Because of “Such a Friend”

Posted by Webster 
When in September I wrote a post about Ferde, my big brother in the Church, one man commented: “Providential to find such a friend. I sometimes think it’s more difficult for guys who convert to find a ‘guy’ type Catholic friend.” I thought of this tonight when Ferde and I went to a monthly men’s meeting at the local Carmelite chapel.
That’s the chapel in the photo. (There’s more seating outside the frame to left and right.) With a magnifying glass you can just pick out Ferde: he’s the gray-haired fellow in the red sweater in the far right corner. The chapel is approaching its 50th anniversary in the basement of the North Shore Mall in Peabody, Massachusetts. Oddly located, it has a remarkable following. Katie’s mother, Ruthie McNiff, who died in 1984, was a staunch follower. It’s currently staffed by three Carmelite fathers and one or two brothers. Masses are offered three or four times daily, and once a month a ragtag group of guys meets for 90 minutes of confession, Adoration, and teaching. Tonight Father Felix spoke about the dogma of the Incarnation, and Father Herb (pictured, at the podium) followed him by putting a human face on that dogma. His basic message: anything you’ve experienced, Jesus experienced before you, and for you.
Like so many good things that have come my way as a Catholic, the Carmelite meeting came to me through Ferde. It was Ferde who introduced me to Communion and Liberation, Ferde who encouraged me to be a lector and later to serve at the altar, Ferde who invited me to the Saturday morning men’s group that meets in our church basement and is now a cornerstone of my week. Ferde even contributes articles to our parish newsletter, of which I am the sometime editor. But this men’s meeting, once a month in the basement of the mall, is something else altogether.
Tonight there were over thirty men present, plus Fathers Felix and Herb. (Father Mario is on the West Coast, visiting family for Christmas.) We are a mixed bunch, with far more faith than education—although I think some of the guys here have forgotten more Scripture and theology than I’ll ever learn. The surprises never end.
“Mark” led off the meeting with a halting, arhythmic reading of the hymn “Rise Up, O Men of God!”:
Rise up, O men of God!
Have done with lesser things.
Give heart and mind and soul and strength
To serve the King of kings.

Rise up, O men of God!
The kingdom tarries long.
Bring in the day of brotherhood
And end the night of wrong.

Rise up, O men of God!
The church for you doth wait,
Her strength unequal to her task;
Rise up and make her great!

Lift high the cross of Christ!
Tread where His feet have trod.
As brothers of the Son of Man,
Rise up, O men of God!

Dressed in a Carhart jacket over a hoodie, jeans, and work boots, Mark seemed almost embarrassed by his reading. But after the meeting I would learn that Mark is a spiritual pilgrim. He told us about a trip he is planning in January, visiting five Catholic shrines in Mexico. He plans to wake up at 4:30 each morning for 90 minutes of prayer before continuing on his pilgrimage.
Another continuing surprise is “Rick,” the 40-year-old man who organized this monthly meeting in the first place. In a previous encounter, he told me he is a member of Opus Dei, from which I drew a certain mental image of Rick. Tonight, after the meeting, I had to redraw the picture. He told me that he was recently in residence at the same Cistercian abbey where I went on retreat a month ago. He was not there as a retreatant, however, but as a matter of discernment: Rick explored, then decided against, a vocation as a Cistercian monk. This, frankly, floored me.
When I was a boy, I saw my father as a lone wolf. He seemed to have few male friends; he went off to work in the morning, came home to our family at night, was not a socializer, and interacted with other males on weekends only as a matter of form. But as my father got older, and then when he retired, his men friends became ever more important to him. Some died before him; some attended his funeral. I thought of my father, and understood his experience better, tonight, at the Carmelite men’s meeting. I know now why his men friends were so important to him.

  • Anonymous

    From Warren Jewell:Simply – Whoo-hoo! Amen! Hear, hear!And, sir, congratulations for finding them and letting them find you.

  • Webster Bull

    Warren, Even though you're still only a virtual friend, I think you're another "friend of my old age"! Merry Christmas to you and your beautiful family.

  • Ferde

    As I told the RCIA meeting after you left Sunday, learning isn't a one way street. I learn something from you every day. Thanks.

  • EPG

    Webster, you have hit on a profound issue, and one worth many, many more posts. Many (perhaps most) men go about their lives without substantive friendships. There may be common interests in sports, etc., but few avenues for addressing serious issues, including matters of faith, with other men. In many respects, our brothers in the Evangelical churches seem to do a much better job of it, or at least attempting to wrestle with the issue. I have a colleague who is a committed Evangelical, and his congregation works very hard at men's ministries, including accountability groups, quarterly retreats, and much more. Since I am not a Catholic, I can't speak to how well most Catholic parishes do. On the Anglican side, however, (at least as practiced in North America), there really is not much — or I haven't seen much in the parishes and dioceses where I have been. In some traditionalist Anglican circles, there is concern about the "feminization" of Christianity. I don't know whether any such trend is a symptom of the problem of failing to address men's relationship to the church and God, or a cause of the problem.Any thoughts from the Catholic experience?

