Janice Farnham

Ten years ago, a newly ordained Jesuit assigned to the editorial staff at America published his third book and personal vocation story, In Good Company. It chronicled his odyssey from a secure and lucrative corporate career in the New York offices of General Electric to life as a Jesuit with vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. With his winning, self-deprecating journalistic style, James Martin’s mastery of the personal anecdote and ability to “speak spirituality” in 21st-century vernacular rapidly won him an enthusiastic and devoted readership that now spans the globe. His most popular work, the best-selling memoir, My Life With the Saints (Loyola, 2006), won several awards, has sold over 100,000 copies and is now translated into several languages. Six other books, numerous articles and countless interviews later, Martin has emerged as one of the most articulate and insightful interpreters of Catholic culture in the United States, and a popular speaker on the national circuit. As America’s current culture editor, he frequently appears as a commentator on radio and television, and writes for the religion section of The Huffington Post (www.huffingtonpost.com).

Already well publicized, Martin’s newest book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything has been hailed for its accessibility, humor, relevance and authenticity. He does not intend it to be an exhaustive or scholarly presentation of “all things Jesuit.” Rather, he hopes it can serve both devout believer and doubtful seeker alike as a descriptive introduction to ways of proceeding that have come to be identified with Ignatian spirituality. As Martin states it, the book is “a guide to discovering how God can be found in every dimension of your life,” in every aspect of one’s real and imperfect world. It invites the reader to acknowledge as well that God is doing the seeking and finding before any of us begin to walk that trail. Most of all, it provides a friendly pathway for the uninitiated pilgrim, an image Ignatius of Loyola used to describe his own inner journey.

It will, however, interest anyone wanting to review the essentials of Jesuit life and lore, or simply to enjoy Martin’s 20-year take on American Jesuit experience. By means of personal anecdotes, real-life stories of his own mentors and companions and insightful quotations from the Jesuit pantheon of saints and authors, Martin captures the insights and perennial wisdom of Ignatius as experienced for over four centuries. He dips liberally into the founder’s life and writings, especially his Spiritual Exercises, to introduce traditional aspects of Jesuit formation and spirituality, such as the examen, discernment, the discovery of one’s deepest desires, affective prayer, the vows, friendship (with God and others) and interior freedom.

The Ignatian way, Martin writes, is above all about “finding freedom.” In 14 crisp chapters, which can be profitably read as discrete articles, he explores some significant signposts along the Ignatian path to interior liberty: finding God in all things, being a contemplative in action, incarnational spirituality, detachment and “indifference,” making good decisions. What each successive chapter reveals is a new turn—sometimes surprising or unexpected—on the path, as the pilgrim moves into what has been described as the Ignatian “mysticism of service.” Ultimately, in time-honored Christian fashion, this guide points the reader away from a focus on self to a focus on God and others, and Martin serves it up Ignatian-style, “with a twist.” With an amazing recall of his own life events, he translates conventional spiritual language about conversion into the idiom of contemporary doubt and uncertainty. A good example of this can be found in Chapter Two, where the question “How do I find God?” is met with a skillful image of “six broad paths” toward an answer: belief, disbelief, independence, return, exploration, confusion. Whatever the response of the seeker, Martin offers the assurance that the Ignatian approach will “meet you on your path and lead you closer to God.”

There are many things to ponder and enjoy in The Jesuit Guide, especially the sections on suffering, vocation (“Be Who You Is!”) and on friendship with God. As in his previous books, Martin’s candid, intimate style engages his readers not as an authority, but as a friendly companion and partner in “spiritual conversation,” a familiar practice in Ignatian spirituality. While he takes care to be inclusive in his narrative and examples, his choice of discourse and themes will probably appeal more to men than to women, since much of the book is about the lifestyle and spiritual approach of the all-male Society of Jesus.

Overall, Martin emerges in this latest work as a master of the perennial Jesuit style, or “way of proceeding,” described by Jerome Nadal, one of Ignatius’ first companions. For Nadal, the hallmarks of the contemplative in action were summed up in three words: spiritu, corde, practice. In the Spirit, from the heart, practical/pastoral. The many reviewers on Amazon’s Web site may not be familiar with Nadal or his description, but their comments reveal Martin’s skills and gifts at the service of its contemporary embodiment. “Whether you’re religious or not, this book has so much to offer a reader struggling to overcome the anxiety of living in today’s chaotic world, and it leads you down the path to self-discovery.... Get it, read it, live it. Your life may never be the same again.” What author wouldn’t hope for a reaction like that?

Janice Farnham, R.J.M., teaches church history at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and directs Sophia House, a community for women in discernment toward religious life.

Comments

RICHARD KUEBBING | 5/22/2010 - 11:08pm

given Fr Matin's interests and contacts, I expect this to be on Broadway in two years.

C Walter Mattingly | 5/21/2010 - 4:26pm

I am on my second reading of this book, having been the fortuitous recipient of a gift copy, and this review is on target.  Father Martin is a good stylist and has a wonderful, light touch which he sustains even in the most serious sections.  His arrangement of complex materials is deft, and you will not even be aware of the amount of useful and relevant information he sneaks past your philosophically gun-shy mind. In becoming informed about the Exercises, you will hardly sense breaking a sweat, but you will be attentive, engaged, and challenged, a bit on the sly.

Somehow humor sneaks in the most surprising places. Even his account of Ignatius makes you grin, imagining the poor young ascetic dandy, in part motivate that his  leg no longer looks good in tights, stripping off his doublet and corset and giving it to some beggar who probably can't even use it, casting about in his longjohns, begging and growing out his hair into wild dreadlocks, and generally nearly losing it before gaining his epiphany in a marvelous image before a flowing river. Martin captures the incredible, almost fanatic energy of Ignatius and his early Society friends, fully matched by their comradery and singleness of purpose.  Martin insightfully inserts snippets of quotes or comments which either provide a refreshing break or a further insight into the subject at hand.

And it is never other than a devout, practical guide toward a relationship with God. After all, isn't that what Inigo was all about? Well done, Fr. Martin.