It was early August morning and the sun had only begun to peek through the foggy Cape Cod morning, it would take a few hours to melt the morning dew sprinkled across the yard.
The glittering spider webs that danced on the tips of the disheveled lawn would soon disappear in the heat of the day. The morning would rise shortly as would the day, sending my grandfather, whom we called Puppy, back home for another week and me off to my summer routine. Snuggled next to him, we reminisced about his childhood and recounted tales from our family lore
During those early summer mornings, my grandfather and I also explored questions about God, Jesus, and miracles. He told me that everyone has a guardian angel to help them see God’s work in their daily lives. At 10, I searched everywhere but could not see mine or understand. I adored Puppy, and we shared a world filled with laughter, stories, hugs, and smiles. Puppy’s subsequent death the next morning in his own bed a little over 100 miles away shook my very foundation and core beliefs.
My relationship with my grandfather provided me with confidence and encouragement to use my imagination, to embrace reading, to run with the pack while also daring to lead. It also provided me with the courage to play sports without being consumed by them or the fanaticism that corrodes them. His love and patience gave me the strength to buck trends, to question authority, to love wild flowers and songbirds, and most importantly to be me. This model of caring inspired and encouraged me as a boy to imagine a world filled with limitless possibilities.
In my work with high school and college-aged students, I try to engage young men with the same patience that Puppy showed me. I hope that through our conversations these men can begin to examine their lives and rekindle aspects of themselves that they have neglected. All men need authentic relationships through which they can examine and talk about their lives, and within these relationships a reciprocity develops that allows each person to gain new insight. I know that I have learned much about myself from the countless students that I have talked with over the years, and hope that they have gained half as much as I have from them.
Over the years, it has become clear that many young men find it difficult to talk about their faith given that our society asks them to privatize it and questions its relevance. Their reticence to explore questions concerning faith is troubling. Through my grandfather’s mentorship, I was able to avoid the allure of stereotypical hegemonic male behaviors, apathy, or ambivalence that befalls many young men. His guidance and encouragement at a young age made a lasting impression on me that I am grateful to have.
I feel fortunate to have been initiated into a definition of manhood in which faith was integral. In Guyland, Michael Kimmel describes the lives of American men in their early twenties and the impact of a “Guy Code” that socializes and encourages men to act out, take risks, and rely on other male peers to initiate and validate their masculinity. Kimmel explains how men encourage and socialize other men to drink in excess, be irresponsible, have anonymous sex, and avoid any responsibility for being a grown-up. Within today’s American male culture, destructive forces indoctrinate men who initiate other men into ways of being that are emotionally, physically, and spiritually detrimental.
The deepening of one’s faith needs to be part of any larger solution to counteract the cyclical masculine gendered conflicts and the gender-based performance gap that is often discussed in popular literature. There is great promise within the hearts of today’s men as they long for a deeper connection with God, but lack the guides to help them discover it. We must intentionally lead young men toward reflection, self-discovery, and self-transcendence through which they can develop a greater sense of self, meaning, and purpose. Achieving this end requires that men of faith help other men to discover God in their lives. A faith-based, Christian mentorship requires that younger men trust in the example, teaching, patience, and reassurance that comes through developing positive relationships with other men of faith. This discipleship and companionship that develops is dynamic and powerful.
I try to follow my grandfather’s advice to feel the presence of God in my life. For me, I search out those God winks in the simple everyday moments; those extraordinary ordinary moments that we can take for granted: holding my son’s hand as I walk him to school, watching my daughter swim underwater with her eyes open, laughing with my wife at the breakfast table, calling my best friend to reminisce about old times, or sharing my hopes and dreams with my father. For me, these moments define, shape, and deepen the relationships in my life, open my heart to God’s love, and allow me to recognize what I treasure most in life.
As men of faith, we need to provide authentic mentorship that infuses hope, inspiration, and strength. Within our community, we need to identify authentic role models who can inspire other men to walk a similar path of faithfulness. Encountering, believing in, and emulating those people whose character and strength is fortified by their faith can shape and inspire children, teenagers, college-aged students, twenty and thirty-something’s to become people who live a life filled with the fruit of the Spirit that was described in Galatians as: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (5:22-23).
Younger men want guides to believe in and walk with on their faith journey. By having other male companions who help us to find God in all things or to contemplate the patterns of our lives, we can create a new normative masculine behavior that embraces prayer and reflection and values the power of love and compassion. In my own life, I have struggled with my faith and have doubted people in my life, my beliefs, my ideals and myself. In these moments, I reflect on the guardian angels that have shaped my journey and through them I am reminded of God’s hand at work, for it is through meaningful relationships in my life that I learned faith is contagious.
My grandfather taught me that everyday miracles still occur. I am reminded of him each time I walk into my son’s bedroom as Puppy’s wooden cross now hangs there. The most impactful and important relationships in life provide room to explore questions about life, God, miracles, and, yes, guardian angels. As a father and educator, I know the best guidance and mentorship works through genuine love and the capacity to search for God’s grace at work, as it is through His love that we can nurture others and develop meaningful relationships.
I can feel the influential work of my guardian angel, Puppy, every day. As a father, I strive to raise a son who will grow into a man with a generous and loving heart. Boys’ confront many pressures as they grow into men; I felt them as a boy and still do now. I pray my loving relationship with my son will give him the strength to negotiate the snares, traps, and pitfalls that exist today. I also try to model that same relationship with the students that I meet each day as I ask them to examine the loving relationships in their lives to find their guardian angels and God’s abiding love. I hope that by openly sharing my faith with the young man that I meet as an educator that I can influence them to allow their faith that rests at the core of their masculinity.
PETER FOLAN is President of Catholic Memorial High School