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Boys to Men: The Dire Need for Godly Friends and Spiritual Fathers

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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 01/27/15

Boys will be boys, unless good Christian men show them how to grow up

Can a man win a war without allies? Without comrades-in-arms? Of course not! A few weeks ago, I wrote about the crisis of masculinity within the Church, followed by a column on identifying goals, resources and allies in the battle for the male soul, and finally a column on three elements of the masculine charism. This week, let’s take a look at the basic features of a distinctively Christian form of masculine friendship, and let’s begin with Scripture.

In Proverbs 27:17 we find, “Iron sharpeneth iron, so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.” What can we learn from that passage? We see it as an illustration of same-sex friendship, what I call a “supplemental” friendship. In other words, the genuine masculinity of a Godly man can call forth the genuine masculinity of another Godly man. (For a fascinating reflection on friendship between men and women—what I call “complementary” friendship—see Gilbert Meilander’s classic essay.) The God-given masculinity of an authentic man builds up—supplements—the God-given masculinity of another authentic man.

We see too that iron sharpens iron not by being placed side by side but by strong contact. The masculine spirit craves order, discipline and rank based on contest, achievement and merit. The masculine spirit is drawn to hierarchy (I know, I know—a “dirty word” in some circles), that is, an acknowledgement of earned pre-eminence. That masculine inclination towards hierarchy is the basis of the essential relation of father to sons, as well as the desperately needed masculine gift of initiation. Boys on the cusp of manhood cannot enter manhood without the recognition and blessing of the men they can rightly look up to, that is, those above them in a proper hierarchy. We see this dynamic in every culture. And, sadly, we see the pain of its absence when boys try to initiate each other into manhood in the brutal hazings associated with street gangs.

We learn from the example of Jesus that masculine friendship also has degrees of intimacy. Jesus called to Himself the seventy-two disciples (Luke 10:1); and He called to Himself the Twelve Apostles (Matthew 10:2); He had the inner circle of Peter, James and John (Matthew 17:1); and He had the Beloved Disciple (John 21:20). How different from those men who boast of hundreds or even thousands of Facebook “friends”! How different from the man who has no friendship beyond the facile triviality of his drinking buddies! And how thoroughly different from the solitary man huddled in the dark, alone with his addictions!

Jesus spoke to all; He taught many; He led a few; His deepest trust was apportioned with great care. That also is an important lesson for understanding distinctively Christian masculine friendship. Such friendship follows the model of Jesus. It rejects isolation as well as superficiality. It displays the wisdom of drawing concentric circles closer as trust deepens. And Jesus called men to Himself (“…no longer servants, but friends …” John 15:15) not for mere play or entertainment but for a great purpose.

That brings us to another essential feature of authentically Christian masculine friendship—men standing side-by-side united in common purpose. Their very presence together helps to establish the security of all. In his glorious meditation describing “putting on the armor of God”, Saint Paul (Ephesians 6) describes the Christian armed and armored from head to toe, except for his back. Why not his back? The Christian spirit-warrior has his back covered by the ranks of his comrades. Thus we see that Christian men as comrades-in-arms, united in purpose and standing together, under the leadership of Christ, as an essential characteristic of truly Christian, truly masculine friendship.

This quick survey of Sacred Scripture outlines the basic features of real friendship among Christian men. These include hierarchy, merit, intimacy, unity and struggle. There were times when these elements were readily found in men’s religious communities, as well as in the Christian orders of chivalry, and in many associations of Catholic laymen from the medieval guilds of craftsmen to various pious associations of more recent times. Alas, it is not so easy to find the dynamics of robust networks of truly masculine, truly Christian friendship today. We are instead nowadays more likely to find men who are dispirited, distracted or addicted. What can be done about that?

Well, if I had a short, simple and perfect solution to the problem, we would be living in a different world by now and I would have been famous a long time ago. I can, however, offer some advice about first steps.

First, more mature Christian men need to hear and heed God’s call to spiritual fatherhood. A father summons life, provides necessities, and establishes the order necessary for flourishing. Mature Christian men need to gather as peers and plan to cultivate younger men as disciples of Christ. These mature Christian men can offer the rites of masculine initiation that younger almost-men crave. Personal invitation, concrete example, and a summons to the front lines of the spiritual battles of our day are all indispensable.

Earlier in my teaching career, I sat on a panel of university faculty and staff to talk with parents on Freshmen Moving-In Day. It’s a difficult time for parents. The question most frequently asked from parents was (in various forms, with varying degrees of urgency and anxiety), “What are you all going to do to ensure that my son doesn’t get bored?” At the time it seemed to me that parents were worried that if Little Johnny got bored, then he might get into mischief, so we had better keep him entertained. What an indictment of our culture! (James Stenson addresses this problem in his little book, “Successful Fathers.”)

Why didn’t parents ask us, “How shall you call my son to greatness?” Boredom is the pain that is a symptom of unused gifts. The young men at that school had the God-given masculine calling to Christian heroism, sacrifice, fellowship and fatherhood. But the focus on that day was keeping Little Johnny amused so that he doesn’t get into trouble. Surely we can do better than that.

The cultivation of Christian manhood through truly masculine Christian friendship is a matter of life-and-death for our culture. If young males are not led, called and challenged to enter the crucible of Christian character formation, if they are not summoned to the high adventure of living and dying for Christ the King, then they will simply sink until they find the path of least resistance.

Our Church and our culture suffer grievously and needlessly from a dearth of Christian men who are not heeding the call to become spiritual fathers and spiritual friends. The need is vast; the time is short; the rewards are great. I pray that mature Christian men will ask for the cross and crown of being fathers and friends for the boys whom we need to be Godly men. And I pray that young males on the verge of manhood will hear and respond generously when their spiritual fathers call them.

At the urging of my students, when I next write, I will reflect on the nature of an authentically Christian charism for women. 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.

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