by Peter Blood
Exploring the Beatitudes as Christ’s description for us of a radically different model of masculinity than the one offered in our culture – and as a pathway to inward healing for men today.
It is almost a cliché today to say that men in our society have a strong tendency to be “blocked” in a number of characteristic ways – from forming close relationships, from feeling their feelings, from hearing their inner voices. These blocks cause havoc in our marriages. They probably contribute to the grim fact that our mortality rates continue to exceed women’s by a substantial margin. These blocks also represent a major barrier to our capacity to get close to God.
We have few healthy role models for men in this culture. Jesus cuts through this bleak picture by offering us a radically different vision of masculinity and male spirituality. He offers this through the example of his own life recorded in the Gospels. He offers this through his own living voice – sometimes tender, sometimes challenging – spoken in our hearts. He also speaks to us through his voice as recorded in Scripture. The Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-10) in particular offer a poignant overview of the special difficulties men face in their journey to God – and a pathway toward healing and wholeness for us as men. (Quotations are from the Jerusalem Bible unless otherwise noted.)
“How blessed are the poor in spirit: The kingdom of heaven is theirs.”
The first Beatitude: dependency. The New English Bible speaks here of “those who know their need for God.” Men are raised to be strong and self-sufficient. Dependency and neediness are seen as signs of weakness, immaturity and femininity. If we have great fear of admitting our woundedness and incompleteness in isolation from those we love, it is very difficult to switch gears and show these characteristics to God. Humility and willingness to lean on those near us can act as a training ground for learning how to let ourselves lean on God. Leaning on people near us also is a way of incarnating in the flesh our dependence on God.
“Blessed are those who mourn: They shall be comforted.”
The second Beatitude: the capacity to feel. Men learn, in a thousand ways, to prevent themselves from feeling pain: food, drugs, addictive sex, intellectualization, and above all (for me) addiction to work. Blessed are those who allow themselves to mourn and feel sorrow. Blessed are those who are willing to be passionate. We men are taught bravely to clog our tear ducts (or, if we must cry, to hide our pain by crying in a closet or under the bed covers – as I did when I was a child). We look down on women as weak and unreliable because of their supposed tendencies to “fall apart” or to act from their hearts rather than their heads.
“Blessed are the gentle: They shall have the earth as inheritance.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers: They shall be recognized as children of God.”
The third and seventh Beatitudes: on work and power. What does it mean to be “meek” or to have a gentle spirit?” The key, I think, can be found in Jesus’ promise that those who have followed this teaching will – in a paradoxical manner – inherit the earth. As men, we are taught that we will only be able to respect ourselves and be responsible caretakers for our families if we are successful in working hard to acquire material security. We live in a world that, by and large, rewards overachievers – those who ignore their families, their own need for rest, and their own intuitions – to devote the overwhelming majority of their waking hours to their jobs and, in fact, to turn over their whole hearts to their work.
I do not have a single family in my practice for whom the proportions of time devoted to work is not a major issue. I believe many more men end up being unfaithful to their wives (and children and Lord) through their over-involvement with work than through extramarital sexual involvements. This is the true meaning of Jesus’ statement that we cannot serve both God and Mammon.
Pierre Parodi, the prior of the Gandhian “Community of the Ark” in southern France, wrote a book called The Use of Poor Means in Helping the Third World. The first Beatitude is about spiritual poverty; these (the third and seventh) are about poor means. This involves our capacity to respect ourselves without having a large salary or being “famous.” It is discovering a source of power different from the world’s power. It is a form of security different from that based on land and money.
Some men give up the world’s kind of power for the wrong reasons – out of fear of failure or of being injured in the fray. Jesus is calling us to a new kind of powerfulness, because the world’s kind of power over others’ wounds “disempowers” those being controlled by it. It also wounds (through hardening) the hearts of those (mainly men) who exercise this kind of power. Jesus’ kind of power is enabling, opening, ingathering, healing – and his radical message for us is that it begins in humility and in what looks like powerlessness.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for uprightness: They shall have their fill.”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted in the cause of uprightness:The kingdom of heaven is theirs.”
The fourth and eighth Beatitudes: struggle for what is right. The Jerusalem Bible’s commentary on the third Beatitude says that to be gentle means to be unassuming and undemanding. Just in case anyone got the idea that Jesus meant for men (or women!) to become passive, wilting flowers, the Beatitude that immediately follows quickly corrects this. In recent years, many men reacted to the over-aggressiveness of the traditional male role in our society by trying to abdicate power entirely. Jesus states clearly that it’s not that simple. He calls us to be passionate in putting our lives on the line for justice, for creative change, for healing – in the larger society, in personal relationships, in our own lives. And, as the final Beatitude says, when we do this we should not expect the process to be painless or easy. Old ways die hard. We should expect suffering to be part of the process of change.
“Blessed are the merciful: They shall have mercy shown them.”
