Busted: Jim Martin, SJ

An interview with the author of My Life with the Saints

BH: What was the most surprising thing you found out in your research?

Jim Martin: I think the most surprising thing was that, like Mother Teresa, so many of them struggled with spiritual doubts. At the end of her life, St. Therese of Lisieux faced a great deal of despair. And so, there’s the sense that the saints are these perfect people, but the life of the saints shows that that’s not the case. The saints struggled every bit as much as we do. And in many accounts they struggled even more.

But the other thing that really struck me was how funny a lot of them were. They weren’t these literally holier than thou people who went around with a big frown on their face all the time. You had people like Pope John XXIII, a lot of whose jokes I recount in the book. One time a journalist asked him, “How many people work in the Vatican?” And he said, “ About half of them.”

The lives of the saints were full of funny stories, not only about them but also things they said. And I really enjoyed that. I enjoy spending time with people who are light-hearted. If they were really depressing, no one would want to be around them when they were alive and that wasn’t the case with the saints. So I’d say I was most surprised by their struggles with despair as well as their senses of humor.

BH: What’s the strangest thing you discovered?

JM: Certainly the weirdest story was the story about Thomas Aquinas, which I think takes the cake for strange stories. When he was a young man, he decided he wanted to enter the Dominican Order and his parents preferred the much more prestigious Benedictine Order, so unbeknownst to his family he decided to enter the Dominicans. And his mother, who was furious, told her other two sons to go and capture Thomas on the road. So, they basically set a trap for him and they captured him. They tried to tear his Dominican habit off. When that didn’t work, they captured him and brought him back to the family castle where they threw him in jail for two years. They gave him nothing but Aristotle to read, which he did happily.

And at one point they sent a prostitute to tempt him and he was so angry, he seized a burning poker out of the fireplace and chased her away. So, after two years they said, “Okay we’ve had enough.” Then they let him enter the Dominicans.

That’s something you don’t read in the normal pious biographies of Thomas Aquinas. That story, which is at once tragic and funny, speaks to people who have difficulties with their families, and shows people that St. Thomas Aquinas was not always the stained-glass saint we think he was, and how much more meaningful that makes his writings, knowing this was a guy who convinced his very strong-willed family to let him do what he wanted to do. You know, for anyone who thinks that the saints lives are dull, I would say pick up a book and you’ll find out otherwise. I think his story takes the cake for strangest, which is really saying something.

BH: So is it fair to say the Aquinases were pretty dysfunctional?

JM: [laughs] I think they qualify as a dysfunctional family par excellence. But of course the saints always had to do things in a big way.

Another story I talk about is St. Francis of Assisi, who to show he was no longer under the control of his father, a wealthy cloth merchant, stripped naked in the town square and deposited his clothes at father’s feet. No one in Assisi would have called Francis dull! We have so tamed the saints and domesticated saints like Francis—we’ve turned him into some well-meaning hippie who talks to the animals. In doing that we forget how radical his example was, and how threatening his Christianity was and still would be today.

BH: One of my favorite quotes in your book is Merton’s quote: “To be a saint means to be myself.” Can you unpack that idea a little bit? I think sometimes we think that being saintly means we have to do lots of things we don’t want to do, or that we have to live an unnatural sort of life.

JM: I think the two misconceptions about sanctity are first, that you have to change yourself entirely, and become someone else. We think we have to become exactly like Mother Teresa or St. Francis of Assisi or Dorothy Day, that we have to eradicate our own personality, which is false. What that misconception does is that it denies the fact that God has created something new with you—something that is good.

“There are these very beautiful myths about real life people, but I don’t think the legend should ever obscure the person.”

The second misconception is that sanctity is about being perfect, that, if you struggle with something like doubt in your life, as Mother Teresa did, you can’t be a saint. Reading the lives of the saints, as I try to show in this book, shows that idea is false.

Also, in a very sly way, concluding that sanctity is for other people is a lazy way of letting ourselves off the hook: clearly I don’t have to worry about doing great things for people or doing wonderful acts of charity or being an exemplary Christian because I’m so flawed. Why bother, because I’m not Mother Teresa. Yet, holiness is something God sets out for each of us.