  • Webster Bull

    EPG, Thanks for your encouragement as always, but particularly on this issue. I will write more, particularly because I think that Frank and I, working in concert, can begin zeroing in on some faith issues that can use a man's perspective. You have to know, though, that I am a new Catholic, and I'm not sure I have enough "Catholic" experience to speak "for the church," or even for the "typical Catholic," about these questions. I can only continue to offer my personal experience and perspective, which is largely new to me!I am going to forward your comment to my men's group and some other male friends in the parish, in hopes that some might reply, as I hope Frank will when he lands (he's flying today). I may even post your comment later today or tomorrow and ask for further replies.

  • Robert LaPorte

    Many studies over the years have concluded that males due to the problems of the "ego" are not inclined to share intimacy with other males. This is true of theists and non theists.Some psychologists offer that this "lack of shared intimacy" explains why the suicide rateamongst the young are disproportionately more male than female.Probably through the process of evolution, males are more territorial, and protective of what they have (to include their shortcomings),that they feel that to offer this to anyonesomehow threatens their "maleness".Of course this isn't true, but remains one of the mysteries of life. Most young men, bondwith other young men by means of shared interests, and sports and so on. When they finally get a girl friend, she becomes the outlet of all this "pent up" emotional baggage that needs to come out. Most young men offerall their hidden secrets to the woman in their life, and sometimes this goes on well into adulthood.Seminarians on the other hand, share an intimacy that the secular do not. They know going into life that there will not be a woman there, and seemingly that liberates them to share on an intimate level with another seminarian. Both are experiencing a comraderie, similar to soldiers who share theirexperience and trauma of wartime. And psychologist tell us that difficult times such as war creates an avenue where men bond due to the fact that their fellow soldier is experiencing the exact same condition as he is.Ironically enough, few war buddies remain closeafter the war, because the circumstances of their lives change dramatically when returning to civilian life. They no longer share the commonality that unfortunately war provides.In the absence of that, and in conjunction with wanting to remove from their minds any reminder of war, those friendships seemingly(but not always) don't last.Christianity forces man to "look inside himself." Jesus asks each of us to become intimate with him, and to humbly realize that we are not the authors of our own lives, nor are we directly in charge of them. This inadvertantly should break down the "ego" and render a more "reality based" appreciation of who we actually are.It's been said, that denial is a wonderful place to be, but every minute spent in denial robs men and women from participating in their "humanity" in a "Full" way. It's shouldn't be a surprise that the Lord said,I am the "TRUTH", the "WAY", and the "LIFE."When we participate in our humanity in full recognition that we are fractured, and in need of help, then human intimacy becomes easier to ask for, and the sharing of those weakness, as well as strengths become the bonds of intimacy, and not a "lessoning of the ego".There are no case studies, nor should there bethat would offer that one faith participated in this more readily than another. All followers of Christ, should on a regular basisbe repentant, confess, and participate in the"fullness of life" which involves recognizingour own weakness, asking for forgiveness, as well as forgiving those of others.Fulton J. Sheen once said, "life is but a journey, where whomever you meet, has a Cross placed on his shoulder, and put there by Life.You can either elect to place your hands on the under side of that cross, or make that cross heavier by placing your hands on the top of it. Pray for me,Bob

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks, Bob. This is obviously an important issue for us guys, and one you've thought long and hard about as a former seminiarian and now the happily married father of 3. Pray for me too.

  • Webster Bull

    To EPG, I received a do-not-publish reply from a guy in my parish, a long list of thoughts in response to your query. But I will publish one of his comments: "I think the men's group at St. Mary's on Saturday mornings is a wonderful thing. A place for men to talk about their faith without sacrificing their masculinity. I think no "program" or anything "the Church does" will change much. The men's group is real, and it's born from a desire, not a program."

  • Anonymous

    Christianity is not a logical system of thought based on the scientifically observable laws of the universe. Christianity is based on "Faith", which is fundamentally a faith in the miraculous and supernatural. Of course, it can be argued that the universal laws and the order they impose on the universe are undeniable evidence for the existence of God (that's Deism, not Christianity). Unfortunately, one of the few social outlets for connecting with other lonely people in the United States is in Catholic/Christian groups. The problem is that you have to profess your belief in all of the illogical and unproven claims of Christianity to gain membership in these groups. It seems that your only other choice is to be a lonely outcast that frequents sports bars for comraderie.

