James Martin is loath to let a big headline go by without spinning the story toward The Big Story — God. He is, after all, a Catholic priest and a Jesuit, a religious order with a fundamental mission of “helping souls.”
In ancient days the church told Gospel stories with pictures in stained-glass windows. Now it’s the Web and TV. Says Martin, 49: “Everyone needs a medium. Mine is popular culture.”
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ON THE WEB: Martin’s blog posts at America magazine
So he’ll take on Lindsay Lohan, who dressed as Jesus for the cover of fashion magazine Purple, with a 10-point comparison between the actress and Christ. Martin’s blog post for the century-old Jesuit weekly magazine America, where he is culture editor, kindly concludes that perhaps she’ll take a lesson from the Savior.
When Mother Teresa’s letters, published in 2007, revealed she felt “the absence of God” for decades, Martin told Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert that doubt itself is a statement of belief. Martin has been back on twice, and the Catholic comic now introduces Martin as the show’s chaplain. “Jim is a Jesuit priest and a funny guy. I’m grateful to know both of him,” Colbert says. Martin’s new book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: The Spirituality of Real Life, may prompt another on-air moment.
Perhaps Martin is a natural for TV: He discovered his calling while watching a documentary on the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. An unlikely career start
At the time, Martin, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School of Business, was a corporate finance executive with a closet full of spectacular suits, a fast-track salary, horrendous hours and stomach-churning pressure.
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Faith did not sustain him then. He grew up in suburban Philadelphia in a not particularly observant Catholic home and notes he was well into adulthood before he realized praying was not like popping change in “a cosmic gumball machine.”
“Merton was a revelation. I thought monastic life looked so beautiful. It was like falling in love. I ran out and got all of Merton’s books and asked my parish priest, who certainly didn’t know me, where I could go to become like Merton, a holy person. He mentioned the Jesuits. “I had no idea who they were, but I went and got brochures on my lunch hour. I looked at them and I thought, ‘This is crazy — like joining the circus,’ and I ripped them up.” A life that centers on God Too late. The desire inside him, “a longing for a connection with God and for a way to make that connection real in the world,” he says, was inescapable.
Martin practically crashed the doors to enter the order’s 1988 training class. It took two decades of prayer, study, service and discernment before he took his final vows last November. St. Ignatius Loyola, a soldier turned priest, founded the Society of Jesus in the 16th century. The religious order is known for its intellectual rigor, for its workaday-world commitments. Now Ignatian spirituality informs all of Martin’s books, even the one on how he spent a year helping an off-Broadway troupe produce a play on Judas.
On weekends, Martin celebrates Mass at the spectacular marble, mosaic and bronze-decorated Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue in Manhattan. This is where he gave his first homily as a priest and took his final vows. But his daily life is around the corner at America, where he’s worked for 10 years, writing and editing.
His home office is a two-room suite in the Jesuit residence on the top floors of America’s Midtown Manhattan offices, full of art and photos of his stint in Kenya with the Jesuit Refugee Service. It’s also near major TV networks.
“Ignatian spirituality is intended for the widest possible audience of believers and seekers,” Martin says. He writes in The Jesuit Guide that “within the Christian tradition, all spiritualities, no matter what their origins, have the same focus — the desire for union with God, an emphasis on love and charity, and a belief in Jesus as the Son of God.”
It’s about making a God-centered life accessible to the doubtful as well as the devout, he says. It’s about realizing that when you are most vulnerable — sick, out of work, lonely, afraid, “God can move through your defenses, strengthen and accompany you.”
And there’s a radical simplicity to that, Martin says.
He says Ignatian spirituality “does not ask you to become a half-naked, twig-eating, cave-dwelling hermit. It simply invites you to live simply.”
The book becomes like a read-along spiritual director, someone to prompt you with questions, redirect your gaze, and help you, Martin says, to “discern where God might be speaking to you.” A long and winding road …
Martin’s book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, looks at six paths many follow to find God:
|The path of …||Benefit||Pitfall|
|Belief: Faith has always been a part of your life||You know and are known by God, and live in hope||You may be tempted to judge those not yet on your path.|
|Independence: You’ve separated from organized religion||Independence helps you to see faith in a fresh way.||A quest for the perfect religion keeps you from following any at all.|
|Disbelief: You believe that God may not, does not or cannot exist||You may have thought more about God’s existence than some believers.||Waiting for God’s presence to be proven intellectually may be a long wait.|
|Return: You return to the faith of your childhood||You approach religion with an adult understanding.||If you don’t forgive, you may harbor resentments from your religious upbringing.|
|Exploration: You search for a religion that “fits”||Your search may lead you to a spiritual home.||The search for a “perfect” religion may become an end in itself.|
|Confusion: You aren’t sure what you believe||Fine-tuning your approach to faith can help you feel closer to God.||Confusion can lapse into laziness, as organized religion seems like too much work.|
|MARTIN ON COLBERT|
|Jesuit priest James Martin’s appearances on The Colbert Report on Comedy Central began with a chat about a saint in despair.
The self-deprecating priest, prone to joking about Jesuits’ reputation for hair-splitting intellectualism, came on to talk about a collection of Mother Teresa’s letters, published in 2007, which revealed that for half a century she didn’t feel God’s presence. Video
“It shows that doubt, darkness and despair are part of the spiritual life” felt even by future saints, Martin told Stephen Colbert. Doubt can serve to inspire others who doubt. Her life is truly about belief, he said.
In April 2008, after Pope Benedict XVI visited Washington and New York, Martin told Colbert quite frankly that when hard-liner Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope in 2005, “he stepped out on the (Vatican) balcony and I wanted to jump off my balcony.” Video
But the pope has been “changed by his role,” and Benedict’s compassionate private meeting with U.S. victims of clergy sexual abuse won Martin over. Attending the papal Mass in Yankee Stadium was “the most wonderful day of my life (although) I know it sounds cheesy, Doritos cheesy,” said Martin.
“That could be a new flavor, Papal Cheesy,” Colbert zinged back.
In the wintery grip of the 2009 recession, Martin was invited to talk about faith in hard times. Video
Introducing him as The Colbert Report chaplain, Colbert asked, “Do you ever feel you were poor before being poor was cool?”
Martin joked about a life on the “cutting edge of poverty” but went on to explain that his vow of poverty is “mostly about freedom.” God, who is always present, may be better able to break through our defenses when we are not barricaded in by status and possessions, he said.