I have made quite a study of conversion stories, and (far from becoming jaded) I seem to find each one is a surprise. Everyone has an angle. God’s angle is also unpredictable. Even though the happy ending is more or less assured, there are always twists and turns along the way. James Martin’s account, in this honorable tradition, is blessed with ancient wisdom and plenty of contemporary novelty. Martin, who worked in corporate finance for six years, left the business world to become a Jesuit, and wrote this account of his call when he was recuperating from an illness in Kenya. He is now an associate editor of America and was ordained to the priesthood in 1999.
Martin has a frank, straightforward style, reminiscent of the young Thomas Merton, but just a bit more polished. Martin does not seem to specialize in self-accusation the way Merton did in The Seven Storey Mountain. He’s funnier than Merton, and exhibits youthful high spirits. I particularly liked the episode in which, after entering the Jesuits, he calls American Express to cancel his credit card, and winds up talking to the Amex representative about retreats and spiritual direction. But Martin also shows a certain gift for reflection. He has a clear picture of the young man he once was, and is quick to admit his own blind spots.
Merton, you will remember, was afflicted with alienation. He felt himself very much the outsider, without the protection of a faith or a church. And Merton was arrogant! But James Martin’s story is hardly so clear-cut. When his story begins he is already a Catholic, raised in a semi-practicing Catholic family. Coming home from college, he takes pride in showing off the keenness of his intellect and knows he is becoming offensive.
One result of this heightened regard for my own intellect was that I engaged more frequently with my college friends in debates about religion. While I still possessed only a ten-year-old’s understanding of Catholicism, this happy ignorance didn’t prevent me from arguing continually with my friend George, a confirmed agnostic, about almost any religious topic: Did Jesus really perform miracles? What’s the point of organized religion? Did Jesus rise from the dead? What’s the point of confession if God knows all your sins? Is there a God?
Martin sees, on reflection, that this verbal wrangling is taking him farther away from a real relationship to God. Still a Mass-goer, he nevertheless has not connected with God in any vital way. But when two college friends are killed in a car accident, James Martin becomes angry with God, and learns, from a woman friend, how to move to another level in his faith.
James Martin’s pilgrimage consists of a great many small and large illuminations. He enters the business world, not with any great sense of ambition or relish, but because it seems to be what the rest of the crowd is doing and where the best financial opportunities lie. And while the picture he sketches of the business world is fairly desolate, Martin doesn’t do what Michael Lewis and other writers have done, laying into commercial enterprise as hopelessly corrupt. He doesn’t blame the business world for his own spiritual malaise. Instead, it seems, he has not been following God. He has not looked for God in the business world; he has not chosen work that he loves; on all sides the meaning of things is unclear. At last, when he is swamped by the love of God, things begin to make sense, and the path leads rather directly out of the corporation and into the Society of Jesus. That is how grace works. It’s the twitch upon the thread that Evelyn Waugh described so well.
It seems that in becoming a Jesuit James Martin discovered everything: his passion for God, his joy in simply existing, his capacity for friendship, his sense of service, all these, and more. It’s delightful to look on while James Martin, as a novice, learns the basics of the spiritual life:
On entrance day, my mother, eager to make sense of all of this, asked Joe [one of the priests] what he did.
I’m a spiritual director.’
I listen to people talk about their prayer....’
Almost at once he is able to take advantage of some ancient ideas that are novel to him: discernment, which he calls a combination of prayer and decision making, being missioned to work with the seriously ill, contemplative prayer and examen, retreats. Martin is disarming when he describes some time-honored spiritual practice and appropriates it for himself. Take Martin’s description of the examen.
The examen is a short prayer devised by St. Ignatius in which you try to see how God was active during your day. First, you give thanks to God for all the graces you have received during the day. Anything you were grateful for: the sight of sunlight on the pavement; the taste of an orange; a joke shared with someone; or maybe a particularly rewarding moment of work. Second, you ask for the grace to see where God had been with you during the day.
Next, you review the entire day. Where you had accepted God’s grace...and where you hadn’t...almost like rewinding the entire day and playing it back, like a movie.
To end this description, Martin notes that Ignatius used to say that if there is time for only one private prayer daily, it should be theexamen.
In a casual, chatty way, Martin is describing his own transformation. Is it only a matter of becoming a Jesuit? I kept thinking of those biblical phrases like being conformed to Christ. Speaking of the humility needed to be a hospital visitor, Martin writes:
It was an utterly new type of work, the opposite of what I had done at GE [the corporation he had worked for]. There was little emphasis on producing. There were no deadlines. It wasn’t competitive. That didn’t mean that the people I worked with on the pastoral care team weren’t professionals. They simply weren’t interested in whether or not you were a high pot [potential] or a low pot, a 1, 2, or 3, or whether or not you had made your monthly numbers. They were more interested in finding God in their work.
When I came to this passage I realized that Martin wasn’t writing, entirely, about becoming a Jesuit, any more than Merton was writing about becoming a Cistercian. He wasn’t advocating a particular state of life or suggesting that the religious life is a better way. Instead, with a certain simplicity, he was noticing the difference that grace makes in our livesour work lives, our prayer lives, our ways of serving and loving.
If you know nothing about prayer and a life of service, you can find it all in this unstuffy, un-self-conscious book. And if you know everything about prayer and a life of service, you will start at the beginning and learn it all over again. Thinking about God in this wayin terms of a personal relationshipmade the ups and downs of prayer seem much less frightening, Martin recalls. At the beginning of a relationship, for example, there’s often a period of infatuation’; all you want to do is spend time with the other person. As it is with prayer.... Like any friendship, it needs to grow and be open to change. And so prayer changes throughout your life....
It takes courage to open up your life-story to the scrutiny of others. It’s a gift to us all that James Martin has done so, telling us how he confronted the great life-questions. I never intended to become a Jesuit, he writes. My background prepared me to be something completely different....
What James Martin is saying jumps over the question of whether our work is secular or religious, or whether we live a vowed life or not. He is telling us what happens when God overtakes a person’s life and that person is willing to respond.
As I sat in the chapel, I was overwhelmed by the blessings and grace I had received...and the consummate joy that suffused my life as a Jesuit. In just two years, almost despite myself, my life had changed entirely. And completely for the better.
Ad majorem Dei gloriam.