An ad for a Catholic men’s conference popped up on my Facebook page, one of those “Your friends X, Y, and Z like this” ads. I read it and thought, “I’d go many miles out of my way to avoid a men’s conference.”
The idea of sitting in an auditorium with men all saying, “Hey, look at us men doing men’s stuff together as men ’cause men gotta do men’s stuff,” just . . . no, couldn’t do it. I’d be thinking disgruntled uncharitable thoughts five minutes before I got to the insanely chipper young man covering the L-S line at the registration table. And the first time someone tried to hug me, well, that ain’t happening.
It’s not being a single-sex event that’s the problem. It’s being a men’s conference that’s about men being men, like the one I saw advertised.
I don’t disagree with all the talk about the challenges men face. Some writers may carry the idea too far, but our society offers no clear guide to what a man does and is. It speaks more clearly about men’s failings and sins than about men’s virtues and calling. Of course some men will feel lost without more guidance, especially if they grew up in a broken family. People sneeringat male insecurity are both uncharitable and unrealistic, and often trying to gain an ideological advantage, and often weirdly dependent on stereotypes.
It is something to be dealt with, but not really through such conferences. Self-conscious masculinity is an un-masculine way to deal with the challenges. Pep talks and rallies don’t make a man feel like a man. At most, I think, they make men feel like they’re feeling like men.
Better, I think, to find out what being a man means through friendship with other men. To do guy stuff not because you want to act like a guy, but because guys do guy stuff without thinking about it when they’re together. To find when doing men’s work with other men — to a great extent unconsciously — what a man does and is.
C. S. Lewis got at this when comparing friendship as a love with eros as a love. “In some ways nothing is less like a Friendship than a love-affair,” he writes in The Four Loves. (The capital “F” is his.) “Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; Friends hardly even about their friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.”
This requires some care in making friends, of course, and in choosing the common interest which leads to standing side by side with your friends. The more virtuous and wiser the friends, the more they will show you about being men. The better and higher the common interest, the more pursuing it with them will show you about being men.
The soon to be sainted John Henry Newman gives us a very good example of this. He was the virtuous and wise friend other men sought out, but he looked for religiously serious men and then carefully cultivated deep friendships with them.
The things they did together were worthy enterprises, beginning with he and his friends’ effort as young Oxford dons not only to teach but (because they were ministers as well as teachers) to form their students. Then came the Oxford Movement Newman helped lead, which tried to recover and invigorate what they thought was the Church of England’s essential Catholicism. A worthy work, one into which good men could throw themselves, if one he came to see was misguided.
You can see something of the effect of friendship in Newman’s final Anglican sermon, preached when he’d decided to enter the Catholic Church. It was a move that would separate him from many friends, such was the feeling about the Church in the world he was leaving.
He ended “The Parting of Friends” with a moving request. It indirectly says something about how a man may help another man be a man. “O my brethren, O kind and affectionate hearts, O loving friends,” he begins,
should you know any one whose lot it has been, by writing or by word of mouth, in some degree to help you thus to act; if he has ever told you what you knew about yourselves, or what you did not know; has read to you your wants or feelings, and comforted you by the very reading; has made you feel that there was a higher life than this daily one, and a brighter world than that you see; or encouraged you, or sobered you, or opened a way to the inquiring, or soothed the perplexed; … remember such a one in time to come, though you hear him not, and pray for him, that in all things he may know God's will, and at all times he may be ready to fulfil it.
Go to the men’s conference if you want. It may be great fun and may help you. I would find it torture, but you may enjoy it. But still go ahead and do things with other guys.
Do things as men, with the doing things being primary. Have a men’s rosary group that gathers men to say the rosary, because the prayer is a good thing to do, not first to be men together. Then hang out with other guys at the pub and argue about football and theology. Start a Bible study or a reading group, and one that wrestles with what the text says and not “what it means to me.” Then hang out at the pub. Go help build something or raise money for a cause.
If you want to make it simple, join the Knights of Columbus. That will have the advantage of joining you (a reader of sites like this one) with men who see things very differently from you and care about other things than you do.
And make sure you invite everyone, because the guys you’re least likely to know may be the ones who need the fellowship most. If they feel the challenge of not knowing what a man does and is, they’re going to find friendship in shared pursuits more helpful than a rally. Drawing in those on the margins is another thing men do as men.
Wesley Hill’s “Why Can’t Men Be Friends?” (unfortunately behind the magazine’s paywall)