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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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From some of the Irish Men who have carried out their RITEs

  • Wounds were revealed....
  • Digging my Depths in Perth
  • There's a crack in everything
  • Journey to manhood in the liminal space
  • In a wet field under a grey Irish sky

I signed up for Males Rite of Passage without knowing what I was letting myself in for. I had a vague idea of what initiation was but couldn’t place how it would be relevant in 2012 in Ireland. Some of the initiated men who met at the monthly MALES meetings at Marley were quietly encouraging and suggested it would be 5 days well spent.

They were correct. Taking part in the MROP was time well spent. Time very well spent. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my 46 years to date. On almost every level, emotionally, psychically, and spiritually.

Wounds were revealed, hurts exposed.

Tears were shed.

Bonds were forged.

I will never forget my 5 days in Kiltegan, Co. Wicklow in June 2012.

David, MROP 2012.

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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 trepidation 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 men’s initiatives in churches where subtle denigration 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.

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I had wanted to go on a Men's Retreat to explore my relationship with my (now dead) dad. Much of my wariness with other men relates to uncertainties with him. I tell myself I did not doubt his love, but he never expressed it in words. He did lash out however with savage put-downs when upset. The explicitness of his furies seriously undermined what I was trying to read into his actions, as implicit signs of love.

In the carefully constructed processes of the Men's Rite of Passage I was able to sit with what I have long known but never properly comprehended. In teenage years I had got to know a little of my dad's pa, a twinkling white haired old man, benign and harmless surely. Yet when he was seven my dad's mum died and his pa sent him away to the country to be looked after by his grandmother and his maiden aunt. Dad's pa, my grandpa absented himself from my dad's upbringing. I asked why grandpa was missing from my parents' wedding photo - he was simply not invited.

My dad had little on which to model his fathering for me. Should I blame dad or grandpa? Or is this the crack in the family pattern that lets the light in for me to see how it works and what I might do to make things better for the future?

Richard Rohr upon whose work the Men's Retreat was based, was for a time a prison chaplain. Many of the men inside had issues with either absent or abusive fathers. Fathering should be a sacred trust – but it is too little honoured in western society. There is a line in the very funny and 'true' Steve Martin movie Parenthood when a mildly dysfunctional young man explains his upbringing, "You need to get a licence to keep a dog but they'll let any a**hole be a father."

Curious isn't it that many of us subscribe to a faith that makes much use of images of father and son – but we fail to work them through in real life. The key image of unconditional love – God's son Jesus dying on the cross – is not much respected in our relationships. These days amidst the challenges and paradoxes of modern life, individuals seem more likely to assert their right to personal fulfilment, as to recognise the exquisite beauty of unconditional love one for another.

A well run retreat provides the opportunity for reflection and re-integration. Am I dependent on having things in black and white or can I accommodate the messiness of life? One of the dimensions I have to work on is the matrix of judging parent/nurturing parent, stroppy child/playful child. Somehow I keep backing myself into the judgemental parent corner and need to pull those other characters back into a better balance. Where does that come from? Now I comprehend the pattern. Grandpa sends dad out of the way. My dad is heavy handed in his put downs to me, so much so that if I am not careful, I go on telling myself I'm not good enough and should be ashamed of my efforts!

Dealing with wounds is a necessary part of life's hard work. The dominant judging parent ensnares me with delusions of perfection, as so many are trapped. We slave away trying to achieve the successful career, the dream home, the idyllic Meeting community. But we cannot control everything, we are mere mortals. As Leonard Cohen sings in Anthem

"Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's where the light gets in."

Peter Fishpool

(First published in The Friend on 5 September 2008, and republished with permission)

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An article from The Tablet, Easter 2011 written by David Loyn.

Click here to open the article in PDF form in a new window

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Having attended the M.A.L.E.’s Ireland meetings in Marley Community Centre for about six months I felt I was ready for my Rites of Passage experience (MROP). I had the option of going to Texas and doing it in the desert under a big sky and a hot sun. But on reflection I decided better to take my chances with the Irish weather and do it in the company of mostly Irish men where perhaps I would have the opportunity of making long term relationships with guys in the same boat as me. Searching. For what I was not too sure but the Richard Rohr stuff I had been reading and my experiences of M.A.L.E.’s had encouraged me to believe I would find some of it at the Rites. The process of having to apply for a place was unusual and very helpful. The idea that you had to be ready for the Rites experience made sense to me. The process of reflecting on the supplied questions and crafting the answers helped me become clearer on my commitment and more ready to participate in whatever happened. I felt there was an air of secrecy and excitement about the rites. The men I spoke to who had already done them were very circumspect with the details (none!) and this created an air of secrecy. Which I was OK with. Sort of. The men whom I knew were planning to attend were excited – just like me – and perhaps a bit intimidated.

So…………..Three years ago I joined a group of wounded men, just like you, in a wet field under a grey Irish sky, in a canvas tent and I entered the liminal space of my MROP. The space in between. Neither here nor there. Neither one thing or the other. I knew nothing in detail of what lay ahead of me. I was surrendering control for four whole days and nights!  I had decided to enter the experience and take the risk of losing control and not being able to think my way through it all.  I wanted to reengage in my spiritual development but most of all I wanted help in growing up and becoming more of a man. What does it mean to become an elder? I felt the tingle of fear and uncertainty. What awaited me in this liminal space? What ghosts’ and terrors, what darkness and despair, what emptiness and pain? What hope and healing, what forgiveness and redemption what love and renewal?

My MROP experience has had a huge impact on me. It was the most extraordinary couple of days of my life. I managed to let go of my need for control and I let my mind take a back seat. Each ritual took me to greater depth of awareness, a greater level of contact with my real self and a real encounter with the great mystery. I was utterly alone and yet I was not alone. I felt and experienced the company of my brothers, my fellow searchers and travellers. Some of those men have become my Anam Cara – my soul mates, my soul brothers. The weather lived up to my expectations. It rained for four of the five days. My little tent stayed dry and snug and the sound of torrential rain sent me to sleep each night. When the sun did come out on the last day it was glorious. I felt a changed man. I felt exhilarated and renewed. I was knackered and smelly. I was more of a man. I felt I had more courage and compassion. I felt fully alive.

Perhaps you are at the threshold of your initiation into the next level of being a man? Perhaps you are at the point of leaving one state of thinking, being and doing in order to enter emerge a new man with a new way of thinking, being and doing. The MROP is an extraordinary opportunity for you to enter the gate of your initiation – your rite of passage. It is designed with wisdom and great care. You will be immersed in a series of experiences. I urge you to let go of your need for control. Stop thinking. Suspend your tendency to judge. Go with the flow. Trust the great mystery.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.

TS Eliot – Little Gidding

The MROP is, in my experience, a great opportunity to explore and experience a new beginning. The MROP was a huge help to me to enter my initiation “through unknown, unremembered gate”. 



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