Late have I loved you. Beauty so ancient and so new,
late have I loved you!
Lo, you were within,
but I outside, seeking there for you,
and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed
You were with me, but I was not with you.
—Augustine, Bishop of Hippo
Let us now consider “the elephant in the sanctuary!” As you and I look over the faces of worshippers gathered on a Sunday in an American church, the majority will be women. Are American women more spiritual and faithful to their religious traditions than men?
Marta Trzebiatowska and her team of sociologists have seriously studied this question, revealing:
“Since 1945, the Gallup polling organization has consistently found that, on every index used, American women are more religious than men and not by small margins.”
The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank in Washington, D.C., studies demographic trends and social issues. Recently, they published The Gender Gap in Religion Around the World, observing that “women are generally more religious than men, particularly among Christians.”
The Pew report reveals: “In the United States, for example, women are more likely than men to say religion is ‘very important’ in their lives. American women also are more likely than American men to say they pray daily and attend religious services at least once a week.”
“A few sociologists have theorized that the gender gap in religion is biological in nature, possibly stemming from higher levels of testosterone in men or other physical and genetic differences between the sexes. Christian women are more religious than Christian men…. Christian women report praying daily more frequently than Christian men by an overall average gap of ten percentage points….Scholars of religion have been examining possible reasons for the gender gaps: biology, psychology, family environment, social status, workforce participation and lack of ‘existential security’ felt by many women because they generally are more afflicted than men by poverty, illness, old age and violence.”
David Voas, head of the Department of Social Science at University College London, reflects on this report:
“I’m not an expert in genetics, but there appears to be some fairly compelling evidence (for example, from studies of twins) that genes do affect our disposition to be religious. And if that’s the case, it’s at least plausible that the gender gap in religiosity is partly a matter of biology. If true, though, I doubt that it’s because there’s a ‘God gene’ and women are more likely to have it than men. It seems easier to believe that physiological or hormonal differences could influence personality, which may in turn be linked to variations in ‘spirituality’ or religious thinking.”
As America became more secularized without state support of religion after the 1820’s, Tzrebiatowska reports that, “the division of the life-world into relatively distinct spheres initially insulated women from many of the secularizing forces that bore on the public sphere…(That) the home should be the primary site for religious edification and socialization seems to explain why secularization should have impacted on men earlier and to a greater extent than on women.”
Why do American men struggle with spirituality?
We have inherited the values of critical thinking and science from the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. We now live in a secular culture suspicious of religious experience and dogmatic theology. Religion can be defined as that which connects all of life together. In medieval Paris, France, for example, religion encompassed all aspects of daily life. There was no separation between the sacred and secular. Religious rituals were celebrated in a world of spiritual enchantment. This world view radically changed in 150 years, as early scientists sought knowledge in the Book of Nature rather than the dogma of the Bible. At a time when it was assumed that everyone believed in the Christian God, Rene Descartes (1596-1656) inspired the shift from religious orthodoxy to the primacy of the individual conscience.
German sociologist Max Weber described this process as the demystification of the modern world. Nature and the cosmos no longer invited mystical contemplation. Instead, they came to be seen as material systems to be studied. The emerging modern world required rational control. Descartes contended that creating a “buffered self” was the best defense against the siren call of old superstitions.
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor writes:
“The buffered self is the agent who no longer fears demons, spirits, and magic forces. More radically, these no longer impinge; they don’t exist for him; whatever threat or other meaning they proffer doesn’t ‘get it’ from him.
“This super buffered self… is not only not ‘got at’ by demons and spirits; he is also utterly unmoved by the aura of desire. In a mechanistic universe, and in a field of functionally understood passion, there is no more room for such an aura. There is nothing it could correspond to. It is just a disturbing, supercharged feeling which somehow grips us until we can come to our senses and take on our full, buffered identity.”
Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Rise of Capitalism, describes how ambitious, hard work, accumulation of capital, and the pieties of thrift and simplicity became spiritual virtues of the Protestant Reformation. Success in your profession may be evidence of God’s predestined blessing.
