Surpassing the Stereotypes

Towards the end of the movie version of Oliver Twist, in a song called "Reviewing the Situation," the villain named Fagan, expertly played by Ron Moody, weighs up the pros and cons of criminal life versus married life:

“Better settle down and get myself a wife.
And a wife would cook and sew for me,
And come for me, and go for me,
And go for me, and nag at me,
The fingers she would wag at me.
The money she would take from me.
A misery she'd make from me...
I think I'd better think it out again!”

Leaning initially towards the married life, Fagan contemplates the risk of being nagged and bled alive for money and concludes he'd better think it out again.

 So much for wives and wedded bliss. Concerning men, another song, by Mac Davis, springs to mind:

 "I never get lonesome,
 Cause I treasure my own company.
 Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble,
 When you're perfect in every way.
 I can't wait to look in the mirror,
 I get better looking each day.
 To know me is to love me,
 I must be a hell of a man.
 I guess you could say I'm a loner,
 A cowboy out lone, tough, and proud.
 I could have lots of friends if I wanted,
 But then I wouldn't stand out from the crowd."

Both songs were written by men, and both probably say as much about men as they do about women. As mentioned at the end of the previous article, luminous alternatives to the stereotypes do, thank God, exist.

In times of confusion like ours, it is easy to succumb to the law of the pendulum effect and embrace the stereotypes. That would be a big mistake. Stereotypes provide a false clarity that is every bit as destructive as confusion.

Perhaps the most disturbing "compliment" I have ever received was this one, from an enthusiastic young man: "That's what I love about you, Father.  You preach Commando Catholicism!"  God forbid! It was intended as a clap on the back but felt more like a slap in the face.  May the Lord save us all from Commando Catholicism.  Spiritual warfare is one thing; Commando Catholicism is another.  Anything that foments male vanity is not good.

There's a difference between gym muscles and farm muscles, workout muscles and work muscles. Gym muscles are there to be seen and not used, whereas farm muscles are often unseen but useful.  I have seen a man bloated with gym muscles who couldn't hack a morning's work on a farm. The gym phenomenon foments a man's anger, whereas farm work softens it.  Men are meant to be gentle, not angry.  As Saint Francis de Sales put it, "There is nothing so strong as gentleness, and nothing so gentle as real strength."  Men must be gentle; women must be strong. Men and women must be strong and gentle.

I once opened a retreat to a group of numerous young women saying that to be holy, they must become more like men. There was a murmur of shocked disapproval accompanied by cross faces. I wonder how they would have reacted if I had said that men, to be holy, must become more like women. More favorably, perhaps?

The fact is that men have much to learn from women, and women have much to learn from men.  Saint Edith Stein said it better than I can: "Christ embodies the ideal of human perfection: in Him all bias and defects are removed, and the masculine and feminine virtues are united, and their weaknesses redeemed; therefore, His true followers will be progressively exalted over their natural limitations. That is why we see in holy men a tenderness and a truly maternal solicitude for the souls entrusted to them while in holy women there is manly boldness, proficiency, and determination."

Time for a few examples:

Ed "Moose" Krause excelled at American football and basketball, as both a player and coach. His son, Edward Krause Jr., was ordained a priest in Rome in 1967.  Soon after the ordination, Ed Krause’s wife, Elise, was seriously injured when a young man under the influence of alcohol collided with the car she was in. The regions of her brain relating to memory and emotional functions were severely damaged. Doctors thought she wouldn't last the night, and though she did survive, after spending four months in Intensive Care, she was severely diminished for the rest of her twenty-three years.  When the accident happened, Moose was encouraged to "re-make" his life, to walk away and start afresh.  At 54 years of age and the height of his fame, he had plenty of options. During Elise’s final eight years at the nursing home, Ed visited her twice a day and often more, spoon-feeding her and singing her favorites songs. To his son, Fr. Ed, he once reflected aloud: "People feel sorry for me, but she is the one who has to suffer, not me, and there's nowhere in the world I'd rather be than in that room with your mom."  What a man!

Whenever I read Saint Edith Stein's words about holy women and "manly boldness, proficiency, and determination", I think of Mother Angelica, Poor Clare and founder of a multi-million-dollar television network.  She once said of herself, "Faith is one foot on the ground, one foot in the air, and a queasy sensation in the stomach. People say I'm a brave woman, but they're wrong; I'm just a coward who keeps going forward."  What a woman!

I was recently in the company of an elderly married couple whom I have known for a long time.  At one point in the conversation, the man's wife exclaimed, "My goodness, how patient you were with the children, Pat, walking them around that field on the pony one after another, hour after hour!" A good forty or fifty years had passed since her husband had walked their children around the field on the pony.  In those four or five decades there were hundreds, if not thousands, of moments in which her husband's patience had failed.  She could have recalled any one of such occasions to dwell upon, and yet she chose to enjoy and express admiration for his patience during the pony rides. Needless to say, their friendship is a source of wonder to all who know them.

A mother once said to me about her married daughter, "The poor girl invests so much in the relationship and sees no reciprocation. She has a strong sense of justice, so she suffers terribly." The husband said to me, "I can't please her, Father. No matter what I do, I just can't please her."  What's a priest to say?  What to do?  Who's in the wrong?  Who's in the right?  Is a strong sense of justice always a good thing?  What is the role of in-laws in a marriage?  Subjects for another day...

If, as we have seen, male harshness and female contempt are typical diabolical threats to married bliss, then perhaps their opposites--male gentleness and female admiration—might be their divine antidotes. In other words, perhaps the antidote to "nothing-box" jock insensibility is loyal affection, and perhaps the antidote to endless and needless nagging is joyful admiration. Perhaps we should cultivate a spirit of ecstatic gratitude for the tiniest gestures of love. Perhaps we should raise the bar of expectation high when it comes to choosing a spouse and drop it way down low on our wedding day.

One thing is sure: it is a recipe for disaster to bring expectations of happiness to another human being that should only be brought to the heart of God. And there is only one Victim, the Christ. Ultimately, the remedy is prayer: "Fix your eyes on the Crucified One, and all will seem easy" (Saint Teresa of Jesus).

Fr. Colum Power

My blog “Random Reflections”

Fr. Colum Power, born in Cork, Ireland, in 1965, is a Servant Priest of the Home of the Mother. He obtained a Master's degree in literature in 1991 and a doctorate in the History of the Church in 2013. He is author of A Touch of the Gardener's Hand, Honey from the Lion's Carcass, and James Joyce's Catholic Categories. He devotes his time to apostolic activities for the youth organized by the Servant Brothers of the Home of the Mother.

Fr. Colum Power is author and editor of the Blog "Random Reflections", which can be found on the website www.familiesfullyalive.com.