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My Life With the Saints (thoughts)

January 8, 2009

My Life With the SaintsWhen I was little, I wanted to be a Jesuit priest when I grew up. In my mind, they were super-intelligent, spoke several languages, lived around the globe, hobnobbed with the Pope…I’m not sure where my romantic image of the Jesuits came from, exactly, but there it was. Aside from the whole gender issue (if my friend wanted to be the first woman president, I figured I could aim for the first woman priest), this dream died when I was eleven and realised I couldn’t go through confirmation because I didn’t agree with ninety percent of the Apostles’ Creed. Nevertheless, my fascination with the Jesuits has never completely left me, so when I saw a memoir by one such priest on the Borders’ table, I immediately went home and put it on hold from my library. And I’m not going to lie: while reading James Martin’s My Life With the Saints, I once again daydreamed about becoming a Jesuit. Because this book is awesome.

Each chapter, aside from the introduction and conclusion, deals with a different Catholic saint (well, some of them are still on the road to sainthood) and episodes in Martin’s life that are connected with him or her. This format works perfectly for several reasons: Martin picks interesting saints (one who were defined by their lives, for the most part, instead of some weird way the Romans killed them), Martin has had a lot of really neat life experiences, and Martin is an awesome writer. Oh, and as a quick side note, for those of you who know nothing about Catholicism and are thinking you wouldn’t understand this book, Martin gives you all the background you need, I promise. I don’t like to talk about my personal religious beliefs, mainly because I think some things should stay private, but I do want to clarify for this review that I am not a Catholic, although I was raised one and retain a special fondness for Mary.

Since Catholicism is not known for its progressive attitude towards my gender, I was very pleasantly surprised to see that of the sixteen saints Martin discusses, six of them are women. This is an indicator of the great variety of saints in the book: they range from ancient (Mary and Joseph) to historical (Joan of Arc and Ignatius of Loyala) to contemporary (Dorothy Day and Pedro Arrupe). They also represent many different paths to sainthood, from a life of internal examination (Therese of Lisieux) to external work (Mother Theresa) and all of the points in between. Most of them are European or American, but one chapter focuses on the Ugandan martyrs. What I’m trying to convince you of, is that this great variety leads to a book whose each chapter has a different tone, almost like an essay collection, which is very pleasing to the reader. If you end up being less than impressed with one saint, you know there’s a completely different one of the horizon. And for the non-Catholics who are thinking to themselves, “a memoir devoted to idol-worship? I don’t think so!”, you might want to read this passage, wherein Martin examines a Catholic’s relationship with saints:

[In the early church] we find something else: the “companionship model,” where the saints are our friends, those who have gone ahead of us and are now cheering us along, brothers and sisters in the community of faith, the great “cloud of witnesses.” This is a more egalitarian notion of sanctity and sainthood.

So far, I’ve talked about the religious side of the memoir. But even though Martin’s discussing saints, and his experiences as a priest, the book doesn’t have a proselytizing feel at all. There’s no sense of “You should be Catholic, because otherwise you’re going to hell.” Instead, it’s an examination of how humans have tried to become closer to the divine.

Here’s the real reason I’m recommending this book: the writing. Martin has a gift, and he can bring a person or experience to life with just a paragraph. Check out his description of his favourite philosophy professor at Loyola University, a nun:

The redoubtable Sr. French stood about five feet in her stocking feet. I should point out, however, that she was never seen in her stocking feet: Sister always appeared in class perfectly turned out, wearing simple but elegant dresses usually adorned with brightly patterned silk scarves. (She would receive more than a few of these scarves from legions of grateful Jesuit graduates.) Her hair was always done in a soft, upswept coif, and her eyes, believe it or not, twinkled.

And while in the priesthood, Martin has met a lot of interesting people and done a lot of interesting things. By reading this book, you’ll meet, among others, a man who feels called to work among the gang members of the Chicago projects, while wearing a Franciscan-style cowl made out of denim. You’ll travel with Martin to Kenya, where he worked on microcredit projects for refugees for two years. You’ll see Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by Mother Teresa, cheerfully at work in hospitals in Jamaica. And of course, you’ll come along as Martin goes through the various stages of becoming a Jesuit, which I just found fascinating. :)

In addition to his descriptive powers, Martin is also quite funny. He’s able to laugh at himself, which I think is a wonderful quality. Humourous passages like the following pop up often throughout the book:

One Friday evening during my second year as a novice, I wandered into the TV room to see what video was being served up. Television watching was a popular pastime for novices on a thirty-five dollar monthly stipend. Our TV room consisted of fifteen individual recliners lined up in front of a large television, an admittedly strange setup that once prompted my brother-in-law to ask if we took a vow against sofas.

