Men and Orthodoxy - Frederica Mathewes-Green
July 18, 2008 Length: 44:52
Why is Orthodoxy the noted exception when it comes to the declining interest in religion by men? Noted author and speaker Frederica Mathewes-Green tells us in this hard hitting 45 minute talk.
In his book, The Church Impotent, The Feminization of Christianity, author Leon Podles says, “Men think religion, and especially the Church, is for women. Why are women the more devout sex? Modern churches are women’s clubs, with a few male officers. Men still run most churches, but in the pews, women outnumber men in all countries of Western civilization—in Europe, in the Americas, and Australia. The Orthodox, however, seem to have a balance.” Ancient Faith Radio presents a talk by Frederica Mathewes-Green, noted author and speaker, on “Men and Orthodoxy.”
A few months ago I was invited to write something for beliefnet.com. They were exploring the whole question of why Christianity has so many more women than men. Virtually every church is overrun with women parishioners. Even in churches where the leadership is still all male, probably the people who actually do things and make the church happen, are all women, and there are many more women attending than men. So it is a curiosity, people don’t know why that is happening, they don’t know what to do about it.
In 1999 a book came out by one of the editors of Touchstone Magazine. His name is Leon Podles. He wrote a book about the feminization of Christianity, that was the subtitle. The title was, The Church Impotent, and the subtitle was, The Feminization of Christianity. He explored why the Protestant church is lacking in men, why the Catholic church, why the Evangelical church? He, himself is Roman Catholic, but he said the Orthodox Church is the only one that seems to be gender-balanced. The quote is, “The Orthodox are the only Christians who write basso profundo church music, or need to.” (laughter)
So rather than guessing why that is, they asked me to write an essay on why it is the case, and I cranked out a few paragraphs and I thought, I don’t know, why am I trying to fool people? I don’t know what the answer is. Why should this be the case? So I looked through my email address book and there were many, many men there who had been in some other denomination first, and had come into Orthodoxy, so I just sent out a blanket question, saying, what was it about Orthodoxy that drew you toward the church?
So here are some of the responses that I got, and I have kind of grouped them under some headings. The first term, and maybe the most popular word that I heard over and over again, was: Challenging. They liked Orthodoxy because it is challenging. That was the term most commonly cited.
“Orthodoxy is active, and not passive.” A lot of these are just quotes I am going to be giving you. Here is another quote: “It is the only church where you are required to adapt to it, rather than it adapting to you.” Now, a woman would say, why is that attractive? It is something that men get; it appeals to men. “The longer you are in it, the more you realize it demands of you.” Another said, “The sheer physicality of Orthodox worship is part of the appeal, because we have our regular days of fasting from meat and dairy, standing for hours on end, performing prostrations, going without food and water before Communion. When you get to the end, you feel that you have faced down a challenge. Orthodoxy appeals to a man’s desire for self-mastery through discipline.”
Again, I think that is something that really hits a man in the heart. It is something that something in him really craves, that challenge to self-mastery through discipline, and I think it is not something that women get. Most women are not looking for that. They are looking for security, they want to be protected, they want to be safe, they want to be comfortable—because if they are comfortable, the baby is comfortable. So they are looking for a nest. They are usually not looking for challenge, which is why I think we tend to get Orthodoxy a little later than our husbands do.
In Orthodoxy, the theme of spiritual warfare is ubiquitous. Saints, including female saints, are warriors. Warfare requires courage, fortitude and heroism. We are called to be strugglers against sin, to be athletes, as St. Paul says, and the prize is given to the victor. The fact that you must struggle during worship by standing up throughout long services, is itself a challenge that men are willing to take up. A recent convert summed it up this way: “Orthodoxy is serious, it is difficult, it is demanding. It is about mercy, but it is also about overcoming oneself. I am challenged in a deep way, not to feel good about myself, but to become holy. It is rigorous, and in that rigor I find liberation, and you know, so does my wife.”
