The Necessity Of Ascent And Descent In The Male Spiritual Life
(Pay Attention Spiritual Leaders!)
I’ve recently been reading a really phenomenal book by Richard Rohr and Joseph Martos, The Wild Man’s Journey: Reflections on Male Spirituality. One of the things that I have continually be thinking about is the distinction the authors make between ascent (which is common in the early stages of a man’s life and dangerous in the later stages), and descent (which is required in the later stages of a man’s life).
We live in a culture where ascent is favored and applauded, and descent is looked down upon with disdain often seen as weakness. When this desire for ascent seeps into our church culture (and it has), we fail to live the counterculture message of descent offered to us through scripture. I fear that we too often live in a Christian culture of egos and desires to attain (large crowds, fame, wealth, etc.), rather than in a culture that strives to walk humbly (in order that Christ may be raised up) and lay down it’s life for others.
Because I think this is such an important topic, especially for male leadership within the Church and in society, I’m going to quote at great length from the book.
The language of the first half of the male life-journey is the language of ascent, the earnest and necessary idealism that characterizes all healthy young men. It is a heroic language of winning, succeeding, triumphing over ego and obstacles. Without such vision and effort, men remain cowering in a small and selfish world. No wonder that they set out to be ‘wounded’ — either intentionally or unintentionally, either wisely or foolishly. No wonder that almost all primal cultures see the need for male initiation rites, mentors and elders. Someone has to oversee the first-stage journey and also teach them that it is only the first stage. Talk about wisdom! We suffer today a lack of knowledge of both initiation and transition to maturity. Without these, we will continue to have more ‘religion,’ without spirituality or real transformation of person. I have no doubt this is the basis of disillusionment with Western institutional religion. People no longer trust new belief systems that merely surround old egos.
The language of the ascent becomes dangerous in the second half of a man’s life. It becomes disguised egocentricity, climbing at all costs, misusing power, using ideology and principles to avoid relationship–what Saint Paul calls law instead of Spirit in his Letter to the Galatians. Thus we see that all great spiritual teachers like Jesus himself, seem to have two sets of teachings: one for the early multitudes and another for the mature disciples (see Matthew 13:10-12; 1 Corinthians 3:1-3). Much spiritual damage has been done in failing to make this distinction. Institutional religion and most religious movements prefer to keep their members at the early stage. They operate better in the managerial/heroic model, even at the cost of significant loss of depth, initiative and creativity. The false king wants order and predictability, not creativity. Organizationally he is right of course. Spiritually, however, he is dead wrong.
The great spiritual teachers have a different wisdom for the second half of the journey. It is no longer an “ego morality” of world-clarifying dualisms. It is no longer concerned with boundaries and identity. it is no longer concerned with questions of ‘Who am I?’ or ‘Who is in and who is out?’
This different wisdom is a ‘soul morality’ asking, ‘What is?’ By this time men have met the God who ‘makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust’ (Matthew 5:45b). The language changes from a language of ascending, achieving and attaining to a humble language of descent. We Catholics called it the way of the cross and visualized it in all our churches as Stations of the Cross. We kept the metaphor, but in cultures of progress we lost the message. It was just too countercultural.
Heroism is no longer the goal or concern. Now the goal is something that we can no longer manufacture, control or even possess as our own: holiness. Holiness is given and received; it is utterly but quietly transforming; sometimes it even looks like ‘sinfulness.’ Holiness seldom looks heroic until the holy ones have been buried for a few centuries, and we can safely begin the canonization process. Holiness has to do with who we are in God, where we abide as a ‘self’ with an utterly reconstituted sense of our own personhood. Gabriel Marcel calls it ‘the subordination of the self to a Deeper Reality that is more deeply me than I am by myself.’ Holiness has to do with being in God, whereas the early heroic journey has more to do with doing and achieving a self. (pp. xx-xxiii)
Wow! They go on to describe the Apostle Paul’s conversion in two stages, that of ascent (the Damascus Road experience in Acts 9), and that of descent (Paul writing in Philippians 3). [They also take an interesting look at this process in both John the Baptist and Jesus].
Let’s remember that when they are talking about conversion, they are not speaking of whether or not salvation has been accomplished, or achieved it’s salvific purpose, or if that person is saved or not saved. But rather, they see a purpose for both the ascent and descent in a man’s spiritual journey, both uniquely contributing to their spiritual process.
Again, there are clearly two good stages, but the important thing is the sequence and the transition, which I think is uniquely the work of the Spirit. You cannot maneuver it by logic, persuasion or Bible-quoting. No wonder that the Catholic tradition put so much emphasis on the importance of father confessors and spiritual directors. Book answers are not sufficient in the crucial times of transition. The rules that help us in stage one might just be toxic in later stages; we will need humility–maybe even authority–to let go of that which seemed to save us earlier….
The young man with a blessed rage for order solves his own problem, but leaves too many victims in his wake; the weak, the outsider, the woman-as-partner, the homosexual, the non-Christian, the sinner whom he condescends to love ‘while hating the sin.’ His own ego remains untouched in its position of superiority and unavailability–even by God. It takes mellow old grandfathers to teach the Young Turks the way of compassion and the way of patience. No wonder most cultures look to seniors and ‘senates’ for leadership. No surprise that author Robert Moore says in King Warrior Magician Lover that you cannot really access ‘king energy’ (see page 200) much before fifty years of age.
The language of descent is either learned by mid-life (normally through suffering and the experience of powerlessness), or we inevitably move into a long day’s journey of accusing, resentment and negativity, circling our wagons as the hurts and disappointments gather round us. (pp. xxiv-xxv)
The authors have helped me understand the importance of ascent, especially in young men–but they too have helped me see that if we as men remain in the position of ascent, rather than descent, then we do great damage not only to ourselves, but to everyone around us.
How many churches, ministries and lives have been ruined because leaders fail to transition to a place of descent rather than ascent?
Author of The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? published by Moody Publishers.