Sometimes I look in the mirror and have grave doubts about my decision: I’ve joined a Catholic men’s group. What’s more, it’s an American one – in Texas, no less – and this stirs a deep-rooted fear that I’ve become ensnared in some sort of Evangelical Bible study.
What have I become? Hanging out with a bunch of mostly much older men – some literally greybeards – and talking God is not what drew me here. The America I came looking for was the sexy, glamorous one of Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled detective novels.
But there’s no getting away from how the discussion group has proven surprisingly enlightening. For one, I’ve been reminded that older white men aren’t all bad – despite mainstream media depicting them as responsible for the world’s ills – and can even be a source of wise advice for younger men flailing around with that ultimate conundrum laid out in the film Alfie by Michael Caine: “What’s it all about?”
The group has also provided a means to reconnect with the theology and philosophy of my youth, which I always relished (I went to Ampleforth).
Each Friday we gather after early morning Mass – again, another source of self-conscious unease: what would my friends say? – to read a short text with religious relevance accompanied by five questions that the group delves into.
During Lent up to 10 men turned up. Since then it’s dropped to around six, though the reduction in numbers hasn’t reduced the meaningful reflections on words from the likes of CS Lewis, GK Chesterton and more modern religious teachers such as Bishop Robert Barron.
Jon, a retired engineer, admits he’s not in the most athletic shape these days, and jokes about his rather bulbous eyes. But when the rest of us are stumbling over a passage from Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, it’s usually Jon who manages in his calm way to deftly parse the meaning and express it clearly and concisely.
It’s always a humbling reminder that a somewhat frumpy-looking church-goer can, in fact, be a rather more radical prospect than one ever estimated.
Stuart and Karl (two of the greybeards) always turn up in jacket and tie looking smart – square, some might say – carrying the hard-fought wisdom acquired through marriage, raising lots of children and other travails.
At the other end of the spectrum is Josh, 31, recently married and with kids and everything else ahead of him. Despite his hipster preference for wearing shoes without socks – something I usually take as a warning sign – he lucidly dissects the nuances of some of today’s most contentious societal frictions, such as abortion, illustrating how millennials can see beyond the “It is what I want and what suits me which is justification enough” argument which so much of society seems increasingly enthralled by.
Deacon Vince – a permanent deacon, as he is married – almost always says nothing for the first 30 minutes, listening in acute concentration, before suddenly letting rip with a quotation from St Augustine, Humanae Vitae or the Summa Theologiae. Or he may just come out with a more down-to-earth observation, as during our discussion of the role of chivalry, when he said that it drove him nuts to see men not walking curbside when accompanying women.
That’s another element of the group I like. Despite the paunches and grey hair, I often feel I am sat among a group of radicals. So much of what they say – about gender roles, sex, marriage, contraception and human rights – is brazenly at odds with the zeitgeist, and all the more exciting and uplifting for it.
Even the bits I don’t agree with are backed up by solid argument and reasoning – a rare commodity amid much that goes for debate nowadays.
The group first came together this Lent during a three-week programme called Rise, a nationwide initiative aimed at instructing men how to live the fullness of their Catholicism every day at home, at work and in their communities.
The Catholic Church in America has lately made a real push to engage with men and get them to question their roles in society, amid what’s seen as a nationwide crisis in masculinity. The evidence for this ranges from terrible suicide rates to lone wolf shootings to “incels” – young men who are “involuntarily celibate” and commiserate online with other incels, raging against the supposed wrongs done to them by women and the world.
Having once been an incel by default myself during the raging lust of my twenties (show me a man who hasn’t) I have some sympathy. And in today’s rapidly changing society young men have even more to deal with. But so does everyone.
What many of these young men appear to lack is an older mentor to remind them of the usefulness of basic principles, the topic of one of the famous Letters from a Stoic by the Roman philosopher Seneca. “When savants have appeared, sages have become rare,” Seneca wrote. “For that frank, simple virtue has changed into hidden and crafty knowledge; we are taught how to debate, not how to live.”
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist who splits his time between the Horn of Africa, the US and Britain. Follow him on Twitter:@jrfjeffrey