What Kind of Man Are You?

I had contrasting male role models when I was a boy.  My Mom’s dad sang in the church choir, helped out around the house, read books and listened to classical music.  He was a calm and thoughtful man who took care of others.  The men on my Dad’s side drank whiskey and beer, smoked cigars, hunted and fished, played cards and bowled.  Some referred to cooking, cleaning and child rearing as “women’s work”.  They maintained an allergic attitude toward anything related to the “c” word: culture.  That’s not to say that they were stupid, but more that they liked what they already understood.  Reading a book, going to a museum, listening to a concert seemed like pointless exercises.

The movies I watched as a kid (pre-cable, often in black and white) starred John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and James Garner.  These actors represented contrasting styles of manhood.  John taught me to suck it up and endure danger and physical trials with little or no complaint.  Women were to be treasured and protected, but would remain largely unknowable.  Robert showed me that men may act on evil tendencies and can’t be trusted at first glance.  James acted as a jester, as a man who pointed out the absurdities of life.  Running away from a stupidly dangerous situation, not of one’s making, was acceptable.

I’m not like any of these examples, and I can’t really define precisely what makes a man good or bad.  Many men I’ve known drift back and forth between kindness and cruelty.  Most lean hard in one direction, but even the extreme cases have surprised me on occasion.  Some evolve from one form of manhood into another.

I guess that my bases for self-judgment draw on all these influences.  I know who I’d like to be while remaining aware that I fail to meet my own standards.  I try not to judge other men’s lifestyles and choices, but a recent public example of  “tough guy” manhood seems particularly repugnant to me.  I’ll never take that hot mess of hyper-inflated ego, blind cruelty, and pointless domineering as a guide to anything exemplary about manhood.

Here’s what I believe:

  1. A good man accepts defeats and success gracefully.  He doesn’t blame others for his failures and doesn’t claim full credit for his advances.
  2. A good man acts for the welfare of his family and community.
  3. A good man does not denigrate others or spread gossip and slander.
  4. A good man acknowledges his mistakes and sincerely strives to do better.
  5. A good man admits that he feels pain, and does not pretend that he is invincible and immovable.  Stoicism becomes an act of choosing a rational response to hardship, not a denial of pain.
  6. A good man tries his best to follow through on his commitments.  He does what he says he will do.
  7. A good man does not exploit the weak and less powerful.
  8. A good man tells the truth as he knows it, but doesn’t believe that he is the sole and complete possessor of truth.
  9. A good man does not believe that his current good fortune is God-given proof of his higher worth.  He chooses to be grateful for blessings received.
  10. A good man is humble.  He understands that he is a small speck in a vast cosmos.
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God Bless You, Father Shine

The Cincinnati archdiocese assigned Father Shine to our parish as an assistant pastor around 1970.  He had been acting as a hospital chaplain, and before that served as a teacher in a boys high school.  A thin man with a large nose, pale skin, jet-black hair and sunken eyes, he trembled at the pulpit when he delivered sermons.  Sweat slicked his forehead and his hands shook when he raised the host at consecration.  He stammered, “B-b-body, body of Christ,” when he handed out communion.

Most of the congregation understood his terror of speaking in public and forgave him his faltering interpretations of Holy Scripture.  We felt sorry for a well-meaning man trapped in a job that ran contrary to his nature.  We also sensed a sweet nature hidden behind the nerves.  The man was ready to forgive sins in the confessional before a penitent uttered the first word.  He never spoke harshly or with cold judgment, and remained unfailingly patient and kind when dealing with folks one on one.

No one knew how the nuns and head pastor viewed Father Shine, but someone with a cruel streak gave him an assignment designed to torture him:  a sex-ed lecture for the eighth-graders.

We were ushered into the library and told to sit on the carpet.  No one told us the purpose of the assembly, but whenever our two classes gathered it usually meant a tongue lashing from the principal.  We were somewhat rebellious, and our budding sexuality sent one of the nuns into spasms.

It didn’t take much to bring Sister M.M. to her knees to pray for our immortal souls.  One flagrant problem that raised her blood pressure:  some of the eighth grade girls had tired of us boys and decided to take up with seventh graders.  Older hussies were seen walking with younger boys on the playground at lunch.  They held hands.  The horror.  The utter horror.

We were surprised when Father Shine shuffled into the room.  He sat down in front of us, but didn’t say anything for several minutes.  He appeared to be morbidly fascinated by the texture of the carpet.  A nun standing nearby whispered a few urgent words to spur him into action.  He looked up for a split second, returned his gaze to the floor, and wiped his forehead with a trembling hand. The nun whispered again, and Father Shine began his address.

“I taught for a few years at a Catholic school for boys in Cincinnati… Cin-Cin-cin-cin…nati…I, uh, the boys, uh….One day there was a dance.  The boys invited girls from a nearby high school for…girls.  Girls…Uh…I taught boys in Cincinnati…dance…There was this dance and girls were invited to come to our gym and…dance…And the boys, the boys…I taught at this school and…”

At this point Father flushed deep red and slumped to one side.  He covered his face with his hands and his shoulders shook.  I feared that he verged on a nervous breakdown.  The nun stepped in, put a hand on his shoulder and helped him to his feet.  She led him from the room.  End of assembly.

Father Shine recovered and returned to his duties as assistant pastor.  He said masses, heard confessions and visited the sick.  I was glad that his attempt to speak to us about sexual morality hadn’t damaged him in any permanent way, and relieved that we had escaped another tirade about a subject I found troubling enough when contemplating it on my own.  My feelings of relief were premature.

Eighth-grade classes usual went on a spiritual retreat to a park-like Catholic center south of town.  Sister told us, to our chagrin, that our retreat would take place on campus.  Her stern look and threatening tone warned me that my classmates and I would probably need a retreat from our retreat.

A balding priest wearing a black cassock, black shoes and socks, and black plastic framed glasses met with us in the library one morning.  He wasn’t afraid, shy, or embarrassed.  He appeared, instead, to be driven by outrage.  He barked at us for an hour about our sinful natures, and his face turned purple with anger.  He scorned our obsession with sex.  He sentenced us to eternal damnation if we thought about it, masturbated, or allowed ourselves to enjoy accidental sexual feelings that occurred at random moments.  The only Catholics allowed to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh were married couples (heterosexual, it went without saying).  And even these lucky few were supposed to reluctantly engage in the act for the sole purpose of making more Catholics.

He spent the rest of the day with us, “celebrated” a mass featuring a sermon that underlined the grimmest points made in the prior assembly, and glared at us with arms crossed at his chest during a break at lunch time.  Father Damnation appeared to be standing in for a watchful, vengeful God.

The eighth-grade girls stayed away from the seventh graders that day, but resumed their assignations the next week.  We knew that Father Damnation wasn’t coming back.  And most of us had figured out that his reign of terror had been one more attempt to bludgeon us back in line.  There had been plenty of those, and we had grown used to threats and hysteria.

Looking back, I have to say that I’m grateful to both priests.  Father Shine showed me that there were some clerics in the church who genuinely cared for their congregants, who tried their best even when stretched beyond their natural limits.  Father Damnation showed me that the church ranks had their share of crazies and militants that were best ignored.

God bless you, Father Shine.  Get bent, Father Damnation.