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Issue Date:  April 28, 2006

By James Martin
Loyola Press, 410 pages, $22.95
Companions on the road to holiness


Publishers have churned out countless books about men and women popularly or officially regarded as saints. This new account by Jesuit Fr. James Martin stands out because it weaves the author’s personal struggles and doubts together with colorful portraits of the holy people who have inspired him.

After graduating from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, Mr. Martin went to work for General Electric, but in time found himself stuck “on a tedious path that seemed to have a single goal: making money.” One evening he chanced upon a public television documentary about the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, which prompted him to pick up Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. The account of Merton’s spiritual journey proved to be transforming, convincing Mr. Martin that “this is what I wanted to do with my life.” Two years later, he entered a Jesuit novitiate. Fr. Martin is now a Jesuit priest and associate editor of America magazine.

Among the saints who have inspired Fr. Martin, in addition to Merton, are Joan of Arc, Joseph and Mary, Mother Teresa, Pope John XXIII, Francis of Assisi and Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuits in the 1500s and wrote the Spiritual Exercises, a classic guide to prayer still in wide use.

Although there is a tendency to put saints on pedestals, Fr. Martin shows that they are just like anyone else, with foibles, weaknesses and doubts.

Mother Teresa, for example, experienced long periods of spiritual darkness during which she felt deserted by God. “This distance, this feeling of abandonment, was a source of confusion, bafflement and pain,” Fr. Martin says. Knowing of Mother Teresa’s spiritual torment makes her accomplishments all the more extraordinary.

Fr. Martin acknowledges his own doubts and confusion, particularly regarding celibacy, an issue he returns to several times. Fr. Martin was horrified when his novice director said that he almost certainly would fall in love at some point and that others surely would fall in love with him.

As predicted, Fr. Martin later “fell head over heels in love despite my determination to avoid that situation.” He found the experience “totally overwhelming” and could barely eat or sleep. Confused and anxious, he met with an elderly Jesuit, who told him that “falling in love is a wonderful part of being human,” but that Fr. Martin would have to choose whether to leave the Jesuits or end the relationship. He decided to remain a priest, a decision he still regards as the right one for him. Fr. Martin was inspired by the example of Pope John XXIII, who exemplified the ideal of chastity throughout his life.

The “toughest part” of celibacy, Fr. Martin says, is the loneliness -- not having “one person with whom you share good news, on whose shoulder you can cry, or upon whom you can always count for a hug after a hard day. And that’s rough.”

Like ordinary Catholics, saints sometimes chafe under church authority. Trappist censors barred Thomas Merton from writing about the Cold War. Similarly, Fr. Martin discloses that he was asked by his superiors not to write about certain “controversial” topics in this book. He complied because of his vow of obedience, but says that his conscience might dictate a different response in the future.

Fr. Martin offers especially compelling portrayals of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa and Pedro Arrupe, who became superior general of the Jesuits in 1965 and quickly pushed the order in the direction of more active social ministry. Fr. Martin enlivens his narrative with telling anecdotes, such as the story of a man who saw Mother Teresa cleaning a leper’s wounds and said, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.” She replied, “Neither would I, but I would gladly do it for Christ.”

For Fr. Martin, saints are patrons and companions. He warns against reducing their role to doing or getting things for us.

He has had many occasions to turn to the saints for support. During theology studies, Fr. Martin developed severe pain in his hands and wrists and could not type or write. He had to abandon plans to work toward a doctorate in theology. The experience drew him closer to various saints and convinced him that acceptance of suffering “can open us up to experiencing God in a new way.”

This splendid book might prompt readers to look deeper into the lives of saints whose stories speak to them. Fr. Martin includes a useful discussion of the best books about each of his favorite saints.

People who say “I could never be a Mother Teresa” are correct. As she is reputed to have asserted, “Find your own Calcutta.” Perhaps that is the book’s core message: Each person has a unique way of understanding -- and serving -- God.

Bill Williams is a retired editorial writer and religion book reviewer for The Hartford Courant in Hartford, Conn.

National Catholic Reporter, April 28, 2006

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