Soren Johnson is one of Coracle’s board members, and recently he gave this address to over 800 (mostly) Catholic men on retreat in Herndon, VA. His words apply to all men who long to follow God while living in these times.
“Where do we go from here?”
Annual Diocesan Men’s Conference
St. Joseph Catholic Church,
Herndon March 2, 2013
Tom suggested the title for my talk, “Where do we go from here?”, so let me try a quick initial response. There’s a beautiful Cistercian monastery about 20 miles west of here….Holy Cross in Berryville. Unless you’ve made plans to check into Holy Cross this afternoon, you’re going to come down from the heights of today and hit the ground in about T minus 90 minutes. And unless your wife is really impressed by the changes she sees in you the next week, this just might be the last Saturday off you get for quite a while. Look, I’m just speaking from personal experience here.
“Where do we go from here?” I was talking with a priest friend of mine the other day about this talk, coming down after lunch at the tail-end of an inspiring day with brilliant authors and teachers. He smiled knowingly and said, “Well, just remember what the disciples encountered right after they came down from the Mount of Transfiguration, after their inspiring day away from the routine.” I was drawing a blank. He said, “The demon-possessed boy.”
I don’t know about you, but in 90 minutes I’m coming off this mountain to an encounter with three boys and two girls, and they are a force to be reckoned with.
A few years ago I got a phone call I’ll never forget.
It was my little brother, Kirk, calling from Chicago.
“Hey bro,” he told me, “I got news for you. You’re going to start boxing.” From there, Kirk went on to tell me that he had bought me a gift membership at the local boxing gym in nearby Ashburn. He’d spoken with the former prizefighter who ran it, and he told me that on the morning of the next session I needed to arrive ten minutes early—at 5:50 a.m.—to get my hands wrapped.
At that time I was going through what we euphemistically call ‘a job transition’. You might say I was experiencing a little stress—hitting the job path with four young kids at home, and a fifth on the way.
Kirk is my brother. He was plugged into my life, he knew what I needed, and he stepped out of his comfort zone in my hour of need. I believe every one of us here today is more than a blood brother…every one of us here today is a spiritual brother to the other men in this room and our parish is in a critical hour of need in our culture, our marriages and our families.
I had never boxed. I always liked running and had even run a few marathons, but my upper body strength and core muscles were, and always had been, nil. I was one of those kids in the grade-school PE class who, when it came time for pull-ups, snuck a little jump off the chair, just to get the momentum to log my one pull-up.
A few months before Kirk’s call, a good friend of mine gave me a book entitled “No More Christian Nice Guy: How Being Nice—Not Good—is Hurting Men, Women and Children”. I skimmed the first chapter about a generation of nice, non-confrontational, passive Christian men. They were showing up to Mass with their families, but…. I guess it’s no real surprise…. they were raising a generation of passive, mediocre kids who were getting eaten alive by this toxic culture. And I threw the book aside.
But then Kirk’s call came. A boxing membership…. No More Christian Nice Guy….Lord, I thought, what is going on here?
I don’t know about you guys, but in my personal relationship with Christ, I find that God is not always subtle. Just to make sure the message was getting through, He sent a Pentecostal Christian woman my way – she told me that she wanted to talk with me because she’d been “given a word” for me in prayer. I had been working for several years in prison ministry, visiting inmates, confronting the gritty reality of men trying to rebuild their lives, and I had worked with this woman on a few ministry projects. I would have blown her off if it hadn’t been for the fact I needed to complete a project with her.
The day came, and she sat me down, looked me in the eyes, and told me that I needed to reflect…on the life of…Moses. “Moses had a staff,” she told me. “You have a staff, but you’re not using it.” And then she came to the end of her brief message to me: “You need to pick it up. There are many people in your life who need you to pick up your staff.”
Brothers, look around you this afternoon. These are the men who are picking up their staffs to lead their families, neighbors, and colleagues during a crisis of fatherhood, an hour of what our Bishop has called “unprecedented attack” and our Pope Emeritus called “reductive secularism.” (cf., Jan. 2012 address).
I’m sure there are a few non-confrontational Christian nice guys in this room—Lord knows I’ve been there – but we’ve got to admit that passivity is not a viable option when our culture is working overtime to evangelize our children in all the wrong ways: to get them to dismiss the “institutional Church”; to seduce them into pursuing things and appearances instead of purpose and meaning; to drive a wedge in their minds between “Jesus” and “the Church”; and to push our freedom to practice our faith out of the public square.
