The spiritual lives of men are, for many, concealed, repressed or forgotten. In an exclusive extract from his new book, Matthew Fox argues that men can rediscover their true selves
by embracing the role of noble warrior.
Matthew Fox | October 2008 issue
I know of a renowned scientist who has a large sweat lodge in his backyard where he and his wife do regular sweats led by Native Americans. They even know the ancient songs in the Lakota language. But no one at the university where he works is aware of his spiritual practise. It’s hidden from them. His is one of the best-kept secrets of our culture: Many men are profoundly spiritual and care deeply about their spiritual lives.
What’s no secret is that men today are in trouble. And these troubles affect everyone. The warring of our species continues, from Iraq to Sri Lanka, from Lebanon to Somalia; the U.S. government sells more weaponry worldwide than even entertainment. Meanwhile, global warming is a global warning: a warning that we’re not doing well as a species and as a planet. One out of four mammal species is dying out.
In fact, young men are also disappearing. In Baltimore, Maryland, in the shadow of America’s capital, 76 percent of young black men aren’t graduating from high school. It’s no secret that failed education frequently leads to incarceration, and as a result, more young black men are in prison than in college in the U.S. For many inner-city youth, it’s cooler and more manly to go to jail than to get a degree.
For years I’ve been writing as a male feminist—indeed that was the No. 1 objection to my theology voiced by the chief inquisitor general of our day, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), when he expelled me from the Dominican Order, saying I was a “feminist theologian.” But what I’m saying now is in no way a denial of my previous work; rather it’s a logical extension of it. Women have been recovering their stories and their archetypes. Where are the men in the awakening our species needs so badly? Where is the healthy masculine in men and in women?
Our culture has latched onto images of God as male and then defined for us what male means. Male means winning (being No. 1 in sports, business, politics, academia), going to war (“kill or be killed”), being rational, not emotional (“boys don’t cry”) and embracing homophobia (fear of male affection). Male means domination, lording over others—whether nature, one’s own body, women or others.
Thomas Berry, a Catholic priest of the Passionist Order and an eco-theologian, talks about the need for “The Great Work.” What is this Great Work? It’s “the task of moving modern industrial civilization from its present devastating influence on the Earth to a more benign mode of presence.” Such a great work will require great spirits, real warriors, and it will require steering our moral outrage and our powers of competition in more positive directions.
The Great Work is “not a role that we have chosen. It is a role given to us, beyond any consultation with ourselves. … We are, as it were, thrown into existence with a challenge and a role that is beyond any personal choice. The nobility of our lives, however, depends upon the manner in which we come to understand and fulfill our assigned role.” Noble warriors are called for. The archetype of the spiritual warrior helps to answer in a constructive way some important issues: What to do with male aggression and competition? How to steer both in healthy directions?
Aggression is in all of us. Whether you’re athlete or preacher, businessperson or taxi driver, aggression will emerge. It’s easy to identify the negative ways it expresses itself: as war, as conquest (whether in business or sex), as passivity (aggression turned against oneself: “I can’t do that…”), as selfish competition (“I can’t win unless you lose”) and more. But what are the healthy ways to engage it? How to turn aggression into nobility, to use Berry’s term?
To me, the key is understanding the distinction between a warrior and a soldier. A Vietnam veteran who volunteered to go to war at 17 described this eloquently: “When I was in the army, I was a soldier. I was a puppet doing whatever anybody told me to do, even if it meant going against what my heart told me was right. I didn’t know nothing about being a warrior until I hit the streets and marched alongside my brothers for something I really believed in. When I found something I believed in, a higher power found me.” He quit being a soldier and became a warrior when he followed his soul’s orders, not his officer’s; in his case, this meant protesting war and going to jail for it. The late Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa talks about the “sad and tender heart of the warrior.” The warrior is in touch with his heart—the joy, the sadness, the expansiveness of it.
However, not everyone understands this distinction. I believe the confusion of soldier and warrior feeds militarism and the reptilian brain. It’s also an expression of homophobia, since I suspect heterosexism is behind much of the continued ignorance and fear of the real meaning of warriorhood. The warrior, unlike the soldier, is a lover. The warrior is so much in touch with his heart that he can give it to the world. The warrior loves not only his nearest kin and mate but also the world and God. The warrior relates to God as a lover.