So again, that is the category, the heading, “Challenging.” The idea that there is liberation in something that is rigorous. It seems to me that when I talk to men about this they nod, as if they are saying, “Yes, that is what I want. That is what being a man is like. It is actually freeing to have limits and constraints and challenges placed over you.” Again, it is something that women, I think, do not naturally get. Often, in female saints, what is praised is their manliness, if you read these ancient troparia and kontakia about them, or the Synaxarion readings: It is with manly courage St. Katherine did this, or St. Perpetua did that. So it is not something that is pandering to the gender-typical desires of women, but that calls even women to be manly.
The second heading is: “Just tell me what you want.” Several people mentioned that they really appreciated having clarity about the content of these challenges, and what they were supposed to do. “Most guys feel a lot more comfortable when they know what is expected of them. Orthodoxy presents a reasonable set of boundaries. It is easier for guys to express themselves in worship if there are guidelines about how it is supposed to work, especially when those guidelines are so simple and down-to-earth that you can just set out and start doing something.
The prayers the Church provides for us, morning prayers, evening prayers, prayers before meals, and so on, give men a way to engage spirituality without feeling put on the spot, or worrying about looking stupid because the do not know what to say.
Again, all those things are kind of revelations to women. You know, “Lord, I just really, just wanna really, ask you to really, just help me stop sayin’ just really all the time.” (laughter) You’ve heard the old Evangelical joke—the just reallys. The kind of loosey-goosey, spontaneous emotional prayer. It fits women, but it was eye-opening to me to read how much men just wanted to know what is being expected of them. And this happens the week before, if not the day before, Valentine’s Day every year: “Tell me what you want, I’m not a mind reader, I can’t guess. I want to make you happy, if I guess it will be the wrong thing, so just tell me what you want.” “If you really loved me you would know what I want without having to ask me.” (laughter)
Terry Mattingly—you might know this columnist who is an Orthodox convert—says that if you give a man a piece of paper and say, make a stop sign, he will draw an 8-sided figure that is red and he will write s-t-o-p on it. If you give a piece of paper to a woman and say, make a stop sign, she will make an 8-sided figure, and she would write in it, “If you really loved me, you would know what this means.” (laughter)
So the gratitude of all these men is that Orthodoxy spells it out and you don’t have to guess, and you don’t have to invent emotions. It’s not all about amateur time, “everybody get emotional about the Lord.” It is that if you go through the motions, it actually works. There is a quote that I’m coming to in a couple of minutes, that “Orthodoxy is going somewhere real, and different,” and I thought, that sums it up so well. It really is taking you somewhere, and it is changing you. We just Chrismated the man who wrote that last Sunday.
Men appreciate learning clear-cut physical actions that are expected to form character and understanding. Here’s a quote: “People begin learning immediately through ritual and symbolism, for example, by making the Sign of the Cross. This regimen of discipline makes one mindful of one’s relation to the Trinity, to the Church, and to everyone he meets.” That was the second of the points: Just tell me what you want, spell it out clearly.
The third: That there is a purpose to all of this. Men also appreciate this challenge has a goal, the goal of union with God. One said that in a previous church, “I didn’t feel I was getting anywhere in my spiritual life, or that there was anywhere to get to. I was already there, right? But something—who knew what?—was missing.
“Isn’t there something I should be doing, Lord?” And for the sake of my audience I kind of define this for this multi-faith website. Orthodoxy preserves and transmits ancient Christian wisdom about how to progress toward this union, which is called theosis. Every sacrament or spiritual exercise is designed to bring the person, body and soul, further into continual awareness of the presence of Christ within, and also within every other human being. As a cloth becomes saturated with dye by osmosis, we are saturated with Theos, with God, by theosis.
A favorite quote comes from the second century bishop, St. Irenaeus, “God became man so that man might become God.” By the way, it is easy to find long-time church members who are unfamiliar with this, and may never have been taught it. A lot of times Protestants challenge me, “I bet I could talk to some Orthodox people who don’t know anything about theosis.” And sad, but true, yes, you can. It is the way of the Church that is not always taught, unfortunately. The main instrument of teaching Orthodox faith has always been the worship, the hymnography, but they might attend church where worship is in a beautiful, but where archaic language is used, and they do not understand what is being said.
