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Arriving home from school

Arriving home from school, I find a letter addressed to 'My Son'. Expectantly, I tear it open hoping for a late birthday present. It wasn't. It read, ‘Now that you have turned 18, it's time you participate in the family tradition...’

Tradition? I know nothing of this!

‘We’ll pick you up 10am Sunday morning. Bring wet gear, extra warm clothing, your walking boots, and whatever else you want, that you can carry...

With mounting trepidation I wait for Sunday. Even ringing my uncle didn't help, will just have to wait till Sunday morning, have already repacked my rucksack six times.

Dad's friend turns up in an old beaten-up estate car. Dear God, please help us not break down. ‘Get in!’ he bellows, ‘and don't speak.’

What have I been signed up for?

We drive for forty minutes in silence. I hate silence. What a shame I’m required to remain silent .‘Can I put on the radio?’ I ask.

“I said, NO talking!”

An hour and a half later, we arrive at a field where I find another thirty four men of various ages. My not very talkative driver hands me a tent and instructs me pitch it and clear my gear away. If you want the toilet, use the trees over there or a portaloo up that path. When you hear a bell, go to the large marquee in the next field

After setting up, a few men come over and introduce themselves as guides for this journey. Guides... I don't even know where I am. They tell me to go and chat with the others for they will be your companions for the rest of the week.

The next few days are a blare of activities and sessions; some incredibly powerful and challenging, but too painful to talk about here.

This is now the penultimate day of a week-long event where I have been stretched, worn down and rebuilt in an ongoing cycle.

Now I have been silent for over twenty hours, something that if you know me would let you understand how difficult this part was.

The only sounds were the wind, gently rustling through the trees and the cry of a kite , searching for sustenance. Nature is such an awe-inspiring and grounding influence. No wonder God made so much of it.

I am currently moulded between a boulder and an outcrop of Scottish heather, shivering with rain cascading over all parts of my body. The cold has penetrated through five layers; I came prepared for the worse and it found me. This should be a warm July afternoon. Unfortunately, this has turned into the coldest, wettest July in years. After squelching through bracken and climbing over slippery, slimy boulders I find my quiet place. It overlooks a slowly meandering river and is surrounded by steep hills on three sides. Dragonflies hover over the rippling water scooping up small insects, while a salmon leaps ever onward, following a pre-ordained journey to its spawning ground.

Nature and I are one.

Nope, we are not! I am freezing, hungry, tired and miss talking to someone. But what I have had is a chance to seek and hopefully find out who I am.

I learnt that in the old days, the elders would take the young men out into the wilderness for initiation, to discover what it means to be a man. This is what this week has been all about. It has helped me ground myself in God’s wonderful creation. But more importantly, what it means to be a man; not just in a worldly sense, but for me as a young man of God.

Now they are herding us onto a bus and yes, you've got it: no talking.

I arrive back exhausted, hungry and looking forward to a warm shower. Yes, it's a portable shower as well. Walking into the marquee, I get the shock of my life. My dad is standing waiting for me. I run over and give him a hug. 'Thanks Dad! Thank you for the invite.'

This whole experience has been a lesson in understanding how I tick, and coping with difficult situations

Death the only certainty

Being told that Jenny may not last a year takes some adjusting to. I had looked forward to adventures over perhaps two decades of active retirement with my wife. We might have less than twelve months of failing health. On the road to work I see a hearse and my eyes fill with tears.

We men are not good on mortality. Unlike womenfolk we don't have the monthly cycle reminding us with blood of life and death. We don't have the possibility of giving birth, to jolt our egos into the necessary perspective that growth is painful and brings with it withering and certain death.

If I lived in a more "primitive" society as a young man I would have been taken through an initiation ritual by my elders. Shown the terrors of some little death I might learn better respect for the natural order and my humble place in it. The old men would have taught us young bucks that we none of us are in control. Death is the only certainty.

