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On the march to a different model of maleness

Dominican Br. Joseph Kilikevice is director of the Shem Center, an interfaith retreat and spirituality center in Oak Park, Ill. He has taught at the University of Creation Spirituality and led workshops and retreats on the Aramaic words of Jesus and on sexuality for men and women. Rich Heffern, the former editor of Praying magazine, recently sat down with Kilikevice to talk about his retreats and men’s spirituality.

You call your retreats on sexuality “Healing the Wounds, Celebrating the Gifts.” That seems like an apt description of the task when it comes to dealing with our sexuality. What are men who come to these retreats looking for?

I think they are looking to do maleness in a different way. It’s not working for one reason or another. Robert Bly, grandfather of the men’s spirituality movement, said men’s work begins with men’s grief and pain. A man who is feeling on top of the world will probably not come to our retreat. The men who come are those whose lives are changing, sometimes painfully or tragically. They have been diagnosed with life-threatening illness, are in the midst of divorce or they lost their job after many years. There is usually always some deep pain involved.

Or, they are simply realizing they have spent their lives working and have not received much back themselves; they’ve given themselves away and haven’t taken care of themselves. They are living in quiet desperation and show up to see if something else is possible. I think all men are wounded. Some are willing to admit it; others are not. Many of us realize there is another way to live, a way that is more satisfying in the end. First, we must get past some fears. Prospective retreatants always ask me: What do you do without women there? What can men have to do with one another besides watch a football game or hover over a beer?

The retreats focus on sexuality. Why is that so important?

In our society, sexuality is surrounded by a conspiracy of silence, secrecy and shame. It has to sneak out too often in locker room jokes. We kind of tiptoe around it, yet it is ever present. We are continually confronted, for example, in the advertising world by sexual imagery that is titillating and seductive, getting us to buy products from chewing gum to snow tires, using images that border on pornography. The advertisers know very well our attraction to those images. Sexuality is a central theme in men’s workshops because, for men especially in our society, a healthy welcoming of sexuality is not something we see often.

Although it is a part of almost everyone’s experience, it’s never discussed in any kind of honest way, is it?

Too often sexuality is trivialized, sensationalized or we are just manipulated through its use. There isn’t a lot of guidance from the church either. I feel that our sexuality is in exile. For us to be healthy and express sexuality in healthy ways as men, it needs to be welcomed home out of exile and allowed to take its place among all the other things we have as men. It needs to be neither more important nor less important than everything else we are.

Brian Swimme wrote: “Sexuality is the way the universe teaches its central mysteries.”

He emphasizes the cosmic connection. Sexuality is simply one of the key ways the universe works through us. That is a very healing way to think of it. This incredible generativity of the original flaring forth, the fireball, the Big Bang, is really divine fire. Out of the divine imagination comes all this life. We are part of this generosity of life. We are the fireball being expressed in this human form. We were there in the beginning with all the elemental particles that make up creation. We, as men, come from that fire that finally condensed into the cosmic dance and into starry nights and into this incredibly amazing planet we live on with its rich diversity.

Our sexuality takes its place in all this. Again, as Brian Swimme points out, the primary energy of the universe is attraction or allurement. Scientists call it gravity. You can call it love. Whatever it is that pulls you toward something, that attracts you, is an expression of and participation in the basic energy of the universe. It’s what keeps the universe in motion. Love moves the sun and stars, as Dante said.

Sexuality is not this puny little secret thing we just snicker about like adolescents; it’s as big as the changing seasons and the ongoing unfolding into greater beauty and complexity. Sexuality is often connected with addiction like alcohol. And like the craving for alcohol, the addiction to sex is linked to the hunger for numinous experience. We learn at the retreats: Don’t mistake the whole pie for one slice. How does this small part fit into the whole picture? Addiction, whether it’s to alcohol, sex, or religiosity, is mistaking one piece for the whole.

Where are the good images of nurturing, generative males?

Part of what makes this work so wonderful and difficult is that there are too few of those images out there. We are about creating them. I always talk about this male spirit work having three levels. The first level is that of ancestry. We do indeed have men in our lives who have taught us something about what it was to be a man. They may not be perfect but, through them, we have some idea of what honorable maleness looks like. One of the rituals we do on the retreats is to honor those males in our lives.

Good ritual can take you to a place deeper than words. We use ritual and prayer from many traditions. In this case, from the Native American tradition that honors and welcomes the spirits of our male ancestors. We call upon those spirits living or dead. They may be blood ancestors, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, but also they are the teachers, the clergymen, the coaches, the therapists, the authors and poets and composers we encountered in our lives. All of these men somehow taught us something about maleness. Piece by piece we put it together for ourselves. Men call out the names, and the room is suddenly very crowded. It’s not just us there. We surround our circle with the honorable maleness that has come before us. We are not starting from scratch. We do belong to a lineage.