How different is this from right-wing depictions of God as judge and not lover? This view of God leads to the distortions of masculinity. The confusion of warrior and soldier feeds unhealthy relationships, with God, self and society. It feeds empire-building, and the builders of empire would like nothing more than to enlist young men who believe soldiering equals warriorhood. We can’t afford this ignorance any longer. Nothing could be further from the truth.
If the warrior is different from the soldier, there must be distinct ways by which the warrior develops his or her strength. If the warrior is the mystic in action, then let’s try the following four steps on for size. They derive from the mystical/prophetic or mystical/warrior journey in the creation spirituality tradition.
- The Via Positiva. This is the way of celebrating life, of seeing the world with its beauty and goodness, its grace and generosity—and being open to seeing more. This is the way of reverence, respect and gratitude. It’s the way of original blessing, whereby we live out the truth that the universe and life itself, for all the struggle and pain they dispense, have birthed us as individuals and communities with what we need for happiness and for sharing joy.
- The Via Negativa. The Via Negativa goes into the darkness, the wounds, the pain and silence and solitude of existence to find what we have to learn there. It’s a way of letting go and letting be, of emptying and being emptied, of moving beyond judgment and beyond control, and learning to breathe, to sit, to be still, to dwell in silence, to taste nothingness without flinching and, ultimately, to focus. It’s the way of grieving. Without grief we can’t move on to the next stage, one of giving birth. The ancient German theologian, Meister Eckhart von Hochheim, calls the process of letting go “eternal.” The warrior faces death and, because he or she has, loves life more passionately.
- The Via Creativa. Having fallen in love with life often (Via Positiva) and having been emptied and learned to let go and let be numerous times (Via Negativa), the spiritual warrior is ready to give birth. Creativity is the weapon, the sword, of the spiritual warrior—who is mother as well as father, and who digs deep into a wellspring of wildness that provides the energy for new life, connections, images and moral imagination by which to change things in a deep, not superficial, way. The true warrior is a co-creator, a worker with Spirit, a worker for Spirit. The warrior’s hands are the hands of Spirit at work; the warrior’s mind is seized by Spirit precisely in the work of creativity. As 13th century Catholic philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas put it, “The same Spirit that hovered over the waters at the beginning of creation hovers over the mind of the artist at work.” Every warrior is an artist at work for the people that they might live.
- The Via Transformativa. Claims to artistry and to creativity and to co-creation need to be tested. The Spirit requires discernment and evaluation. The primary test for claims of spirit work is that of justice and compassion. Does the work I’m doing pass the justice test? Does it fill gaps between haves and have-nots or make the chasm deeper? Does it contribute to healing and empowerment of the powerless or re-establish the privileges of the few at the expense of the many?
The prophets always speak on behalf of justice; they’re attuned to injustice, which they feel like a kick in the gut. Injustice arouses the passion of anger and the prophet/warrior is in touch with his or her anger and passions. But instead of just responding in a reptilian brain action-reaction mode, the prophet uses the anger as fuel to fire effective and creative ways to enact justice and healing. And the authentic warrior remains humble, or close to the Earth (humus, from which “humility” is derived, means “Earth” in Latin), and aware that he or she is only an instrument of the work of Spirit. Not a messiah. A prophet is a weak and needy human being like everyone else, fully capable of evil and mistakes. And needy also for the Via Positiva to be a regular part of one’s spiritual practise, a need for filling up and refreshing in the cool waters of peace and joy that life’s small moments can bring. Nevertheless, in all of this the warrior/prophet remains fierce for justice and compassion to happen.
We can see that the warrior not only undergoes these four stages in ever-deepening ways but becomes them. Look and see. Look at the warrior in yourself as you practise these ways and become them.
Often, to be a warrior, we must let go of our privileged status in life, no matter how hard won. Putting aside the cloaks of accomplishment, one goes into darkness alone and vulnerable. Nothing guarantees that at the other end one will emerge as the same person or fit to play the same roles in society ever again. Friends and relationships, achievements and titles, salaries and retirement plans may all be left aside.
