Readers of spiritual autobiographies possess some inner verifier that helps them sniff out the phoniesthose who pose, posture and pontificateand to affirm those who risk exposing their fumbling and bumbling, their reticence and resistance, as well as their willingness to wrestle with and finally surrender to Someone who claims them and frees them to be themselves. It isn’t often that an authentic and noteworthy book in this genre comes along, but we have reason to celebrate My Life With the Saints, by James Martin, S.J., as precisely such a gift. It is earmarked for longevity. It will endure as an important and uncommon contribution to religious writing.
There are three indispensable qualities found in good autobiographies of all kinds but especially, perhaps, in those about conversion: the human touch that enables readers to identify with the author; candor that is straightforward, occasionally witty, but never sentimental or self-serving; and literacy. These basic characteristics explain why for centuries readers have been able to identify with Augustine’s wrenching exposé of his intellectual and intimacy struggles in the Confessions and to experience visceral relief when his indecision is resolved. Readers have done the same for decades with Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, following the path of a party animal who chucked it all for monastic life in a remote part of Kentucky, nodding to themselves as they turn pages, Yes, this is believable.
In the same vein, readers of Martin’s book will meet a twenty-something college graduate with credentials from a top-10 business school on a trajectory for a career with a Fortune 500 company and the big bucks and perks guaranteed for those who persevere. But they will also find a divided person wanting something more but not knowing where to look, where to find what will ultimately satisfy him. For Martin, the drama that unfolds is surprising but subtle and in fact linked to ordinary events like tuning into a PBS special on Thomas Merton after a long day at the office, learning French in high school that becomes the catalyst to visit Joan of Arc’s Orléans with a college friend, or having books on Thérèse of Lisieux and Dorothy Day beckoning him from a shelf, where they lay for months, saying, Read me. In retrospect Martin discovers, as Augustine, Merton, C. S. Lewis and countless others did, that what looked like a series of random things, persons and events, were in reality not chance but grace.
The author tells his story by introducing us to saintssome officially canonized and some still in the pipelinewho become his friends. The saints Martin knows are men and women with life experiences that connect in specific and helpful ways with his own. He finds in Dorothy Day the impetus to live more simply. Pedro Arrupe’s sufferings help him deal with difficult decisions from his superiors. From Pope John XXIII he learns a lesson about chastity and the intimacy that is possible, if not crucial, for celibate living. The saints he meets know discouragement, disappointment, fear, anxiety, impatience, frustration with authority, insecurity, limitations, rejection and the awesome presence of God in the middle of it all.
Along the way, Martin discloses his own neuroses as a veteran worrier; his enchantment as a young Jesuit with the old, distinctively different Jesuit cassock that he finds cool and looks forward to wearing while working with gangs in Chicago; and his affection for the untapped tapper guide to the thought of Thomas Aquinas. (These anecdotes not only provide humor in Martin’s narrative but make the reader wonder how he will re-evaluate some of these revelations 20 years from now.)
On a more serious note, Martin passes on painstaking attention to saints who have been misunderstood and misrepresented over the years. For example, he judges pictures of Aloysius Gonzaga clad in a jet black cassock and snowy white surplice, gazing beatifically at an elegant crucifix he holds in his slim, delicately manicured hands[and] grasping a lily as missing the pointthat he was something of a rebel who surrendered a life of privilege as a member of one of the most powerful families in Renaissance Italy to become a Jesuit. He died at 23, having contracted the plague from those he was serving.
For Aloysius, as for Thérèse, Bernadette, Joan of Arc, Mother Teresa and others, Martin demythologizes the piety that has come to cover their legends like barnacles and re-interprets them for us. That is no small feat and is made possible by the structure of each chapter: personal reflection, a synopsis of the life of the saint, selections from his or her writings and research on the saint from authorities. No wonder this book took 10 years to write: evidence of meticulous attention to detail abounds alongside a personal response to a hidden part of the saint’s lifea small, almost unnoticed piece of his or her story that has affected Martin in a powerful way.
Friendship, as James Martin knows, is a two-way street. Not only do his friends comfort, challenge, anticipate needs and give guidance; they also nudge him most of all not to copy their maps but to find his own route, God’s custom-made plan for his life. In return for their friendship, Martin shares their stories with us and passes on to us their nuggets of wisdom, never betraying his humanityor those of his friends. Along the way, our own humanity is touched and strengthened by these generous friends.