Richard Rohr's book From Wild Man to Wise Man is a deep and profound Christian reflection on the distinct nature of male spirituality. He walks a fine line between two popular extremes. On one end, he rejects those who embrace a unisex universe where all gender distinctions are culturally and artificially created. He argues that the distinctions are important, but as one progresses in life one learns to be "masculine in a womanly way and to be feminine in a manly way" (18). On the other end (as evidenced in the quote above), he does not advocate a hyper-masculine spirituality that capitulates to the stereotypical cultural extremes of reducing masculinity to achievement-obsessed entrepreneurs, violence-loving barbarians, or steroid-addled sports nuts.
Instead, Rohr points us to the God who is free and wild - the God we cannot control or manipulate. This wildness of God "leaves us powerless, and changes the language [of relationship with God] from any language of performance or achievement to that of surrender, trust and vulnerability. This is not the preferred language of men!" (2) This is not preferred because God's love is beyond our control. God's wild and reckless love pursues us, not because we are good, but because God is good. This is difficult for men to receive. This language makes men feel useless, impotent, and ineffective.
Rohr calls men to reflect on male spirituality. "The full male journey is a risky journey where you can only trust God and not your own worthiness or rightness. It is a journey into the outer world, into the world of risk, uncertainty and almost certain failure" (4). But failure is not the end, for as the liturgy states: "Christ has died, Christ is risen and Christ will come again." "Life will be death, failure and absurdity, which can lead to renewal, joy and beauty. This pattern is inevitable, universal and transformative (37)." To participate in this journey, men must leave the safe world of ideas and opinions and roles of esteem and status.
The male spiritual journey begins with initiation rites. "The very word initiation reveals the necessary bias. The concern was about getting the beginning right, and then life and eternity would take care of themselves. We have been preoccupied with getting the end right, for some reason" (104). Rohr laments the lack of initiation rites in modern culture and argues for the return of defining moments of decision.
These defining moments should then lead to the risk of acting out our faith in the "real" world.
It is the risk of "acting" like Jesus acted that reconfigures your soul. We are converted by new circumstances much more than by new ideas. Or as I like to say, we do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking. To know and not to act is not to know. Reality and circumstances, unavoidable circumstances, are normally what convert us. Reality is the greatest ally of God. It is the things you cannot do anything with--the useless things--and the things you cannot do anything about--the necessary things--that tend to do something with you! (114-115)
Initiation and heroic risk lead to ascent:
The language of the first half of the male life journey is the language of ascent, the earnest and necessary idealism that characterizes all healthy young men. It is a heroic language of winning. Succeeding, triumphing over ego and obstacles. Without such vision and effort, men remain cowering in a small and powerless world. The man has to climb in the beginning, or he cannot test his metal, find his best self, say no to his false self or triumph over egocentricity. (159)
"By the second half of life, the language changes from a language of ascending, achieving and attaining to a humble language of descent" (161). It has to do more with being than doing.
The language of descent is either learned by midlife (normally through suffering and the experience of powerlessness), or we inevitably move into a long day's journey of accusing, resentment and negativity, circling our wagons as the hurts and disappointments of life gather around us: "I am right and others are wrong. I have a right to my judgments and I will continue to use valuable energy to justify them." I have visited too many old men and retired priests in nursing homes to doubt this common pattern. When midlife no longer allowed them to ascend or to deny their dark side, far too many men either shut down or kept running. The price is a world of men who do not age well, who are emotionally, spiritually, intellectually unavailable--or just eccentric. These are the dads, priests and leaders that we all laugh about but seldom take seriously. (163)
Initiation, Ascent, and Descent lead to the ability to become a wise, spiritual grandfather.
When we can trust others like that--when we can trust God and trust life even when we do not fully understand--we too can be grand fathers. When we can let go of our need for everything to be as we want it, and our own need to succeed, we can then encourage the independent journey and the success of others. When we can let go of our fear of failure and our fear of pain, we are free to trust life just as it comes. We are able to affirm that, if God allows it, there must be something OK about it. That sounds like passivity or fatalism, but that is not what I mean at all. There is a letting go that is passivity, but there is a letting go that is egolessness, trust and surrender. The first is dangerous; the second is sanctity. The grand father is able to relinquish center stage and to stand on the sidelines, and thus be in solidarity with those who need his support. (171)
Spiritual disciplines and regular repentance are necessary all along the way in this journey, for the goal is greater than simply the achievement of a task:
If you read spiritual stories closely, you will see that there is always a task within the task, a struggle alongside the struggle. It is not enough to kill the dragon, save the maiden or even die on the cross. The real hero's task is to keep love, to find humor, to maintain freedom, to discover joy, to expand vision in the process of killing dragons! There is no room for pettiness or petulance or self-pity, or one is not, by definition, a hero. The sour saint is no saint at all. Our real demons are interior, quiet and disguised and often show themselves as the "noonday devil," which is that pride, negativity or self-absorption that reveals itself in midlife and spoils the seeming good fruit of early accomplishments. Without spiritual disciplines and regular repentance, far too many of us win many battles but finally lose the war. How utterly sad it has been in my work to meet retired, bitter bishops; sad but "successful" priests; and angry old widowers blaming the world for their loneliness... They did the task, but not the real task. (40-41)
Rohr's book is, quite simply, one of the best books on a distinctly male spirituality I have ever read. Both men and women would benefit from reading it.
Quotes excerpted from From Wild Man to Wise Man: Reflections on Male Spirituality by Richard Rohr with Joseph Martos