At work this year, I have been slowly training our student leaders on aspects of leadership. The framework I’m using is the six aspects of campus ministry, so last month, I spoke about appropriating the faith. That was fun, because who doesn’t love appropriating (i.e. getting stuff)? It was also fun because I was able to encourage students to not only learn the Catholic faith overall, but to test the waters of the different spiritualities within the Church. We’ve likely all met Catholics who are heavily involved in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, committed to social justice, immersed in contemplative prayer, or compelled by theology. Likewise, we’ve probably met Benedictines, Paulists, Carmelites, and laypeople who take on those ways of life for themselves. There are almost as many ways to be Catholic inside the Church as there are people in it. Sometimes we are tempted to focus on the clash: how Carmelites seem to always be praying and never doing anything, or how prayer yoga still seems a little Buddhist to really be Christian. Perhaps we should instead focus on the aspects of each spirituality that can draw us closer to our God. Father James Martin, SJ, perhaps best known for his many books and his position as chaplain on The Colbert Report, offers The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life to give ordinary readers a chance to discover the best of the way of St. Ignatius and make it their own.
As Fr. Martin notes, only God can give you the answer to everything, so his is a guide to almost everything. He does a good job of covering so much material as (almost) everything! Fr. Martin never hides his belief in the truth of Catholicism, although it doesn’t always rise to the surface. He acknowledges that some aspects of Jesuit spirituality (meditation through visualization, for example, or a pros-and-cons list) seem almost non-Catholic or nonreligious, but, as I agree, maybe that’s because the truth of God can manifest itself even outside the obvious and usual channels. He begins with a definition (definitions are my favorite!), but then moves to discussing the main paths people find to and through spirituality. That was one of my favorite chapters because he finds positive and negative aspects of belief, disbelief, uncertainty, and everything in between. He encourages those who find themselves in the shadow of one path to be open to stepping onto another, for now or forever. There is great freedom in this Jesuit way of life.
As I was reading through Fr. Martin’s excellent balance between telling and storytelling (I love stories), I found that much was said about Jesuits and about his way of living as a Jesuit. I love that Jesuit training can continue for decades—he mentioned just completing his training, having entered over twenty years ago—because I believe you never stop learning until you die. I found it unusual that the chapter on poverty was so long (fifty pages versus an average of thirty) and the chapter on beginning to pray so short (twelve pages, although it is followed by two other chapters about prayer). The importance of the Spiritual Exercises and the examen to a Jesuit are not to be underestimated. I got the impression that Fr. Martin’s audience is more spiritually seeking than I am, so this might not be the right book for Catholics seeking Catholic direction, although it will undoubtedly help those who are searching, which is a desperately needed goal.
Ultimately, I learned a lot about being a Jesuit, and I learned that I am not a Jesuit. I have enough disinterest (see, I learned something!) to appreciate good writing and wise counsel even if it’s not right for me. For those who seek to become Jesuits, who desire a complete balance between contemplation and action, or who don’t know what they want, this might be the guide you need. For the rest, maybe this won’t guide you through everything, but it will guide you through more than nothing. And that’s something.
Up next: The Problem of Pain, by masterful Christian apologist C.S. Lewis