I admit that I don’t read as much as I think I should. This is particularly true in the spiritual category. Reading is a recreational activity I enjoy. While on vacation I’ll bring along a couple of novels. There’s nothing more relaxing than sitting on a beach or by a pool in a warm climate while it’s snowing back home! When I was in the seminary I remember a favorite liturgy teacher telling our class that you could learn more theology, sometimes, from a good novel and poetry. Nathan Mitchell not only feed my hunger to know more about liturgy but turned me onto finding theology expressed in the works of authors like Flannery O’Conner. Yet, when I’m home I confess it’s just easier to turn on the T.V. and “veg out,” passively being entertained and not having to think too much. (My television preferences are more news, baseball/hockey, mystery/detective and PBS type watching, by the way. Definitely not so-called reality shows that exploit the participants and aim for the viewer’s baser interests.)
So, when leaving for my recent retreat at the beginning of January I decided to take along some reading of a more spiritual nature. I tend to buy books I might have read a review of in a professional journal I subscribe to, America, published by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) or some other person whose opinion I respect. Then, the book gets put on my book shelf to be read “later.”
A retreat is a good time to pick up one of those books set aside for “later” I figured, so I looked at my choices and selected My Life with the Saints by the Rev. James Martin, S.J.
Father Martin has his own interesting life story, coming to the priesthood and membership in the Society of Jesus a bit “later” in life after growing up in a not particularly religious home, attending business school and working in the corporate world for a number of years. Perhaps that personal background is what makes his telling the story of how the saints play a role in his life more accessible. This is not some super pious guy sanitizing the “holy ones” but showing how the saints can be both patrons and models for ordinary folks. Or can be a sign of hope for a priest like me who self describes himself as “not quite right.” I certainly don’t fit the paradigm of many of what a priest should be like in my own self observation. According to many of the short biographies Fr. Martin provides of various saints, they didn’t fit in pre-defined mold of holiness, either. Father Martin, in each chapter weaves the story of the saint with his own bibliographical story and how each saint inspired him and became a part of his personal path to holiness at various stages of his life and vocational growth. His story telling helps the reader see that holiness and discipleship are not high in the sky pie ideals but down to earth everyday achievable experiences.
I’m glad I picked the book out of my unread books shelf to bring on retreat. It was a good companion to bring along and accompany me on my little sojourn to rest a while with the Lord. It pointed me toward the one who was the one all the saints put at the center of their lives and point us toward. Speaking of which, the picture on the cover (illustration above) is a detail from the tapestries hung in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angles in Los Angeles, California. They are wonderful works of art installed when the Cathedral was erected in 1998-2002. The tapestries depict the saints (using for models ordinary people from Los Angels) in a posture of prayer, each one facing the front of the sanctuary where Christ is revealed in the Eucharist and depicted hanging on the Cross). How appropriate for the cover art. I suggest the book for your reading and reflection.
On a side note, Father Martin is an engaging speaker and interview, besides his writing skills. I had the opportunity to hear him speak in person and share lunch with him (although we didn’t get to talk much, there was a presentation taking place during a “working lunch”) at a convention of the National Federation of Priest Councils a few years, ago. At the time he was promoting another book he had written about humor, saints and their relationship to the spiritual life, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. I suspect I’ll end up buying and reading that book too. Martin has also made several appearance on t.v., too. He is described by Stephen Colbert as the official chaplain to the Colbert Report on Comedy Central, of all things! Actually, clips of Father Martin’s appearances are worth watching, for instance this one promoting his book, Between Heaven and Mirth. He is a good example of why Catholicism is a good place to be and seek out God in the midst of a world of other religious choices. By the way, Colbert is a practicing devote Catholic, so don’t let his persona get in the way of watching the clips you might find if you follow-up my suggestion to watch Fr. Martin on his show
Meanwhile, perhaps I should buy an electronic book reader like the Nook or Kindle. My habit of buying books and then putting them on display on a shelf and not reading them is killing forests for the paper they’re made of. There’s a moral dilemma; buy paper books and harm the environment or buy an electronic gadget that’s probably made by underpaid workers denied human rights in a factory in China. What’s a saint in training to do?