Conversations on Fatherhood - Creating Sacred Spaces with Fr Michael Butler
Maniphesto is a collaborative community of men who want to build on the efforts of those who came before us. See Paul Robson’s fascinating conversation with Father Michael Butler - a seasoned elder, orthodox priest and fully engaged figure from the mythopoeic 1980’s to modern-day men’s work. Read a few highlights below, though we fully recommend seeing the full video for an intimate and inspiring reminder of why the responsibility of leadership within men's work and the role of The Father is so important today.
THE MYTHOPOEIC MOVEMENT HELPED THE CRISIS OF MASCULINE IDENTITY
Paul and Fr Michael go straight to a key turning point in the history of men; the effects of industrialisation and how, by the late 19th and early 20th Century, fathers were more absent from their children's lives with a significant impact on boys.
Fr Michael points out “Even as life and society got easier and more comfortable, a lot of manly skills and traits that men have (such as courage and more physical strength than women) were less in demand.”
He goes on to describe how, in the 1970’s, the SNAG - Sensitive New Age Guy – was not only a sign of the times but a clear indicator of how men were forced to culturally adapt in different ways than women.
“Women change their fashion - the length of their hair etc. Men have to change their entire personalities in order to keep up. Men felt lost. When the traditional macho stuff isn’t in demand anymore, where do you find your way? Men started asking themselves “Where do I fit in? What does it mean to be a man? Is there any place for that anymore?”"
Yet it was the 1980’s when Fr Michael saw a turning point where the focus of men’s work pivoted towards grief. Referring to Robert Bly’s timeless classic, Iron John, where Bly suggests men are taught as boys that hurting from a psychological wound is shameful, Fr Michael reflects “We had all of these men dragging their guts behind them. What do you do with men carrying incredible amounts of pain? There was no appropriate way to let it out that felt comfortable to men...nothing to say that men’s feelings matter.”
Whilst acknowledging there was a place for men to emote and ‘have a good cry together’ both Paul and Fr Michael agreed that understandably “...most men don’t want to go there!”
In contrast, Fr Michael joyfully remembers the early thrust of the mythopoeic men’s movement (of which Bly was a pioneer in) where, though there was a more stereotypical view of men’s work in which men ‘sat drumming in the woods’, there was much more to it than that.
“What they were really looking at was stories...and Bly was a genius at that! Picking up very ancient versions of stories that have clearly appealed to people for hundreds and thousands of years.” He reflects how men were seeking a sense of place, “What are these saying to us? Where can we find ourselves in these kinds of stories?”
Archetypes - a term coined by Carl Jung and popularised more recently by Jordan Peterson, among other intellectuals - became a key proponent in men’s work. “As these (archetypes) are common experiences and ideas in behaviour patterns for everyone around the world, men were able to go along with them - let’s look at the archetypes of the king, the magician, the trickster...the wild man. How do they play out?”
Paul brings things to the present, reminding us that such archetypes are key within modern men’s communities such as The Mankind Project, Fr Michael concludes “What we do today traces their roots back to what Robert Bly did!” and thus the work done by men many decades ago has clearly found a path through to the 21st Century.
As the conversation turns more personal, Fr Michael is invited to share his own experiences, with his belief that the importance of the individual man’s quest is key, being evident as he says “All research involves ‘me-search’”. His personal story includes losing his father as a young boy, with childhood and early adult insecurities such as social anxiety and shame shaping him, even as he came out of his shell in high school. With a determination to ‘grow himself up’ to realise why he was awkward, he turned to psychology and was particularly interested in adolescent male development. As well as discovering Bly, with John Eldridge’s Wild at Heart another key influence, the work of author, spiritual writer, and Franciscan friar, Father Richard Rohr, made a distinct impression on him.
“He did genius-level work with ritual and symbolism and rites of passage…(I had ) a very transformative experience that showed me what could be done by doing it myself and being on the ground with other men.”
This work was important, yet it was becoming a father that brought home to him the importance of such work.
“I don’t want them to go through the same shit I went through when I was growing up...I’d rather they grew up better adjusted than I did and not spend so much time trying to get themselves right”.
MEN’S MODES OF INTIMACY ARE DIFFERENT FROM WOMEN BUT JUST AS VALUABLE
As the subject of sons continues, Paul’s sharing of his own experience with his son - in contrast to men’s lack of interaction caused by industrialisation - leads to a moving and important discussion on how men communication preferences help them to excel. Fr Michael theorises that “Women face each other, men stand shoulder to shoulder and look at something else together. That becomes the basis for the interaction. It’s a mode of communication we’re good at….get out of your head and go and do something about it. This is better for men!” He continues “Men bear the burden of performance – men are expected to DO. Get together with another man and DO something - there’s a real sense of brotherhood there!”
This acceptance of differences in the sexes is also an important factor when considering who men should go to, to deal with their wounds. “There are things men need to take to other men that you don’t need to dump on your woman and she is not there to carry your burdens. Good male friends are needed to take their problems to.”
