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.