(for the Solemnity of St. Joseph)
There was an interesting article in the New York Times last month by the comedian, writer, and actor Michael Ian Black, entitled “The Boys Are Not Alright.” [i] He starts by saying that, “If you want to emasculate a guy friend, when you’re at a restaurant, ask him everything that he’s going to order, and then when the waitress comes … order for him.” I suppose this applies to human beings in general but men especially hate to be robbed of their sense of agency, to be able to make up their minds and make choices for themselves. And yet, in the stories we hear about Joseph in the gospels, that is what Joseph gets robbed of, or gives away! Jesus reminds him that he is not his real father, he gets chased out of his homeland and, worst of all, his wife is pregnant by someone else. At some point in the spiritual life this is what happens though––we give away our agency to the benevolent Power Greater than ourselves, to God and entrust ourselves to his mercy.
A few years back I gave a homily about Saint Joseph based on a phrase from the German therapist Alice Miller. In her famous book The Drama of the Gifted Child, she taught that a child needs a “usable self-object” (in other words, a parent) that can survive its own destruction. Healthy parents and mentors need to be secure enough to let their children rebel, to allow the child to be angry, to not-like something, to separate from them without it being a negative reflection back on the parent or mentor. Not that I am expecting anyone to remember that homily (or I would just give it again!), but I want to look at that theme again in regard to Saint Joseph.
At the risk of being chauvinistic, whenever I think of Joseph I always think too of specifically male spirituality. We unashamedly call Joseph the “just man” because he was the father figure for Jesus. Why I think that is maybe even more poignant in 2018 is because suddenly folks have started to notice, after the last school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that what these atrocities have in common is that they are being committed by young men, and for the most part by middle class young white males––not by those we normally first think of––black kids in the ghetto, illegal immigrants, or Muslim terrorists.
In that same article I mentioned earlier, Michael Ian Black writes that, “America’s boys are broken. And it’s killing us.” And Black thinks that’s because “Too many boys are trapped in the same suffocating, outdated model of masculinity, where manhood is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where”––and I thought this was particularly poignant––“manliness is about having power over others.” Because of all that he says
Men feel isolated, confused, and conflicted about their natures. Many feel that the very qualities that used to define them—their strength, aggression, and competitiveness—are no longer wanted or needed; many others never felt strong or aggressive or competitive to begin with. We don’t know how to be, and we’re terrified. But to even admit our terror is to be reduced, because we don’t have a model of masculinity that allows for fear or grief or tenderness or the day-to-day sadness that sometimes overtakes us all.
Add to that the fact that the world is run by the likes of Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, and the recently (finally) deposed Robert Mugabe (I haven’t noticed a female dictator for a while), or our own president, all chest pounding and insults, and what do we expect? This is what it means to rule the world “like a man.”
In contrast to this––perhaps as an antidote to this––we have Jesus himself and Joseph, who, if we are to take the gospel seriously, do not live up to the examples of manhood being offered us by everyone from professional boxers to presidents. What does Joseph do? I love the phrase I got from Hans Urs von Balthasar, that Jesus’ favorite images of the reign of God are things that act by disappearing––salt, seeds, yeast. And Joseph too doesn’t need a big stage. He acts by disappearing.
Ronald Rolheiser gave us our retreat back in 2010, and the last conference was on what it means to bless someone. He says that “to bless” means three different things. First of all, to bless somebody is to notice them. Now, he says, there are usually two different kinds of people that we are aware of in the room with us––those we really love and those we really dislike (I don’t want to use the word “hate”!), those we are angry with, those we are having issues with. So it’s not enough just to notice them, he says. The second meaning of blessing someone is that you have to also welcome their energy, say to them, “So glad you’re here!” He gave his own example of that from his experience in religious life, but let me give you an example from my own life, a recent experience of what it means to welcome someone’s energy.