These challenges and spiritual disciplines increase self-knowledge and humility, and lead to power over sins that block union with God. A catechumen wrote that he was finding icons helpful in resisting unwanted thoughts. “If you just close your eyes to some visual temptation, there are plenty of stored images to cause problems. But if you surround yourself with icons you have a choice of whether to look at something tempting, or something holy.”
A priest wrote, “Men need a challenge, a goal, perhaps an adventure—in primitive terms, a hunt. Western Christianity has lost the ascetic, that is, the athletic aspect of Christian life. This is the purpose of monasticism, which arose in the East largely as a men’s movement. Women entered monastic life, as well, and our ancient hymns speak of women martyrs as showing manly courage.”
Another quote: “Orthodoxy emphasizes doing. Grace is not just a static concept, as in the old acronym”—and some of you who were previously Protestant will recognize this—“God’s riches at Christ’s expense—GRACE.” Grace is not just a static concept like “God’s riches at Christ’s expense.” Grace is God’s activity in the world and within us, and we are supposed to share in it, we participate in it. The emphasis on action really appeals to a man’s desire for significance. Guys are activity-oriented.
The next point is: A new dimension. One man expressed his “excitement at discovering a dimension I had somehow sensed in previous Christian experience, but had until now been unable to identify—the noetic, the realm of the nous.” The Greek biblical word nous (the adjective is noetic) gets translated as “mind” in English Bibles. But it doesn’t mean what we might think of when we think of mind, the head versus heart, the part of the mind that constructs theories— the active mind, putting out thoughts and layering thoughts and kind of building with building blocks.
Nous is actually a receptive mind. It is the understanding, or the comprehension, rather than the cogitator that is always constructing things. The nous is the aspect of the mind that can understand, and it is designed to perceive the voice of God. That is the purpose of the nous, and that is why, with some frequency in Orthodox writing, you will find they just don’t even translate nous, because if they say mind, you’ll be thinking about the wrong thing. So that’s the nous.
The same guy went on to say, “Noetic reality had become completely distorted in the Christianity that I knew. Either it was subsumed into the harsh rigidity of legalism, or it was confused with emotions and sentimentality, or diluted by religious concepts being used in a vacuous platitudinous way. All three of these—uptight legalism, effusive sentimentality, and vapid, empty talk—are repugnant to men.”
I think that is a very important point, and one I hadn’t thought of before. It’s like going someplace real and different.
There really is a noetic realm, and that you can do something to become clearer in your nous, and to begin to perceive the presence of God, whereas in other churches maybe those terms are kind of tossed around in a way that they are confused with emotions, or uptight legalism, or else it just doesn’t mean anything, it’s just empty words.
He went on:
“The discovery of the ancient Christian concept of the nous means that we can now encounter, really encounter, not just pick up as an emotional infection, the invisible realities that form the genuine substance of the Christian lexicon. It is not just empty talk after all. So, we would toss around the language about being transformed and changed and filled with the Holy Spirit, having the mind of Christ, and we didn’t really mean anything by it. We meant feeling occasionally emotionally moved during worship, or reading the Bible and getting a new insight that you hadn’t had before. Orthodoxy teaches us that there really is something to be moving toward and that we can actually do that.
Challenges well met bring a man closer to something else that attracts him, which is freedom, coming back to that idea of liberation. The quote is: “Even if we have yet to experience complete freedom from the passions, we know that freedom will be Paradise. To have self-control over carnal appetites, to have clarity for noetic insights, to be liberated from the permanence of death, that is the freedom that we crave.”
So the challenges have this practical goal. Participation in the Holy Mysteries, observing the fasts, daily prayers and Confession with a spiritual director mean making progress along a defined path that is going somewhere real and better— a defined path.
The next point, one that should have been obvious from the beginning, is: Jesus Christ. What draws men to Orthodoxy is not just that it is challenging or mysterious. What draws them is the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the center of everything the Church does or says.
