I have barely posted this year. I have been both too busy and a bit burned out. I really enjoy reading theology and Christian living books, but there is a sense in which there really does seem to be ‘nothing new under the sun.’ And so I have been reading several Catholic books. They tell the Christian story at a slight slant (to use Eugene Peterson’s phrase) that allows me to see my faith in a different perspective. That slant cuts through the cliché (although for Catholics I am sure there is plenty of cliché here.)
James Martin is a popular Catholic writer. He writes for America, a Jesuit magazine, and was one of the most frequent guests on the Colbert Report. This is the third book of Martin’s that I have read, but the one that I first noticed.
The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life is an attempt to both explain Ignatian (or Jesuit) understanding of Christianity. I have read similar books about Benedictine spirituality from Dennis Ockholm and Joan Chittister and about Franciscan spirituality from Richard Rohr. I find that reading about other Christian spiritual practices and theological systems helps me understand my own Christian background and theology more because every system has blind spots that are only revealed when looked at from a different perspective.
St. Ignatius of Loyola founded the Jesuits (or Society of Jesus) and his life and writing is the basis for Ignatian spiritual understanding. Ignatius lived from 1491 to 1556. So the Jesuits were founded almost exactly 1000 years later than the Benedictines. To my outsider’s eyes that seems to come out most clearly in the Ignatian use of pragmatism and the different role of reason. Benedictines are not against reason, but Jesuits embrace it to a different degree (which is why so many Catholic schools and universities are Jesuit). So throughout the book Martin talks about embracing what works pragmatically. What works in one place and time will not work in another place and time.
What is probably best known about Ignatian spiritual understanding is the prayer of Examen. It is actually one of the first things that I came across years ago when I started exploring Christian practices outside my background. (The site examen.me was started by Evangelical pastors and was my first real exposure.) At the simplest, is a type of prayer that intentionally reviews the day to see where God was present and to look for where God’s presence is trying to direct us. I have never regularly practiced the prayer of Examen, but each time I read about it I think I should. It is not unlike many people’s purpose in journaling.
Martin also has very good chapters on vocation and decision-making that I think are particularly helpful and give good insights into what Jesuits bring to Christian understanding. There are a number of helpful chapters here that I am not going to detail beyond mentioning, but I thought his discussion of chastity, downward mobility, suffering and obedience were all good and helpful.
Throughout the book I think that Martin does a good job bringing what I think of as a particularly Catholic perspective of looking at everything as having both goods and weaknesses. Evangelicals tend to talk about good things and bad things for spiritual practice or theology and understanding the good things to only have good aspects and the bad things to only be bad. I continually hear Catholics thinkers talk about actions or practices as having both good and bad aspects. Richard Rohr in his book Why Be Catholic talks about different things that he likes about Catholicism, but also talks about where those things that he likes can go bad. James Martin does that throughout this book as well.
The negative of this book is that it is a bit long and repeats itself. Martin at the beginning suggests that the reader should read the chapters that they are interested in, and not necessarily in order. But that type of writing is necessarily repetitive in order to make sure the reader has the necessary background. I listened to this on audiobook mostly. James Martin was the narrator and does a good job at it. Martin brings a lot of humor to his writing and that carries through in his narration as well.
The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life by James Martin Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook the audiobook is $3.99 with the purchase of the Kindle Edition (which is on sale for $1.99 for the month of Feb 2016)
- Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life by James Martin
- Becoming Who You Are: Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton and Other Saints by James Martin
- The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of St Francis by Richard Rohr
- Why Be Catholic by Richard Rohr
- Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith by Robert Barron
- The Catholic Church: What Everyone Needs to Know by John Allen
- Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants by Dennis Ockholm