Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Interview with Rev. James Martin, SJ
Rev. James Martin, SJ is the second interview at The Fine Delight, and I'm thrilled to share his wonderful thoughts. This interview was conducted via e-mail. A bio note, as well as links to Father Martin's books, follow the interview. Thanks so much for speaking with us, Fr. Jim!
1. The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, is, like the best sermons, both accessible and layered. How did you come to, in the Ignatian sense, "find God in all things?"
Thanks for the compliment! The easiest way to answer that question is to say that it took me quite a few years of listening to Jesuits who were much more experienced, and it took quite a few retreats, before I began to understand what that meant. Essentially, all you need to do is to be aware, awake and attentive to what's going on around you. Ignatian spirituality encourages believers to look for God not simply within the walls of the church, or in the pages of Scripture, but in their everyday lives. God can be found in the midst of relationships, work, nature, family, play, music--pretty much anything.
One of the best ways of inviting people to see this is with the practice called the “examination of conscience,” which was popularized by St. Ignatius Loyola. Essentially, it's a review of the day that takes the form of prayer. And it only takes 15 minutes a day (most people do it at the close of the day) to help yourself to see God more clearly. The steps are as follows: First, gratitude: you remember things are grateful for, you “savor” them (that is, you spend time thinking about them) and you thank God for that. Second, you review the day, from start to finish, noticing all the times when you noticed God’s presence. Third, you call to mind anything sinful that you’ve done. Fourth, you ask God for forgiveness and perhaps decide to apologize to someone you offended. Fifth, you ask God for the grace to see God in the next day.
Eventually it becomes easy to see where God has been. And as you notice where God was, it becomes easier to see where God is. In other words, looking for God “backwards" makes it easier to look for God "forwards."
2. I first learned of the Jesuits from my father, who attended Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. He characterized them as worldly and intelligent, and yet also caring. What truly makes the Jesuits unique among the Catholic orders?
Well, depends who you ask! Many American Catholics might point to all of our high schools and colleges and universities. Overseas, people might point to things like the Jesuit Refugee Service.
Most Jesuits, though, would say that it's our distinctive spirituality. Each religious order (like the Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans) has a kind of tradition of accents, highlights, emphases in the Christian life that come to them from their founder. That leads to a distinctive spirituality, or way to God. For Jesuits, it's the way of approaching things according to the life, the writings and the activities of St. Ignatius Loyola, our founder, and the early Jesuits. So the idea of being a "contemplative in action," which is something that comes from Ignatius, is very important for us, as is the idea of, as I mentioned, "finding God in all things."
But another very important source is the Spiritual Exercises, the classic text written by St. Ignatius Loyola in the 16th century. In essence, it's a four-week manual for prayer that invites the believer to imagine himself or herself following the life of Christ as presented in the Gospels. Overall, and while it’s hard to summarize, the Spiritual Exercises brings one closer to God in prayer, frees one up to make healthier decisions, and gives you a deeper understanding of the New Testament.
It also invites you into that particular kind of prayer that goes by the name "Ignatian contemplation," which, as I said, is a way of imagining yourself within the scene from Scripture. You use all your “imaginative senses,” trying to say, “If I were in this scene, what would I see? Hear? Feel? Smell? Taste?” As Ignatius said, you try to “compose” the scene, and then observe what happens and notice what happens within you. That form of prayer really changes the way many people look at familiar Bible passages.
3. Your March 2000 essay, "The Last Acceptable Prejudice," was my introduction to the complicated tendency toward anti-Catholicism in America. Do you think Catholicism is still portrayed and rendered as an "other" in our country?
At times it is. But I think it's important to distinguish between the more virulent kinds of bigotry--like racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia—and anti-Catholicism. On the one hand, anti-Catholicism is simply not as virulent as those other prejudices. On the other hand, when we look at American history we see things like the burning of convents, the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing party and many vicious (and I mean vicious) anti-Catholic tracts. The historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. once called anti-Catholicism "the deepest-held prejudice in the history of the American people,” primarily because Catholics were living in a largely Protestant culture that was deeply suspicious of the Catholic Church. It’s also sometimes called “the anti-Semitism of intellectuals.” It’s rather accepted to think that the Catholic church is a malign force, particularly in the wake of the sex abuse crisis, and that priests are all pedophiles, and so on.