When I was writing my book, The Illumined Heart, I sent the chapter about the Jesus Prayer to a friend to read. He said, “You need to make the point”—and in fact I just used his words—“that the point of the Jesus Prayer is not to get real good at saying the Jesus Prayer. The point is to have the mind of Christ. The point is to encounter Christ.”
The Jesus Prayer is just one of the many tools the Church offers us to get there. I think there would be something sickly about our Church if it wasn’t continually putting people through all these good things, to put them face to face with the Lord. That is the purpose, not anything else. He is the center of everything that the Church does or says.
In contrast to some other churches, Orthodoxy offers a robust Jesus, even a robust Virgin Mary for that matter, hailed in one of our hymns as “our captain, queen of war.”
Several of the guys writing used the term “martial” or referred to Orthodoxy as the Marine Corps of Christianity. This was a term that got picked up several times. The warfare is against self-destructive sin and the unseen spiritual powers. It is not about beating up other people who are non-Christians, of course.
One of my writers contrasted this robust quality of Orthodox Christianity with “the feminized pictures of Jesus that I grew up with.” I have never had a male friend who would not have expended serious effort to avoid meeting somebody who looked like that, like those feminized pictures of Jesus—he would have expended serious efforts to get away from somebody like that.”
It reminds me of when I was speaking at a retreat house in Arizona. It was a Roman Catholic retreat house, and there were semi-icons or religious paintings hanging behind me, and I would glance at the big picture behind me and refer to St. Mary Magdalene, because the figure had the flowing hair and was looking upward and kind of had the hands clasped like this, and a yearning expression. It was an extremely sentimental picture. And so I kept saying St. Mary Magdalene as an example, of her courage, that she was a martyr, and kept kind of drawing her into my speech off the cuff, and one time I looked a little bit longer when I looked around, and I saw St. Mary Magdalene had a beard. (laughter). A faint beard, but there was a little thin beard, a little thin mustache and it was Jesus! It was picture of Jesus. But, with a glance, I thought it was a woman, because of the expression, the softness of the skin, the kind of rolling hair.
So, that’s not the kind of Jesus we have, and I’m very grateful for that, and so are these guys. The same guy went on to say, though, that he had been drawn to Christ as a teenager and he sort of didn’t know what to do with that: “I felt ashamed of this attraction, as if it was something a red-blooded American boy shouldn’t take seriously, almost akin to playing with dolls.”
A priest writes, “Christ in Orthodoxy is a militant, butt-kicking Jesus that takes hell captive. Orthodox Jesus came to cast fire on the earth. Males can relate to butt-kicking and fire-casting.” (laughter) In holy baptism we pray for the newly enlisted warriors of Christ, male and female, that they may be kept ever-warriors, invincible.
After several years in Orthodoxy, one of these men found a service of Christmas carols in a Protestant church. He had attended this, and the terms he used were, “It was shocking, even appalling.” Compared to the Orthodox Christian hymns about Christ’s nativity, he said, “The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay has almost nothing to do with the eternal Logos entering, irrevocably, inexorably, silently, yet heroically, into the fabric of created reality.”
I would sing that, that’s a great line. If they put that in a hymn, I would sing that. But you know, I love those hymns and now I know what he means about shocking, almost appalling, meant in the best way, meant out of great tender love for Jesus, but where do you get the tough, fire-casting Jesus?
Continuity, the next point, is also very important to these guys. Many of the intellectually-inclined men who responded to me began by reading Church History.
They say the best way to get somebody to convert to your church is to invite them personally, that 80% of new church memberships are because of a personal one-to-one invitation—not so much the billboards, not so much the advertisements, but friendship evangelism, is what really works.
That was not the case with a number of these men, though. They began by doing research, often on the internet. They would begin by reading Church History, reading the early Christian writers, reading the Fathers of the Church, and find something in there that was increasingly compelling, which was utterly missing when they went to church on Sunday.
I know there are guys in this room that were like that. You started out reading, reading, reading, and thinking, does this exist anymore? Where can I find this? Is anybody still doing this? And if somebody is still doing this, why am I not there? That’s where I need to be.
