Two years ago I returned from a trip to Connecticut for the funeral of my uncle, Russell Smith. I gave the eulogy, which I posted here (evidence that nothing on the internet disappears).
The following weekend, December 9-11, I went on a retreat for men. I said little about it at the time on this blog, and have only spoken of it indirectly since. The retreat I went on was the New Warrior Training Adventure, sponsored by the Mankind Project. It’s rooted in the so-called “mythopoeic men’s movement,” best exemplified by Robert Bly’s book, Iron John; like that book, the weekend uses the fairy-tale of that name (aka Iron Hans) from the Brothers Grimm to explore common issues in the lives of men.
A friend of mine had been urging me to go for many months, maybe even a couple of years. I had dismissed the suggestion with a wave of the hand and flippant remarks about wildmen beating drums in the woods. But that December I was ready to do something. I was frustrated with the politics of the workplace (the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston) as well as with my relationship with my teenage son. I felt I could use a weekend for men–a weekend where men talk about their lives, their sons, their hopes, and their hurts.
I had a sense of what a weekend like this might involve, having read some about “men’s work,” having watched Bill Moyer’s program with Bly, A Gathering of Men, and having heard a counselor friend talk about therapeutic use of psychodrama. That weekend, I was especially in need of some healing. My uncle’s funeral was difficult; the trip back to Connecticut exposed some old wounds (for one, I hadn’t been able to go back for my grandmother’s funeral a few years earlier)–but it also affirmed for me my need to stay connected to the other men in my family, including my brothers and my cousins.
The friend who had invited me was a Catholic priest, I was working for the Archdiocese, and I was just beginning to hear that some on the Third Floor of the Downtown Chancery were concerned about the involvement of priests in this weekend. A young Catholic man had gone on it some months before, a man with some serious problems, and those problems led him to commit suicide sometime after he went on the weekend. His parents, in their grief, focused their anger on that weekend experience, and when they found out that priests were active members of the Mankind Project, their anger turned toward the Archdiocese. Later, the priests would be told by Archbishop Fiorenza to step down from leadership roles in the weekend–but he didn’t forbid priests from attending it for their own personal benefit, nor did he express a concern with lay Catholics attending or exercising leadership roles. His concern was centered on the role of the priest, and confusion that might arise through a priest exercising a leadership role on the weekend (Archbishop DiNardo later made the same distinction). And yes, I’m sure they were also concerned about potential liability.
I told Auxiliary Bishop Joe Vasquez I was going on it, and he expressed some concerns, and he urged me to have a serious talk about it with my spiritual director. I did, and his response was that he thought it was “a bunch of hooey,” but that it could prove of some benefit on a human level, and that he thought I would be able to separate the “hooey” from what could be useful.
So I went knowing I needed something as a man, and knowing that while some priest friends I trusted had encouraged me to attend (and would be staffing), the Archbishop and chancellor were trying to do damage control with that family.
I rode up with a couple of other men who lived on my side of town. I was glad for the company on the long drive up to North Zulch (about two and a half hours north, to the east of College Station) , and that was the beginning of a lasting friendship with one of those men, and with some others I met later in the weekend.
I’m not going to get into the details. There’s an “initiatory” element to the weekend (very tame and even “Mickey Mouse” to anyone who has been in the military); there was assurance in everything that you could choose not to participate in an activity, and those who chose not to were respected; there was an attitude of respect given to all religious views and concerns, and men were free to speak from their perspectives of faith and morality.
The weekend provides a time to assess what’s working in your life and what isn’t; to assess whether you are living a life of integrity, with accountability; to ask whether you are honoring your commitments, especially in the most important relationships. A lot of the weekend is fun, “guy stuff,” the kinds of stuff boys and men of all ages get into. Much of it is very reflective, with silent time for journaling. You have time in a small group setting to “do your work,” with the assistance of other men.
It isn’t done in a Christian framework, and so for that reason I wouldn’t recommend it. I think these are issues that men need to work on, but I think for Christians it is better done in an explicitly Christian setting. One of the Archbishop’s concerns was that some elements of the weekend smacked of “New Age” spirituality. He was right about that–but again, the leaders of the retreat were respectful of Christians who spoke from their own convictions. I was grateful for that, but still I think Christian men need to come together in an environment where Christian faith is assumed, supported, and nurtured, and not merely tolerated.
Yet it was a positive weekend for me. As a result, I experienced much healing in my relationship with my own father (something I’ve since learned often happens for men in their 40s). It gave me some insights into my self and my relationships with others. It helped me to have greater respect for and trust in other men as brothers. This weekend, and subsequent readings in male spirituality (e.g., David Murrow, Why Men Hate Going to Church, and Leon Podles, The Church Impotent), also helped me to see the Catholic church’s authoritarian structure in a new light–though some call it “patriarchal,” it’s actually a highly feminized organization that emasculates men (I’ll have more to say about this when I review Podles’ book, Sacrilege.
I was involved in the follow-up “integration groups” for awhile. For an idea of what these are like, see Bill Kauth, A Circle of Men. Kauth was one of the founders of the Mankind Project, and some of the processes used in this book are used in the I-groups. I helped begin an Archdiocesan men’s ministry. I also became involved in a men’s group run by a friend, called Waking the Passion.
The weekend was my introduction to “men’s work,” but just that–an introduction. The work continues in new ways. I’m looking forward to a men’s ministry weekend starting this Friday night at the church. There will be no drums, but men will come together to reflect on Christ’s call to them, in the context of a supportive community of other men. That’s what’s important.
For more on this subject, see my page, Ministry with Men.