Look around you: We are just 800 men in a diocese of 450,000 Catholics, and of a total 3 million people. A look around this room would find dads who have a relationship with Christ, men who are fathers of seminarians and priests, fathers who are sending healthy children off to college who know what a true man is because they’ve been living with one, who know what marriage looks like—that’s the kind of men who woke up this morning, dragged their butts into the confessionals, and gave up a Saturday.
But for each man here today, there are 99 in our parishes who are in the wings looking to us to put more skin in the game, who are hungry for meaning, and who, I suggest, are ready to follow you. Have you picked up your staff?
At a time when many dioceses are contracting, you and I in this room wake up each morning in a diocese that will grow—by sheer demographics, not even by the evangelizing you’re doing—by another 100,000 Catholics between now and 2020, a diocese that will Lord willing ordain five exceptional men to the priesthood in three months.
I don’t think I’m too far out on a limb when I say that we are some of the most blessed Catholic men in America today. That we in this room have lucked out with more opportunities—for prayer, study, friendship and the sacraments—than the vast majority of our brothers in this country, or even in the world. But it wasn’t luck that woke us up this morning and pointed us to Herndon. We are each here today for some purpose. I’m asking each of us here today to wrestle as a man with those words of Jesus: To whom much is given, much is required.
So, with my brother Kirk leaning on me…I bought myself a pair of boxing gloves and showed up one morning to that gym. The trainer took the gloves, said ‘where’d you buy this junk?’ and hurled them against the wall before he taped me up and said he had a question for me. Other men were walking across the dark parking lot and through the doors as Led Zeppelin blared— these men looked like cops (in fact, some of them were), like Claude van Dam and Bruce Willis. The trainer asked me, “Do you really want to be here?” When I limped out of that gym 70 minutes later feeling pain from muscles I didn’t even know existed, the only thing I really wanted was to crawl into a hole. But over time, the trainer and these guys grew on me, they taught me stuff, and the routine became something I needed and wanted. Now, hearing my alarm on Mondays at 5 a.m., all I have to do is think about the guys, and how I don’t want to be the only one who hits the snooze button to get my beauty sleep.
I guess this experience is making me think about how, as Catholic men, we each need an equivalent gym for our spiritual lives. Without it, we’re hitting snooze at precisely the hour that our families need us to be training—punching the bag. And with an on-fire diocese like this, we’ve already been given a life-long membership.
I have friends in this room today who inspire me with their early morning workout routines in prayer and study. They’re training me, and I’m passing along what they teach me to my kids, and to other men God has placed in my life.
Sometimes, as a kid, I’d wake up early and catch my dad reading scripture before he went off to work. My dad trained me more by what he did out of church. He trained me with precious few words, but with a rock-hard example. Our diocese is packed with prizefighting priests who are ready to greet us at an early morning daily Mass, who are ready to tape up our hands if we’re new to the ring or are out of practice, to give spiritual direction and hear our confessions.
And when we walk in the door, these priests are asking us, like that Jersey prizefighter in Ashburn, “Do you really want to be here? Do you want to admire Jesus from a distance, or do you want follow him to the cross? Do you want to be a nice Christian dad and husband, or do you want to make the ultimate sacrifice for your family?”
If you gave up a Saturday to be here, this probably isn’t news to you. It’s not popular, but most of us probably get it at some gut level: Christ chose men to expand and lead his Church; He chose men to pick up the staff of spiritual leadership in our families; he calls men in a particular way. But without a real relationship with Christ – one built in the gym of daily prayer time and regular confession – we run the risk of becoming lecturing, moralizing, all-around difficult leaders. As a friend of mine said, all the grumpy Catholic positions are filled. We need to pivot, and show others the joy that comes with training in true discipleship…the joy that comes when we can become leaders that people actually want to follow.
“You have a staff, but you’re not using it.” That Pentecostal woman’s message about Moses and the staff stung. It hit a nerve with me.
I knew that Christ chose men to expand and lead the church, but I also knew that like Saint Peter, I am extremely weak at times, disappointing. Let’s face it guys—most of us don’t feel as spiritual as our wives – it just doesn’t seem to come as naturally to us. But when we lean into the faith, great stuff happens. There is an unmistakable potential for greatness when a man starts stoking his relationship with Christ.
There’s a story about the priest Saint John Vianney, a holy priest who spent 16 hours a day hearing confessions. In the story, the devil confronts John Vianney and says: “How you make me suffer! If there were three men on earth like you, my kingdom would be destroyed.”