As Enlightenment values for reason, and Reformation values for the work ethic came to the American colonies, each colony had its own established state church, supported by tax money. They legally required all citizens to attend church services. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, influential leaders in the American Revolution, affirmed the Enlightenment’s teachings so that the Constitution expressed the radical idea that every person must be free to choose his or her spiritual path. No one can be compelled to follow any religion in which they did not believe.
When these state churches were disestablished, men who provided leadership to these churches lost status, which diminished interest in participation. Men who worked in government had to deal with people from different religious traditions. Men were more likely to travel extensively for their business or military service. These factors would also have diluted any sense of uniformity of religion and influenced men’s disaffiliation.
This process of disenchantment of the West, through the European Enlightenment, Protestant Reformation and in the American Constitution, resulted in the reality that religion became purely a private matter in the United States.
Noting the displacement of the fire inside us for communion with God with the pursuit of success in the world, a whole publishing industry burst forth, speaking to masculine spirituality.
In the early 1990s. The early book on the men’s movement was Robert Bly’s Iron Man, which sparked exploration of what is unique to men and their spirituality. Masculinity to Bly meant spontaneous wildness and taking risks. To awaken to Bly’s ideal of the true self involves austere, elaborate initiation. Modern Western culture has tamed and suppressed natural male instincts. Mythologies from different cultures give directional clues to an inward awakening. Was Bly countering the feminist critique of masculinity?
A best-selling book on Christian masculinity is John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart (2001). After twenty years, the book continues to be number one on spirituality for men within evangelical Christianity. Eldridge, a Christian counselor, and lecturer, invites men to recover their masculine heart and return to “authentic masculinity,” connecting with their deepest desires. I found kinship with Eldredge as he shares his own retreats in desert and mountain landscapes.
The book has three parts. Part One describes men as image-bearers of God. Men are made to “come through.” As a man, do you have what it takes? Part Two contends all men carry a wound. We all carry a false self that we project to the outer world, expressed in extreme ways in anger or passivity. Healing comes if we bring those wounds to Jesus and recover a restored masculine heart. Part Three, Eldridge describes the Core Desires of a Man’s Heart: battle, adventure, beauty. Within the heart of every man is the heart of a warrior who wants to fight for something important and precious. Within the heart of every man is a longing for exploration and adventure connected to God’s call. Within the heart of every man is a “beauty to rescue,” to be found in nature, the arts, and in a personal relationship with God. We will find our deepest longings and desires in relationship with God. He asks important questions to his male readers: “Who am I. What am I made of? What am I destined for?”
Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest and liberal Roman Catholic, represents the other end of the masculine spirituality spectrum. He has been much criticized by conservative Christians for his lack of orthodoxy—something he has in common with many spiritual mystics. In reading his books From Wild Man to Wise Man and Falling Upward, I can see influence from the analytical psychology of C. G. Jung, his emphasis on archetypes, common figures found in dreams and cross-cultural mythology as clues to the collective unconscious.
Professor Armin M Kummer of the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, reflects:
“Rohr believes that most contemporary men possess no internal motivation. Their choices are driven by the external motivators, money, sex, and power. They are in the grasp of groupthink and other forms of social control that are opposed to individual consciousness and personal conscience. The traditional masculine enterprise of creating and producing has been replaced with making money as the primary goal in life. In Rohr’s view, the contemporary willingness to dedicate life to the production of items of no social benefit has led to men’s emotional stunting. Relational and social skills have withered because men live their lives at odds with their phallic energy, the masculine drive towards intercourse, and the beginning of life.”
Richard Rohr OFM also contends that men carry a wound, which he calls “father wound,” based on the missing presence of a man’s father. If accumulation of wealth is a man’s ultimate concern, there is little time to nurture relationships with children.
Rohr defines spirituality as “having a source of energy within which is a motivating and directing force for living.” This is similar to Rolheiser’s definition of spirituality: how we channel that fire within us. Spirituality for men, according to Rohr, “would emphasize movement over stillness, action over theory, service to the world over religious discussions, speaking the truth over social niceties and doing justice instead of any self-serving ‘charity’.”
