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Being Uniquely Ourselves on the Path to Saintliness

Author Interview with James Martin, SJ, My Life with the Saints
by Lisa M. Hendey | Source:
Father James Martin, author of the wonderful new spiritual memoir My Life with the Saints (Loyola Press, March 2006, hardcover, 411 pages) has great news for those of us who may feel that we fall short of the devout role models provided by the saints. By sharing his own spiritual journey, Martin offers the reader an intimate insight into the holy men and women he looks to as inspirational companions. What is refreshing about Martin’s book, however, is its “down to earth” look at these revered individuals. Far from portraying them in airbrushed holy card fashion, Martin shows them as individuals with struggles, foibles, and difficulties just like the ones each of us face in our own day to day trials to live as God would have us live.

As a wife and mother, I find myself dually concerned with leading a holy and meaningful life and with setting a good example for my children. Sometimes, in the midst of the eighth load of laundry or the fourth toilet cleaned, it can feel difficult to make the connection between domestic duties and a life of meaningful service. In my own mind, I frequently encourage myself with thoughts of St. Therese, the Little Flower, and her Little Way. When I read Fr. Martin’s book for the first time, I felt like I was listening to the voice of a friend – here was someone, like me, who found friendship, consolation and encouragement in relating to the lives of the saints. Martin’s saintly compatriots are shared chronologically in the book, in relation to his encounters with them along his own spiritual path.

I had the opportunity to catch up with James Martin recently, and am pleased to share his thoughts on his vocation, his saintly companions, how saints can and should be a part of our parenting and family lives and his wonderful book, My Life with the Saints.

Q: Please briefly introduce yourself and share how you came to your vocation.

After graduating from the Wharton School of Business and working six years in corporate America, I started to get really stressed out and wondered if this was the life I was meant for. While many of my friends enjoyed the business world, it just didn't seem like the right "fit" for me. One night, after a long day's work, I stumbled onto a TV program about the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. At the time I wasn't particularly "religious," but the show was so interesting that it made me track down and read his 1948 autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Merton's book, which describes his entrance into the monastery--a place that seemed so peaceful and beautiful—started me thinking about doing something different with my life. Two years later, in 1988, I entered the Jesuit novitiate. It was certainly the best decision I've ever made.

During my Jesuit training, I've worked with homeless men and women in Boston, with street-gang members in Chicago and, for two years with East African refugees in Nairobi, Kenya, helping them to start their own small businesses. (Which was a great way of putting my business skills to good use!) Since ordination I've been an associate editor of America magazine, and have written a number of books on religion and spirituality. Since many of my books are autobiographical, I always joke with my friends that this means no research and no chance of making mistakes! But with my latest book, My Life with the Saints, I had to hunker down and start doing some serious research. In the end, it took ten years to complete. I hope readers find that it was worth it!

Q: What was the primary message you were hoping to share with My Life with the Saints?

That's an easy question to answer--the theme of the book comes from a quote of Thomas Merton. "For me to be a saint means to be myself," he wrote. When you read the lives of the saints, it becomes clear that each of them was utterly unique.

There are two stereotypes of the saints that I hope this book challenges. First, they were dull--going around with literally holier-than-thou expressions on their sour faces. But even a quick glance at their lives shows the opposite: their lives were fascinating. Second, they were more or less the same. But, as Blessed John XXIII said in one of his journal entries, all the saints were called to be "holy in a different way."

Just think about the variety of the saints. You have St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, praying in a cloistered monastery; St. Peter crisscrossing Palestine preaching the Gospel; St. Joan of Arc leading her troops into battle; and Dorothy Day (not a saint yet, but I hope she will be!) founding soup kitchens in all over the United States. God called them all to be holy in a different way.

For me, this is tremendously encouraging. It means that being holy does not mean being someone else, or trying to be Mother Teresa or Joan of Arc, it means finding holiness in our own daily lives. The Catholic mom, for instance, is meant to experience God right where she is. And doing just what she’s doing. Certainly Mother Teresa's life can be an inspiration and a challenge, but she's not meant to be Mother Teresa, she's meant to be herself!

Another reason I wrote the book was to share with readers how I first encountered the saints and to reflect on what they have meant in my own life. So the reader follows me through my life and meets the saints the same way that I do--often in surprising and funny ways--and shares in that sense of discovery. The book is really a spiritual journey that I invite the reader to take with me.