Some of my musician friends organized a fund-raising concert for the Hermitage in Phoenix last fall. Five other singer-songwriters performed with me, two of who are pretty well known in Catholic music, but all of whom are recording artists and have published with major music companies. The only outlier was Benjamin. He was about 19, the son of Jaime Cortez, and Jaime couldn’t be prouder of him. He kept saying to me, “Benjamin can do that” and “Benjamin can play that.” The slide guitar part on one song: “Oh, Benjamin can do that.” The keyboard part on another piece: “Don’t worry; Benjamin can do that.” And sure enough, Benjamin could do all that! He totally lived up to his Daddy’s hype. At one point I threw a monkey wrench in the program and decided to add in a piece we had not rehearsed, and Benjamin sat down at the keyboard and played it along with me, a piece he had never heard before––and he didn’t even have the music in front of him! And besides all that he was as polite and well mannered as a butler. Just a great kid…
Now I don’t know if you know this, but professional musicians can be as nasty and competitive as professional athletes. It’s a dog eat dog world out there. (There’s an old joke: How many guitar players does it take to screw in a light bulb? Nine: One to screw it in, and eight to say, “I could do that!”) So it would not be unusual, when a hotshot young player comes along, for everyone else to talk down to him to put him in his place, or sit around and say, “Who does he think he is?” or “What a show-off!” Or better, “Yah, you just wait ‘til he’s been doing this as long as I have! We’ll see how ‘nice’ he is then.” But that is not what happened that night. These guys, really musicians at the top of their game, were secure enough in themselves to treat Benjamin like an equal, not to be threatened by him, and to heap praise and thanks on him. After the concert we all went to dinner, and at one point we went around the table to offer some kind of comment about what had been a glorious evening. When it came my turn, I told them all this same thing, Rolheiser’s teaching about what it means to bless. And I turned to Benjamin, who was sitting at my right, and I said, “And Benjamin: you got blessed by these men tonight. They all, we all, welcome your energy. I think you’re gonna be a better musician than any of us, and we think that’s great!” Equally I was quite moved at how noble these guys were, secure enough to be able to let Benjamin shine and not feel threatened by it. They knew how to bless a younger man, welcome his energy.
(Mind you when Rolheiser was telling his story I was sitting between Fr. Bruno and Fr. Robert, and I could barely breathe! Because these were two elders, former priors, who did nothing but bless me in my early days here. They always welcomed my energy, always encouraged me and wanted me to shine.)
But Rolheiser said that there is a third aspect to blessing someone that follows on that: to be willing to die so that they could live. He gave the example from the musical “Les Miserables,” when the hero Jean Valjean sings the song “Bring Him Home.” His daughter is in love with a young man named Maurius, who is about to launch into a battle during a political uprising. And Jean Valjean sings this prayer to God: “I am old. / And I will be gone. / If I die, let me die.” But him: “He is young, / He is only a boy. / Let him be, let him live. / Bring him home.” And Jean Valjean then goes on to risk his own life both to save Maurius’ life and restore him to his daughter, but also then to save the life of Javert, the man who has been chasing Jean Valjean for years due to his own criminal past. And Rolheiser says that’s the ultimate of what it means to bless––I would die so that you could live. Or as John the Baptist says about Jesus, “I would decrease so that you can increase.”
This kenosis, this self-emptying in self-sacrifice, is an alternative model to manliness that Christianity offers, a strength much stronger than the false bravado of the garish examples we find on the world stage in our day and age. And also, I would suggest, especially in intentional communities such as ours, this is an element that would be really attractive to young people who are so in search of an authentic model of masculinity (or of adulthood in general) that’s not all about having power over others, not just about strength, aggression, and competitiveness––as a matter of fact those qualities are pretty low on the spiritual/evolutionary scale; a model that allows for fear and grief and tenderness and even just plain old day-to-day sadness. None of those qualities are necessarily going to get you elected president or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but they would put us in the lineage of Jesus, John the Baptist, and especially today of quiet Joseph, the just man, who performs his mission quietly, with integrity––and then gets out of the way, perhaps singing his own version of Jean Valjean’s song about Jesus: “I am old. And I will be gone. / If I die, let me die. … He is young, / He is only a boy. / Let him be, let him live.”
Let’s pray, inspired by Joseph, that we could to be secure enough to welcome each other’s energy, be ready to die for each other in little ways and great, and more and more to bless each other, like Joseph blessed Jesus.
19 march 18
[i] “The Boys Are Not Alright,” Michael Ian Black, NYTimes, Feb. 21, 2018.