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Take the Black: Christic masculinity and fatherhood for young men
The apostles once asked Christ, “What’s our prayer?” As if to say, what is the manifesto for our mystery school? What act of attention and intention unites us? Christ gave us the ‘Our Father’ prayer, so that each time we pray it across the ages, we resonate like a tuning fork with the very first time his lips breathed it.
What follows here is a talk shared with the Heroic Men Summit in 2022, called ‘The Identity of the Catholic Man.’
They invited me to share my insights on this. I’ve chosen to deconstruct these three words – identity, Catholic, and man – and reconstruct them in a way that shares what I feel, how I think, and what I’m aiming at in my own masculinity.
So first, Is there anything that makes Catholic men different to other men? That gives us a unique identity?
I have grappled with this for a long time. I’m beginning to have an answer. In the last few years I founded several communities that put me in contact with plenty of people. SmartCatholics, LegendFiction, and RebelDreams are the latest. I love my faith, and I love stories, because stories reveal us to ourselves and each other.
I don’t know if I can encourage you with my life how to be a ‘heroic man’, or even a good example of the identity of a Catholic Man. So I’m going to point to my favorite stores, to examples that inspire me. Maybe they’ll inspire you too.
Here is what I see: a Catholic man is not found in more confessions and Communions that the next person. It’s not in doing more ‘Catholicking’ than another. We’ve seen people who do that, and its a kind of LARPing. It’s too much about me.
Our Catholic Identity does come from Christ. And he doesn’t show up in words first. He shows up in doing.
Serving, taking charge, and making a difference. These are what Christ reveals about his Father, God. He models it for us. This is the deep genius of masculinity that we all grow into: the role of father.
Because I’m a young dad, I’ve recently discovered the difference between what a father is, and what a father does. Any one can father kids. Few can father a family. It’s a larger and simpler idea. Once you ‘get’ it, you might just love it. Because you’ll understand yourself as a man, and the specific genius that men bring to the world.
How does one define a father? I pick three words: a warrior, a monk, and a leader.
The best example I could think of is Jon Snow taking the black from Game of Thrones. If you haven’t seen it, there’s a moment in the series where a group of men self-exile themselves to the final frontier of civilization, all the way to the edge of the world.
They stand guard forever over the realms of men. They take an oath that no matter what comes at them, and no matter what is happening behind them, they will stand their ground and hold the line. They are crude, rough, heroic men. In this story, they don’t even remember what it is they watch against, but traditions and liturgies and some personal experience shows them that things can get very bad, very fast, when they abandon their post. They take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
Here is the oath they take. I’m going to tweak it for Christian men.
Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I pledge to love my wife, tend my responsibilities, and be a father to all children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.”
I get chills when I hear this.
It is everything a man must be. Everything a father must be. There’s heroism there. Self sacrifice. There’s no ego, no backing out. There’s a massive mission that calls for your whole life. And it demands you see the world in a new way.
I like to think that priests don’t wear black. They take the black. And I believe every man does that too. In our own way, according to the kind of man that we are. Heroism does not come with muscles and a single flavor. We do not need monocrop men. We need not crowds. We need you.
When I was young, before I was married, I thought I was cool for always talking about chivalry, arguing for Catholic culture like a crusader, sharing strong opinions, and avoiding my doubts. Doubts were weakness.
I didn’t realize how passive I was, not making good decisions. I was angry and disappointed with the men in my life. I lashed out at my loved ones. I was sensitive, and defensive. I needed examples of good manhood.
I told myself I was a good person because I didn’t do bad stuff. That’s not being good. That’s weak. Not doing bad stuff doesn’t make you good. Doing good, doing hard good, makes you a heroic man.
Some of us don’t have good father figures. Some have lost them, or don’t trust them any more. We have wounds. All of us. Wounds from the enemy, from friendly fire, from our parents and guardians, some self-inflicted. The question every man must answer: what will you do with your wounds?
As Christians, we are given a bloody and heart-breaking example in the life of Christ. He takes his love for his friends and humanity all the way through the cross.
And while Christ is our model, we have usually heard the stories so many times they don’t strike us as they used to. That’s when other stories can give us examples of heroism.
With some examples, let’s talk about what is identity, what is Catholic, and what is a man?
What is identity?
Your life is an adventure to discover your identity. Your identity is something you create, and change, like clothes or armor, trying to see which fits you best. Your identity is your idea entity. But if you and I create it, we have to also be ready to let it go. The Apocalypse of St John states that God reveals our true identity to us once we finish running the race, and presents us with a white stone, a stone that bears our true name.