In western culture we are not good at aging, frailty and death. We tend to marginalise and mask it to concentrate on immediate and sustained gratification in the prevailing 'me' culture.

Just now I am making a picture to remind me of my own Men's Rite of Passage a few weeks back, aged 55 years. The sheep's skull in the bottom left corner is there for a reason. The retreat was four days, sleeping under canvas, close to nature, in the rain swept Lake District. Late in the programme we fasted 24 hours spending most of that in solitary contemplation out on the fell sides. My picture captures something of that silent waiting on the Divine.

I sat by a cascading beck, underneath a little willow tree on a crag. I could see right down the valley the length of Windermere. I watched the rain circling, choosing its direction to run in at me. In one brighter spell two farmers herded sheep up the valley, just as generations have done the world round.

As the mists of rain cleared I could see how the valleys had been scored in the land eons ago by the last ice age. I was a speck on the landscape in a flicker of time.

Huddled in my cleft in the rock out of the wind I imagined a conversation with my dead dad. It would have been better when he was alive, but better late than never. I concentrated on the words given for contemplation. 'Life is hard'. 'I am not important'. 'My life is not for me'. 'I am not in control'. 'I will die'. Inspiration came for an initiation name – the full appropriateness of which I only realised later. In the damp and the cold I maundered about death but was surrounded by the lush green growth of the bracken cloaked fells.

Walking back to camp I passed the remains of the dead sheep, then the sun came out. I looked up and spouting off a crag was a fall of water. Stripping naked I washed myself clean in this natural shower. They were healing living waters. All around green. The warm sun glinting on the lake below.

"The water I give them will turn into a spring of water deep inside them and give life to the full". John 4:14

My retreat helped me look forward. In the months ahead the picture I am making will help call on those living waters, to refresh me in the emotional roller-coaster that is the unavoidable cycle of life and death.

Peter Fishpool

(First published in The Friend on 19 September 2008 and reprinted with permission)

Fire and Drums

A reflection by Donald Griffin, originally published in the Penman Review


I can see them, the dancers, over there in the distance. Men and women whirl around the fire their silhouettes mimicking every movement upon the lighted canyon wall behind them. Drum beats reverberate through the cool crisp night air, like a thousand hearts beating and pumping life out into the cosmos. A primal and ageless ritual. The fire’s long fingers stretch out into the night sky. Embers flutter about like glowing moths. Like a frightened animal, lurking in the deep shadows, I keep my distance.

I have traveled the span of the universe to be here. Yet—I hesitate—for all the fear that is in me causes my long hard journey to seem but a worthless venture.

Human bodies sway with the rhythms of life. With ecstatic force many hands fall upon the drum skins. The ancient spirit awakens within all who dance. Their spirit, much like the fire, is set ablaze with wild abandon.

Yet, I stand in these cold shadows. The silent specter beside me. Always beside me. To join this circle is why I have come here tonight, but I am frozen in place with feet made of stone. The specter’s cold lifeless hand rests upon my shoulder.  I tremble not knowing how to let go. To open my heart when it is clasped firmly shut. Will they wound me like so many others have done before? I yearn to join them.

These insecurities inside of me, they grip me, I cannot free myself of them. I desire to join this dance of life, to feel that fire burn within me, to feel the beat of the drum within my own heart, to join and to be threaded together with all my brothers and sisters in this ancient dance. If they see who I really am though? All my sins laid bare… I cannot.

Some dancers have taken notice of me. I see heads turn my way, shadows dance and play upon their faces. Some gesture and invite me in. The drumming continues and the beat runs through me. A thought darts across my mind, I am not worthy to join them. If they knew this horrible darkness inside of me, this sickness, would they still be so inviting?

Like a cancer, my wounds fester inside of me. How I long to cast all this darkness off like an old heavy cloak that has worn out its usefulness. My silent companion stands beside me and whispers in my ear, “You’re no good, you’re not like them, you don’t belong here, go back to where you came from.” Yes, I think to myself, you are right, I don’t belong here. My specter is pleased at this.

