed out
Without a hard-won awareness, men will always tend to abuse power and people, to remain trapped in costly competitions
Late-in-the-season snow was tumbling down as I drove through the silent streets of a Yorkshire city on Easter Sunday morning. It was a great privilege to celebrate Mass with a group of men in one of Her Majesty's prisons. The experience affected me deeply. The truth of the Triduum had weakened the walls of my usual professional defences.
The greatest fear of most public figures, some piece of research claims, is the fear of being found out. And so many of us "on the outside" pretend, pull rank and deny when our misdemeanours and mistakes come under scrutiny. But these men had nowhere to hide. Lined up, dressed down, watched, they seemed anguished, shamed. They sat there as though naked. This struck me particularly as poignant. They were found out, and found guilty, and they just had to spend each long day in their own private purgatory of pain.
Interspersed among the 50 or so men were four women. They were there as chaplains, and their assistants. Their presence was striking. There was a kind of harmony and acceptance between them all that could be sensed. Full of firmness, respect and compassion before these self-conscious vulnerable men, they were sensitive companions, restoring some semblance of self-belief to broken psyches. Whatever male and female energy may mean, they seemed to me to be woven together uniquely that special morning. I began to wonder how this prison could be a place of grace for those men, Where to begin?
"In the desert of the heart, let the healing fountain star." Could the waters of self-forgiveness spring from here? How, I wondered, would the women prepare those men for a death, for a new birth? Unless the grain of wheat dies ,.. "How would they convince them of the need for a painful planting, a slow gestation through an inner dying? How were these men ever going to bless their deserted partners with a new-found insight, or teach their children the hidden harvest of a damaged life? Even for Jesus, it took a long time for his wounds to reveal their wisdom.
It is never easy to face your demons, often impulsive and violent. It is more difficult still to share these burning emotions with others. To be vulnerable in this way is against everything that male machismo stands for. Unbidden, an innate sense of competition seems to spring up whenever men gather together. Behind the masks of a confident bravado lies a constant fear of failure.
A key issue for most men is the nature of their relationships with their fathers. The father-son relationship is at the heart of the holistic growing and maturing of the boy, the young man, the middle-aged man. Self- aware men feel the negative effects on their lives of their" absent fathers". Jesus knew something about this abandonment, too. These relationships present and absent, can carry the deepest trauma. Unless this reality is acknowledged and given healing space, it can make a full life impossible.
As I chatted with a few of the prisoners that I morning I sensed in them a tentative searching for a lost self, for a fresh beginning. Some I seemed able to accept the hard reality of their r situation. It was an infectious kind of common culpability, a moment of innocence almost, that I felt drawn into. How strange that such are the times, and such are the places, all marked by male brokenness and loss, when one is conscious of a deep sense of healing. In the oddest way, among them, I felt forgiven.
There is an increasing need among men for spiritual direction and for what is called "inner work': There is a male spirituality that is nurtured and fostered at men's "rights of passage" sessions. These increasingly popular gatherings encourage a stripping of masks so as to let go of illusions, to feel the pain of humiliation, to discern the truth in a male world so often full of half lies. This kind of difficult honesty reveals many conditions that keep men stuck in their maturing. Sibling and peer rivalry, subtle fear of inadequacy on a number of fronts, suppressed grief, an overwhelming pressure to "prove oneself" before father and significant others, are all among the pressing causes of anger, depression, addiction and despair among men, including fellow priests.
Fr Richard Rohr OFM, a master teacher, believes that until men can face their own demons and death, in reality or in ritual, they will continue to be driven by the relentless demands of the ego, stuck and obsessed with the interests and habits of the first decades of life. There must be a difficult transforming death before a new horizon opens for us. Without a hard-won awareness, a kind of second birth, men will always tend to abuse power and people, to remain trapped in closed and costly competitions and compulsions. Throughout these sessions, men are helped to mature through an awareness of the mid-life turning point between the ascendant upward thrust of our careers and the more selective and looser tempo of descent in our final decades. Missing this vital turning drives us down many deadly culs-de-sac.
I spent a "men's week" with Fr Richard and 80 others at Ghost Ranch in the New Mexico desert. It was a painful and liberating experience, a raw ritual of passage that reached painful places normally untouched by our liturgical celebrations. It was about the death of the false self, the cherishing of the true self. Priests and lay folk wept at their damaged lives, at the unwitting abuses they were suffering in their controlling environments; we were glad at the new freedom we were finding, risking the recovery of our God-given selves, and telling the truth once more.