Eventually they would face the question of which of the two most ancient churches, Roman Catholic or Orthodox, made the most convincing claim of being the original church of the Apostles. One, who became Orthodox, said that what men like is “stability.” Men find that they can trust the Orthodox Church because of the consistent and continuous tradition of faith that is maintained over the centuries.
A convert says, “The Orthodox Church offers what others do not—continuity with the first followers of Christ.” And this is continuity; it is not archaeology. It’s not that we parachute back into the early church, grab something, and jump back into the 21st century. That was some of what I saw happening in my mainline denomination as they would sort of do raids on the early church, and come back with something like the passing of the peace, or that holy kiss that St. Paul talks about: “We can still do that, some people still do, let’s start doing that.” And so they would pick and choose.
If I am talking to non-Orthodox (because I do get invitations such as, “Come talk to our church about icons, talk to us about ancient Christian spirituality, the Jesus Prayer”)—I always say:
You know, you guys, if you want to take only these little bits and pieces, it is beautiful, and it will beautify your church and your faith. It is like this empty room, if you brought in a beautiful vase of flowers, it would smell fragrant and it would be colorful, and it would lift your hearts and it would be wonderful for a while, and those flowers are going to die, because you have cut them off from their roots, and I’m not going to tell you that picking and choosing these things is bad. I think that it would be, at least, in the short term, very lovely for you. But it’s not going to last. If it doesn’t come with the roots, it’s not going to continue living, and it will become one more kind of hobby horse, one more fashion that you pick up, and then another ten years from now icons are going to look old-fashioned and out of style again, and you’ll go off to the next thing. You’ve got to take it in context if you want to really understand the power of it.
So, continuity, not archaeology, is one of the points I like to stress.
Another quote: “What drew me was Christ’s promises to the Church about the gates of hell not prevailing, and the Holy Spirit leading into all truth, and then, seeing in Orthodoxy a unity of faith, worship and doctrine, with continuity throughout history.” Another word for continuity, of course, is tradition, and some Protestants have a lot of fears about tradition. The catechumen wrote me that he had tried to learn everything necessary to interpret scripture correctly, including ancient languages. He had already mastered Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, and Aramaic, and he was just trying to learn all the ancient languages, so that he could interpret the Bible correctly. He was that focused on the Bible. He wrote:
I expected to dig my way down to the foundation and confirm everything that I had been taught. Instead, the further down I went, the weaker everything seemed. I realized that I had only acquired the ability to manipulate the Bible to say pretty much anything I wanted it to. The only alternative to cynicism was tradition. If the Bible was meant to say anything, it was meant to say it within a community, with a tradition to guide the reading. In Orthodoxy, I found what I was looking for.
That’s a very powerful paragraph there, and my editor told me that he was very struck by it, and it circulated among his friends and they were all talking about the whole essay, but in particular, that paragraph.
Continuity is what stands behind those opening challenges and gives them authority, and makes the Orthodox life organic. Once I asked Warren Farha, the manager of Eighth-Day bookstore in Wichita (a wonderful bookstore): “If you were going to summarize Orthodoxy, what would you say?” He said, “organic.” That’s the core of Orthodoxy for him, and the thing that it has that many other churches do not.
Spiritual disciplines that are chosen piecemeal instead, according to the person’s taste, are going to lack resonant authority. If the goal is still union with Christ, they will remain of value, but if such disciplines are valued merely as bait, to attract men toward Christianity, they are vain and empty, patronizing, and may be blasphemous. So I very much warn against people who think, “If we just stick fasting on our regimen and make something tougher we’ll attract men.” That’s just misusing it. One priest ridiculed the artificiality of retreats where men beat drums, scream, and grunt for no apparent reason. There are a lot of things going on in the mainstream Christian world where they are trying to find ways to attract men, and I don’t think all of them are actually going to serve the purpose.
This next one was a point that I hadn’t really thought about. I had heard so many people say, “The first time I went to Orthodox worship, it was so beautiful, I knew that was the church for me.” Most of the men who wrote me said the opposite, so this heading I have is: Worship weirdness.