That idea comes from ancient Greece, where Olympians would win races, or Roman gladiators, and gain a white gem of victory. The white gem also had meaning to the Hebrews, since it was a gem in the breastplate of the High Priest, a stone that stood for the name of God.
Which means his identity is our identity. We are called to be like him.
But life is a mess, and so are we. St Paul talks about a war in his body that we have to train and master and understand. Billy Graham invented a story about two wolves within, a dark wolf of evil, and a light wolf of good. The one you feed is the one that wins.
That’s not a very good example. Because if you ignore and starve parts of your identity, because you don’t understand it or can’t deal with it, it gets larger and darker and a bigger problem. That’s our shadow. A better story is that we are made up of two men, a weak man who doesn’t really want to honor God and his community, and another who does. This is the story of Cain and Abel. Why are our lives chaotic sometimes and everything going wrong inside? Because we are siding with Cain, and allowing our darkness to overpower, ‘kill,’ our heroic side. But siding with the heroic side integrates your whole self, all the parts you and I fear, and all the parts God created. He said we are very good.
In stories, look at Aragorn: he refuses his calling for decades, because he’s afraid. Afraid that he will fail, like his ancestors who failed catastrophically. But once he accepts his role, his identity, takes the black, he takes on the role of a father who fights foe his people.
Ironman, Tony Stark, begins as a lovable narcissist, but he is pulled towards heroism. He uses his genius to answer the call and save lives. His sacrifice at the end of Infinity War is the moving self sacrifice of a father, giving his life for his family and his friends. In following the call to serve and save, he gains a new identity. A hero.
One of my favorite movies is the Last Samurai, where a war veteran drinks himself blind because of his guilt and his wounds. He finds himself captured by the enemy, and discovers a new mission, and a new identity that he loves, an identity of service, honor, and sacrifice.
All these men sacrificed, but they all loved who they are. They loved how life and responsibility changed them, and their acceptance of risk and resilience taught them to be men. All three have children, women, and other men in their lives, and all three learned how to serve, support, and save them.
We love them because they know who they are – not at first, but at the end. They discovered their true identity. To not just be a father, but to father. To do what fathering means.
What is Catholic?
Catholics, or Christians in general, are called to follow a specific lord commander – Christ himself.
Most examples of fatherhood in our world and families is like Zeus, distant, demanding, hard, uncaring. Jesus washes our feet, and binds our wounds, cooks fish for his friends, and calms storms. We have religious brothers and sisters who take the black in a visual way, and bring us into communion with Christ in service and sacraments.
But we, normal young men and fathers, bring our world into contact with Christ through ourselves. Through living, business, showing up, saving the wounded, serving the fallen. We are the normal frontier of our faith to the world. Not the priests, or nuns. You and me.
The examples of healthy, heroic masculinity has many faces. They’re not all Navy Seals and saints in stained glass. They’re very real, very human.
Think about the fantastic masculinity of Newt Scamander, from Fantastic Beasts. He’s tender, quiet, introverted, and heroic. His reverence is for the poor and the suffering, and for his life, it is the ignored and undeserved magical animals. He brings the safety of a father to his world and his friends. Like Christ tending the poor and suffering.
In ‘No Time to Die,’ or ‘Train to Busan,’ the main heroes are men who would prefer to be on mission, and successful in business. But they allow the presence of a child, or the love of their wives, to change them from the inside out. They understand that their quests must end in a heroic answer. They act like a good father: a good father learns to make little sacrifices, to die to self, for the good of his charges. They grow their hearts. Like Christ at Calvary.
A third favorite example is Jethro from Prince of Egypt. He is a huge, cheery, bear of a man. He makes his tribe feel safe and protected. He is open and patient, cheery and welcoming. He doesn’t obsess over the flaws and details of lives, but challenges you to look at your life through Heavens eyes. He leads the dance, and creates a haven where others can thrive. Like Christ at Cana.
The cross is our symbol. I teach my child to think Heavens to Earth, friend to friend. the vertical line of all creation, and my responsibility of my friends on either side of me. and that center point is me. I am called to hold it all there. So what is at the juncture? A heart cowed from pain and fear, or bold and ready to share life, defend the weak and the hurt, push back against the pain and savagery of the world and say, you move.
What is man?
We all grate at the caricatures of men as strong, silent, and emotionless. A man has many sides, some of them are strong, some are sensitive. Some are brash and some are quiet. Some are Olympians and boxers. Some are better bakers or nurses. Some are brilliant and self-controlled CEOs. Some silent heroes with incredible empathy. All of it is needed.