Q: As a mother, I am always looking for support and inspiration in my parental vocation. I enjoy my daily readings on the lives of the saints, and have a special devotion to St. Therese of Lisieux and her "Little Way". Which other saints would you recommend a parent turn to for intercession in our parental vocation?

That's a great question! My sister and brother-in-law are the parents of two children, Matthew, who is just seven months old, and his older brother, Charles, who is seven. And when I see what they do to raise their children, I am filled with absolute awe: getting up early to feed their kids, driving them to school and day care, commuting and then putting in a full day's work, coming home and feeding and bathing them and doing laundry, and then getting up at all hours to feed their youngest one! Now, the life of a priest is quite challenging, but I can’t imagine any life more difficult than that of parents—especially of young children. Frankly, I think that mothers and fathers (and caregivers of elderly parents or any ill family members) are the real unheralded saints of today. And I really believe that—many parents are as holy as any saint you see in a stained-glass window.

And a Catholic parent doesn't have to look far for role models in family life. (On the other hand, I think that the church needs to canonize more parents. We already have plenty of founders of religious orders as saints!) I'll offer just two patron saints for parents: one obvious, the other not so obvious.

The first one is St. Joseph, the patron of the family, who led a quiet and simple life. Or, as spiritual writers say, a "hidden life." But even though his life was pretty down-to-earth, and pretty ordinary, Joseph was one of Jesus’ first teachers. Think about that: the life of this small-town carpenter was one way that Jesus learned about holiness.

And what was Joseph's life? It was the life that many people lead today: loving and caring for his son and wife, going to work each morning, saying his prayers--again, not very different from the lives of today's parents.

But Joseph gets only a few lines in the Bible, and so remains largely hidden from us. For me, though, this kind of holiness is the best kind of sanctity--unknown by all but a few. So Joseph is someone that I always encourage parents to pray to--since he understands them, and understands how many of our greatest sacrifices and loving acts remain hidden to others--but not to God.

Another, less obvious, holy example for parents is Dorothy Day, the American founder of the Catholic Worker movement, which cared for the urban poor. Most people may not know that Dorothy Day struggled with a great deal of pain in her life. As a young woman she even had an abortion. But she did not let this deter her from seeking forgiveness and doing good in the world. And when, several years later, Dorothy became pregnant again, with her common-law husband (who abandoned her after the child's birth) it was this experience that drew her to God. The experience of giving birth made Dorothy think more deeply about God in her life. Later in life, she also struggled with the demands of raising her daughter, Tamar, who she loved dearly.

Dorothy is an especially good patron for working parents, who feel the challenges that come with that sort of difficult life. Like St. Joseph, Dorothy Day understands parents.

Q: How can we, as families, incorporate devotion to the saints into our family lives and what do you think will be the benefit to our children?

The best way to encourage devotion to the saints is to tell your children the stories of the saints. And the real stories of the saints are far from dull! Some of them are like adventure stories! They could rival "Star Wars" or "The Lord of the Rings" for their color and interest. One of the reasons I wrote My Life with the Saints was to tell the stories of my favorite saints, and challenge people's notions of the saints and blesseds as boring.

Take St. Francis of Assisi. For most people, Francis is sort of a good-natured hippie who liked animals and prayed for peace. He's a non-threatening saint. That's why people feel comfortable placing his statue in their backyard gardens. But the real St. Francis, who lived in the thirteenth century, was far more lively and than his garden-variety stereotype.

Here was a person, after all, who to prove his independence stripped naked in the town square and deposited his clothes at his father's feet. Later in life, when he stumbled upon a tiny house that his Franciscan brothers had built for themselves, Francis was so upset by what he saw as their refusal to live simply that he climbed atop the roof and began tearing the house apart. No one in Assisi would have described Francis as boring. ("Crazy" would have been the more popular adjective!)

Telling your children about the lives of the saints means that they will also see that it's okay for them to be a little different--which is, I think, a wonderful message for children to hear. You don't have to be like everyone in your class or in the neighborhood. You can "march to the beat of a different drummer." When I was in third grade, my teacher posted that saying on our classroom bulletin board and I still remember it! Henry David Thoreau said it in the nineteenth century, but the saints were saying it with their lives for centuries before! In other words, you can still be a good Catholic and good Christian by being yourself. The saints' lives teach us this.