Men who go from intellectual exploration of Orthodoxy to actually visiting an Orthodox church, can initially be bewildered. Some quotes: “Orthodoxy is too startling to a Protestant who first encounters it. It is amazingly different. The prostrations, the incense, the chanting, the icons—some of these things took getting used to, but they really filled a void in what I had experienced since then.”
Some men initially can’t make heads or tails of what we do in worship, because it is not purely intellectual, and it employs poetic worship language. This is the stumbling block a lot of times, especially with approaching Mary—for example, the wonderful things we say to the Theotokos. There is even a hymn that says, “You alone are our only hope.” You are our only hope. You know, Protestants, the hair just stands up on the back of their necks, they get terrified at that.
What I’ve said is, if you actually stopped one of those Orthodox people and said, “Do you really believe that your only hope of salvation is the Virgin Mary? They would say, “Why do you think I believe that? Where did you get that from?” It’s because it is poetic language. The Western tradition of scholasticism is very precise language that is meant to, whether it can actually do this or not, pin down things exactly. So you would never say something like that. But for us, it is like a child bringing dandelions to mommy, it is just what flows out of your heart. So that poetic language can be initially confusing to them, because they are not used to that kind of worship.
Perseverance does pay: “Orthodoxy is startling at first, but the more I hung around, the more the sense of being home took hold. At first we were bowled over by the high liturgy and its intense reverence, but there was something else going on, too. It is that there is such a strong masculine feeling to Orthodox worship and spirituality.”
Speaking just as a girl, I initially disliked Orthodox worship, because I found that I was used to an approach that stressed being inspired. Inspiration, uplift, encouragement, a little bit of sentimentality, aimed, actually, at me. It was like, “I’m the consumer, just give me what I want. You know, give me the chocolate, nobody gets hurt” (laughter), “Just give me the kind of chocolate-coated worship that I’m after, everything will be fine,” and as I started going to Orthodox worship, it seemed hard to me, it seemed like a brick.
It wasn’t about me for a change, and it really took me a while to get used to that. And now, of course, I love it, but it wasn’t what I, as a “worship consumer” was used to or what I was looking for at the time. I met a woman at Vespers not too long ago. We met at a local church and it was all in Greek, and it was her first visit to an Orthodox church, and she said to me afterward, “I don’t understand a lot of what went on here, but I understood one thing loud and clear, this is so not about me.” So that was a good message to take from that.
One of the guys who wrote me is a lifelong Orthodox priest, and he wrote:
Orthodoxy is full of testosterone. We sing. We yell, ‘Christ is risen!’ We shove even adults under water in baptism. We smear them with oil. Two or three things are always going on at once. Unlike what I saw in a Western church, it doesn’t take a huddle of people several minutes of fussing to light a censor. You light it, and off we go, swinging it with gusto and confidence!
Not sentimental, is the next heading. In his book, The Church Impotent, Leon Podles offers a theory, and, in fact, several of the guys writing to me recommended that book, so I do recommend it to you. He offers a theory about how Western Christianity got to be feminized.
In the 12th and 13th centuries in the West, a particular tender and even erotic, in the sense of romantic, form of devotion arose which invited the individual believer to picture himself or herself as, individually, the bride of Christ, not the Church as a whole as the bride of Christ, but just me and Jesus in this prayer relationship, and this was called bridal mysticism. It was taken up enthusiastically by women all over Europe. It really answered something that they were looking for, it was a very easy sell. Understandably, it had less appeal for guys.
I was speaking at an Evangelical college a few months ago, I was in their chapel, and they were singing some hymns before it was my time to speak. It was two women playing the guitar, and they were talking about loving Jesus so much, and one of the lines was, “I want to sleep on your chest.”
The guys around me would sing along and then they would just stop singing, wait till that line passed, then start singing again. (laughter) “I want to sleep on your chest,”—gosh, it just makes you gag, you know.
There’s a big market for that, but not in Orthodoxy, and men fleeing that kind of spirituality find what they are looking for in the Orthodox Church. This grew very powerful in the West, and I think it is one of the reasons that about the same time bridal mysticism pops up, we also see scholasticism and St. Thomas Aquinas and this very rigidly, rigorously intellectual pursuit of nailing down and spelling out, almost scientifically, facts about God, and argumentation.