  • Frank

    Yes, there is much to talk about and write about on this subject! Think of the 12 Disciples, that disparate and cocky group of guys, before the Christ was crucified. Some of them dared to ask Our Lord if they could sit at his right hand! Most were still thinking "temporal kingdom"here we come.And there are today many men who don't believe in God at all, not to mention His Son. I would argue how can it be explained that these men(the Apostles) who, once Jesus was arrested, fled and went into hiding, shortly thereafter came out of hiding on on fire for Him?Well, they didn't go to a Robert Bly "how-to-be-a-he-man" meeting sports fans! They saw the Risen Savior and at Pentecost they received the Holy Spirit as promised. Then, these former cowards promptly got busy going "therefore to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit". And all except John gave their last full measure doing so unafraid of death.They junked the "think only of myself" model and exchanged it for the "two greatest commandments" model. "Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself." Say this to yourself as a mantra and I guarantee your decision making matrix will change. Couple this with "Jesus Christ, Holy Son of the Father, have mercy on me, a sinner" (known as the "Jesus Prayer") routinely and you may find that seeing other men as a threat may just disappear from your radar scope. And seeing women as potential "conquests" will too.Much good discussion here!

  • EPG

    Webster, You quoted your friend, in part, as follows: " I think no "program" or anything "the Church does" will change much. The men's group is real, and it's born from a desire, not a program."I agree with this, except I would add that the program flows from the desire, and those congregations which have the desire, will have the program. In fact, one can probably measure the desire by the presence (or absence) of such a program.

  • Webster Bull

    EPG, In our parish, Father Barnes is the only priest (not unusual these days). As such, he is busy and I'm not expecting him to run around creating more programs for me, or anyone else. Nine masses a week, baptisms, weddings, funerals, finances, a parish school–he does enough. So I agree with my friend that we should not wait for what "the Church does," not that it would change much in us men anyway. I launched an initiative earlier this year to create a group of men to support daily Adoration in our church (schedules have to be kept, slots always need filling). The organization and outreach was more than adequate; the response was tepid to cool. Men were "busy," they were "doing enough already." What HAS worked for me and me around me is, starting from desire, to open small "cells" of activity. Ferde did that with the men's group, which has grown to 12-14 on an average Saturday. He and I have effectively done that by going to the monthly Carmelite meeting together, which meeting started from another cell. My "anonymous" friend also wrote: "Most Catholic men are baptized and then wander off into the wilderness, never to be seen again. The attraction to beer, baseball, sex and entertainment is greater than the attraction of the Church." This is the problem, not anything the church does or doesn't do. I have men friends with a desire for Christ, in our parish, in Communion & Liberation, and in other cells. I'm not sure the Church itself can overcome these societal attractions, but by men witnessing to one another about their experience (through this blog, for example) miracles can happen.

  • newguy40

    What an interesting topic for me.I am a revert. Out of the faith for 25+ years.Returned gradually shortly after Christmas last year. I am very happy to say that my wife of 19 years and I will have our marriage validated this Saturday!I was part of a secular, guided by family therapist, men's group for 10+ years. That is not to say it was not spiritual. Just the opposite in fact.What I don't think you folks have covered is the incredible thirst of men for other men's life experience, wisdom and sincere desire to support and be supported in an honest and caring environment.I grew up in the 1960 and 70's. And, believe me, the "strong and silent type" was my mode of life. I came to this men's group not understanding how to be an effective father. Our culture just does not value men's wisdom. Also, families are fractured at worst and an insulated "nuclear" at best.The concept of a Catholic Men's Group is very very special. I am a more than a bit envious.Please continue to report on your men's groups.I believe the more this idea and process get out there and available, the better men of all stripes will be.Cheerio—

  • EPG

    Webster — From my perspective, your parish has a program, even if it's not initiated by the priest. Perhaps especially if it's not initiated by the priest. Because, then it is truly the parish's, not the priests. It would seem to me that, if Vatican II were to have any positive value, it would be to teach the laity that each individual has a responsibility to be a witness to the faith, and to participate in programs that serve that witness. And that repsonsibility may include intitiating and nurturing a program without much more than initial acquiesence, and subsequent benign neglect from the clergy (because in any demonination, the ordained clergy struggle with huge expectations — which no mortal can possibly meet). Maybe the use of the word "program" is throwing us off. It does seem that your parishes men's group has grown organically, and its growth is based on desire (as you put it). But there it is, it does meet regularly, new participants slip in (probably some old ones slip out. It appears to feel a real need that is either not felt, or merely not met, in many other congregations.

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks EPG and newguy40,I have been thinking about your comments since I read them two hours ago. I will continue thinking about them. It would be interesting to see if we could create an online forum, in this space or elsewhere (perhaps one already exists), to discuss these questions in more depth. I wonder if, as with the YIMC Book Club which "meets" on Thursday, we could organize around a question for discussion one day a week. Given a certain anonymity here (at least for most of you, I think my cover is blown!), I think the key would be a willingness to talk about things from a personal perspective, bringing in not dogma or theory or abstract BS but the raw stuff of life. I'm off to see a show in the city with Katie and one of our daughters, but I will continue thinking about this. And reporting on men's group here. And reading your good comments….

  • Rick DeSanctis

    Love the article.. Keep up the great work