Rev. James Martin, S.J., author of the bestseller The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything shares his unique insights in an interview and upcoming lecture
Rev. James Martin, S.J., is a Jesuit priest, culture editor of America magazine, and author of several books including My Life with the Saints and the New York Times bestseller The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. His latest book is Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter are at the Heart of Spiritual Life. A frequent commentator in the national and international media, Fr. Martin has appeared on program and networks including The Colbert Report, The O’Reilly Factor, Fresh Air with Terry Gross, the History Channel, Vatican Radio, the BBC, and in publications including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He’ll appear at Loyola University Maryland on Monday, Nov. 7, at 7 p.m. in McGuire Hall.
You never expected to be called to religious life—in fact, you had already studied business at the Wharton School as an undergrad, and launched a business career when you left to join the order. What drew you to the Jesuits?
When I first started at Wharton, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I chose business because it seemed the most practical path. And it’s a real vocation for many people. But from the very beginning, I felt like I was in the wrong place. But I stayed on and started working for GE. I was doing well, but after about four or five years I started to feel trapped. I came home from work one night, turned on the TV and saw a documentary about the Trappist priest and writer Thomas Merton. It got me thinking about doing something else, something more peaceful and contemplative. Then I read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, and that really led me to begin thinking about the religious life. I first thought of the Jesuits because I was living close to Fairfield University.
You were raised a Catholic, but until you entered the Jesuits neither you nor your family would have been considered particularly devout. Were your friends and family surprised by your decision?
Surprised, shocked, and horrified. They were quite upset at first. They didn’t know many priests or any Jesuits. They thought I was wasting my education, running away from my life, and not thinking straight. I had been seeing a psychologist to help me deal with the stress of my job, and one friend insisted I needed to see another one.
And as soon as you entered the Jesuits, something changed?
I fell in love with the life almost immediately. I still look at my first year in novitiate as one of the best years of my life. The time we spent in prayer, working with the poor, and living in community was beautiful. It was shocking to me that something this amazing existed and I had known nothing about it.
Reviews of your book almost always cite its accessibility and practicality. What inspired you to write it?
There are many excellent books on Jesuit spirituality, but most are written expressly for Catholics, and are published by Catholic publishing houses. I wanted to introduce Ignatian spirituality to the largest possible audience, assuming the readers knew nothing about who Ignatius was.
Why are St. Ignatius and Jesuit spirituality so appealing to so many people?
The central concepts of finding God in all things and being a contemplative in action are very flexible. God is not confined to the walls of the Church. In the Jesuit point of view, each moment in our lives is an opportunity to experience God, no matter who you are.
What about for non-believers? Can they benefit from learning about Ignatian philosophy?
You have to remember that the ultimate goal of Ignatian spirituality is building a relationship with God. That doesn’t mean that if you’re a non-believer that you can’t find valuable insights about making decisions and relating to other people, but to understand it completely, a relationship with God has to be part of it.
Why have the Jesuits become so closely associated with education?
Ironically, that’s something of a reflection of the needs of the day. St. Ignatius valued education, he went back to learn more at a relatively advanced age, but he didn’t found the order to start schools. He founded it to “help souls.” But the civic leaders at the time asked him and his followers to start schools, and it turns out the Jesuits were very good at it. Finding God in all things of course means finding him in education and learning as well.
One of the things you make a point to do in your book is to reclaim the positive connotation of the word “religious.” Why?
You hear a lot today about people who want to be spiritual but without being religious, and the problem with that is that without religion, you are detached from the community aspect of spirituality. For all its sins and failings, organized religion provides a community in which we can find comfort, structure, consolation--and correction; it reminds us when we are wrong. If you are purely spiritual, anything that happens between you and God you assume must be right, and you lose out on those benefits of community. The problem in Jesus’ day was people were religious without being spiritual. Today it’s the reverse.
You do the same thing with the concept of desire—try to reclaim it as a positive thing.
Desire is really one of the main ways God speaks to us. On the most obvious level, people fall in love, they discover their vocations as spouses, friends, doctors, lawyers, and artists. Desire gets a bad rap, but it’s one of the ways God calls us. It’s been unfairly equated with selfish wants, but without desire we wouldn’t get up in the morning.
One of the most compelling aspects of Ignatian spirituality for most people is the idea that God meets you where you are—that you can decide to have a relationship with God, or a better relationship with God, anytime.
That’s right. St. Ignatius said, in essence, that you don’t have to wait to be perfect. Most people think they’re not ready for a relationship with God. But God’s always ready and God always loves you. That’s not to say he won’t call on you to change. But you don’t need to change to reach out to him.
Ignatius wasn’t always “a saint.” That helped him understand other people as he wrote. He wrote in the light of his very human, flawed existence. His approach to spirituality is different than some of the other saints, too, in that he had a very systematic way of approaching spiritual life. While others had written books, essays, and homilies, he had a four-week program—the Spiritual Exercises—that anyone could follow. It makes sense when you consider his military background that he’d have this way of martialing and setting forth things in this organized way.
What do you think—and would St. Ignatius say—is the most powerful, valuable element of his Jesuit spirituality?
The Examen—that’s the thing Ignatius said would best jumpstart your spiritual life. It’s a very easy prayer to do, it takes 15-20 minutes every day, and it always helps you to see where God is. It’s the one prayer Ignatius said that his Jesuits should never omit.
What’s the most difficult part of Ignatian spirituality for most people to accept?
The notion that God can be found in the midst of suffering. When we’re more vulnerable, God can break in more because your defenses are down. In your suffering, in your brokenness, God can meet you in new ways, through the kindness people show, the emotions that you feel.
You just published a new book in October. What’s this one about?
Yes—it’s called Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter are at the Heart of Spiritual Life. Too many Catholics feel the need to be gloomy, and that God wants us to be serious all the time. But God wants us to experience joy. Faith leads to joy.
Do you think too many people take religion too seriously?
No—religion needs to be taken seriously. I think too many religious people take themselves too seriously. I’ve long believed that if you’re deadly seriously, you’re seriously dead.