When one man—let alone 3, let alone 800—goes deep with Christ, the kingdom of the evil one is shaken. His strongholds in our families and communities are destroyed. The father can have an asymmetrically positive impact on his family, his workplace, and his neighbors. And when he doesn’t take his relationship with Christ seriously, he has a disproportionately negative impact on those same people.
We don’t need a study to tell us this, but I found it recently. It’s a government study from Switzerland…a country where they really know how to count and measure. What did they find?
“[I]f a father does not go to church, no matter how faithful his wife’s devotions, only one child in 50 will become a regular worshipper. For fathers who do attend church regularly, regardless of the practice of the mother, between two-thirds and three-quarters of their children will become churchgoers (regular and irregular). If a father goes irregularly to church, regardless of his wife’s devotion, between a half and two-thirds of their offspring will find themselves coming to church regularly or occasionally” (cf., Touchstone).
The study underscores what we know in our guts but chafe against – that the “father’s influence…..is out of all proportion” (cf., Touchstone) to our own sense of worthiness.
What a secular Swiss study and the Pentecostal woman point us to is this: Jesus Christ makes a particular call to us men. Despite our flaws….despite our screw-ups…our betrayals….Christ calls us to be close to Him, to pick up the staff, be his disciples, to discover the utterly unique mission that each one of here today has, and to lead others to Him.
If we’re ready to pick up our staff…if we’re ready to go to the gym…we need to learn from the trainer. And the question is how? Prayer is the means by which we come to know Jesus and are trained by him so that we know how to use the staff.
I’m going to get practical and talk about prayer as a discipline, but as I do, I want to warn us about what I see as a difficult problem in Catholic spiritual programs. It’s that that the spiritual disciplines are frequently presented as ends in themselves; as what we need to do to become “good Catholics”. And to think so is to miss the point entirely.
The spiritual disciplines are catalysts to encounter Christ. What we need to do to be “good Catholics” is get to know Jesus in his Church – meet Him, learn his language, talk with Him day to day, follow where He leads. If the practice of the disciplines doesn’t lead us to encounter the most amazing friend and master we could ever imagine, then we’re not doing them correctly. Over time, the disciples will allow us to break through, and into a living relationship.
I showed up at the boxing gym for several months before I had the first glimpse of this. All the time it was technique: breathing, stance, pivots, combinations, balance, ducking, but one day I broke through to the other side for a few seconds while sparring with the trainer. It was an encounter. I connected (yes, by which I mean, I got hit, and I hit him back). It’s hard to describe, but for the first moment ever, my attention shifted from the techniques and disciplines to an encounter with the trainer.
If we’re married and have children, we need to be training three sets of muscles in prayer on a daily basis: individual prayer, prayer with our spouses, and family prayer. In that order.
If you showed up at my house 5 years ago to an occasional evening when we prayed the rosary, you would have done well to pull me aside for a Come to Jesus talk.
For years, I looked to my wife to call the kids and make the family rosary happen. After all, she loved the rosary from her childhood. I didn’t grow up with it. I told myself that I could play second fiddle. In fact, I was playing the passive fool. My children likely thought of family prayer as a tiresome sideshow when they should have been learning that our friendship with Christ is the foundation of our life together as a family. But when dad has no skin in the game, it’s hard to focus the kids’ attention.
In that season of my life, the rosary wasn’t the only thing that was sporadic. My daily individual prayer, to use a theological term, was crap, and my prayer with my wife, after years of non-stop child care had worn away any quality time, had become almost non-existent. I stand before you today as one thankful to God for the people he put into my life (yes, most of them men) to show me a better way.
Individual prayer is the foundation of everything in our lives. If we don’t get this right, we have nothing to offer our families but heavy disciplines and techniques that never lead to an encounter. They’ll never see us leading with our heart.
First: I challenge us all to find a place, perhaps a quiet room in our house, or better yet, a nearby chapel on the way to or from work, where we can get into the routine of coming quietly before God each day for a devoted 15 minutes of prayer. If you’re trying to pick a time, remember that Jesus’ suggested best practice was “before daybreak”. For the content of your prayer, try the day’s scripture readings. Reading scripture is like doing your scales—you can’t play music or improvise until you’ve mastered them. And once you’ve learned scripture, you’ll encounter what’s behind it, what it’s supposed to lead to: that living relationship. And that’s the moment of breaking through: when we’ll no longer be glancing at the clock to see if 15 minutes is up. That’s the moment when prayer starts spilling over into other moments of the day like the exciting conversation it’s meant to be.
