Common Wisdom: Not for Sissies

The proper study of mankind is man, said Alexander Pope. Even though I have never been an admirer of Pope and his neoclassic rationalism, I nonetheless am attached to his slogan, simply because I rewrite it in my head to say instead, “The proper study of woman is man,” or, as a man might say, “The proper study of man is woman.”

Girls seem to learn by age 13 or so that the proper study of woman is man. Most of us spend the rest of our lives fine-tuning that fascinating study. Thus a woman not only may make some observations about men but also can acknowledge that men deserve better than the criticism they commonly receive from women, who too often give them short shrift. This swift dismissal especially applies to the masculine interior life, which women sometimes flatly write off: men do not have any.

Men, however, have an interior life; the best ones have it in abundance. It is different, though, from the interior life of women. It is both different from women’s interior life and complementary to it.

There is little doubt, furthermore, that men more than women as a rule have baggage to pitch before they can progress to the heights of which they are capable in the spiritual life. This baggage has to do with the natural reluctance of men to look like sissies. Men fear that piety may be unmanly. They fear that it may imply inactivity and passivity. Though they may concede that religion is necessary for bringing up children or for suitably marking the large events of life by way of baptisms, weddings, and funerals, they tend, for propelling the faith from day to day, to count on the stalwart old ladies who pray their rosaries before the Blessed Sacrament.

Yet we see many admirable men who with confidence and ease practice their faith. These are the men who move the world — who lead families and communities, become the most faithful priests, direct the Church, influence the course of history. These men carry the weight of the world; we all depend on them. Why, then, do a large number of men remain embarrassed by religious practice, leaving it to women, and yet other men, strong good men, gladly acknowledge their faith as the sustenance they cannot do without? What is it about the faith that engages some men but not others? Or, rather, what do some men see that others do not?

I especially pondered this question last Lent when I attended an all-night Marian vigil on the Feast of the Annunciation. Because I was at the college campus, I expected to see — and did see — mostly young people in the chapel. What I did not expect was what I also found — that most of the people scattered through the quiet church were young men. The girls seemed to have gone home; the boys remained in the stillness to guard and pay homage to the Son and His Mother.

Three qualities of heart and mind, three qualities highly appropriate to the masculine being, bound these young men, I think, to their post-midnight vigil. Those three qualities so indicative of the masculine are the heroic, the chivalrous, and the protective. Religious faith, I suggest, must link with a man’s heroic, chivalrous, and protective inclinations, or it never can successfully penetrate a man’s soul. The post-Vatican II Church in this country and in Europe, in its zeal for intimacy and feeling, for the emotive, has not fostered that link; it unfortunately has undermined it.

A man’s inclination to the heroic, though it allows and even encourages proper emotion, repels mawkishness and false or misplaced tenderness as puerile and unworthy of a dignified man. It urges him instead toward bravery, stout-heartedness, and largeness of vision. The valor of the Homeric hero still holds: bravery, now as in antiquity, is strength of mind and spirit that provides firmness in the face of any kind of danger. The hero stands fast and does not give up. Though the modern hero may not have the nearly divine physical strength of the Greek hero, he most certainly has the mental courage to defend the religious and moral faith of his fathers and the ordered polis that springs forth from that faith.

Not every man is a hero, but nearly every man would like to be. Strength of mind, heart, and body is a masculine ideal ever as much as in antiquity. The would-be hero today, however, does not often receive an intellectual and spiritual formation that would define for him what a hero is. The young man of modernity, consequently, has much trouble recognizing what he must defend in order to be a hero. He might like to stand fast — but for what? No one has shown him what is necessary to defend, and so if he sees it, he cannot recognize it. He nevertheless can usually recognize a vacuum. The vacuum of a faith grown flabby, childish, or sentimental holds no interest. He abandons it.

Second to a man’s desire for heroism comes his yearning to be chivalrous. Chivalry, a combination of valor with generosity, courtesy, honor, and service, flowered in medieval Christianity. The Judœo-Christian vision, with its new understanding of the preciousness of life, even in women and children, made chivalry possible. Devotion to Mary in particular grew out of a chivalric impulse. Such a saint as Ignatius of Loyola, when he laid his sword on Mary’s altar and gave himself to her service, was above all a knight abiding by the code of chivalry. The strongest priests, I have noticed, have great devotion to Mary, the lady whom they serve with courtly love.

