Busted: Jim Martin, SJ

An interview with the author of My Life with the Saints

Rev. James Martin–Jesuit priest and associate editor of America magazine–has written and edited numerous books on the spiritual life, including the memoir In Good Company: The Fast Track from the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, chronicling his journey from the corporate subculture of General Electric to the Jesuit priesthood, and Awake My Soul: Contemporary Catholics on Traditional Devotions. News outlets like CNN and National Public Radio frequently seek Martin’s commentary on Catholic issues, and he is a popular and sought-after speaker. BustedHalo recently talked to Fr. Martin about his new book My Life with the Saints which was released at the beginning of March and is already in its second printing.

BustedHalo: A whole passel of books has been written about the saints. What was it that you set out to do differently with My Life with the Saints? What did you hope the hallmark of this book would be?

Rev. James Martin: My hope was that people would come away from the book realizing that sanctity is not about perfection; it’s about being human. As Thomas Merton says, “To be a saint means to be myself.” A lot of books focus only on the saints’ accomplishments, as if the author thinks somehow that talking about their struggles would scandalize people. I think it’s in their struggles that the saints are most human, and that’s also where their lives intersect most with our own. What I hoped to do in this book was, in showing the saints to be human beings, people for whom I feel a great affection, to enable people to see holiness as something that’s a goal in their own lives as well.

BH: In your book you include people who are officially recognized as saints by the church, and you also include people like Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, people who lived exemplary lives and are admired by many. What is it, would you say, that makes someone a saint?

JM: People I chose included the officially canonized ones, but also people whom I think would be almost-saints or near-saints. I like to look at the saints the way that St. Paul did. St. Paul wrote to people in different towns and said: “Greet all the people in your city who are the saints, who are striving to live holy Christian lives.”

“A lot of books focus only on the saints’ accomplishments, as if the author thinks somehow that talking about their struggles would scandalize people. I think it’s in their struggles that the saints are most human, and that’s also where their lives intersect most with our own.”

I think the notion of sanctity can be broadened, and I’m sure I’ve met living saints. The people I tried to include are the people whom I pray to most frequently, whose lives have meant something to me for years and years. I have on my bedroom wall a grouping of holy cards of all the saints I pray to—it helps if I have an image or face I can look at. When I started to think about writing this book in earnest, all I had to do was look at that wall. I spent a couple of months at a time with each saint, going through different biographies and the saint’s own writings before I started to write about that person.

The book took me 10 years to write, but there was never a question of whom I was going to include. One difficulty was the people I had to leave out, a choice which may be raising an eyebrow or two in heaven. Perhaps now they’re saying: “You’re praying to us but you didn’t include us in the book, huh?”

BH: Who are they?

JM: I feel guilty even telling you! First, Isaac Jogues, a 17th-century Jesuit martyr who worked among the Native Americans. There’s a great statue of him on the door of St. Patrick Cathedral. If you look carefully, you can see that one of his fingers is severed. During the torture he underwent before his martyrdom, he lost one of his fingers.

Thomas More is another one. I came to his story through the movie A Man for All Seasons. By the way, I watched it this morning—it was on TV and I couldn’t sleep. I love Thomas’s wit and his ability to balance his faithfulness to the worldly sphere and also his fidelity to his faith. In the end, when push comes to shove, he knows which one has to take priority.

And there’s Katherine Drexel, whom I love. I pray to her because I’m from Philadelphia, like she was.

I find Catherine of Siena absolutely fascinating, primarily because of her challenges to the Vatican and to the papacy at a time when the place was rife with scandal. During a time of church scandal, she once wrote to a group of cardinals: “You are flowers that shed no perfume, but a stench that makes the whole world reek.” When they asked her, sort of sarcastically, how she could know that from Siena, she said “I can smell you all the way from here.” Now, boy, there’s a woman I’d like to get to know!

Were I ever to do another book again, all these people would certainly be in there.

BH: What do you think the saints have to offer in particular to people in their 20’s and 30’s? Why should younger generations care about the saints at all? What can we find in the stories of the lives of the saints that we wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere?

JM: They are powerful witnesses of faith who lived in often incredibly difficult situations. Anyone today who is facing difficulty in their faith or who struggles along their journey can find companionship in these stories. In most of the saints’ lives, the most interesting parts are when they are very young. You have St. Francis casting off his cloak in the town square when he is a young man; you have Therese of Lisieux entering a Carmelite monastery at 15; and you have Aloysius Gonzaga setting aside a family fortune and entering the Jesuits at age 18. These are people who, as young men and women, really made a decision to follow Christ in a radical way. That’s very appealing to young adults.

Also people are looking for authentic witnesses to the gospel. Well that’s what the saints are. Young people are also looking for community, and we have this communion of saints that goes largely unnoticed by a lot of young Catholics because they tend to associate devotion to the saints only with their grandparents or great grandparents. That’s because there’s a lot of boring statuary and banal stained glass windows out there that help to eradicate these incredibly vibrant and often very subversive lives. These people lived lives that were a distinct threat to the status quo.