The warrior knows about death, doesn’t deny mortality but carries it like a shield, a guard by which to defend self and others. Knowing our mortality urges us to live fully and defend what’s beautiful now, not tomorrow. The warrior doesn’t wait to live, doesn’t put off living and loving and defending and creating for another day.
Having learned to let go, the warrior doesn’t harbour resentments or become motivated by revenge to chase after others. Forgiveness, another word for letting go, is learned drip by drip, day by day, not as an act of altruism but as a necessary cleansing of the past, so we can live and function effectively in the now. The soul doesn’t grow into its potential fullness when it harbours past hurt and turns it over and over. That’s the way to grow bitterness, not soul. The warrior is committed to growing the heart and soul, not to freezing it in the puny size it was yesterday or in years past.
The warrior also becomes the artist and creative being, expressing the creativity and aesthetic bias for beauty that the universe demands in all of its actions. The warrior bears ongoing evolution on his or her back, becoming an instrument for evolution, an agent for change and transformation, for the creativity and healing that bring about that evolution. Evolution isn’t accomplished at the expense of the past but brings the past along, folds it into the new forms, the struggling new seeds of plants or beings, ideas or movements, structures or languages that are yearning to be born.
The warrior serves. This service isn’t coerced, as with a slave, but offered. Service is love of strangers. The warrior finds ways to love the stranger. The warrior gives and gives generously. And he gives to himself as well as to the greater community the gifts of love of life (Via Positiva), of stillness and letting go (Via Negativa), of creativity (Via Creativa) and of justice and compassion (Via Transformativa).
The spiritual warrior uses anger and aggression, containing it at the same time. Anger becomes moral outrage within his heart, fueling actions. However, these actions aren’t violent, aggressive or deadly. The spiritual warrior seeks to change others and so his decision-making is rational and compassionate, in service of results, not just a discharge for personal anger.
We men have been allowing others, including corporations, the media and politicians, to define our manhood for long enough. It’s time for us to take our manhood back. And we must do this before it’s too late—before excessive yang energy (which is fire) literally burns the Earth up. The history of the distorted masculine goes back thousands of years to around 4500 BCE with the overthrow of matriarchy and the triumph of patriarchy. This led to what Riane Eisler, University of California in Los Angeles professor and president of the Center for Partnership Studies, calls “the dominator trance,” which reveals itself in empire-building and witch-burning, in inquisitions and crusades, in banishing the goddess and Divine Feminine, in making a scapegoat of pleasure and sexuality and in a modern philosophy that promised to “torture Mother Earth for her secrets,” to quote Francis Bacon. The male soul has been profoundly wounded by this history—as has the female soul. Today, the stakes for finding a Sacred Marriage of the Divine Feminine and the Sacred Masculine have never been higher. Our survival hangs in the balance.
When a healthy masculinity returns, both men and women will rejoice. So too will animals, plants and generations not yet born. We’ll not only be lovers but also the beloved. We’ll rediscover friendship and the value of alliances over hostilities. Beauty will return. The Goddess will return. We’ll find God within ourselves and within creation. Life will become a celebration more than an unending struggle.
Ultimately, men aren’t “problems to be solved,” but deep, impenetrable mysteries. Each one of us carries many stories, many ancestors and many archetypes in often-hidden places. We’re diverse. There’s no single “man problem.” Our unique DNA assures us that each of us came through this long, 14-billion-year journey with our own tales to tell and work to do. We’re wondrous and surprising and full of creativity. And we’re evolving still. We’re green and blue, warrior and hunter, father and son, husband and lover, spiritual and sensual, free and bound. That’s the adventure of it.
Time isn’t on our side. But our ancestors are. They and creation itself are cheering for us to make the right decision. To be real men to ourselves and generations to come.
It’s time for men to grow up spiritually. As a species, we can no longer be stuck in our adolescence. We need to explore ancient wisdom and deep teachings about the spiritual life of men, and how we touch it and how it touches us. If it’s true that the spiritual life of men is, for many, hidden or concealed, buried or covered up, repressed or forgotten, secret even from ourselves, then great things might follow if we dare to unbury and open up, reveal and unveil, uncover and herald, and speak out loud.
Matthew Fox is an Episcopal priest, theologian and author of numerous books on creation spirituality. This article is excerpted from The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors to Awaken the Sacred Masculine, published in October by New World Library.