We have misconceptions of saints as only living out certain kinds of lives, having certain kinds of professions, founding a religious order or spending a whole life in a monastery or writing tons and tons of theological treatises. The saints really led very varied lives. Dorothy Day spent her life in the cities of the U.S., advocating for the poor. St. Peter, after all, was a fisherman and St. Thomas More was a scholar and lawyer for most of his life. There’s no one pattern that God makes.

BH: There are lots of great examples in your book of how you took some of the saints and incorporated them into your prayer life. Could you offer some general tips for people on how to do that?

JM: There are two main ways of looking at the saints. One is as a patron—the patron model is the more prevalent model in the church today, where people turn to the saints for their intercession. I still do that; it’s natural to imagine the saints in heaven would want to help us. This is a healthy part of Christianity, as long as it doesn’t distract people from the centrality of Jesus in their lives. One of the great myths about the saints among non-Catholics is that we worship the saints, but the saints should always be pointing us to Jesus. They would be the last people to want to supplant Jesus in one’s faith life.

Another important way to relate to the saints is as a companion. By reading their stories we feel their companionship, that these were people who lived a human life, and whose examples offer us encouragement. Prayer to the saints is a really important part of my life, and, like any lifelong Catholic, whenever I lose something, I still pray to St. Anthony. Beyond that, whenever I struggle with something that I know one of the saints struggled with, I pray to that saint. For example, whenever I’m sick, I think about Therese of Lisieux and how she dealt with sickness, and I pray to her. When I’m struggling with pride I pray to Thomas Merton, because I know he struggled with the same thing. Whenever I struggle with just my own weakness and sinfulness I pray to St. Peter, who certainly understood that.

I see the saints both as patrons and companions, as wonderfully rich models for Christians today, and people are hungry for examples of sanctity. People are naturally drawn to holiness. That’s why people were naturally drawn to Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day, to Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. The more I read about the saints, the more I realize why it was natural that people were attracted to Jesus in such numbers. Knowing how people were attracted to Mother Teresa in our time, imagine what it would be like to be around Jesus.

BH: Some of the more well-known saints have these well-loved, somewhat shopworn legends connecedt to their lives, like the association of St. Therese with roses or St. Patrick with the shamrock. How can we grow in our relationship with them in a way that goes beyond these cute stories?

JM: Sometimes it’s good to realize that the legends are great symbols for something important in the saints’ lives. For example, the quote from Therese where she says “After my death I will let fall a shower of roses.” is very similar to her quote where she says “I will spend my time in heaven doing good on earth.” Whether people associate the experience of roses or the smell of roses with Therese, it’s those quotes that are symbolic of what she was all about, which was loving and helping people.

It’s the same with St. Francis. There are a lot of legendary stories of him preaching to the birds—in one story he tells them they need to stop chirping because they’re disturbing people during Mass. There’s another story where he preaches to the fish, and they line up in the ocean to hear him. Those legends are clearly apocryphal, but they show in a very charming way Francis’ obvious love for nature, which was so strong it led these stories to be passed on from generation to generation.

There are these very beautiful myths about real life people, but I don’t think the legend should ever obscure the person. If we only think of Francis as a goofy well-meaning guy who talked to birds, it means his radical example of radical Christianity would be so sugar-coated it would become meaningless.

BH: One last question: I heard on NPR that you gave up popsicles, pumpkin seeds and meatballs for Lent. How’s that going?

JM: When I was in college my roommates decided it was clearly too easy to decide for yourself what to give up for Lent, so they took matters into their own hands. For the last 20 years, one of my roommates has called me up every Ash Wednesday and has given me penances. Some have been difficult, and some have been sort of frivolous. This year he gave me those three things, and the next week I was doing a retreat at a Jesuit retreat house in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and I was watching t.v. with one of my favorite elderly Jesuits, and he said ‘Why don’t you get us some snacks.’ When I went to the fridge and opened up the freezer, the only thing there was popsicles. And the next day at lunch, the soup they served had little meatballs in it! So, this has been a little harder than I thought.

But I always tell people that my Lenten penances are more spiritual because they come from outside of me!