The National Catholic Review

This is the first book I ever reviewed which I have not only read but prayed overand listened to on a CD (the book comes with a CD spoken by the actor Martin Sheen). Kennedy, a gifted, even charismatic, pastor and longtime chaplain in jails, had earlier done specialized training in the practice of spiritual direction. This is the third of his published books of meditations. His previous volumes, Eyes on Jesus and Eyes on the Cross, have captured a devoted following. In jails and in his parish setting, Kennedy deftly leads group meditations on vignettes from the Gospel. Indeed, at his Hispanic parish, Dolores Mission in East Los Angeles, the parishioners complain if he preaches an ordinary homily too often and neglects doing, instead, a guided meditation from the pulpit. The Gospel scenes, they claim, penetrate more deeply the marrow of their lives in the guided meditation format.

What sets The Jesus Meditations apart from Kennedy’s earlier volumes is the introduction of each of the 16 meditations by narratives from a range of persons who recount events in their ordinary lives where they have encountered Jesus and found transformation or healing. We hear the voices of a businessman, a bishop, a psychiatrist, a social worker, a woman in prison and a man serving a life sentence, a refugee, a recovering alcoholic, a prominent political figure, a superintendent of a Catholic school systemall speaking of crises, hurts, joys, vocational calls, turnaround conversions in their lives, places where they have met Jesus.

Kennedy displays a genius for combining a simple, direct and heartfelt style of poetic prose with a portrayal of Jesus as real, incarnate and engaged in life’s issues. Theologians tell us that the Scriptures are books that read us as much as we read them. The strong virtue of this volume is that it presents, in ways accessible to both the most ordinary person in the pew and the most sophisticated, a vivid portrait of Jesus in action. Readers familiar with the Ignatian method of contemplation, by which meditators use their senses and imaginations to place themselves into the scenes of the Gospel, will find here a vade mecum exemplar of how to do it well. The book resonates strongly with Kennedy’s own passions to quilt together spirituality and social justice, but it does so in the natural way that occurs to those who enter anew the world of Jesus, rather than through a more moralistic imposition of justice themes.

A Jesuit friend of mine, a most sophisticated, even a bit cynical critter, told me recently he turns to Kennedy’s meditations so that his heart and not just his head will be touched. The structure of each meditation includes, at the end, helpful, probing questions to turn the meditation toward one’s own situation in life. The meditations are equally suitable for adaptation to a group setting or for private prayer. Having witnessed in person Kennedy leading guided Ignatian contemplations, I have become convinced that such meditation in a group format can offer a rich resource in parish and other church settings to help people find Jesus in their rooted and busy lives. Naturally, we all see Jesus filtered through our own eyes, but meditation forces us to stretch and challenge our ordinary ways of seeing.

As I grow older, I am increasingly convinced that tapping into and renewing one’s religious imagination is key to spiritual sustenance and growth. Kennedy has an especially rich religious imagination. Most touching for me in this excellent devotional resource were the reflections of the man serving a life sentence in prison, the woman in jail, the refugee facing deportation proceedings. One comes away from this book convinced that there is no place where the light of Jesus’ imagination cannot give hope for another way of seeing, acting and being.

John A. Coleman S.J., is Casassa Professor of Social Values, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.