Second: If you’re just getting started with 15 minutes of prayer, I want to encourage you to persevere through the times when 15 minutes feels like an eternity and a waste of time because your thoughts are so scattered. I’m task oriented, and focus on God can be a hard task at first. In fact, we honor God with our time and our redirection to him even if we’ve been distracted 15 times in 15 minutes. He always meets us where we are at! (cf., Joe Jordano).
Third: The best training for individual prayer includes a morning offering—and at the close of the day, an examination of conscience. If you don’t have these at your bedside or on your smart phone, you can Google some great ones which are specific for men and fathers. For too many years the first thing I did in the morning was check e-mail or fetch the morning paper instead of making a morning offering. What a waste of time that was: Christ was passing by me every morning….ready to talk with me, and I was unavailable. If every man in this room started an offering and examination starting tomorrow, we’d send a palpable shock wave through our families and our parishes.
Fourth: Fasting. Like no other practice, I’ve found that fasting frees up space for me as a father and husband, and reminds me of my true spiritual hunger: for my heavenly Father. It’s simple: our trainer fasted, and so should we. This culture is running a rat-race to make us forget that: a race to fill ourselves with comforts and seductive distractions that leave us hungrier than when we started. Try making a weekly commitment to fast. Start small by giving up just one or two meals, and then build that muscle slowly. Prayer isn’t a highway, but if it were, then fasting moves us into the HOV lane and gets us to our goal, which is to depend on our heavenly Father for our daily bread.
With one’s spouse
Step back for a moment and think of your pastor. Imagine that after taking his vow and being ordained, he stopped praying and just started going through the functions of his office. If he did this, you’d be right to sense that something was off. After all, he answered Christ’s call to the sacrament of holy orders, not just the function of signing baptism and marriage certificates.
Brothers, if we’re not daily praying with our wives to strengthen the sacramental bond we received from Christ, then something’s off. If we’re not leading in prayer with our wives, I believe we are gutting our marriages and leaving them weak. By extension, we’re setting our son or daughter’s future marriage (or vocation) up for statistical failure.
If we’re not already, we need to put ourselves on the line for our wives, for the woman we love and whom we’ve pledged to help get into heaven. If this is uncomfortable for us, then we need to get comfortable with this discomfort. And with time it will tip and become a source of daily strength. If you’re out of practice and tomorrow is day one of spring training, don’t overdo it. Start with a goal of just one or two minutes at the beginning or end of the day, and build from there. Get an app or print subscription like something to Magnificat, and pray evening prayer together after the kids have gone to bed.
Family prayer is grueling….but only if we’ve been doing nothing individually in prayer, and with our wives. But if those two prayer muscles are being trained, family prayer will reach a tipping point…and over time be transformed into one of the highlights of the day, as it is for me. I mentioned my evening family rosary. My wife and I also pray the morning offering with our children every morning just before they hop on the bus – I’m on speaker-phone on my commute to work, but I don’t miss it. It’s beautiful and simple: “Dear God, I offer you this day, all I think or do or say, uniting it with what was done, on earth by Jesus Christ, Thy Son.” We always add the prayer to our guardian angel. These prayers lays the foundation of our day, and we bookend it with the evening family rosary, and prayer at bedtime.
Brothers, our family prayer will be authentic, joyful, even a little fun at times, when we get the first two areas of prayer right. If they’re not in place, your leadership at family prayer is going to have a tin sound to it and whatever you start will be unsustainable. After all, the last people in the world I can fake are my wife and children. Start small: a one-minute morning offering with your kids; one decade of the family rosary, and build up from there.
Three Fruits of Prayer
When our prayer life takes off, all of the disciplines will fall into place and get easier. Instead of counting minutes in my daily prayer, I can’t wait to meet Christ throughout the day—in structured prayer, through his word, and yes, in the many meetings and interruptions of a typical day. We’re going to see countless fruits of prayer—here are a few you’ll start to see in your life.
First, you’re going to get more and more curious about who this trainer is that keeps prompting you with His voice, with His word, and sacrament. You’re going to start reading more scripture, the Catechism, the lives of the saints, the great arsenal of prayers at our disposal….none of it will
feel like a burden. If the engine of prayer is firing, we’re going to plunge into all of this will because we can’t help but want to learn more about Christ and his church.
