Iron sharpens iron

Become a sharper man with some of Denver's men's ministries

Aaron Lambert

Courage. Strength. Leadership. These are but a few of the qualities men were created to exude; staples of masculinity that draw each man closer to God.

Scripture has a lot to say about how men ought to be. God created Adam to be king and overseer of all he had created, and he was called to be a leader to his wife, Eve. Man was also created to be a father to his children, to raise them to know and serve the Lord, and teach them his commandments. While the culture perpetuates several different stereotypes about what a true man is, only God can truly give a man his name and reveal to him who he was created to be. This can be an intimidating endeavor, but the good news is men don’t have to – nor were they created to – do it alone.

Men need other men to stay sharp. God designed it this way. Proverbs 27:17 states, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another,” and this foundational principle is at the heart of the many men’s ministries that exist in Denver and beyond. It’s never too late for a man to seek Christ, and doing so with other men makes the journey even more fruitful. If you’re man in need of a good sharpening, consider one of these men’s ministries.

Marked Men For Christ

Marked Men For Christ was co-founded in the early 2000s by Steve Spicer and Father John Lager, who currently serves as the national chaplain for Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).

Father Lager has resided in Denver for the past 33 years, and has given many retreats over the years. He recalled that in 1995, it became clear to him that many men’s retreats get “no further than down past the neck.”

“A lot of it was heady and not much was seeking into the heart,” Father Lager said.

He and his friend Steve Spicer began to pray about beginning a men’s ministry of their own. Led by the Holy Spirit, they named the ministry Marked Men For Christ and conceptualized what it would entail.

The reason why Marked Men survives and exists is to build stronger men for Jesus Christ. We just want to build men up. This is one tool of many that help men grow in the reality that grace builds on nature.”

The ministry revolves around a “44-hour experience of intense, experiential opportunities for men to look at their own woundedness and seek God’s healing,” Father Lager said of the weekend retreat, which they refer to as Phase One. The wounds the retreat focuses on are common wounds of man – fear, sadness, anger, loss and shame – and are meant to mirror the five wounds of Christ.

The first weekend retreat was in November 2002; now, 15 years later, over 260 retreats have been done and over 8,500 men have earned the title “marked man for Christ.” What’s more, Marked Men For Christ has reached far beyond the borders of the U.S., having held weekends in countries such as Germany, Austria, Switzerland and even Rwanda and Uganda.

After going through Phase One, men are invited to Phase Two, which allows them to unpack the things God revealed to them during the Phase One weekend, and from there, they have the option to go onto Phase Three, which is an accountability and prayer group that meets regularly.

“The reason why Marked Men survives and exists is to build stronger men for Jesus Christ. We just want to build men up,” Father Lager explained. “This is one tool of many that help men grow in the reality that grace builds on nature.”

If you’re interested in attending a Marked Men For Christ Phase One weekend, visit markedmenforchrist.org.

Patriarch

So you want to start a men’s group, but don’t have any clue where to start because let’s face it: Starting a men’s group can be really intimidating.

That’s where Patriarch comes in.

Started by Father John Ignatius in 2006, what began as a small gathering of men has grown to eleven different groups of men nationwide and an annual fall retreat of about 50 men. Patriarch equips men with the resources and curriculum they need to start a group of their own.

According to the ministry’s website, Patriarch is “based on the premise that God is a patriarch and God’s purpose is to raise up patriarchs.” Ed Lugo, who helps with development for Patriarch, said the goal is for a group of men to be tight-knit.

“They have to have some ownership of their group that allows people to really enter in so there is a healthy dynamic in the group,” Lugo said. “You want the guys in the group to all know each other.”

Because of this, it’s a little more difficult for men to get plugged in to an already existing group. Rather, men are encouraged to start their own group with other men they already have relationships with.

A typical Patriarch meeting begins in the book of Genesis and is generally as follows: there is an opening prayer based on a Psalm, a time for reflection focusing on a patriarch from Genesis, and a closing prayer and resolution where men state how they’re going to utilize the lesson learned back at home with their families.

