Perhaps you have seen this meme above? Talk about butch! It’s pretty much the religious equivalent of this:
I have often wondered from where such a masochistic sensibility arises. It is very perplexing, but there does seem to be something in the human psyche that craves discipline and bowing to authority, despite the simultaneous triggers that resist the same. In watching the Christian, and especially Orthodox and Catholic traditionalist, landscape over the past decade, I am starting to come up with a theory of why this is.
You may not have noticed, but over the last decade or fifteen years a surprising number of millennials and post-millennials have been drawn to Orthodoxy and Traditionalist Catholicism. I certainly understand the attraction of beautiful liturgical structures, especially considering most forms of Christian worship these days (including the Novus Ordo of the Catholic Church) range from a kind of ceremonial brutalism to a flaccid “infomercial-for-Jesus” aesthetic to the pop-culture appropriation of the praise band and hi-tech inspirational graphics. So I get that young people, starved for something authentic, would turn to the great works of art of the past—and the Divine Liturgy and Tridentine Mass are nothing if not great works of religious art.
But part and parcel with this attraction to the beautiful often comes a doctrinaire fundamentalism which, for me anyway, destroys the very beauty of Christianity it seeks to exemplify. Suddenly the world (or, more properly, the internet) is populated with self-appointed heresy hunters and inquisitors.
So here’s my theory: I think the attraction to traditional Christianity for a number of millennials and post-millennials (mostly male, from what I can tell), as it is manifested in Eastern Orthodoxy and Tridentine Catholicism is at its core a search for the missing father. According to this website, 57% of millennial mothers are single moms and as of 2019 15.76 million children in the US were living with single mothers. That’s a lot of missing fathers.
It seems to me, then, that a factor in the attraction millennials and post-millennials feel toward the traditional churches is a psychological need to connect with the father. Both forms of Christianity are also heavy on rules and laying down the law concerning what is allowed and what is not—precisely what many children miss in a relationship with a father. I’m not, of course, saying that mothers don’t have rules, but it’s a different dynamic with a father—and a father a child only sees on Wednesdays and every other weekend does not offer the same guidance. So Traditional Christianity comes in to fill the void in the soul. And you get to call the spiritual leader “father” as an added bonus.
This has been particularly apparent to me in the phenomenon (“fad” is not quite the right word, but it is close) in some Eastern Orthodox circles for millennial and post-millennial converts to seek a “spiritual father,” as if their own priest were not enough. This arose, according to my understanding, with the appearance of Ephraimism in the last decades. An Orthodox priest friend of mine is exasperated by such converts and their “spiritual fathers.” “You’re not a monk. You don’t have a ‘spiritual father,’” he tells them, “you have a father confessor: me. If you want a spiritual father, memorize the psalter and then we’ll talk.” I think almost zero of them memorize the psalter.
This is a very understandable phenomenon. People like clear rules and like to follow the directions (as we have seen all too often over the past sixteen months), and the burden for discernment can then be outsourced to the authority. But this comes with all kinds of spiritual dangers as well.
One of these dangers is surrendering agency to a monastic sensibility that is in no way healthy for life in the day-to-day, whether in terms of one’s job or in parenting. Man was not made for monasticism; monasticism was made for man (and I even have my doubts about that).
What results is described by the 20th century Russian religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev as a “false asceticism.” “This type of asceticism,” he writes, “with its hostility to man and to the world, may obscure the true end of mysticism, which is transfiguration in God. It may place upon men burdens too heavy to be borne and also produce a great deal of tension in the soul.”  Thank you, sir; may I have another?
Of course, the phenomenon is not only one-sided. As with the example of the Elder Ephraim, the temptation for the clerical order is to become precisely this type of “holy father” none of us have had—and that the holy fathers themselves could never, ever be (outside of the imaginary of puerile fantasy). Not all priests do this, to be sure, but it is an element of the clerical environment. Matthew 23 speaks directly to this, Jesus railing against the Scribes and Pharisees:
For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.
But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments,
And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues,
And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.
But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.
And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.
Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.
But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. (4-11)
You know it and I know it that we have a couple millennia of apologia telling us that Jesus didn't really mean what he said here. But okay.
An Illustrative Digression
One Easter about twelve years ago I was attending liturgy with my family, three of my six sons serving on the altar. Our pastor had been very ill, and he looked horribly weak at the altar, his face ashen. Just prior to Communion, one of the older altar servers, a young many of about eighteen, came to me to ask if I could distribute Communion—Father was too weak to continue. I did my best, but was so nervous I was shaking. It must have been noticeable because in the hall for the blessing of baskets afterwards a friend of mine took a can of beer out of his basket and handed it to me, saying, “Maybe this will help you with those shakes.” I continued to assist our pastor for the next seven years, until he died. He was often too weak to even stand for long.
At his funeral, I served along with our bishop and a number of other priests, as well as a deacon or two and two of my sons as altar boys. At the Kiss of Peace, usually reserved only for the clergy (not by law but by custom) a friend of mine, a married priest with seven children, came to me to offer the kiss. He said, “None of these guys here understand what you’ve done for this place. You deserve this more than they do.” He did me a tremendous favor, not by honoring my service, but by destroying the Myth of Holy Stratification. For all of you are brethren.
I would love to see a meme that said, Christianity—Life... Only More Alive.
Another guy looking for a father:
Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.
Nikolai Berdyaev, Freedom and the Spirit (New York, 1935), 265.