Fr. Stephen Muller, OCSO
Birth of John the Baptist
Is 49:1-6; Acts 13:22-26; Lk 1:57-66, 80
When I think of John the Baptist I picture a very manly Saint. It is good for us to have thoroughly masculine role models in the spiritual life for us to admire. Some of the holy cards of Jesus given out at funerals can look quite effeminate. Other manly Saints that come to my mind are Pope John Paul II and Don Bosco. Sanctity did not diminish their manliness.
In some cultures – maybe Hispanic and Italian – it’s not machismo to be devout and spiritual and religious. Those things are more associated with the role of women. A man might feel a little embarrassed to be seen in church. Consequently, churches in those cultures seem to be filled more with women – they’re the ones doing all the pious practices. And, of course, they’re doing them in a way that befits a woman. When a man gets touched spiritually and wants to spend more time doing “churchy” things, he looks around for role models or people to imitate and sees mostly women. In a confused way, he might think he has to sacrifice some of his masculinity to become spiritual.
In some cultures, being virtuous is more associated with the woman’s role. It’s macho to be able to drink hard; it’s macho to use foul language, it’s macho to be promiscuous, it’s macho to get angry. Even something like girly posters or porn might be seen as something that validates one’s masculinity.
I was very lucky to grow up with a father who was both very masculine and very devout. I was able to see demonstrated in real life how it was possible to be loving and virtuous and kind and thoughtful of others, how it was possible to be pious and religious, a lover of spiritual reading and Scripture, a person who could get lost in prayer and meditation, and at the same time have muscular, tanned arms and dirt under his fingernails. And like John the Baptist and John Paul II, his masculine strength and courage could kick in if he felt passionate about some issue.
As I’ve traveled around to various Trappist monasteries, one doesn’t have to look very far to see specimens of masculine spirituality. I think of our own Br. John the Baptist, with his deep voice and hard-working hands. His skills for fixing machines kept the bakery going for many years. And yet, many an hour found him sitting very still in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. I like to think he took after his namesake.
Authentic masculine holiness has something very magnetic about it. We are told great crowds went out to listen to St. John the Baptist in the wilderness. I think most women would love for their husbands to be more holy than them and be their leader on the path to sanctity. I have heard that often in confession and spiritual direction. There is a great need for masculine spirituality in our culture. We need men to step up to the plate.
John was not about soft clothes, fancy houses, and gourmet meals. He was an outdoors man, a survivalist, a frontiersman. He preferred sleeping under the stars on the ground. He wasn’t afraid of critters – he would just make a meal of them! He had stamina and endurance. He was wiry and bronzed. He was courageous and brave – he had guts. He said what needed to be said, and didn’t fear the consequences. He called the sanctimonious Pharisees a brood of vipers. He did not shrink back from telling Herod that he shouldn’t have his brother’s wife. If testifying to the truth meant endangering his safety, so be it – bring it on. He was not about to shirk his responsibilities. He would be true to his mission and not count the cost. A true manly spirit has a firm back bone and does not waffle under duress.
So, on this birthday celebration of a virile saint, let us allow our manly qualities to enhance our spiritual life.