Today, though, anti-Catholicism is much subtler. For example, whenever you see a Catholic priest on TV they're sure to be presented as a pedophile, an idiot or a tyrant. Catholic sisters are portrayed as complete idiots (see “Sister Act,” for a relatively benign example) incapable of driving a car or even tying their shoes, when these are the women who built the American Catholic hospital network, founded and ran high schools and colleges, cared for the poor for years and years.
Now, some things that are labeled “anti-Catholic” may actually be more a result of ignorance (for example, when a newspaper editor doesn’t know even the most basic terminology and labels things incorrectly.) Other instances are even more subtler, as when a journalist talks about a political figure as a “devout Catholic,” as if that's supposed to explain everything about his political beliefs. I encounter anti-Catholicism quite frequently on a personal basis, too, as when otherwise intelligent people say absolutely ridiculous things to me about the church. It comes with the territory, though.
The best test of whether something is “anti-Catholic” is to insert another religion and ask yourself if that religion would be treated, or spoken about, the same way. (As in “All Jewish people are…” Or “All Muslims are…”) So I don't agree with those who say it's rabid and a threat to the church; on the other hand, I don’t agree with those who say it doesn't exist.
4. One of my favorite actors, Sam Rockwell, contacted you regarding his role as Judas in the play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Your experiences with Rockwell and the rest of the cast were documented in the acclaimed A Jesuit Off-Broadway. What could actors learn from the Catholic faith (and what could the church, perhaps, gain from the theater)?
What could actors learn from the Catholic faith? Well, I would say puckishly, what everybody else could! So the essentials, as I presented them to the actors, are the essentials that I would present to anybody: God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, and so on.
But more specifically, in the case of the The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, we spoke a great deal about the history of the saints. One of the things the actors found most interesting of the saints was that they were, as one said, "real people." And in the play, in which Judas was put on trial for the death of Jesus, a number of saints are called upon as "expert witnesses." And for the actors to understand their parts (and for Sam Rockwell to understand Judas), the actors needed to approach the apostles and saints as real people, which of course they were. So we studied the traditions surrounding the lives of St. Peter, St. Thomas, St. Monica, Mother Teresa, and in the process look at the notion of holiness making its home in humanity. This was, as they told me, a revelation for many of the actors.
Also, the Catholic Church is not fundamentalist when it comes to Scripture. So we used the modern tools of the historical scholarship to understand the Gospels more fully. I think this was also a surprise for the actors, who may have expected me to say that every single word of the Bible needed be taken literally. Of course I believe in the truth of the Bible, and not just some metaphorical truth, but the truth of what's being told in the narratives (for example, Jesus truly rose from the dead), but you cannot take every word literally because they're clearly some contradictions among the Gospels. These are the kinds of things we spoke about.
What could the church learn from the theater? Well, one of the things that struck me most about working with the actors was their spontaneity, fearlessness, and liveliness. They were always ready to try something new, particularly when it came to the interpretation of the part, always ready to learn, and always lively and energetic about their roles. The church, I think, which often suffers from a certain joylessness, could certainly learn from their joie de vivre.
5. As an editor of America, you're a part of a magazine that's essential to the Catholic literary culture of America. Are there Catholic writers--past and present--who have influenced you?
That's an easy question. My favorites would start with Thomas Merton, whose autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, helped to move me from my former life at General Electric into life in religious community, specifically the Jesuits. I’ve often said that the four people most responsible for my vocation are the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and Thomas Merton. I've also quite enjoyed reading the works of Henri Nouwen, the Dutch priest died in the 1980s. His way of combining his personal experience with Christian spirituality has spoken to me, and it influences the way that I write about my life and my beliefs. Ron Hansen is perhaps my favorite contemporary Catholic writer, though he doesn't always write about overtly Catholic things. His novel Mariette in Ecstasy is, I think, the great Catholic novel of the last 25 years. Finally, Kathleen Norris, who writes about things Catholic, is actually Presbyterian herself, but I’ll place her in that group. Her book The Cloister Walk is superb.
6. I wish that lapsed Catholics--those who have stopped attending Mass for a variety of reasons, or who have strayed from the faith--would read your enlightening writings, which truly reveal the energy of Catholicism. What would you say to those who have struggled with their faith?
