I, the LORD, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other gods besides me. You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them. For I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God…
A while back, a friend let me borrow his copy of a film called Fight Club, which was based on a book of the same name by Chuck Palahniuk. I did not really know what to expect when I watched the film, except what could be obviously gleaned from the title, that it was violent. Since it was such a cult classic, I decided to sit down and see why. What surprisingly followed, despite its violence and gratuitous sex scenes, was a film that really hit on the essential core or my masculine being.
In a nutshell, it is about a fictional narrator with no name, who has become disaffected with himself and his life. He then meets this rugged, non-conformist rebel named Tyler Durden. Tyler is everything that today’s American man would want to be. Played by Brad Pitt in the film, he is bold, muscular, good-looking and great in bed.
He also appeals to the “wild” side of the narrator (and us?), who begins to take on some of Tyler’s characteristics as his own. One of the things Tyler introduces the narrator to is an underground “fight club” where men fight, bare-knuckled and bare-chested. It is from these fights that the men regain a sense of the masculinity that life in modern America has stolen from them.
Although he likes this newfound foray into his more primitive self, the narrator begins to have doubts about the whole thing, particularly when Tyler has the men start committing violent crimes. This starts a love-hate relationship with Tyler, who leads the narrator into all sorts of situations where he grapples with what it means to be a man. The climax of the film is when the narrator confronts Tyler and learns (spoiler alert!) that Tyler is really a part of him, an alter-ego.
This is the part of the movie that really struck a chord for me because I had my own version of Tyler Durden. Now, "my Tyler" didn’t get me into all the trouble of the one in the movie, nor was he ever anything other than a creation of my own mind, but he did stunt my growth as a man and he did set up expectations of masculinity for me that I could not fulfill. When I could not, it weakened what little masculine identity I had.
"My Tyler" was born out of my own body image issues. Because of the physical abuse I suffered when I was younger, I thought that the way to make myself safe was to wait until I was bigger than my father. Thus, I imagined the man I would “grow up to be.”
This man would be tall and muscular with long blond hair and would have the admiration of the room whenever, he walked in. At some level, I think I realized that what I had constructed was an idol that I had created to replace the man God had created me to be.
He was not the man God had created, but rather, the one I thought God should have created. I clung to this idol through my teenage and college years. When it became obvious that I was not going to grow any more and that I had a rather thin frame, I still clung to that idol. It wasn’t until after my experience at Fatima that the Lord told me clearly that this “Tyler” was an idol standing in opposition to Him and to the real man He knew was inside me - the one He made.
It was so hard, and so painful for me to let him go, not unlike the soul in The Screwtape Letters who fears what will happen if the angel kills the lizard on his shoulder. I can’t say that killing “my Tyler” happened instantly, but over time, whenever I would engage in the fantasy of the man I should be, I offered that image to Jesus, and He always took it. One day, it just never came back.
Even though I was rid of the idol, I still struggled with body image issues. I always thought I was too small and not stereotypically masculine enough. Objectively, I’m not a big guy at all; I’m only 5’7” and around 160 pounds. Whenever I come across a guy who’s well-built and tall or who just has a very masculine presence, I still sometimes feel insecure about myself, despite my knowing how wrong it is.
To compensate for these feelings, I used to lift weights regularly. It helped. I liked the feeling of being strong and I liked the way people looked at me when I was jacked. I could be completely clothed, but people still noticed. I got a real sense of confidence from it so I enjoyed doing it. That was the good side of it.
The bad side is that I started to put my identity in my strength and muscularity. In other words, lifting became a kind of “fix” for my own insecurity. Rather than deal with my feelings of inadequacy, I tried to cover them in muscle.
I’m not saying that working out is a bad thing to do and it definitely helps me to feel more masculine, but it doesn’t really help me get at the root of the problem of my own weak identity.
So God repeatedly reminded me of this by allowing small injuries that prevented me from lifting weights from time to time. One year, as Lent was about to begin, I injured my neck. It was taking a really long time to recover, and I was unable to lift.
About ten days into Lent, I was praying in the shower and I heard the Lord clearly say,
“I want you to give up lifting weights for forty days.”
My immediate and uncensored reaction was, “No! I won’t do that!”
I actually began to cry there in the shower. I wanted to lift that bad.
Once I collected myself, I realized that this was an area of myself that I had not fully surrendered to the Lord, so I knew it was for my own good, but it was still a really hard Lent. I was glad when it was over and by the time Easter rolled around, my neck had healed.
It turned out that it would be almost another year before I could lift again because we ended up moving into a new house unexpectedly with the birth of my first daughter following immediately thereafter.
It was during this move, that the Lord showed me my own masculine essence. Even though it was only across town, the move ended up taking about 12 hours to complete. It was a very long day. Along with my (nine-months-pregnant wife - talk about strength!) and six friends, I worked the whole time to move things in and get things settled.
Obviously, everyone was pretty tired at the end of the day. I really didn’t think much of it until two weeks later when the baby was born. After I had emailed my household brothers a picture of me holding my newborn baby girl, I was kind of surprised at a couple of things.
