Our diocesan newspaper, the Pittsburgh Catholic, ran my review of a recent book on men’s spirituality.
Read the mainstream media and you’ll get the impression that the Catholic Church is a men’s club where women feel alienated.
Go to church, though, or attend a parish function, and you’re more likely to get the opposite impression. Women dominate the field — as volunteers and in liturgical ministries. Among church leaders and thinkers, anxious conversations turn on the questions of how to “reach” men and “get them more involved.”
It’s not exactly a new problem. I grew up in an Italian-Catholic ghetto in the 1960s, and it was fairly common to see men smoking outside church after dropping off their wives at Mass.
There was, even then, a perceived disconnect between the Church’s thriving devotional culture and the needs of ordinary men.
Thanks be to Robert P. Lockwood, then, for writing a book that connects (or re-connects) the Gospel to Catholic males in an authentically masculine way: A Guy’s Guide to the Good Life: Virtues for Men (Servant Books, $13.99).
A Guy’s Guide is, in a sense, a review of the seven basic habits of Christian life: the three theological virtues (faith, hope and charity) and the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude). But this is no re-packaging. It’s a fresh presentation. The basic definitions are there, occasionally buttressed by witnesses from tradition, but the heart of this book is the storytelling. We learn about faith from the story of Snuffy Stirnweiss, who was the 1945 American League batting champion. We learn about hope by watching Lockwood’s college-aged son fly model airplanes. We learn about charity, self-giving love, from the men Lockwood meets at a Holy Name dinner in Beaver County, Pa.
(In fact, Pittsburgh Catholic readers will often find themselves on familiar turf as they read these stories. Since Lockwood lives in Chippewa, he writes about our steel mills, our ballparks, our roadways and waterways.)
The prose is direct and plain-spoken, but memorable and quotable. What’s virtue all about? “It not about how I make a living but how I live … [W[hat we really want out of our lives is happiness. Not three-beer happiness, I-got-a-raise happiness or the-Steelers-made-the-playoffs happiness but that quiet contentment that comes with living a good life.”
Lockwood speaks consistently to male concerns, and he manages to do it without lapsing into stereotypes or dumbing down his material. In fact, his guide throughout the book is the great poet Dante — a man’s man of the thirteenth century, who was very much engaged in his world and the Church. Though I’ve been reading Dante on and off for decades, I was genuinely surprised by how well he fit beside the batting champions, bankers, barstool philosophers, and other characters in this book. Then I remembered a fact that Lockwood probably had in mind from the start: that Dante addressed his poetry to ordinary men, and he was the first Italian poet to use common, everyday language for that purpose. Lockwood uses his English artfully and subtly for the same glorious ends.
Like Dante, he knows that our greatest obstacles are not the big sins, like murder, grand theft and adultery. If we avoid these, it can be very easy — and deadly — to give ourselves a pass on Christian living. Lockwood identifies the enemy for most of us, however, not as the big sins, or the usual clichéd package of temptations (money, power and sex), but rather as “benign mediocrity.”
Lockwood notes instead that Jesus calls everyone to greatness and, as one manly saint put it, “our hearts are restless” till we answer that call.
I do not know a man I’d hesitate to give this book to. It’s simple enough for those who grow impatient with reading. It’s smart enough for those who appreciate wit and subtlety. Its humor is so strong that, as I read one spot — where our hero goes out to buy a pair of sneakers — I laughed so hard that my wife feared I would damage my internal organs.
St. Gregory the Great once compared the Scriptures to a river that’s calm and low enough for a child to play in, but deep enough to drown an elephant. This book uses the same rare combination of qualities — simplicity and subtlety — to deliver a powerful reflection on Scriptural living, and deliver it directly to the heart, soul, and gut of us guys.