In the quiet stillness, another voice whispers to me. From the groundless depths of my being the voice comes to light upon my consciousness, “You do belong here, you are called to this freedom, there is healing inside that circle, you must step forward and join the dance.” This voice is calm, quiet and reassuring, so much quieter than this specter who stands beside me hissing in my ear.

Have I traveled so far only to stop here, just a few steps away from the dance? The battle within me rages and the armies of mind and heart fight a bloody war that none can see.

This is a war that has been fought since the day I first awoke. The last battle is being waged. Mind and heart, duality of the battlefield. All the thoughts that tell me how worthless, insecure, and unwanted I am. This army of my mind seems to have all the strength, and often overwhelms the warrior within my heart. There are days when the heart rises up, declaring its worth and value, letting me know that I am a beloved son, granting me precious moments that feed me hope.

The battle rages on. I feel so alone. There seems to be no one out there who can see this in me, no one who can help me. Silently, I cry out for help, but no one seems to care. The battle is lost and hope turns and flees from me. Desperation, panic, fright, nowhere to run, I am but a shell of myself. Who am I?

The dance continues, and the fire in the circle burns hotter, the drumming is intensifying, the people shout with a primal voice, a shout from their very depths. For me however, I am drowning in my fear, the specter beside me has me firmly in its grip. So cold. Darkness swallows me. Even as I slide down into death, time seems to stand still, breathless, I notice the myriads of stars above me. They look down on me, they seem to empathize with me and with my plight. Their light is strangely comforting; they have been with me for so long. Little rays of light that pierce this darkness of mine.

It is then that one from the circle turns around and looks straight at me. He looks me in the eyes. Even from such a great distance it seems as if he is staring straight into the furthest reaches of my soul. There is love, tenderness, and compassion in his gaze. There is an invitation there. He takes a step towards me. He leaves the circle of dancing light and comes into the shadows towards me.

As this man approaches me I can see a multitude of scars covering his body. He wears the garb of the natives. His chest is bear, his body is bronze, his beard is long, dark as night with grey streaks running through it. His hair is white as snow and falls to his shoulders like silk. He is aged and I can see he is worn with travel himself. His scars are numerous, but they are healed and smooth and glisten in the light of the fire. They make him look all the more beautiful. His eyes are like dark pearls, ageless, eternal, absolute compassion staring back at me. I can see that he understands me, he can see my fears, he knows my journey, for he too has stood where I now stand. I seem to know this intuitively.

This elder approaches me and joins me in my darkness. He has not said a word; he does not need to. His presence alone envelopes me in this darkness and comforts me. Who would leave that circle of celestial light to join me in the outer darkness? As he stands he wraps his strong arms around me discarding the strong grip of my specter’s skinless hands as if brushing off some dust, and love floods into my soul. It feels so good to be loved when I deserve nothing but contempt, or so my mind tells me. This man knows, he understands. We stand in this embrace and the love of a father envelops me and invites me in. With tears in my eyes, I accept.

After a moment, this wise man beckons me to follow him into the dance. With my bleeding wounds, and my tattered soul dragging behind me like old garments, I follow. My companion, the specter, stays behind melting into the shadows. As I get closer to the circle joy filled faces turn to welcome me. They part like graceful waters to make a space for me. The fire dances towards me, I can feel its warmth against my skin. The wounds of my soul invite the flames into it. I step into the circle.

