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