The fifth Beatitude: caretaking of others. The outward “acts of mercy” (caring for the sick, clothing the naked, feeding people) are mainly carried out by women in our society. I believe Jesus is addressing here both outward physical acts and an inward attitude of compassion toward others – an ability to let ourselves feel their pain. Even men who are involved in helping professions such as teaching and health care tend much more often to be involved in administration (giving others orders to care for the sick or young) or research (analyzing abstractly what is involved in acts of care) rather than direct hands-on and emotional involvement compared to women in the same field (cf. male physicians vs. female nurses).
Jesus is suggesting that the ability to open our hearts to others in need, to get physically close to them, and to provide something directly for them (in a way that costs us something personally) is critical to our journey toward closeness with God. As men, we generally do not have time to notice or take in our children’s or neighbors’ pain; we are too numb to feel it if we notice it, and too busy to respond personally if we somehow do manage to feel it.
“Blessed are the pure in heart: They shall see God.”
The sixth Beatitude: purity of heart. If the third Beatitude is about physical activity (or at least a very different and quieter kind of activity), this Beatitude is about inward inactivity. Purity of heart is about learning to turn one’s inward being toward God, to learn prayer without ceasing, to love with all one’s heart and being.
The problem is that we are expected as men to be thinking at all times and in control of ourselves and the world around us. Turning over our hearts to God can feel dangerously anti-intellectual and even irresponsible! If we stop calculating in our own minds what needs to be accomplished next and what our current standing is in the great pack race of life, disaster may strike us from behind. We may make a mistake. We may be treated unfairly. We may slip into indolence.
Ironically, this is one Beatitude that many men do, I think, feel more readily drawn to – at least men involved in a self-conscious religious journey. (Purity of heart is a much more attractive goal for men in our culture than being needy, weeping, abandoning power and wealth or changing the soiled clothing of infants or the ill.) We consider spiritual self-development a high ideal and get very frustrated with ourselves if we do not attain this ideal. We enroll in classes, sign up for retreats, perhaps find a spiritual director, or even enter a religious vocation so that we can feel we are accomplishing a lot in the area of spiritual purity.
I believe, however, that the fact that this Beatitude comes near the end of the list is no accident. Purity of heart can not be “gone after” head on. It is something that may – perhaps – come to us as a grace from God. Perhaps we can help open ourselves to this gift by quiet, patient attention to the “less honorable” disciplines described above.
It is no surprise, given the potent barriers to an open heart described here, that many more women have been active in the church throughout history than men. Many men in the church, furthermore (particularly those in the hierarchy) have become caught up in just the kind of achievement and power struggles within this sphere that Jesus was calling us to leave behind.
The Path Toward Healing for Our Hearts
The Beatitudes provide us not only with the description of the kind of life Jesus is calling us to live, but also with a road map back to our true selves as men. Our fears of being engulfed by our mothers and rejected by our fathers (who themselves are acting out of the wounds they received) have left us self-sufficient, arrogant, and isolated as men. There is no way to begin other than to recognize that we cannot be whole without needing others and God. As male therapists, spiritual directors, and husbands we need to learn to be less threatened by signs of dependency in our clients, directees, and spouses, since in some cases (particularly with male clients or directees) this can be a step toward the ability to depend on God.
The second step is to regain our capacity to feel. This involves learning to notice how our feelings of sadness, delight, or fury well up in us – and then to let ourselves live with these feelings rather than try immediately to ward them off. It is also important in a spiritual journey to learn not to be trapped in feelings or to take them too seriously. This sense of perspective can only be learned after we have grown into accepting ourselves as feeling, vulnerable human beings with real human hearts.
The third step is letting go our addiction to worldly power, achievement, activity, and work. Just as vulnerability and the ability to feel pain may be forced on us by difficult life experiences (such as the death of a loved one or rejection by a spouse who no longer is willing to live with a man “who has no capacity to love”), inactivity may be forced on us by illness or forced unemployment. We need to use these painful events as graced opportunities and doorways into new ways of experiencing ourselves as men. As I said earlier, we need to avoid the pitfall of trading in our traditional male blocks for more traditional female barriers to faithfulness such as passivity or helplessness.
The fourth step is learning to make space in our hearts for others’ neediness and pain – and in our daily lives for simple, concrete acts of mercy. This means washing the leper’s bodies ourselves – not just giving money to the Leprosy Relief Fund, researching a leprosy cure in the laboratory, or walking a picket line protesting discrimination against lepers.
As we have been involved in a lengthy process of opening up windows in the thick walls around our heart through all the steps described above, we may be ready to give more direct attention to ways in which we can purify and clarify our inward attentiveness toward the holy. Direct work in this area before we have labored long enough at the humbler and costlier (in terms of cultural prestige) tasks puts us at rick of simply playing out our male wounds of arrogance, numbness, thirst for achievement, and isolation from others in our search for spiritual purity – so that we end up with pure hearts of steel rather than of flesh.
Peter Blood is a member of Mt Toby Friends Meeting in New England YM.
He has degrees in government, nursing, and family therapy and is a graduate of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation’s training program for spiritual directors. He was a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and in private practice in Westtown, Pennsylvania. He struggles for healing in his own life, particularly as a husband and father of a 2-year-old son. He was raised in a Quaker family and is an active Friend today, rejoicing in the greater openness he finds among liberal Friends Meetings recently to vocal prayer, Scripture and Christ’s name.