CREATING SACRED SPACE
As Fr Michael stresses the need for men’s groups, the ideal conditions are discussed with sacred space being key; liminal space where transformation can take place. As with anything transformational, it’s important to have someone trustworthy to hold that space. In this case, the ritual elder is that man. “The purpose of him is to keep you honest and the boundaries firm and tight so you can do the work you need to do in loosening up” Though Fr Michael makes it clear it’s not about wrapping the man in cotton wool “He turns up the heat if you’re not doing the necessary work; to hold you to task if you wander into bullshit.”
True transformation isn’t necessarily about feeling good, as Fr Michael stresses the importance of clear parameters. “Sacred space is liminal. It’s liminoid if you don’t have boundaries. Like a rock concert...you blow off a load of psychic energy but what has changed? You have catharsis, maybe a hangover...but the next day you’re the same again.”
As for the types of spaces that can be sacred, he suggests ‘something out of the ordinary’ yet within our culture can be liminal; a men’s group, a conference, a retreat or a therapist's office. There is also one other vital ingredient that cannot be overlooked.
“The need for structure is absolute” insists Fr Michael. “Something external must hold the space together so people can loosen up. The stronger the boundaries the better…when we’ve encountered trauma, pain or loss in a life transition...we need someone to help hold us together when we work through the issue.”
With these elements being essential Fr Michael offers how a man should ideally feel when coming out of such a space, such as with a therapist.
“I am myself only more so...everything is tighter and fits together better and life works better than before I had gone. A good EMG (Maniphesto’s European Men’s Gathering) gives the opportunity for men to share and lose some of the baggage – men go back out genuinely healed and more integrated and able to live their lives better.”
As a priest in the Orthodox Church, his experience of confessions has led him to understand that everyone moves through a life transition every 3 to 7 years. He remarks “If you’re not, then check. It’s normal!”
He continues to reflect that life is ‘episodic’ and how spiritual fathers in myth and stories, including popular films and fiction, display the importance of their role of the elder. “Rafiki (The Lion King) comes in with wisdom. Gandalf guides, shows up and gives when needed, goes away. Yoda gave Luke what he needed...when the student is ready, the teacher appears!”
Discussing the importance of leaders, acknowledging that blurred lines and responsibilities sometimes appear in spiritual circles and mentorship programs. Fr Michael and Paul reflect on the importance of guiding people with awareness; watching out for the ‘saviour gene’ and being careful not to be a ‘White Knight’ to other men and that helping men find their own way remains the aim.
“We give them tools to fix themselves, but we cannot take that responsibility upon ourselves….as a leader, elder or spiritual father, I can provide some insight and guidance, bless you and send you on your way...but not do it for you!”
Fr Michael also stresses the importance of distinguishing between monastic settings - where monks/mentees are often in the role of disciples and guided by an abbot or other institutional leader figure - and the wider social role of spiritual fatherhood. His vision is clear on what a necessary and effective leader does.
“Ask questions (to someone seeking help) such as “Is this the best use of your time?” and make recommendations or suggestions, yet the mentee is ultimately responsible for what happens next. There is a real exchange that goes on in these roles when someone comes with an issue and is willing to open his or her heart and to speak honestly or frankly. You will open up in return to the invitation for intimacy...there is a degree of humanity and openness and honesty. It’s a holy thing...you have to be very careful when dealing with someone else's heart.”
There is a warning also; should someone encounter a leader with suspect energy.
“If you find someone who is looking for disciples and that kind of authority then flee – nobody who is genuine would do that. If you can build a mutually beneficial relationship, great! But be very careful of internet gurus and online elders!”
WHY WE NEED FATHERHOOD
Toward the end of the wide-reaching conversation, Paul brings us back to a key theme as he asks: “Fatherhood - why do we need it and what is the greatest thing about it?” Fr Michael’s response confronts the reality of many of today’s societal problems.
“Fatherlessness is cited as one of the correlates for a lot of social and criminal activity in America. With poor academic performances in school criminality, impulse control, socially they are essential in the lives of their children.”
Though he’s keen to point out that fatherhood shouldn’t just be considered as something for children, feeling a sense of honour when a man from his parish or a friend approaches him for support. “There’s always a way to be a father, even for an older man who is hurting - provide security, stability, strength, a word of truth...even to say I’m sorry you're going through this and I'm here for you.”
Finishing with the future generations, Fr Michael summarises “Fathers need to see what their children do. Sports, concerts etc – watch what they do! Whether it’s your biological kids or other kids on the soccer team, there is a blessing in seeing that and being attentive to it. It causes children and younger people to just blossom...and THAT is why fathers are important!”
Watch the full video for a fascinating hour of conversation and book your ticket for the European Men’s Gathering. Father Michael will be joining Paul at this energising event amongst scores of other men looking to continue the work of the men that have gone before us and - with Fatherhood being the key theme of the gathering - how we can all lead the way forward!