Not long ago I went on a weekend Ignation retreat: completely silent and centred around a necessarily abbreviated version of St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises. It was an intense experience, keeping one’s mind fixed on spiritual matters for two-and-a-half days straight is no easy thing for soft, pink, spam-like modern souls such as myself. Nevertheless, it was very rewarding and I’m immensely grateful for it.
In particular, it highlighted something for me. In my experience, it is difficult for modern men to really love Our Lord, or to feel towards Him that intense devotion and attraction that we are told we ought to feel, and which, if we are Christians, know we ought to. We’re apt, then to try to force it by main strength, or to wonder what’s wrong with us that we don’t feel that same love that we find in the Saints.
However common or uncommon, this was certainly a problem I had, but this retreat – albeit building on past reflections I’d made – helped to clarify and correct it. The problem, I think, is less a matter of men being indifferent than a miscalculation on the part of the Church.
To put it in a shockingly a-modern terms, we tend today to present Our Lord in a way that appeals more to women and womanly souls than to men. That is to say, we place a strong emphasis on His gentleness, mercy, and welcoming nature. Likewise, we seem to operate under the idea that it is consciousness of guilt and fear of being judged or treated harshly that keeps people away, and perhaps for some it is. I certainly wouldn’t want us to neglect that aspect (though honestly, I don’t think personal guilt is a prominent feature of the modern American mind. Collective guilt, perhaps, but not personal. But all that’s a topic for another time).
The problem, as I see it, is that this is not really very attractive to men. Men, generally speaking, don’t really want to be coddled and told that it’s all right, that no one’s judging you for what you’ve done wrong, and that you can feel safe here. On the contrary, what men generally want is to be kicked in the pants and told “here’s why you suck and here’s how you can do better.”
Men don’t want comfort and forgiveness and safety, at least, not primarily. They want a cause, something to inspire them and direct their energies; something that is worth not being safe for. Men don’t want ‘welcome;’ we want respect. We don’t just want mercy, we want solutions.
Christ is not only gentle and welcoming and meek, He is also commanding, majestic, and strong; the sort of man who could stare down angry crowds, respond to blows with calm rebukes, push Himself to the last extremity of agony to accomplish His mission, and uncomplainingly take thought for those in His care even in the most supreme torment of body and soul.
He is Our King; King both in His humanity and His divinity. And I think this is the image of Him that the modern world needs most.
Do you remember in The Lord of the Rings (moreso in the book than the films) how Aragorn inspired love and devotion among the men around him due to his commanding, majestic presence? And how Faramir did the same, to a lesser degree, to the point where Beregond’s reward in the end was to enter his service? That is (very deliberately) an image of the kind of feeling we ought to have for Jesus.
This is the image St. Ignatius uses; of two standards raised over the world, one of Christ, one of Satan, each calling men to join in the battle. Only, Jesus calls each personally, and with a true call to glory and honour, as liege lord. Satan calls men en masse, with lies and empty promises, as a politician might.
Again, that’s the sort of image that I think men instinctively respond to; the sublime majesty and courage, the challenge of facing hardships for a good cause.
If we were to really call men to service after the pattern of St. Ignatius, calling them, not only to come and be forgiven and welcome, but to service and sacrifice, to honour and conquest then I think we’d see far more men responding to it. Men today are starving for such a challenge and cause, and here is the most sublime of all possible causes sitting disregarded and unattended.