The fruits of Patriarch can be seen in the ways the mens’ wives respond, Father Ignatius said.

“Wives make space in the schedule because they see the value of men having substantial spiritual fraternal time together, and that the men take more initiative in the spiritual leadership of the families,” he said.

“Whenever you gather men around the Word of God in a prayerful way, grace happens. It’s not just shared human wisdom, it’s shared divine wisdom that’s being applied and being aspired to growing as men, as husbands, as fathers.”

If you’re interested in starting a Patriarch group, be sure to visit patriarchmen.org.

Men For All Seasons

As one of the biggest parishes in the Archdiocese of Denver, it should come as no surprise that St. Thomas More has one of the most thriving parish men’s ministries. Started 10 years ago and still going strong today, Men For All Seasons draws up to 150 men each Friday that it meets during the school year.

Using engaging content and small group discussions, Men For All Seasons is an hour each week that men can come and engage in “spiritual exercise,” as Steve Bell calls it. Bell has been involved in the ministry from the beginning, and is one of 20 core team members who facilitate the program.

“[Men] spend a lot of time focusing on our work, we spend a lot of time focusing on our physical exercise; our point is that spiritual exercise should be as important to our lives as our work and our families and our physical exercise,” Bell explained. “Take an hour a week to exercise the spiritual side of your lives.”

At St. Thomas More Men For All Seasons ministry, nearly 150 men consecrated themselves to Mary after reading through Father Michael Gaitley’s 33 Days to Morning Glory. (Photo by Andrew Wright/Denver Catholic)

Men For All Seasons has used That Man Is You, Bishop Robert Barron’s Catholicism series and more as curriculum to feed the men who come. Recently, the group went through Father Michael Gaitley’s 33 Days to Morning Glory, which resulted in a first for the ministry: on the Feast of the Annunciation, 150 men consecrated themselves to Mary.

Paul Lum Lung and his wife, Colleen, have been facilitating Father Gaitley’s programs at St. Thomas More for the past five years, and as a member of the content committee, it was Lum Lung’s suggestion to lead the men through 33 Days to Morning Glory. Father Gaitley emphasizes the importance of being consecrated to Mary, and that struck a chord with Lum Lung.

“Marian consecration is basically consecration to Jesus,” he explained. “Mary, being his mother, knew Jesus best. By consecrating yourself to Mary, that’s going to enable her to lead you to Jesus.”

Men For All Seasons meets at 6:20 a.m. every Friday during the school year at St. Thomas More Parish.

COMING UP: Why icons still matter to a modern world

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Icons have existed from the time of the early Church and grew in popularity over the years as an aid in prayer and worship — but today, icons are often seen as irrelevant to our modern world because of their perceived rigidity and austerity.

But it hasn’t died out, and there’s a reason.

In Denver, instructor Laurence Pierson, a former nun in the Community of Beatitudes, teaches a course at the Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways — Byzantine Iconography,” which is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro.

Pierson attributes the long-surviving tradition of icons to the same reason the Church still exists.

“Tradition has great value, and if it’s an art that’s survived so many centuries, that’s because there is a great value to it, and it’s not only the tradition, it’s that mainly, it’s rooted in the Gospel,” Pierson said.

In an article called “Sacred Icons,” painter Aidan Hart quotes John of Damascus, who said of icons, “What the written Word proclaims through letters, iconography proclaims and presents through colors.”

Laurence Pierson, left, is a former nun of the Community of the Beatitudes who has been teaching an iconography class at Denver Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways.” It is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro area. (Photo provided)

It is the same story of the Gospel, presented in art rather than word, and as the Gospel is timeless, so is the art of icons. And while they may look austere, that’s not something to be afraid of, nor is it irrelevant in our modern time.

“Even though an icon might look austere, it actually drives us beyond superficial emotions — they want us to go deeper. It’s a deep joy,” Pierson said. “I think you have to be quiet and go deeper. In the spiritual life, our ascetic aspect doesn’t have to be forgotten, and sometimes there is an ascetic aspect, and our human condition needs to be redeemed.”