The drum beats pierce my being with a force like I have never felt before. The fire leaps into my chest and races inside of me. Body arched straight, my wounds on fire, and I see each one of them with such depth and precision. I feel every single one of them as pain explodes within every fiber of my awareness. The pain starts to slowly fade. There is love and forgiveness, there is healing, and I am welcomed home. The wounds start mending, the bleeding stops, the infection that has plagued my soul for so long is gone, scabs form and then peel away. Where there was once festering wounds there is now beautiful scars. The drums beat, my heart flutters, my feet move, my primordial scream comes forth. I am threaded into the circle and I begin to whirl. My journey has come to an end. I am home. I am the fire, I am the drums, I am the heart beat that pours out life into the universe, I am in the dance, I am the dance.

I dance for eternity and time is no more. I look back out into the darkness and realize there are others standing out there in that cold darkness where I once stood. Their own specters standing beside them. With my heart full of love, I know that I too am called to leave the circle to set the captives free.

Digging in Perth : An invitation to men

Three years ago I carried out a burial on an anonymous Perthshire mountainside. With my bare hands I dug out a hole in the dirt and placed into the earth an item that represented a pain I had been carrying for over twenty years. As I refilled this grave, I asked God for peace and also grace that this wound could somehow transform me. I performed this spontaneous act four days into a Men's Rites of Passage in Scotland.

My journey to Perth had begun a few years' previously, when I encountered Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr at the Greenbelt Festival. He immediately struck me as a wise, older man. His words, particularly about male spirituality, had a strong resonance with me. Richard Rohr developed Men's Rites of Passage (MROP) as a response to what he saw as Western Christianity's poor track record in preparing boys to become men. Through extensive travel and research, Rohr observed that throughout history, communities around the world have devised ceremonies and rituals to honour the transition from boyhood to manhood. He concluded that the purpose behind most of these ceremonies was to help young men “die” to their younger sense of self, and find a mature, deeply rooted and honest sense of their true manhood. It is Rohr's observation that in the West we have lost almost all meaningful rituals and are instead increasingly addicted to consumption, acquisition and demonstrating our worth and power.

Encountering Rohr corresponded with a period in my life when I was in great spiritual desolation. A painful experience of church collapsing and what seemed like a losing battle with depression and anxiety had left me surrounded by a heavy darkness and turmoil. I felt like a hiker lost and disorientated in the hills. Many of the securities that I had previously relied upon were no longer present. I was deeply dissatisfied with my life and uncertain about how to find my way again.

So it was with trepedation that I took the boat from Northern Ireland to Scotland for the MROP and for five days joined with sixty other men of all shapes, sizes, ages, ethnicities, sexualities, backgrounds, nationalities and faith / no faith traditions for what was the most inspiring 5 days of my life.

As you read this, I imagine that you, as I did, have already formed an opinion and perception of what this event was like. Disregard it. Prior to going, the thought of macho spirituality repulsed me. I had seen mens initiatives in churches where subtle denegration of females took place. Where machismo, endurance and strength were esteemed over the values of honesty and weakness. You won't find this on a MROP. Instead, what I found was a beautiful, mindful and responsively crafted programme of drumming, fire, silence, wilderness, spiritual teaching and earthy ritual that I guarantee you will never find in a church.

With the support of wise men who had made the journey before us, we were held in a safe space in which we were encouraged to be vulnerable and share our emotions. This enabled us to make a thorough examination of our lives and its priorities. Being encouraged to drop the usual roles we play and masks we wear: be it hospital consultant, air steward, photographer, bishop, partner and father, we learned that all of us men share a commonality in our weakness. We found the painful aspects of our stories echoed in the narratives of others. We shared stories of being rejected, excluded, wounded and put down. There were tears; but this was no meeting of the “pass the kleenex club.” There was also laughter, wonderful conversation and shenanigans.

There was no “road to Damascus” experience for me in Scotland. No one waved a magic wand to 'fix me'. However, I returned back home a little less lost, with my map slightly more orientated. Although the old stumbling block from twenty years ago still trips me up occasionally, I get some relief knowing that I buried it in an unmarked grave, in a far-off place and I don’t have to let it dominate my life.

(Thanks to JW for this contribution)

From man's man to free man

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.)

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