In his recent book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Rohr considers the first half of a man’s life, the restless pursuit of power, sex, and money, at the cost of one’s inner self, creating an underdeveloped persona called puer (boy-child). To find our true self, the self that God implanted in us as our spiritual destiny, there is an unavoidable suffering that must come upon us. As you have read this book up to this point, you can hear my “Amen” to this.
Rohr writes about the false self and true self:
“Your false self is your role, title, and personal image that is largely a creation of your own mind and attachments. It will and must die in exact correlation to how much you want the Real…. Your True Self is who you objectively are from the beginning, in the mind and heart of God… It is your substantial self, your absolute identity, which can be neither gained nor lost by any technique, group affiliation, morality, or formula whatsoever. The surrendering of our false self, which we have usually taken for our absolute identity, yet is merely a relative identity, is the necessary suffering needed to find ‘the pearl of great price’ that is always hidden inside this lovely but passing shell.”
Drawing on Eastern and native American religious traditions, Rohr lifts up the role of mentor who can guide and teach a younger man, just as Jesus offered spiritual formation for his disciples. And he encourages desert retreats of silence and solitude and contemplative prayer as resources for building friendship with God.
Contemporary writers on men’s spirituality seem to be motivated by the diminished self-identity of men caused by the women’s movement.
I believe that a way forward for men in rediscovery of their spiritual selves will be found in opportunities for connection with the spiritual lives of women.
I have experienced this in two ways.
For forty years, I have shared ministry with the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange, a century-old Roman Catholic religious community in Orange, California.
One of their charisms or spiritual gifts is public work for justice and peace. Sister Eileen McNerney CSJ founded Taller San Jose in 1995 as a response to increased gang violence, youth unemployment, low high school graduation rates and rising teen pregnancy rates. The Hope Builders program enrolls two hundred young adults and helps them achieve and maintain self-sufficiency. Women and men receive training for employment in construction and medical services. I know that the contact with the Sisters by young men in the programs and business professionals who mentor or teach in the programs has stimulated their spiritual renewal. “Preach the gospel at all times, when necessary, use words.” The Sisters of Saint Joseph, in their life-changing ministries of peace and justice, are visible testimonies to the joy of life with God.
Another ministry of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange is the Center for Spiritual Development. Spiritual directors are trained at the Center, which also offers seminars on a wide-spectrum on spirituality for men and women who seek a deeper relationship with God. Men who may have no religious affiliation find a welcoming “side-door” for spiritual exploration.
A second experience for me of how women have enriched my spiritual life are the five women priests who have been my colleagues. As a self-driven Alpha male, focusing on fund-raising for low-income early childhood centers and an after school youth center and growing the parish, the multi-tasking can take on a manic momentum. In close partnership with my female clergy colleagues, I had help with paying attention to relationships, conflict management, and taking time at staff meetings for prayer and scripture, reminding us for Whom we are laboring. Before I would send an angry letter to the bishop or another party with whom I had disagreements, I learned to submit the letter to one of my female colleagues for editing or deletion. I found balance in my professional life and gratitude for the priesthood through shared ministry with these remarkable women.
As a man, passing through the eighth decade of life, I look back with regret and sorrow for things done and left undone. I see the faces of persons I have hurt, disappointed, and neglected. I remember bad choices that had serious life-changing consequences for me and those I loved. I remember addictive behaviors and the deceptive inner voice that urged me on: “You can do this; you are in control.” Thank God I lived long enough to come to this place of contemplative reflection. Thank God for that awakening of the Spirit to help me see that all along, in my frantic restless wanderings and hell-bent fixations, I was somewhere within my deepest self, seeking God. Thank God I had the help of Sister Jeanne Fallon, CSJ and Father Gordon Moreland, SJ to remind me as spiritual directors that I am God’s beloved.
Lord God, my prayers do not conjure your presence. You have always been present throughout my life and I did not know this. You are present everywhere for everyone. The problem has been me being present to you.
The awakening I experienced of God’s love for me and all creation came at the end of praying through the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola for a year with Sister Jeanne. At the end of that year, she guided me through the Contemplation to Attain Divine Love. I remember that there are four parts:
- Remember how much God has done for me.
