We work our asses off in school - now more so than ever before - sacrifice body, heart and soul to get into the best colleges and nourish ruthless avarice as the center of our careers. We despise patience. We disdain mystery. And we have cultivated a way of being that celebrates striving as the crown of creation. Even if we encountered religious formation as children, it remains the minority report for we worship at the altar of winning. Most of us who practice Christianity have no frame of reference for the Cross. We do not know how to embrace our brokenness. We have no context for integrating the wisdom of our wounds into our everyday existence. And we are terrified and ashamed of failure. Further, because the Cross has been eradicated from popular Western Churchianity, Sunday morning is more about the practice of pop psychology, or the gospel of wealth, than the journey from Easter's fire into the ashes of Lent on our way back into Easter.
Richard Rohr and others have spent the past few decades reclaiming what ancient male initiation rites might mean for contemporary culture. One of their conclusions is that all men must learn to spend time in the pit. As a rule, men are full to overflowing with hubris. We don't organically know how to channel our exuberance into strength for the protection our communities. This must be learned. In other words, male passion has historically been disciplined through acts of humility - rituals of imposed humiliation by wise elders who love men (and women and children)- knowing that "warriors must learn to dance before they can use a sword." Scarification, for example, take young men down a peg as limited physical pain exposes us to our own mortality. Vision quests, tattoos, time alone in the desert fasting, and cultivating acts of bravery that provide and protect the community rather than harm it, all move young men beyond themselves. Robert Bly speaks of this as "time spent living in the ashes" - an intentional season of learning about life from the bottom of the heap rather than the top - so that our fire and passion is transformed into wisdom and compassion. This is not a time for winning, but rather for listening and waiting without control. Without it, men too often turn to pathological outlets like gangs, misogyny, homophobia and addictions of all types including workaholism (one of my personal demons.)
Women learn humility through their bodies: they bleed and hurt by design. Their rites of passage are necessarily different from a man's. Men must be taught that they - and others - bleed before reverence and respect rise up from within. Rohr says: "Men and women are most alike at their most mature and soulful levels. Men and women are most different only at their most immature and merely physical level." In our culture, however, there are precious few ways for men to be trained in the rites of humility and maturity. Sam Keen used to say that what passes for rites of passage for most young, white men in a consumer culture are all about getting a license to drive, getting a condom to screw and getting a paying job to document our worth. We are schooled in the ways of acquisition, not relinquishment. And the results do nothing to harness or transform our wildness into responsible acts of love.
Small wonder that Rohr has devoted so much of his later work to teaching men and women the ways of contemplation. "Contemplation is an alternative consciousness that refuses to identify with or feed what are only passing shows. It is the absolute opposite of addiction, consumerism or any egoic consciousness." Indeed, his Center for Action and Contemplation has become a master class in reclaiming the mystical path of inner healing. And it is saturated in the wisdom of our wounds, the way of the Cross and the gifts of silence. Rohr has become convinced that until we experience (and practice) an alternative consciousness that is grace-filled and loving, our activity in the world will continue to increase pain rather that heal it. "If our pain is not transformed, we will pass it on to the third and fourth generations."
One of the reasons I continue to cherish Henri Nouwen is that I see so much of my journey in his own. He had a big heart - and a massive ego. He kept trying to fill the hole in his soul with other people, even as he knew that only God could satisfy him. And, he kept making the same mistakes over and over until he was truly broken. I've been there and done that in spades. Still do from time to time, too:
We all have our secrets: thoughts, memories, feelings that we keep to ourselves. Often we think, "If people knew what I feel or think, they would not love me." These carefully kept secrets can do us much harm. They can make us feel guilty or ashamed and may lead us to self-rejection, depression, and even suicidal thoughts and actions. One of the most important things we can do with our secrets is to share them in a safe place, with people we trust. When we have a good way to bring our secrets into the light and can look at them with others, we will quickly discover that we are not alone with our secrets and that our trusting friends will love us more deeply and more intimately than before. Bringing our secrets into the light creates community and inner healing. As a result of sharing secrets, not only will others love us better but we will love ourselves more fully. (Nouwen)
During his year-long retreat at L'Arche Trosly, France, after he had left Harvard in grief, however, Nouwen experienced an inner safety that allowed him to trust God more deeply. It also empowered him to find comfort in community. In this peace, he was able to confess:
There is much emphasis on notoriety and fame in our society. Our newspapers and television keep giving us the message: What counts is to be known, praised, and admired, whether you are a writer, an actor, a musician, or a politician. Still, real greatness is often hidden, humble, simple, and unobtrusive. It is not easy to trust ourselves and our actions without public affirmation. We must have strong self-confidence combined with deep humility. Some of the greatest works of art and the most important works of peace were created by people who had no need for the limelight. They knew that what they were doing was their call, and they did it with great patience, perseverance, and love. (Nouwen)
I felt this, too the very first time I visited L'Arche Ottawa. Their hospitality and authenticity was real. Knowing that my soul had finished doing traditional pastoral ministry, I found myself returning again and again to Ottawa, mostly just to share suppers in community. Sometimes I was able to share a bit of music, too. And over time, like Nouwen and hundreds of others before me, I realized I had found the home I was aching for. Jean Vanier's words resonated with my own discoveries:
So many in our world are seduced by technology, power and a craving for security. So often we have forgotten the essential: love, a heart-to-heart relationship, kindness, goodness and an openness to those in need and in pain. We tend to deny our own shadow side and weakness. We do not cry out for help, for healing and for God. We often think we can do it alone. (Jean Vanier)
These days I rejoice (mostly) that I cannot do it alone. That is why I am writing these reflections. Like brother Henri before me, I have tasted a little of Christ's peace born of the way of the Cross. I am learning to trust it. So often in the past I have confessed that in God there is no sacred and secular - God is one - and now I am experiencing that this is true even in my own heart as well as my head.