The second level of male spirit is the circle of men who have come together in these retreats. We are peers. Nobody has it all figured out. The directors aren’t any smarter than anybody else. We are all searching, and by honoring one another, by recognizing that the spirit of God speaks to all of us, that there is wisdom that comes out of pain, we learn to do maleness differently.

The third level of maleness is to pass on an image of honorable maleness to the next generation of men coming up, to our sons or to the sons of other males. I frequently give a little homework assignment on a retreat or evening. Go and find a younger male, whether your son or another son without a father, and find a way to admire him, to encourage him, to validate him, to bless him. It is the only way we can change how men treat other men, how maleness is done. Whether it is a baseball game or just sitting somebody down and saying you are really good at what you do, this needs to be done. Otherwise these young men continue to feel abandoned and left out there without the love and affection of other men, which we all desperately need.

Many of us have been reared by women, with strong mothers in the home, absent fathers who work themselves into an early grave. Bly talks about the industrial revolution changing how men work together and live together. We no longer go out into the fields to plant crops with our fathers, or out to the barn. Many of us never knew where our fathers worked or never saw their workplace. We are strongly influenced by women. There are few male teachers in grade school. Those are very formative years.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with being reared by women, but it’s out of balance. A woman cannot provide a man with what is needed for the deep masculine journey, any more than a man can provide it for a woman. It’s the way God made the world. We certainly need women. Many men will say that all their emotional support and their entire emotional lives are tied up with women. Men recognize this out-of-balance state.

Experiences of intimacy between men are so rare that when it happens it brings tears to our eyes.

My definition of intimacy is telling the truth, no bull. It’s talking about how you are really feeling.

We never start a retreat without what I call the Circle of Respect. It’s a little ritual I created a number of years ago and use all the time, no matter how large or small the gathering. People stand in a circle holding hands, and together we feel the connection with the whole universe. We are conscious, self-reflective beings of the universe. We belong here; we are not mistakes. We are products of 15 billion years of evolution. We feel the connection with the earth underneath us. This is our home planet. We have a right to take our place with -- not over -- all other beings and with one another. And we have a right to be loved, cherished and respected here. I tell the gathered to look around and see how much God loves diversity. Every snowflake is different. Every person is different. Why are we so uncomfortable when we are not with people who are our own kind? The most observable fact about the world -- and the one we have the most trouble getting -- is its respect for and love of diversity.

When safety is established, we know we will be respected here. No one will hurt us here. We all assent to it. There’s laughter, tears, joy and anger. Wonderful things that have been stuffed for years can come out. And it does. Men are extraordinarily kind, nurturing, affectionate, zany and creative with one another when they know they are not being gawked at, evaluated, judged or in competition with one another.

Very soon the truly deep nature of men really starts to come out. It gives you a lot of confidence when you see how we really are, when we witness the honorable maleness that lives within each one of us. All we have to do is give ourselves the opportunity to allow it to be expressed. We know deep in our souls what to do; we don’t need experts to tell us. It doesn’t take much to get some wonderful energy going in men. We are always living out of someone else’s image of us, and we forget we are filled with wonderful creativity all the time.

One of my spiritual practices is to turn off my TV set. I got so weary of the pornographic preoccupation with Monica and Bill. They were sex addicted, and so were we. It showed how sick we are as a society, without a healthy sense of sexuality. Not only did leadership at the highest level act out of an inadequate, exiled sexuality, but the whole country jumped into it one way or the other. We couldn’t let go of it. I consciously tried to divert myself with poetry and Mozart’s music and cultivating my friendships instead. It’s amazing how much time we have when we let loose of these addictions. Healthy linking of sexuality with spirituality presents us with rich images to live out of.

The next step in linking spirituality with sexuality is healing between men and women. We need to stop shaming and blaming one another. It’s not the other gender that is doing it to us; it’s this system we have bought into. Something new can happen. We need a conspiracy of respect between women and men. We need more wonderful, healing rituals. It is not just about controversial issues that need discussing between feminists and patriarchy. But men and women need experiences of coming together and feeling good together. We need to be respectful of each other. We have a ritual in our men/women retreats, where men tell the women what we really like about them because they are women. And women do the same thing for the men. The place is always in tears. Men say, “I didn’t know you felt that way about us.” Usually we are too busy fighting with each other or preying on each other.

Finally, I think we all, men and women together, need a relationship with the green world in order for spirituality to happen. We need to see the stars at night on a regular basis, to breathe fresh air, to eat homegrown vegetables. Then our sexuality can take its rightful place amidst the splendor and wonder of the universe.

National Catholic Reporter, December 3, 1999