- Think about the way God “dwells in all living things and in me, created in God’s image.”
- Consider how God cares for and nurtures creation.
- Consider how God inspires us to work for justice and mercy in the world as His active presence.
On our last day of that year together, Sister Jeanne invited me to pray the Suscipe Prayer, a prayer of self-surrender of my life to God, acknowledging that all I need to thrive and serve in this life is God’s love and grace.
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding, and all my will—
all that I have and possess.
You, Lord, have given all that to me.
I now give it back to you, O Lord.
All of it is yours.
Dispose of it according to your will.
Give me love of yourself along with grace,
for that is enough for me.
You and I, in our desire for deeper connection with Jesus, find a helpful brother in Augustine of Hippo, the Black bishop from north Africa, and his autobiographical Confessions (c. 400 A.D.). By that time, Christianity had been legalized in the Roman Empire, the age of physical martyrdom was over and the spiritual work for Christians had become an inner struggle. Some men and women took to the deserts of Palestine, Syria, and Egypt to seek solitude, silence, and contemplation with God. Listening to Augustine’s voice as I read the Confessions, I recognize a person praying to God, like the voice I hear of the Psalmist in the Bible. The quotation at the beginning of this chapter describes our search for God without knowing that it is God for whom we are searching. For thirty-four years of his life, Augustine searched restlessly for meaning and fulfillment in the world. His intense intellectual mind drew him to be a rabid devotee of various Greek philosophies and cults, an ardent lover of women, and ambitious in his teaching career—receiving an academic appointment from the Roman Emperor himself. A desire for God moved within him, but he thought this restless activity in the world had nothing to do with that. The journey inward was not self-initiated. He was in a garden, thinking about thinking, and the way God works, a surprise: he hears a child’s voice chanting “Take up and read.” He opens a book to Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “Not in revelry and drunkenness, not in debauchery and wantonness, not in strike and jealousy, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and as for the flesh, take no thought for its lusts.”
With clarity of mind, heart, and soul, he chooses baptism and Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.
Augustine of Hippo joins you and me in awakening to the knowledge that we are beloved sons of God. This is where a man who struggles with his life with God must begin. Augustine prays for all of us as he says to the Lord: “You are good and all-powerful, caring for each one of us as though each is the only one in your care.”
Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions, Editor: David Vincent Meconi; Translator: Maria Boulding Chicago: Ignatius Press, 2012.
Pew Research Center, The Gender Gap in Religion Around the World, March 22, 2016. https://www.pewforum.org/2016/03/22/the-gender-gap-in-religion-around-the-world/
Trzebiatowska, Marta; Bruce, Steve. Why are Women more Religious than Men? Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Eldridge, John. Wild at Heart: Discovering Secrets of a Man’s Soul. New York: Thomas Nelson, 2006.
Kummer, Armin M. Men, Spirituality and Gender-specific Biblical Hermeneutics. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2019.
Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.
Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola
Martin SJ, James. The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. New York: HarperOne, 2010.
Rohr, Richard. From Wild Man to Wise Man: Reflections on Male Spirituality. Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2005.
Rohr, Richard. Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2011.
 Augustine, Confessions, p. 291.
 Trzebiatowska, Why Are Women More Religious Than Men? 6
 Pew Research Center, The Gender Gap in Religion Around the World, March 22, 2016.
 Pew Research Center, “Q & A: Why are Women Generally More Religious than Men? March 23, 2016.
 Trzebiatowka, Ibid, 165-166.
 Taylor, Secular Age, 135.
 Trzbiatowska, Ibid, 165.
 Eldridge, Wild at Heart: Discovering Secrets of a Man’s Soul, 5.
 Kummer, Men, Spirituality, and Gender-specific Biblical Hermeneutics, 18-19.
 Rohr and Martos, From Wild Man to Wise Man, 36.
 Ibid, 10.
 Rohr, Falling Upward, 85-86.
 Kummer,Men, Spirituality, and Gender-specific Biblical Hermeneutics, 21.
 Martin, A Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, 396-397.
 Romans 13:13-14.
 Augustine, Ibid, 50.