Preaching to the Converted

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Even the sort-of-faithful need more than sincerity.

By James Martin W’82.
Loyola Press, 2005. $22.95.

By Maureen Corrigan | If only there were a patron saint for book reviewers. Let’s just pretend there is one, and let’s call her St. Dorothea the Lesser (after the decidedly impious Dorothy Parker). On holy cards, St. Dorothea would be depicted in a coffee-stained white robe, her breast punctured by knives flung by outraged authors. In one hand she’d hold an hourglass, symbolic of deadline pressure. Her other hand (held palm upwards) would be empty, symbolic of late payments, the constant cross borne by freelance writers. According to legend, St. Dorothea the Lesser would intercede for reviewers in all manner of ways: making the last sheet of computer paper miraculously multiply into a hundred; gracing tin-eared editors with an appreciation for reviewers’ bon mots; enlarging the font size of reviewers’ bylines. But perhaps even the sympathetic St. Dorothea the Lesser would turn stony-faced when she heard about my predicament: For how could any saint pray for the protection of a skeptical Catholic reviewer who’s about to give a mildly damning review to a very sincere book about saints written by a very likeable Jesuit priest?

My Life with the Saints, by Fr. James Martin W’82, is a spiritual memoir that touches upon the journey from his undergraduate days at the Wharton School and the secular career in the corporate world that followed to his call (in his late twenties) to the religious life and his priestly work with, among others, the sick at a hospice in Jamaica, prisoners in Boston, and refugees in Kenya. The twist here is that Martin chronicles the mystical influence that certain historical figures, recognized as especially holy by the Catholic Church, have had on him at different points in his life. Many of the figures Martin prays to fall into the traditional “saint” category, that is, having been canonized by the church; others, like Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa, are currently wending their way through the church’s bureaucratic system.)

Martin says he mostly regards members of this elect crew not so much as “patrons”—hovering at the ready to be tapped for favors—as he does “companions.” Accordingly, he describes how he’s turned to St. Joseph, the ostensible father of Jesus, for strength in leading the “hidden life” of service and to the ebullient Pope John XXIII for a model of loving chastity (as opposed to the stereotype of the warped celibate). Each chapter in this compendious volume provides a miniature biography of one saint or holy person and describes their influence on Martin’s life. Martin, who’s an associate editor of America, the national Roman Catholic weekly magazine, possesses an easy style as a writer—conversational rather than theologically arcane. Often his anecdotes are graced by self-deprecatory jokes or confessions of all-too-human weaknesses. (He admits, for instance, that he smoked pot and drank beer as an undergrad at Penn!)

But, if ever there was a book that preaches to the already converted, My Life with the Saints is it. Indeed, Martin himself identifies the central impediment to his book reaching a larger readership beyond those stalwart Catholics who still put statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary on their windowsills at night when they want the next day to be sunny. In the conclusion of his book, Martin (a movie buff) recalls a line from the classic Catholic film The Song of Bernadette, which dramatizes the visions of the Virgin Mary allegedly witnessed by a French peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, in 1858: “In response to the need for proof of Bernadette’s vision and the subsequent miracles at Lourdes, one character says, ‘For those with faith no explanation is necessary; for those without faith no explanation is sufficient.’”

Fair enough. But, speaking as one of the sort-of-faithful, I wanted something more in Martin’s 400-plus page book to draw me in—perhaps a stirring anecdote or two or some profound reflections on even the mundane instances of saintly influences at work in Martin’s world. Instead, the tone of this spiritual memoir and the insights it contains remain at room temperature throughout, like dusty holy water sitting for weeks in the font. (“St. Dorothea, here’s your cue/Watch my back, because I’ve got some panning to do.”)

Visiting the Spanish birthplace of Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus (commonly known as the Jesuits), Martin is “stunned” to stumble upon the very room in the castle where Ignatius’ conversion is said to have taken place. A mass is about to begin in the small “conversion room” and Martin and his Jesuit companion are unexpectedly invited to help celebrate the mass. Afterwards, Martin comments: “Okay God, I thought, I guess I’m seeing you pretty clearly now.”

I honestly have no doubt he is, but, as a reader, I’m not so sure I am. Somehow this experience, which was so crucial to Martin, falls flat for me. Is it a problem of not enough faith on my part or not enough literary skill on his part to make me feel something of what he felt even if I don’t quite believe what he believes?

Similarly, the lessons that Martin abstracts from his meditations on the saints sometimes seem too pat, too conveniently reinforcing of the sacred and profane status quo, as when Martin recalls another priest telling him about their middle-aged cleaning lady, an Eastern European immigrant: “Do you know,” this older priest says, “that she has worked for us without complaint for ten years, and put three of her kids through college? And, you know, she is always cheerful, and she is always kind to me?”

Forgive me, Father, but the first thought that entered my head after reading this anecdote was: “GET THAT WOMAN INTO A UNION!” Humility is not always a virtue, as Martin, a member of one of the most unruly orders in the Catholic priesthood, certainly knows. Yet the chapter ends at this point, with a confirmation of keeping quiet and staying in line, rather than a more nuanced exploration of the merits of this stance.

My Life with the Saints introduced me to a few interesting figures in the Church I didn’t know—Pedro Arupe and the Ugandan Martyrs—and reintroduced me to one—Pope John XXIII—I’d like to read more about. It’s probably a good book for Catholic readers who are firm in their religious beliefs and who want to know more about certain saints and how their lives can still be inspirational today. But for those of us who, for better or worse, embrace Doubting Thomas as our patron saint, there isn’t much here to nudge us off the fence and onto our knees.

Maureen Corrigan Gr’87, book critic for National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, teaches literature at Georgetown University.

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