Doing great deeds, accomplishing large tasks in the service of a woman he loves, a child he loves, a God he loves, appeals to a man’s dream of soaring beyond himself for a purpose that surpasses himself. In contrast, a woman’s spiritual center is close to her, manifested most of all in the flowering of life for which she makes herself the vessel. A woman rests, receives, and becomes the instrument for an efflorescence of being. Her spiritual maturation is always related to life-bearing, actualized or not, and to all the nurturing that flows from being a life-bearer. Thus a woman, active as she may be, and active as she must be as a co-participant with a man, is ultimately most herself as a receptor who accepts and cares for life. She is a natural contemplative, as when, for example, she is nursing her baby; what she is, a life-giver and nurturer, exactly coincides with what she does. Being and doing come together right where she is at that moment. There is her spiritual center.

A man, on the other hand, cannot find his manliness without pushing beyond himself. He finds his being in doing. He rests and contemplates, to be sure. But then he must act; his spiritual life spills over into action. When advanced, his life can become contemplation in action. In any case, in order for his action to have meaning for him, he needs to put it in service to someone he loves. To be happy he needs to be chivalrous. Action — work, intellectual or physical — for no cause beyond itself drives a man insane. A man must see the nobility of his work, and he finds that nobility in the service of chivalry.

In our technological, technocratic age, a man desperately needs the code of chivalry, else his action may become the motions of an automaton. He simply must see his work as serving those he loves. A woman sometimes has trouble understanding and sympathizing with a man in his work. I think she need not know all the complexities of his work; yet if she fails to realize how essential for his manhood is a man’s work, and that he is most himself in honorable work and action, then she hinders his spiritual growth. She must also understand that his action needs an anchor in being, and thus she is the being in the place that he comes home to.

Finally, in addition to his hope of being heroic and chivalrous, a man wants to be protective. The soldierly attitude of the defender is not a sign of macho showing off. It is rather a sign of normality in a man. To defend the innocent, to protect women and children, old people and sick people, is still a man’s job, as it has been since Adam. To defend the faith is a man’s job, as well, a defense for which over the centuries heroic men have given their lives and for which they are still called to give their. lives.

The manly inclination to protect those in need of care reaches its zenith in the vocation of father. Like a mother, a father is a caretaker — but in a different way from a woman. Though a man is fully able to hold and hug a child, change diapers, fix peanut butter sandwiches, kiss scraped knees, and carry out all the myriad duties of child-rearing, his main task, no matter how much he plunges into such duties, is more far-reaching. His primary mission of caretaking is to teach his children how a man of honor and integrity and faith acts in the world. In his provision for them he teaches them what they ought to take seriously in life. In his providing a safe place for them, a circle within which people can be trusted, he shows them what they must do one day to protect their own families and church and community. If a mother helps children master the art of living with other people, especially in a family, a father leads them to see how they must care for the world they have inherited, what they must do to preserve the family, the Church, and the city. A father shows his children what the world is like while at the same time keeping them safe from it. In sum, he prepares the way so that his children can one day take their own places in the world.

In his highest form of caretaking and provision, a father leads his family to the Lord. All of his fatherly providing and preparation aim ultimately at that goal. So essential is the father’s preparation of the way of the Lord that my husband reflects that men often die before their wives so that they may go to prepare a place for the rest of the family.

The desire to be a hero, to be a knight, to be a father are the basis for a man’s encouragement and progress in the spiritual life. If the Church in the modern world plays to the effete, the therapeutic, the syrupy; if it forces intimacy among those who are not meant to be intimate; if it substitutes emotivism for the genuine Passion of the Eucharist, then men will abandon it. But if the Church remains what she is, then heroic, chivalrous, fatherly men, like the young men at the Marian vigil, will defend her to the death. The faith of the Church requires defense. The faith of the Church is not for sissies, but for men.


  • Anne Husted Burleigh

    Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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