So, this book confirmed my childhood suspicions that Jesuits are intelligent people leading thoughtful, fascinating lives. It wonderfully combines mini-biographies of various saints with personal anecdotes and meditations on the human condition and religion to make a readable, thought-provoking book I’d recommend to everyone. I know I’ll be reading more of James Martin: right now I’m eyeing two other of his memoirs (A Jesuit Off-Broadway and In Good Company) as well as a collection he edited (and discusses a bit in this book) called How Can I Find God?. I’ll end this review with a wonderful quote, from Pedro Arrupe, that Martin included (he includes quotes from each saint he talks about in little boxes, which I really liked):

“Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”

Notable Passages
The life lacking in outer drama was revealed to be full of inward drama. Surprisingly, Therese described a powerful call to the priesthood: “I would like to perform the most heroic deeds. I feel I have the courage of a Crusader. I should like to die on the battlefield in defense of the church. If only I were a priest!”

During an American poetry course in college, I was introduced to Walt Whitman. Our young professor was something of a Whitman devotee and scholar…One day she said that if we were ever accused of contradicting ourselves we should quote the following lines from “Song of Myself”: Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Though I imagined that the silence would be the most difficult requirement (a friend asked me if I could remain silent for thirty minutes, let alone thirty days), it was the no-reading policy that proved the most challenging. While I readily gave myself to prayer, I never lost the desire to read or the tendency-at least occasionally-to find myself bored.

Believing that all of us are called to be saints has profound implications for daily life. An acceptance of what the Second Vatican Council termed the “universal call to holiness” imbues even the most hidden moments of one’s life with a special grace.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. January 8, 2009 10:53 am

    I’m sold! I had a lit professor in college that I simply adored. He was a T.S. Eliot scholar and the night we discussed The Waste Land in class he practically wept over the reading of it. The students caught on, obviously, and we were wondering what was up. As it turns out the poem was one of many factors that renewed his faith and spurred him on to join the Jesuit priesthood. He told us that night that he was leaving the university to begin his studies. That was a purely enlightening moment for me personally that reaffirmed my belief in not only the power of great literature but the wonderfulness of throwing oneself into something bigger.

    Thanks for a great review, Eva! Definitely interlibrary loaning this one.

  2. January 8, 2009 10:57 am

    Wow. I may have to read this book. I have not read a Catholic-themed book for years, but as a child I was fascinated with the “Lives of the Saints” books sold out of the small shop in my parish’s basement.

    For a brief period in my childhood, I aspired to be a nun!

  3. January 8, 2009 11:05 am

    When I was little I didn’t know what a Jesuit priest was! So you were always a bright one! I’m not surprised. :-) The books sounds great!


  4. January 8, 2009 11:09 am

    This sounds great! As a non-practicing Methodist who attended a Jesuit college (Loyola University Chicago), I was surprised by how deeply I fell in love with the Jesuit philosophy and approach to education, and I had many wonderful experiences with Jesuit priest-professors. Thanks for introducing me to tihs book.

  5. January 8, 2009 12:23 pm

    This sounds really cool Eva! I’m like you…raised Catholic, not practicing now. But I’ve always been obsessed with Saints..I find their stories to be so interesting. I’ll have to check this one out. Which Loyola did he go to? The one here in New Orleans is gorgeous. I’ll have to take pics of it one day.

  6. January 8, 2009 12:45 pm

    I have no connection to Catholicism except that my partner is Catholic, but I love books like this. Sounds wonderful.

  7. January 8, 2009 1:25 pm

    I have wandered off from my Catholic roots too, but aspects of the tradition continue to interest me, and this book has caught my eye a few times on recent trips to the bookstore. Thanks for the informative and insightful review!

  8. January 8, 2009 2:40 pm

    This sounds wonderful. My experience with the Jesuits other than running into them in numerous fiction and non-fiction books came when I worked for Barnes & Noble. The manager of the store highly recommended the book “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell. It is a fantastic combination of religion and science fiction. It is based on discovering music coming from space and the Jesuits involvement in planning and executing the first mission to find the music makers. This book will haunt you forever on several levels.