Q: In the midst of Lent, do you have any suggestions for helping our children emulate the good examples provided by the saints in leading lives of holiness?

People might roll their eyes when they hear this, but one clear example that the saints give us is that helping the poor is an important part of the Christian life. And though we tend to focus on giving things up during Lent, it's good to remember that one of the original reasons for doing this was to save money and give it to the poor. And when kids hear the stories of the saints like St. Aloysius Gonzaga, who as a very young man helped the plague victims in Rome, or Francis of Assisi, who gave away everything he had to the help poor, it's a gentle reminder that there are poorer people out there who need help. Telling them these stories is an inviting way to get kids to think about those who are less fortunate. That's a hard message to get across in our culture--where kids are so concerned about the latest Yu-Gi-Oh card or Xbox game! But, if they are familiar with the saints, they'll know that it is possible to live a life of charity and giving. More importantly, they'll know that the people who act charitably aren't losers, but wonderful people, loved and treasured by their friends, family and community.

Q: For those who don't know much about the lives of the saints, along with reading your book, what other resources would you recommend for learning more about these holy men and women?

Well, the joker in me wants to say, "Read My Life with the Saints for a second time!"

But beyond that, there are plenty of great resources on the saints. Let me recommend some of my favorites. One of my favorite books is Robert Ellsberg's All Saints, which is compendium of all sorts of saints--both traditional and non-traditional. He gives us a list of the saints according to their feast days so that you can follow along throughout the year, one saint a day. Another great book, and a short one, is Lawrence S. Cunningham's A Brief History of the Saints, which traces the development of the idea of the saints throughout Christian history and also tells some of their stories. For children, there are plenty of books on the saints, including Amy Welborn’s accessible and lively Loyola Kids Book of Saints.

Movies are an equally good teaching tool, so I'll suggest three: First, A Man for All Seasons, about St. Thomas More, the Englishman who remained faithful to his beliefs even in the face of persecution by the king; The Song of Bernadette, about the visions of Mary to a poor young girl in 19th-century France; and Romero, about the martyred archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero. All three are very different types of saints and all remind us of the unique ways that God has of working through human lives.

Q: I, personally, take great solace in learning about the humanity and struggles faced by many of our saints in their daily lives, as it offers me great hope for rising above my own weaknesses as a person. To which saints would you direct people like me who want to strive toward holiness in our own daily lives?

I guess I could say "All of them!" since they all struggled at one point or another. But as far as confronting with one's humanity, St. Peter might be the very best to take as a model. As the Franciscan Richard Rohr said, Peter shows us that often we come to God not by doing right but by doing wrong!

If you think about it, Peter really got things wrong a lot. He often misunderstood the message of Jesus--even though he had the benefit of being with Jesus for several years. And at the crucifixion, when things really mattered, Peter denied his friend and ran away. That’s a pretty big sin. But Jesus forgave Peter and even asks that he lead his new church. Sometimes I think it was precisely because Peter understood his own sinfulness--his own humanity--that Jesus knew that Peter could be a good leader and good pastor. In other words, Peter was not just strong enough to lead the church, he was weak enough to do so, too. So Peter is a natural person to pray to for help in accepting our own inherent sinfulness, for seeking forgiveness and for persevering enough to move closer to sanctity. He's one of my all-time favorites.

Q: Fr. James Martin, thank you so very much for sharing your own saintly friendships with this wonderful book. Are there any additional thoughts or comments you'd like to share with our readers?

Well, thank you, too! If there's one thing that I hope that My Life with the Saints offers readers it's the idea that being a saint means being who you are, being the person who God created.

For a parent this means that part of sanctity comes in being a good parent and a good spouse--as well as a good neighbor, and coworker and so on. We need not lament the fact that we're not doing what Mother Teresa or anyone else did. The trouble comes when we start to use someone else's roadmap to holiness when God has already planted all the directions we need within our soul. And I think if people really accepted that, we would have more happy people--and a lot more saints!

For more information on My Life with the Saints visit http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0829420010/catholicmomcom

Lisa M. Hendey is a mother of two sons, webmaster of numerous web sites, including http://www.catholicmom.com and http://www.christiancoloring.com, and an avid reader of Catholic literature. Visit her at http://www.lisahendey.com for more information.

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