“Cowboys are cliche” was the thought going through Nicholas Elbers’ head at a recent men’s retreat. Photo from Wikimedia

Meeting God among the Navy SEALs and cowboys

By  NICHOLAS ELBERS, Canadian Catholic News
  • October 15, 2022

VANCOUVER -- It took me a while to figure out how to tell you about the men’s retreat, Man in the Arena, hosted by Life Restoration Ministries.

I could cover it like any other event, offering the details and a play-by-play of how it panned out. But I was doubtful this approach would tell you what you need to know about the weekend.

So my next idea was to take a more human approach to the story. I thought I would tell you about George, who was there with his son and grandson. He told me he’s been married 56 years and that he came to the retreat because even at his age he wants to continue to grow and make a difference in the lives of the people he meets every day.

I wanted to tell you about Ted, a grease monkey from Agassiz who was there because he wanted to spend quality time with other men.

I especially wanted to tell you about Dennis from Maple Ridge. He’s a retired musician who plays the fiddle and has a gentle demeanour.

But even these little stories, as great as they are, only tell you part of the picture.

So, after some consideration — and not a small amount of prayer — I think the only way to tell you about the retreat is to tell you about my own experience in the hope it gives you some impression of what it was like and how impactful it could be, even for someone who fought the process tooth and nail for almost the entire weekend.

We got there Friday night, and by Saturday morning the regret was building. Motion sickness mixed with dorm-induced sleep deprivation had put me in a pretty bad mood and I was starting to miss home.

By contrast, all the men I talked to were upbeat and positive. A few told me stories about how attending the retreat in previous years had completely changed their lives. And while I was happy they shared, their stories had that quality you find in all tales of personal transformation: they sounded like things that happen to other people.

In the first talk Saturday morning, Life Restoration’s Jake Khym — who founded the charity with his wife Heather, and led the retreat — flatly told us that the weekend would be hard. We were welcome, we were loved (I didn’t scoff at this, but I sort of ignored it), we belonged there, and we were worthy — but, the experience was likely to hurt. He told us that we would make it through by the grace of God and because we had each other.

He started to describe manhood as something concrete and present in our lives. For a weekend so full of emotions I think it’s worth noting that we never talked about our feelings. Everything was rooted in belief, sense of purpose and our response to the world around us. We were immediately challenged to think of ways in which we weren’t properly living up to our calling as men.

Writing this down, I can hear that cynical little voice I entertained for most of the retreat whispering the same things I thought during the Saturday sessions: “Ugh, not another story about the Navy SEALs.” The same with the clips from the TV series Yellowstone. “I get it, the show offers good analogies for growing as a man, but cowboys are cliche.”

The funny thing is that none of these thoughts really reflected my feelings. I like westerns just fine. I can take or leave the Navy SEALs. I have a deep respect for counselling and on any other day I would have happily encouraged a friend to attend something like the men’s retreat.

Those little gripes by my ego were just part of a tired and sad attempt to shield my self-pity from the challenges being made by the man on the stage.

For some context, the last year has been hard. It was hard for everyone — but for our family, it was a real struggle. Money, relationships, health; everything was affected. Through it all, even though I managed to stay on my feet, I hadn’t dealt with it, if that makes sense.

Among other things, at the retreat I finally started to accept that the worst things COVID, CERB and everything else had done was to corrode my sense of who I was as a man. Being paid not to work made me lose hope in any future worth building and dealing with the struggles of establishing myself in a new line of work while everything else going on had basically crushed me.

In reality, I had abandoned any attempt to place my hope in the grace of God and was trying to run on my own power.

By Saturday morning I had run out of gas.

I learned a lot about myself over those three long (very long) days, but what surprised me most was how being surrounded by a group of like-minded men helped me deal with the pain that accompanies healing and growth. If you had introduced even one woman into that room I don’t think the retreat would have been a success. But in a room full of men I felt surrounded by the masculine strength to simply do the thing that needs to be done.

I can’t overstate this. Everything I thought I knew about myself as a man was challenged over the weekend.

Treat women with respect. Don’t watch porn. Get a job. Work. Die. This is basically an exhaustive list of everything I was ever told about what it means to be a man before this weekend. Emotions were never forbidden when I was growing up, but teachers called me lazy before asking if I felt OK. I internalized a lot of unhealthy ideas about what manhood is and how to live a good life as a man.

After the Saturday morning session, I stayed behind to let everyone leave so I could compose myself. I was feeling a little teary, but I told myself I just needed to push past it. But as I walked to the door I broke.

The weight of the last year (and if I am being honest, the three decades preceding it), shattered my shabby attempt to numb the pain. I found myself being held like a crying child by a grown man I had only met once before the weekend. He told me it was OK to feel this way and stayed with me until I felt better. I will always be grateful to him for being with me in that moment.

I spent the rest of the day with Heaven and hell fighting for my soul and without really knowing it I threw my hat in with the devil.

First I tried to convince myself that the morning session was all I needed. I had my breakthrough. I knew what my problems were. I could skip the rest of the day and just sleep. After all I was only there to work. I’ll get paid, my family will eat this month — why shouldn’t I just relax?

If I had driven to the retreat in my own car this would have been the point I packed up and drove home.

That afternoon we heard a story about a Navy SEAL recruit struggling through “Hell Week” while he thought about his family eating pancakes at home. If he quit he could be there with them in only a few hours. I was too busy grumbling about the macho analogy to recognize that was basically me.

I called my wife twice to complain about how annoyed I was by everything. While I never stopped admiring the men around me, Jake was getting more on my nerves with every talk. That evening I was halfway to the dorm when I sent my wife a text that said, “Honestly, I just wish I was home right now. I’m so tired and we don’t get out until like 10... This isn’t my world.”

The devil was with me at that moment, but so was God.

Later during adoration I remember staring up at the monstrance with tears in my eyes, a big dumb grin on my face, whispering, “My God, thank you, I am free.”

Undeserved grace is the only explanation I have for why I went back. Greater men than I have failed this test: the Apostles slept in the garden; Jonah boarded the ship; we all have moments in our lives when we fail to turn around and be present.

That whole day had been about introspection. Jake basically stood at the front of the room and poked and prodded us until we were convinced we had all discovered at least one new emotion.

Then came the evening session, which was finally about healing. I had spent the day angry and tired, but at some point the fire went out. I couldn’t sustain the negativity anymore and I looked up at the stage and just listened. Earlier I had wanted to walk out of Jake’s talk, but now I just accepted the truth, that he genuinely meant it when he said he cared about me; that it was possible to deal with what was hurting me.

Looking back I don’t really know how I got through Saturday. Still, that evening I finally accepted that I wasn’t going anywhere. I heard God tell me not to be afraid and accept that I am capable of great things. Every worry about my inadequacy and failure melted away. He told me that everything I needed was right in front of me and that all I had to do was trust that He would be with me through everything, failures and all.

As I finish writing this I feel a weakness in my heart that makes me want to apologize for writing so emotionally. But I know it’s important to sometimes have these experiences so we can be free to live up to our full potential. And there is so much potential. I feel proud to be a man for the first time in my life because of this retreat.

Now, finally, the big question. Why would the typical man reading this want to do something that sounds so insane? Because it is in the struggle that you will find out what you are made of and of how much you are capable. Only in the silence at the centre of the storm will you hear the voice of God calling you to adventure and true purpose. You only have to step forward and trust.

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