When receiving a book as a gift, I often wonder if I will ever get to it, mostly because choosing a book is a personal thing, and I am not always interested in ones I receive. When I got this book last Christmas, I knew that I would eventually read it. Being raised Catholic, I have always had an interest in the lives of the saints; furthermore, this book’s premise fascinated me because it involved not just the stories of the saints but also their influence on the author, who became a priest. After reading this amazingly honest and emotionally moving book, I can say that it has changed my way of thinking about people in religious life.
James Martin’s story intrigued me from the start. What we both had in common was a childhood raised as Catholics and being sent to Catholic schools. Also, he seems to have been a completely ordinary kid who read comic books, played with “fake vomit,” and even ordered “Sea Monkeys” from an ad in a magazine like I did. Where our paths diverged, however, was that at nine years of age he became fascinated with St. Jude and even ordered a statue through a catalogue. In this humble and somewhat casual way, James Martin’s life with the saints began.
What is equally intriguing is that Martin did not take the direct route to the seminary. He went to Wharton School of Business in Pennsylvania. While I found this surprising, apparently so does Martin. He tells us, “Why I decided to study business is difficult to explain and, at this writing, difficult even for me to understand.” He takes this road because, after consulting with his family and high school guidance counselor, it seemed that learning sound business practices would help him to “earn a living.” Of course, now he can identify what the problem was with his choice: his worrying about the “earning” part and not thinking enough about the “living” aspect of things.
After graduation he took an executive position at General Electric in New York City where he spent a few years “working almost around the clock,” but he derived no satisfaction from this. He also did not appreciate “witnessing daily examples of callous behavior from management.” Thus, being caught up in the drudgery and agony of the corporate world, Martin found himself only caring about making money and, even more alarmingly, he discovered the worst thing: “I couldn’t find a way out.”
His life began to change when he accidentally came across a documentary on public television about St. Thomas Merton. Inspired by what he saw, he ran out and bought Merton’s book, No Man Is an Island. Martin explains, “When I first read it, at age 26, it stopped me in my tracks and then started me on the path that would lead me to the Jesuits.”
What draws Martin into the life of Merton is the similarity to his own. Merton (and no one else for that matter) does not just go out and become a priest. He did many other things before settling on the idea of the religious life, but then he bounced from order to order seeking the right place for himself, and he does not find answers right away. He is even initially rejected by the Franciscans, who no doubt saw a problem in his tentative feelings about religious life, but eventually Merton does find his way and his home in the monastery. Merton’s life story affects James Martin irrevocably: “When I finished the book late one night and set it on my nightstand, I knew with certainty that this was what I wanted to do with my life.”
In this very intimate and revealing memoir, Martin goes on to describe a life that was touched by so many saints. Starting with St. Jude as a boy and Merton as an adult, Martin tells us how the stories of the saints inspired, instructed, and guided him through some doubtful times in the seminary, as well as through all the rest of his life.
While every chapter is powerful and illuminating, I specifically found sections about Bernadette Soubirous (St. Bernadette who saw visions of Mary), Mother Theresa (known as the Saint of the Gutters), and Angelo Roncalli (the man who would become Pope John XXIII) to be parts of the narrative that flowed so magnificently. They were also the sections of this memoir to really shine a bright light on the humanity of Martin, helping us to understand the power and frailty of this human being who aspired to become a priest.
In St. Bernadette, Martin finds the strength of his convictions and his calling. Though so many people doubted Bernadette’s story about her visions of Mary, the young girl stuck with what she had said and remained very brave in the face of ridicule, even from her own family. Martin thinks of her constantly as people around him question his choice to be a priest, mock the church, and denigrate the work that he does. Her inner strength and amazing faith keep him steady through hard times.
Of Mother Theresa, Martin gushes, “I was a big fan.” He found himself envying people who had met her, even his own father who had shaken her hand. Martin tells the story of how he wanted to interview Mother Theresa for a book he was writing. He never got to meet her, and she declined to be interviewed, but she did send him a personal note. While this was a treasured keepsake, the more important gift he gets from Mother Theresa was a call to service: to work with the poor, the sick, and the destitute during a stay in Kingston, Jamaica. Thanks to her inspiration, he not only experienced satisfaction in this work, but great joy which, in the words of Mother Theresa, is “something beautiful for God.”
In the chapter concerning Roncalli, Martin goes into great detail about his struggle with celibacy. For lay people, it is hard to imagine this kind of life, and Martin understands that and initially has trouble with it as well. He admits, “Chastity may be the most difficult thing to explain about life in a religious order.” He makes it clear that being chaste is not simple or easy for him or others, but it is something that he learns to accept and also cherish as love for another person can be and is replaced by the love of God.
This memoir reveals many things about Martin’s life, including a time he fell in love as a seminarian. At first he is horrified by this because he feels that he will not be able to keep his vows and have to leave the novitiate, but he talks to his spiritual director who helps him make sense of the seemingly nonsensical. “Falling in love is a wonderful part of being human,” he tells Martin, “perhaps the most human thing you can do. It shows that you are a loving person. And that’s a wonderful thing for a Jesuit and for a priest.”
Martin survives this moment of doubt, gets over "the infatuation" with this person, and decides to stay a Jesuit. One of the most powerful messages of the book is that a priest is a human being, has desires and feelings, and yet he needs to find a way to rise above those things to be a man completely devoted to the faith in order to do the work that is placed before him.
In My Life with the Saints we see how Martin uses the stories of the saints as a framework for his own life. He learns from their actions, from their writings, and is inspired to do the work of God because of their examples. There are a wide array of saints covered in the book including Joan of Arc, Ignatius of Loyola, Thomas Aquinas, and Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Martin draws strength from all of them, but in particular he seems to have a fondness for the female saints. Seeing the difficulties imposed on them by society because of their gender and the sacrifices they had to make, Martin is called to understand the importance of women in the male dominated world of the church. In this he finds a way to connect to his own feelings of being different, of facing the sometimes unforgiving world, and knowing what he is doing is what needs to be done. Of Joan of Arc he writes, “Joan found a way to God by learning a language no one else could hear.” As Joan’s example teaches, Martin understands that the difficult road to living his faith is one he has been meant to travel down all along.
Martin has given us a splendid book in which we can learn things about saints we never knew before. Also, in its pages he has shown the courage to open up his soul to his readers, allowing them inside to see all his doubts and his fears, but he also highlights his ability to find personal and spiritual strength through the saints and in that an affirmation of his calling.
Is this a book that is meant for only a Catholic audience? I think Catholics will appreciate this story because they will see many things in it that are familiar in their own lives; however, the book covers such universal territory that any reader can find inspiration it its pages. So I recommend this passionate, incisive, and intelligent memoir to all readers who not only want to get an idea about what it takes to become and stay a priest, but also to those who want to learn something about finding happiness and satisfaction in their own lives.