In Orthodoxy, we don’t just have conciliarity, we sort of have collaboration, where we all move together in the faith. In the West, you are always wanting to individualize and show you are smarter than the next guy, and you have an original theory nobody every thought of before, and so it’s divide, divide, divide, divide, and they see that as ferment and fruitfulness and energy, but it just looks divisive to me from my current perspective.
In the West, then, you have this split between head and heart; you have the bridal mysticism, and you had the Aristotelian scholasticism, and there sort of wasn’t anything in the middle—that’s what we have preserved in Orthodoxy.
A lifelong Orthodox layman told me that from the outside, Western Christianity looks to him like a love story written by women, for women. The Eastern Church escaped bridal mysticism because it happened after the split between East and West, and we have continued, praise God, to practice a non-dualistic form of Christianity.
The men who wrote to me expressed hearty dislike for what they perceived as a soft, Western Jesus. American Christianity in the last 200 years has been feminized. It presents Jesus as a friend, a lover, someone who “walks with me and talks with me.”
How many recognize that line within the hymn? “He walks with me and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own. And the joy that we share, as we tarry there, none other has ever known.” Number one hit song on the Baptist hit parade, the most popular all-time hymn in the Baptist Church. “In The Garden” is the title. We don’t have that, he was saying. We don’t present Jesus as a friend, a lover, someone who walks with me and talks with me. This is fine, rapturous imagery for women who need a social life, or else it depicts Jesus whipped, dead on the cross. Neither is it the type of Christ the typical male wants much to do with.
During worship, “Men don’t want to pray in the Western fashion with hands clasped, lips pressed together, and a facial expression of forced serenity.” Another description: “It’s guys holding hands with other guys and singing campfire songs, lines about reaching out for His embrace, wanting to touch His face, while being overwhelmed by the power of His love. Those are difficult songs for one man to sing to another man.”
A friend of mine told me the first thing he does when he walks into a church is to look at the curtains. That tells him who is making the decisions in that church, (laughter) and what type of Christian they are trying to attract.
Guys either want to be challenged to fight for a glorious and honorable cause and get filthy dirty in the process, or to loaf in a recliner with plenty of beer, pizza and football, but most churches want us to behave like orderly gentleman, keeping our hands and mouths nice and clean.
One man said that worship at his Pentecostal church had been, “largely an emotional experience: Feelings, tears, repeated rededication of one’s life to Christ, in large, emotional group settings, singing emotional songs, swaying, hands aloft. Even Scripture reading was supposed to produce an emotional experience. I am basically a doer. I want to do things, and not talk about or emote my way through them.”
He said he was helped, before he became Orthodox, by reading Richard Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline, which is now several decades old, but really had an impact on Western Christianity. It introduced to him the idea that there are such things as “spiritual disciplines other than passive Bible reading.”
He said Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, Cheap Grace, was also eye-opening. “As a business person, I knew that nothing in business comes without effort, energy and investment. Why should the spiritual life be any different?”
Another person who visited Catholic churches said, “They were conventional, easy and modern when my wife and I were looking for something traditional, hard, and counter-cultural, something ancient and martial.”
A catechumen wrote that at his non-denominational church,
Worship was shallow, haphazard, cobbled together from whatever was most current. Sometimes we would stand, sometimes we would sit, without much rhyme or reason to it. I got to thinking about how stronger grounding and tradition would help. It infuriated me on my last Ash Wednesday in the Catholic Church that the priest delivered a homily about how the real meaning of Lent is to learn to love ourselves more. It forced me to realize how completely sick I was of bourgeois, feel-good, American Christianity.
The convert priest says that, “Men are drawn to the dangerous element of Orthodoxy, which involves the self-denial of a warrior, the terrifying risk of loving one’s enemies, the unknown frontiers to which a commitment to humility might call us. Lose any one of those dangerous qualities, and we become the Jo-Ann Fabric Store of churches: Nice colors, and a very subdued clientele.”