“It’s a medium that has to be rediscovered, and there is so much potential,” Pierson added.

Sacred doorways and symbols

The deep spirituality of icons is part of what has preserved them throughout the roughly 2000 years that they’ve been around. Hart explains that icons are “not just pictures to look at, but are a door to heaven, a way of meeting those who dwell there.”

Hence the name of Denver’s class, “Sacred Doorways.” The material use of the paintings are a way for us to pass through the material world and into a knowing of the holy people depicted. This is just the tip of the spiritual meaning of icons.

The specific look of the icons: the elongated nose, the wide eyes, the dimensions and perspectives, are all intensely symbolic.

“Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this,” Hart said.

“An artist isn’t just someone who puts colors [on a canvas],” Pierson said. “An artist reveals the reality of this world, which sometimes isn’t possible to see. And icon painting is revealing this invisible reality and making it visible with lines and colors.”

Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this.”

So what are icons revealing through their symbols?

Here are just a few insights from Hart:

– Inverse perspective: “There is a number of perspective systems used in icons. With inverse perspective, the lines converge on us, the viewers. This serves to include us in the action depicted,” Hart said. “A sacred event in the past is still acting on us today, ‘Today Christ is risen.’”

– Flatness: “It helps us pass through the icon to the person and events depicted. The aim…is not to replace the subject depicted, but to bring us into living relationship with them,” Hart said.

– Anatomy: “The eyes and ears of people are often enlarged, and the nose elongated. This is to show that the saint is someone who contemplates God, who listens to him, who smells the fragrance of Paradise,” Hart said.

The spiritual process

Pierson has been painting icons for 25 years and teaching for 18. Following the rich tradition of the painting style is the first step of entering into the “spiritual journey” of painting an icon, Pierson said.

“It’s very important for me to get rooted in Byzantine tradition, especially because it’s an art that comes from the Eastern world,” Pierson said. “You have to be very careful not to distort ancient tradition but also find a way to speak to our modern world, so it’s a very delicate balance. For me, that’s crucial, to find this balance.”

“[Painting] has to be a solitary experience because you have to pray, but for me, it’s important to be anchored in a community and liturgical life,” Pierson said.

Pierson, who is commissioned to paint icons for the community often, begins with research and prayer, both to whom the icon is depicting and for the person who will receive the painting. Then the painting begins, which is an intense, multi-layered process.

The art of painting icons is far more than just a creative process; it’s a deeper spiritual journey that requires a lot of prayer, Pierson says. (Photo provided)

First, a binder, which is what the pigment adheres to in order to stay on a board, is created. The binder consists of egg yolk mixed with an equal part of water. This is mixed with the paint pigment and a few drops of water, creating the egg tempera medium with which icons are traditionally painted.

Next, guiding lines are traced into a gesso-covered wooden board and then engraved with a tool. Then, paint is added, layer by layer, beginning with dark colors and finishing with lighter colors. “It is as though the iconographer begins with darkness and death, and ends with light and resurrection,” Hart said.

The final stage is writing the saint’s name; then the icon is blessed by a priest and venerated. The working time varies, but it is a very long process, taking up to a year.

Revealing a Presence

The act of painting is something Pierson discovered she needs for her life to flourish — “essential,” even.

With icon painting, it “combines art and the vertical connection to God,” Pierson said.

And the connection to God is experienced deeply throughout the painting journey.“There is a journey — there’s a time you feel discouraged or bored. Even though you don’t feel it, you live by faith, trusting what you do has meaning and will bear fruit,” Pierson said. “With iconography, there is a Presence.”

“This whole painting journey teaches you about yourself, it takes patience — it takes time. You cannot finish an icon painting in a few hours. You have to trust the process. You have to trust someone else is inspiring you, even though it might not perfect. It’s all very like our spiritual life. It teaches us all that in a very practical way,” she added.