First, several of my household brothers emailed me to tell me how masculine I looked in the picture. They were right. There was something very masculine about that photo.
Another brother, Robert, who had actually helped me move posted one of the most incredible affirmations I have ever gotten from another man. There’s no way I can possibly do it justice so I have reprinted it here in its entirety (with very minor edits). This is what he posted to the entire group about me:
He is a deceivingly strong dude with both physical strength and endurance (we moved heavy stuff for like, 12 hours or something crazy. We were the only ones left standing). He has that certain quality about him...that quality that you can only get from yourself and then from God. That quality that one gets when he's met his own weakness and brokenness and wrestles and fights and struggles and cries...but then accepts and loves (himself) and therefore conquers and stands in peace! Truly, he has been through the trial, it's all over him! I hardly know him as I know some of you all, but his fasting and prayers helped save my butt. He's earned my respect.
That email resonated with something inside of me. Although I sometimes have difficulty accepting it, I know it’s true.
Despite knowing cognitively that the Father is pleased with the masculinity He gave me, I still continued to struggle in that area.
So, of course, I ended up getting injured again; this time it was my shoulder. This is ironic because it is the one muscle group I seem unable to build up and broad shoulders are one thing I was not blessed with.
The first few days of the injury were hard to deal with. Whenever I saw big or strong-looking men, I was really hard on myself and it seemed like I had to go through the detachment process all over again. Of late, I acquired yet another injury, so I have again not lifted for over a year. I think I finally got the point.
The thing that the Lord taught me through all this is that sin is at the heart of my insecurity. It took me quite a while figure out exactly what this sin was. According the explanation of 1 John 2:16 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, there are three types of lust: lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes and pride of life. Leaving the first aside, I would like to focus on the second and third types.
There were two Biblical verses that helped me to come to grips with this pattern of sin in my life.
The first is from Exodus 20:17 which reads, “You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's.”
The other is from Matthew 5:28 which reads, “Everyone who looks at a woman [or man] lustfully has already committed adultery with her [him] in his heart.”
At first, I didn’t see the differentiation nor the integral connection between these three types of lust. I thought that “lust of the eyes” meant lusting in the heart. That is seeing a desirable person and lusting after him or her even without acting on those lustful feelings.
In actuality though, that is still a manifestation of carnal lust (of the flesh). The truth is that that if we lust only in our hearts, we have already committed the very act that we were lusting about.
Thus, lust of the eyes has to be something a bit different. When I researched exactly what was meant by that, the equivalent word is covetousness. What exactly does it mean to covet? Most sources define it as an inordinate desire for something or someone. It is often equated with greed and jealousy and most of all, envy.
Basically, it is when someone desperately wants an object of the desire so much so that they “lust” after it much as they way someone would lust after someone else sexually. Some translators argue that the original Hebrew word translated as covet is actually much stronger word that is more analogous to the word take.
So, this is not just a simply matter of admiring something and thinking that you would like to have the object or something similar. For example, I may desire that piece of chocolate cake, so I eat it. In most cases, there is nothing sinful in that.
Envious lust of the eyes goes deeper than that. For me, it is the key root of many of my sins. After my healing, it would really bother me that I would still find some men so sexually attractive. When I really took it to prayer, I found that in my heart of hearts, I didn’t really want sex with them, but rather, I desired them for their masculinity. I wanted to take and possess their masculinity as my own.
So, in other words, I was coveting their masculinity or their masculine features that I perceived to be lacking in myself. So, yeah, I was literally coveting another man’s ass. All joking aside though, I noticed that when I found myself doing this, if I took it to prayer, I would see that I had an inordinate, unhealthy and sinful desire for the gifts God gave to other men.
This was really the key to understanding my same-sex attraction at least from the perspective of my body image. I wanted what I could not have so I would lift weights to try and get that and when it didn’t work out (again, pardon the bad pun) I would become discouraged and start envying what other men had.
Once I realized this, I constantly gave these covetous desires over to the Lordship of Christ and confessed my sins to Him directly and also through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
I can remember one time in particular when I was really struggling with this in prayer and without even thinking, I said to myself, “This would be so much easier if I just had sex with a guy!”
It’s true. At least in the short-run, I could have gotten my taken my “fix” through sex but I knew that in the longer term, it would not really fix the issues within me that needed fixing.
What I needed to do was accept and love myself for the man God made me, not any idol I had constructed and not some other man whose characteristics seemed to fulfill my own thoughts of true masculinity. Just me. Just the way God made me, faults and imperfections and all. I needed to accept myself as the man God made me to be, not the one I thought He should have made me to be. This was the idol of envy and covetousness in my heart that I had to smash.
Like my same-sex attraction itself, I came to realize that “my Tyler” was really representative of my own God-given masculinity and although I will never have his physical appearance, I now know that I am strong because it is Christ who strengthens me.
It is just as Saint Paul says in the First Letter to the Corinthians (13:11), “When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.”