Catholic writer Matthew Kelly surveyed thousands of on-fire, serious Catholics, and found that they share a commitment to lifelong learning. He says these Catholics work a plan to read 5 pages a day of scripture or a great Catholic book, which totals about 15 minutes. He says that five pages a day gets you to about 20 200-page books a year. But again, you’re going to be so excited about this relationship, that it won’t be about counting pages.
Then there’s the fruit of male friendship. I shared with you how my brother Kirk was there for me. There’s a reason Jesus sent the disciples out not on their own, but two by two. I’m sure accountability had something to do with it—but more importantly, I think it had to do with how we sharpen each other, as iron sharpens iron, when we are encountering Christ in daily prayer. When you and I go deeper in our prayer life, we’re going to hear His voice lead us to our brothers. There’s a palpable energy and density in this room today that we don’t find when we’re sitting alone in front of a computer screen, surfing the web. I have a boxing bag at home, but I spend almost no time on it; I can’t help but be drawn to the camaraderie of the guys at the gym, all getting our butts kicked by the same trainer. When prayer is happening, we’re going to search these men out not just at an annual diocesan conference: but by grabbing breakfast every week or two with a few guys to go deeper in Scripture, or by joining a parish men’s group, by meeting them for a Knights of Columbus service project, a Cursillo group, by linking up with Catholic Charities to serve the hungry, homeless or imprisoned in our communities, or launching some new group that you’re sensing the Christ is calling you to form.
Finally, confession. When Christ starts accompanying you throughout the day and you’re aware of his presence, you’re also going to be painfully aware of when sin separates you from him and his heavenly father. Confession will no longer be a box to check off, or something to schedule —it will be a place we run to, to restore that friendship, to keep it strong. The mercy we find there will begin to overflow in our homes. It won’t be a matter of frequency, but if we’re confessing only once a year, it’s definitely time to move that to quarterly; if we’re going quarterly, we should prayerfully consider moving that to monthly.
A priest friend of mine shared with me the story of his father. He said all through his childhood, he knew that his father was going to monthly confession. The priest told me, “I always knew that I could seek forgiveness from my dad.” His father taught his kids how to seek and offer forgiveness.
This is what our wife and children should say about us, “I always know that I can seek forgiveness from him,” but this will happen only if we’re cultivating a friendship with Christ.
Where do you go from here? Well, I mentioned I’m going home to my kids.
Last Saturday my 7-year-old son Owen made his first confession. In the lead-up, I prayed a lot with him, worked hard with him on the 10 commandments and covered some good examinations of conscience.
After his confession he went up front in the church to kneel and do his penance, but before I knew it, he was at my side on the kneeler. “You already done?” I whispered. “No,” he answered, “I want to finish the penance here with you.” That was an unforgettable moment with Owen, one which was unavailable to me during the passive chapter of my life.
Fast forward to our family dinner a few nights ago, when Owen gave what amounted to an evangelization report fresh from the hallways of the Loudoun County Public School system. As an aside, Owen is a first-pick quarterback at the recess football scrimmage games, he memorizes NFL stats for fun, and he loves to talk. Owen told us that by his count, the vast majority of his fellow 2nd graders are breaking the second commandment, taking the Lord’s name in vain by constantly saying “O my God.”
Owen went to tell the family that on the bus, he’d already had one-on-one talks with three of his football buddies, and that all three had each decided to stop saying ‘O my God.’ When we asked him how he did it, he said he told his friends that it was disrespectful to God, and that the Kindergarteners and 1st graders were looking up to them, and the 2nd graders had to set a good example.
Prayer, Study, Friendship with other Men, Confession: these aren’t ends in and of themselves. They’re not only for our benefit. Like Owen’s first confession, they’re going to send us on a mission. A real encounter with Christ shows us our unique mission and identity. The office we show up to on Monday has a mission statement, but what’s your unique mission?
Each of us has a mission to spread the faith to our family, friends and colleagues, and like the disciples, each of us has a particular set of gifts from our heavenly Father. Little 7-year old Owen is picking up his staff, and beginning to work his great mission on the bus.
Only you can discover your mission.
My brothers, as we go from here to encounter Christ in just a few minutes in His Eucharist, and then, in the faces of our wives and children and colleagues and neighbors, may they see men who carry a staff lightly, with joy and with purpose. Let’s get out of here. Let’s show them our hearts. Let’s show them the heart of Christ. Let’s be salt and light to this world—that they may “see our good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 5:16)