Men get pretty cynical when they sense someone is attempting to manipulate their emotions, especially when it is in the name of religion. They appreciate the objectivity of Orthodox worship. It is not aimed at prompting religious feelings, but at performing an objective duty. Whether you are in a good mood or bad, whether you are feeling pious, or friendly, or whatever, is beside the point. And then he said, “but yet there is something in Orthodoxy that offers a deep, masculine romance. Do you understand what I mean by that? Most romance in our age is pink, but this is a romance of swords and gallantry.”
This convert appreciates that in Orthodoxy, he says, he is “in communion with King Arthur, who lived, if he lived, before the East/West schism. And in the stories of King Arthur, he carries an icon of the Virgin Mary. It is a sweet book.”
A deacon wrote, “Evangelical churches call men to be passive and nice: think Mr. Rogers. Orthodox churches call men to be courageous and act: think Brave Heart. Men love adventure, and our faith is a great story in which men find a role that gives meaning to their ordinary existence.”
Getting to the next to the last point: Men in balance. And yet, Orthodoxy invites men to something more subtle than, as one said, “the standard stereotypes of masculinity.” The way of spiritual healing is adjusted to the unique needs of each individual human person, rather them forcing them into two sizes fits all alternatives of action hero man and princess woman. It’s an illusion that men and women have “different spiritual needs mandated by gender because each person relates to Christ directly, from the deepest interior person. Those sorts of categories of spirituality specialization are unhelpful except as a marketing tool.”
A priest refers to something much prized among the saints, which was the baptism of tears, a spiritual gift of tranquil, deep repentance and compassion, expressed in joyful and in sometimes continuous tears. This contradicts the Hollywood-style ideas of masculinity. But in a man or woman of prayer, it would be a sign of the Holy Spirit at work in a deep way: “Though it flies in the face of machismo, it does not negate any of the positives of Orthodox masculinity. In fact, these tears cement the relationship with Christ.”
And this man also wrote that at the evening service on Friday before Pascha, when the flowered-decked tomb, the bier of Christ, was carried on procession and surrounded by people singing, “The most masculine of those in our parish are the ones you will find in tears.”
A priest wrote, “There are only two models for men in our culture: Be ‘manly, strong, rude, crude, macho and probably abusive, or be sensitive, kind, repressed, and wimpy.’ But in Orthodoxy masculine is held together with feminine. It’s real and down to earth, neither male nor female, as St. Paul said. The Christ who, the Scripture says, unites things in heaven and things on earth.
Another priest commented that if one spouse is originally more insistent about the family converting to Orthodoxy than the other, as we have observed, it is more often going to be the husband than the wife, and he says, “When both spouses are making confessions, over time they both become deepened, and neither one is as dominant in the spiritual relationship.”
And the last point: Men in leadership. Like it or not, men simply prefer to be led by men. In Orthodoxy, lay women do everything lay men do, including preach, teach, and share the parish council, but behind the iconostasis, around the altar, it is all guys.
When I asked, “What is it that men like most in Orthodoxy?” One respondent offered, “To sum it up—beards. Masculinity.” He said, “It’s the last place in the world men aren’t told they are evil simply for being men. Instead of negativity, they are surrounded constantly by positive role models in the saints, in icons, in the daily round of hymns and stories of saints’ lives, they hear about good men, heroic men, celebrated in our church every time we gather for worship.”
That is another one of the concrete elements that men appreciate, that there are real human beings to look to. It’s not just a theory. It’s not just a virtue you should emulate, but there is a model that you can actually follow. You know what it looks like in action. “The glory of God is man fully alive,” said St. Irenaeus, and one writer added, “The best way to attract a man to the Orthodox Church is to show him an Orthodox man.” That puts a heavy responsibility on the shoulders of you guys here, but as far as I can see, one that you meet very well.
No secondary thing, no matter how good, can supplant first place. And the quote that I ended this article with is, “A dangerous life is not the goal, Christ is the goal. A free spirit is not the goal, Christ is the goal. He is the towering figure of history, around whom all men and women will eventually gather, to whom every knee will bow and whom every tongue will confess.”
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