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“How do you know if you’re doing it right?” That’s an important question for nearly every worthwhile endeavor; it’s an especially important question if a man wishes to live as a Christian man as fully as God calls him to be. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the crisis of masculinity both in the world and in the Church. Last week, I wrote about identifying goals, resources and allies in the battle for the male soul. This week, let’s look at three essential features of the masculine charism by looking at three icons of the male soul—man as Pilgrim, man as Warrior, and man as King. Let our rallying cry for this venture be, “Take a hike! Take a stand! Take charge!”
What do I mean by “icons of the male soul”? In the Christian East, an icon is seen as a kind of window into Heaven. It is a glimpse of what is most true and real and beautiful and good. The icons are intelligible—that is, we can recognize that this figure in the icon is an angel, and that figure over there is Our Lady. The icons are also mysterious—they can never be fully comprehended. The icon attracts, reveals, teaches, inspires, and at the same time always points to a fullness and fulfillment beyond itself.
The icon is also a kind of myth. Now, a genuine myth is never a “mere myth”; it is never just a made-up bit of fancy. A genuine myth tells the truth through a story—a truth so important, a truth so rooted in mystery, that the story deserves to be told again and again. A genuine myth forms us and transforms us more than it informs us. In other words, a genuine myth can make real in us what had only been potential; it can correct in us what had been deformed; it tells us truths even when it does not give us very many “facts.”
So understood, we can see icons of the male soul both describing and inscribing what a genuine Christian man is and ought to be. Icons inspire and guide us as we find the most authentic yearnings of our soul to live the masculine vocation in such a way that we will be glad to hand on our way of manhood to our sons and grandsons. This is the kind of manhood that we owe our wives; the kind of manhood we want our daughters to find in their husbands. This is the kind of manhood we want to find in our priests and religious. It is the kind of manhood that our Church, nation and culture desperately need.
Let’s have a look at these three icons in turn, beginning with the Pilgrim.The model of the Pilgrim is Abraham, whom we meet in Genesis 12. God directs Abraham to leave the land of his ancestors; in return, God will make of Abraham a great nation. Do you see the pattern? First, God gives a command, then God gives a promise. God gives commands not because He is a bully but because He is a Father. He commands so that we can be properly disposed to receive His blessings. Abraham sets out on his divinely-ordained adventure because he has a readiness to leave the familiar for the good that God has promised him. The power of the Pilgrim includes a readiness to work for a promised good that cannot quite be seen just yet. The Pilgrim always keeps one eye on the horizon, and his ears open to hear God’s call. His memory repeats over and over God’s command and promise.
Recall the familiar phrase, “Grace builds on nature.” The Pilgrim says, “Yes, Grace builds on nature. And now God calls me to bring my human nature to a place where He can grace my nature even more.” Absent the power of the Pilgrim in the male soul, a man is prone to despair, defeated before he ever begins—and he never begins. Any man who says, “I cannot improve” or “God can do nothing with me,” needs to contemplate the icon of the Pilgrim, a vision of manhood retold in the person of Abraham.
Let’s look now at the icon of the Warrior. Nowadays, this icon is frequently misrepresented or misunderstood. Too often, the Warrior is caricatured as a mere bully or brute. Yes, of course, there have been brutish men—but such men are not true warriors. In a world that often appears to be divided into sheep and wolves, the Warrior is the sheepdog—the guardian of the vulnerable against the predator and the oppressor. The icon of the Warrior represents a man of courage, of course, but also humility, generosity, discipline and—above all—great love. G.K. Chesterton said that the Warrior “does not so much hate what is in front of him as he loves what is behind him.” In other words, the icon of the Warrior represents man as one who puts himself between the weak and the powers of evil and declares, “You can’t have them anymore! Not as long as I can draw breath!” The true warrior lives a lean and rigorous life, making of himself a sword and shield to keep the wolves away from the sheep, even at the cost of his own life. The icon of the Warrior reveals a man who serves with and under the authority of God.
In the Book of Exodus, we see Moses as the servant of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—God Who goes to war on behalf of His chosen people. In the New Testament, Jesus enters into mortal combat with the powers of sin and death. I am repulsed by the tacky depictions of Jesus as soft, pale, effeminate, as one wag once said, “Jesus-the-Bearded-Lady.” Jesus was a man who worked with his hands, and went out into the desert, went one-on-one with Satan, and walked out alive and faithful. Jesus did not flee the cross, His ultimate weapon against evil, but embraced it. In Ephesians 6, we find Saint Paul’s summary of the mission, mandate and methods of the true Christian Warrior. There he directs us: “Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground.”
If the power of the authentic Warrior is absent from a man’s soul, the innocent and the vulnerable will be swept away. When Christian men shirk from battle, innocent blood will be shed, and vulnerable souls may fall. Surely now the Church needs men to contemplate the icon of the Warrior and then to order their lives in light of what that icon reveals and commands. The Warrior also needs brothers-in-arms. The statesman Edmund Burke wrote, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
The Warrior also needs a leader—the Warrior needs a true King. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the model of the King is Solomon, whom we observe in 1 Kings 3. There we see that kingship is not merely a political office. The King is a priestly intermediary, bringing the needs of the people to God and bringing God’s blessings to the people. The King is to have special affection for the least in his kingdom and he is accountable to God for all in his care. The King is a life-giving Father, who is both generous and generative. His joy is to make his kingdom fruitful and to bless those entrusted to him by God. The King is also a Warrior who does not only send others into battle, but himself fights to defend those who rightfully look to him for protection and security. The charism of the King is to ensure the flourishing of those in his kingdom.
How different from a “leader” who simply wants to “spread the wealth around,” especially when the wealth in question is the wealth of others. How different the icon of the King is from the all-too-familiar image of the politician/bureaucrat, who seeks power and profit for the sake of self-enrichment. Such a leader/tyrant is the inversion of what God intends for the charism of a masculine leadership that is at once authoritative and self-sacrificing. How very different from the model of Christ the King!
A Christian man guided by the icon of the King does not abandon his post or his family. Such a man puts others first and himself last. Absent the inspiration of the iconic King, a man does not take up the burden of kingly leadership that makes him both a vessel of God’s authority even as he offers his life for the good of his people. When men would sit rather than stand, or command rather than lead, the icon of the King is nowhere to be found.
God offers us the icons of Pilgrim, Warrior and King to call forth the best from the masculine soul. We can turn to Scripture and Christian art to find such icons. To live what they represent, men need God’s grace, and men need the urging, guidance and fellowship of other men. To be men of God, men need to be brothers in Christ. When I next write, I will take up the issue of a distinctively Christian friendship among men. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, S.J. is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.