Well, I wish they would read them, too! And actually some of the most gratifying letters and emails and messages I’ve gotten have been from people who have been struggling with their faith and who tell me that my writing has helped them. That’s wonderful to hear.
What would I say to someone who struggles with their faith? First of all, it's natural. Doubts are a natural and human part of the spiritual life. You can’t be human and not doubt. The saints struggled with it, and I would venture to say that perhaps even Jesus does in his final moments on the cross. (This is a reflection of his humanity.) So doubts are a given.
For someone truly struggling, I would ask him or her to start looking for signs of God in their everyday lives. The “examination of conscience,” as I said is an excellent tool to jumpstart your spiritual life and start looking for signs of God's presence. So it's not so much a question of looking for where God will be, as much as it is of looking for where God already is.
Sometimes those struggling with “faith” are struggling more with organized religion. And that’s quite a different matter. To these people I say that from the time of the early Christian church, there've been debates, struggles, challenges, craziness and sinfulness, and so it is impossible to expect a perfect religious organization to suddenly materialize. That doesn’t excuse the sins. By no means, as St. Paul would say. But part of being in any human organization is a certain admission of imperfection.
But really I would ask those struggling with their faith to just remember that God is always inviting you to experience the transcendent in your everyday life. It's mainly a question of being aware, awake, and attentive.
7. In a great interview with Big Think, you noted the gospel "is supposed to disturb you." Why do you think many Catholics and Christians want their religion to be easy?
Well, because they’re human! Who doesn’t want something easy? Who wants life to be hard? Who wants to be challenged? But Jesus came to, as the wonderful formulation has it, "comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable." Jesus was very disturbing in his time. It's one of the reasons that he was crucified. And he is disturbing to us today. There's a terrible tendency to want to cordon off Jesus into a particular political sphere, and make it seem that Jesus is simply supporting what we believe politically. But Jesus is much bigger than any set political platform. For one thing, I think we've almost completely lost sight of the absolute requirement to care for the poor, which is clearly and repeatedly outlined in the Gospels. Jesus talked a lot more about that than about sexual morality, which we’ve forgotten.
But even more basically, the whole Christian message of love and forgiveness is difficult. It's hard to love someone who doesn't love you. To forgive someone who has hurt you. But that's essential! To paraphrase Dostoevsky, love in novels and plays is sweet and beautiful and easy; love in real life is a "harsh and dreadful thing."
8. I'm a big fan of your appearances on The Colbert Report: you're able to be both funny and articulate. How did you connect with Stephen Colbert, and why do you enjoy appearing on his show?
I had written an article on Mother Teresa for the New York Times after her book Come be my Light came out, which detailed her spiritual doubts. The people at the show read the article and invited me on to talk about Mother Teresa, which I was happy to do. I've long been a fan of the show and I'm also very much in favor of taking religion to places where it may not normally be expected to be found. So we had a lot of fun during a conversation; I enjoyed myself thoroughly. Stephen Colbert is a faithful Catholic, an intelligent guy, and of course very funny. Since then, I've been on three or four times and they even refer to me as the "Colbert Report chaplain," which delighted me. Frankly, when I speak on college campuses I get more questions about Stephen Colbert than I do about Jesus!
9. Are you working on any new writing projects?
Yes, always! Besides my work in America magazine I just a finished a book on joy, humor, and laughter in the spiritual life for HarperCollins, to be published in October this year. We're still noodling around with the title, but it’s pretty much finished. As I mentioned, I think there is a certain grim aspect to religion that needs to be challenged. The good news should put a smile on your face. And, after all, Christ is risen.
The next book I'm working on, which I’ve already started, is on Jesus. It’s a series of meditations on his life, death, and resurrection, using some of the imaginative techniques of the Spiritual Exercises. My joke to my friends is that I'm writing about Jesus because not enough has been written about him!
James Martin SJ is a Jesuit priest, culture editor of America magazine, and author of the New York Times bestseller The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything and My Life with the Saints, which has sold over 100,000 copies and was named by Publishers Weekly as a "Best Book" of the Year. Father Martin, who has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Boston Globe, among other publications, and blogs for HuffingtonPost, is a frequent commentator in the national and international media. He has appeared on all the major networks, and in venues as diverse as NPR's "Fresh Air with Terry Gross," Fox TV's "The O'Reilly Factor" and Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report."
Posted by Nick Ripatrazone at 4:57 PM