  9. January 8, 2009 2:59 pm

    This isn’t normally a review that I’d read, but once I got started it sounded more and more interesting. I’m a converted Catholic but I’m not overly religious at all. It was the Jesuit priest thing. One of my husband’s close family friends is a Jesuit priest. He lives in Rome and has met the Pope on several occasions. He came to stay a few times, but I didn’t know anything about him until after he’d left. If I’d known I’d have had a million questions for him..

  10. January 8, 2009 3:15 pm

    This sounds like a great book. I love that ‘s there’s so much variety–this history of the church is filled with people who are fascinating in so many different ways! It seems to me that books like this can often give a bigger, clearer picture of what Catholicism, sainthood, faith, etc., are all about without resorting to preachiness or defensiveness.

    And I second Jenifer’s recommendation of the Sparrow if you’re interested in the Jesuits.

  11. January 8, 2009 3:19 pm

    The Sparrow is terrific but I’m not convinced it’s a good source for information about the Jesuits. It does raise some interesting questions about them and about what happened when the European exploration of the Americas began.

    I also had some trouble with the Apostle’s Creed. With probably 15% of it, actually, but it was a very important 15%.

  12. January 8, 2009 3:57 pm

    You wanted to be a Jesuit priest, and I wanted to be a SWAT cop. Sounds like we’ve both wandered from our early dreams, huh?

    You know, I really know very little about Catholicism, but this really does sounds interesting.

  13. January 8, 2009 4:17 pm

    Andi, wow-that’s quite a story!

    Felicia, I always said if I had been born in the Middle Ages I would have been a monk. :D

    Lezlie, lol! I was raised Catholic. ;)

    Rebecca, that’s the university where Martin studied philosophy! I kind of wish I’d decided to go to a Jesuit university now…not that I didn’t like my colege.

    Chris, yay for us lapsed Catholics! We’re all still interested in the Saints, aren’t we? lol He went to Loyola in Chicago-I’m so jealous of you living in New Orleans, btw. :p

    Daphne, hope you enjoy it. :)

    Florinda, no problem!

    Jennifer, I read The Sparrow in the summer of 2006, because a freshman class I was TAing for the fall read it. I thought it was definitely interesting and I sobbed like a baby through the last twenty pages.

    Michelle, lol-I tried my best to draw people in! Jesuits should have to wear identifying tags so that we can corner them all the time. :)

    Teresa, yep-there definitely isn’t any defensiveness, which is nice.

    CB James, I agree-I wouldn’t treat it as a source of info on the Jesuits. ;) I wonder which 15% of the Creed bothered you!

    Debi, that’s so great! A SWAT cop?! Wasn’t it fun to be a kid?

  14. January 8, 2009 7:53 pm

    Eva, I love your blog. Thanks for hosting The World Citizen Challenge. Here’s an award:

  15. January 8, 2009 8:53 pm

    Falling in love with God. What a lovely thought. And what a lovely experience.

    The Apostle’s Creed just about brings me to tears personally. I find it awe-inspiring.

  16. January 8, 2009 10:06 pm

    This sounds like a nice introduction to the Jesuits for me. Although I’m not religious, I am fascinated by reading about different religions and beliefs.

  17. January 9, 2009 6:19 am

    We have a young friend (well, OK, a friend of our daughter’s) who has just returned from a stay at a monastery in Rome. This sounds like an excellent gift for him. Thanks, Eva.

  18. January 9, 2009 11:14 am

    Vasilly, thanks so much!

    Janet, I think, as poetry goes, it’s beautiful. And I’m glad you find awe in it. :)

    Matt, me too!

    JenClair, I hope he enjoys it. :)

  19. January 9, 2009 6:44 pm

    I was raised a Catholic too, but haven’t practiced for many many years, yet I find that curiosity about religion and the different paths to faith very much interests me. This book sounds fascinating, Eva! I love how you show us the inspiration/devotional thoughts that are ones everyone can be inspired by. I’m going to have to read this book! And yes – I’ve always thought of saints as friends, as role models, too. Thank you, Eva!

  20. January 11, 2009 10:17 am

    This sounds really good and definitely like something that I would be interested in reading. Great review :)

  21. January 11, 2009 11:26 pm

    Susan, thank you-I hope you enjoy the book. :)

    Samantha, thanks so much!

  22. January 12, 2009 6:26 pm

    “…this dream died when I was eleven and realised I couldn’t go through confirmation because I didn’t agree with ninety percent of the Apostles’ Creed.”

    You literally brought tears to my eyes because I was laughing so hard. Thank you for brightening up my blah Monday.


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