But deep down, I believe we all need a cause to fight for. Because we do battle with ourselves every single day. Our inner Cain and Abel does not rest, and Cain is usually bulkier. Without a beautiful dream, to right the unrightable wrongs, we don’t do anything with our lives.
We are all called to father. Some to be a father. But all must father, meaning: we bring stability, order, care and confidence to others. We help bring order out of chaos, calm in storms, and decisions when things get stuck. These are basic ‘rules of manhood’ we all must learn. Our bodies usually are shaped for resilience and action. But that also means are embraces are bigger.
Even young men need something to fight for, to protect. Single men aren’t let off the hook. Find a battle. Find out what kind of monster you are, tame it, train that beast.
Take on a task that grows you. Join a team that makes you better.
What is the role of men?
King Arthur and Robin Hood are my favorite examples of mythic men. Arthur brings together a people, and he’s not even the best warrior. He leads by inspiration, and builds a Camelot. In First Knight, Lancelot is selfish and repressed. A surprising love for Gwenevere beings him to Camelot, where Arthur becomes the father figure who lovingly breaks into his heart, and calls him to heroism.
Robin Hood only accepts members to his band if they can defeat him in combat. That way he knows everyone is there because they believe him, not because they fear him.
Shia LaBeouf hung out with Jon Bernthal for an incredible, raw, and real discussion about addiction, ego, and manhood. He was asked what masculinity means for him. He answered “a stable mountain.” It brings definition to a landscape, supports what happens on it, creates shelter and comfort.
We need these kinds of men. Whether you’re packed with energy or a silent kind, that image of a mountain is powerful. Can your friends and family trust you? Are you there for your community? Are you stable, no matter the weather?
Men step in and step up and take responsibility. No one needs to ask us to. We show up, shore up, take up a cross, and start carrying.
We make the world better one day, one conversation at a time. We are there for every friend, building brotherhood. Making business better, making streets safer, making parishes stronger, making our families freer.
Men build arks.
When the world is falling apart, we hold it together. When our world, our our loved one’s world, like our wife or our child, is collapsing, we hold them. We can’t always fix it. But we can be there, and we can carry them. We build arks to create a space of freedom and safety for our family, our tribe.
We men love what we are responsible for. But we have to be free to be responsible, otherwise it’s a job.
Every young man, husband, and father today: you may not wear the black like a priest, but you will take the black. You must be able to wear the armor of a soldier and the robes of a monk in our heart, and be both. Each day will be your proving ground, your training arena, to grind away the edges of ego and anger. To catch yourself in the corner of your eye. To be moved by who and what we love, not by what we hate.
As Catholics, we are gifted a confidence to regularly ask for Christ, who’s ready and waiting inside you in every minute, to well up and move you.
We men already have this in us. we don’t have to go get it. it’s there, an unlit bonfire. we need to unlearn the silly messages and the needy self ideas to come home to ourselves, to Christ in our inner sanctum, to pray and persist and pick up our cross for one more day.
Some men may not find a community, or a father figure. So ask, and you shall receive. Knock. and you find. You can’t outsource this stuff. You’ve been shown the plan and the results, now you do something. When the student is ready, the teacher appears. Ask, knock, pray. Then look at your day and think what’s 1 thing you could do better?
Start with cleaning your room. I love this advice from Jordan Petersen. No one will give you more trust if you haven’t mastered your own room.
Make a decision. Get used to making decisions. Don’t wait, don’t be perfect , don’t be an insensitive jackass. Evaluate if this is a good time to suggest a plan. If no one is acting, take charge. Find your inner hero. This will teach you the beginning of a power men must weild; the power to tame your inner monster.
Pray to Christ and Mary for help to see. And you must pray every day, asking the Father of Lights to send you gifts.
And while you’re waiting, find a project or a problem in your home, or your community, and volunteer. Fix it. Show up. Help your friend. Don’t push or impose – it’s not about being noticed. It’s building resilience so that someday, when you need 20 seconds of insane courage, just 20 seconds that will change your life, or someone’s world, you’re ready.
The identity of a Catholic man is a cross bearer, who shows up quietly, and serves. Just like Christ.
Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. (I pledge to love wife, tend my responsibilities, and be a father to all children.) I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.”
Who are your favorite examples of men in stories and movies, and why?
Wwhat is a moment when you felt really alive and happy to be yourself? Does that tell you anything about the kind of man you want to be?