It was a kind of Passover experience. All our wounds were becoming sacred wounds. We were experiencing, through the grace of grief, a transformation into authenticity. We had a hard time of it finding our souls; there is a heavy cost for such discipleship. We were losing much; we were gaining more. Because we felt held by God we did not need to worry about the details of the future.
Such a pilgrim is walking with his wound. He is giving all else away. He has nothing. And yet, as Fr Richard said to us on the final day, holding high the broken nourishing bread of a wounded life on a canyon rim of stunning beauty, "he has it all".
Daniel O'Leary, a priest of Leeds Diocese, is based at Our Lady of Grace Presbytery, Tonbridge Crescent, Kingsley, Pontefract, West Yorkshire WF9 4HA.
(This article appeared in The Tablet before the 2007 MROP and is reprinted with permission.)
A special call to men:
take this risk: you'll not regret it
Ghost Ranch is deep in the New Mexico desert. I live in suburban Dublin. There's a connection: an experience I had at Ghost Ranch in 2002 was a very special life event for me, and for the group of men who gathered there from all around the world. It was something deep, something unforgettable and transformative.
Ghost Ranch is the place in the New Mexico desert where the Men's Rites of Passage (MROP) was offered that year. Now, it happens all over the world: and now, my dream, and that of the other men who have accompanied me on this journey is being realised: this coming June, we are bringing the MROP to Ireland.
At an 'ordinary' men's retreat that I attended, the extraordinary Franciscan priest Fr Richard Rohr OFM referred to these 'Rites of Passage' as having a very profound effect on men. The idea seemed strange, unfamiliar, but what he said touched a chord: I was so curious that I applied to go. I remember feeling both excited and anxious when I received my notice of acceptance. I knew deep down that this was not just another retreat. It was going to be challenging and difficult. I swallowed my fear and set off on my quest to Albuquerque New Mexico.
The men who came to Ghost Ranch ranged in age from 19 years to over 80 and came from all walks of life: people of firm faith, people with none, people angry with God and/or the Church; travelling together on a common journey. Everyone came simply as a man without persona or status: as I came to learn, a group of simply wonderful men with hurts and weaknesses. We travelled through magnificent cowboy country, the land of the Pueblo and Navaho Indians until we finally arrived at Ghost Ranch deep in the heart of the desert. The accommodation was basic, bunk beds and a wash hand basin. The view was awesome. You could see for miles: you felt small in the vastness of the landscape. The first session made it crystal clear that this was serious, there was no turning back. Both scary and exciting at the same time.
As the days went by in talking and listening, participating and reflecting, gradually various insights began to click into place. Of course, the experience is different for different people: strange as it may sound, my own was the realisation that at my deepest level 'I was good'. I was content to be me, no wish list. I got a really deep appreciation of my wife and how privileged I was to be her husband. I felt a great sorrow at how men in general haven't lived up to the grandeur of themselves as men, and at the disgrace of not treating others, particularly women, as they should be treated. Somehow, I noticed that along the way I felt my heart develop a deeper compassion. Other men reported a similar, substantial growth in their awareness and sensitivity towards others.
I found in the silence of the desert the God of creation, the God who loves me as the man that I am, not perfect by any means, but loved none the less. I found that even though I am well into the second half of life, I still have the capacity to produce fruits, fruits in abundance. All the men in my group had similar experiences. Strong bonds were forged between us.
I will be forever grateful for those five very special days at Ghost Ranch. Sometime after I had returned home I told my wife something about the experience and what it was like. She was uncharacteristically silent and allowed me to talk. Then she told me that she had waited 40 years to hear what I said: and that it was well worth the wait.
The MROP was the most profound experience I have ever had, in all my life. It left me with a stronger, healthier understanding of my masculinity and manhood. This programme, first devised by Richard Rohr in the early 90's, is of immense value to men today: it offers a clearer understanding of the wonder of your own masculine identity, of your mission in life to unify, nurture, affirm, and set boundaries; somehow, it makes courage, energy, focus, wisdom, passion and compassion all more possible, closer.
I'm not trying to tell you that your experience will be the same as mine: far from it. But I am trying to say that from my experience and that of all the men I met there, we came away with a clearer, more grounded view of what it means to walk the planet.
Let me assure you that at the MROP, no-one will set out to alter your opinions or sign you up to a new 'religious' code: there is no 'preaching' at the MROP.
Men will attend the forthcoming MROP from right across the British Isles. Friendships will be formed that will sustain many of us for years to come. This is your chance to experience the MROP for yourself. To my fellow men, all I can say is: don't miss it this chance... you won't regret it: I promise that it's worth the risk! To my fellow women, all I can say is: please encourage your men folk to attend, to take the risk in attending the MROP. You will be doing them, and yourselves, an immense favour.