Friday, November 14, 2014

With Father Jim in the Holy Land

Some books you look back on and realize they defined an era in your life. Nordhoff & Hall’s Bounty trilogy was that for me the summer I turned thirteen and spent a month by the sea.

Recently I wrote about three books that form a sort of triptych of my religious journey. I didn’t realize that when I read them.

Now I’m reading—listening to, actually—Fr. James Martin’s latest book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage, and I know it’s the right book at the right time. But then the first Martin book I ever read, My Life with the Saints, was like that too.

My Life with the Saints marked the threshold of my entry into the Catholic Church. I read it in a weekend, started going to morning mass on Monday, and enrolled in RCIA the following weekend. As we say only when we mean it, God’s honest truth.

I’m about to embark on two thirty-day experiences, and I realized tonight that Jesus: A Pilgrimage is a perfect primer for each.

I was attracted to Martin’s book by the word pilgrimage, since I am planning a pilgrimage to Montreal in May 2015 to honor my friend St. Joseph. On foot, my pilgrimage will take just about thirty days. 

Next Wednesday, I begin the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises in a nearly thirty-week format for lay people (one night a week with homework between meetings). The Exercises are being led by the Boston Cursillo team of Fr. John Sassani and Mary Ann McLaughlin, the Director of Spiritual Life for the Archdiocese of Boston. Martin is a Jesuit priest, and Jesus: A Pilgrimage is a testament to the imaginative prayer used in the Spiritual Exercises.

Martin progresses through the life of Jesus, by artfully blending several levels of observation and analysis. To begin with, he and a priest friend took a summer pilgrimage to Israel, and each section of the narrative is spiced with stories from those travels. In the chapter on the Nativity, for example, Martin takes us to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which is a mixed experience to say the least.

Travelogue blends with Martin’s internal travelogue: artful accounts of the understanding that imaginative prayer has offered him in his twenty-five years as a Jesuit. Martin also brings in the latest scholarship—for example, when describing Nazareth, about which so little is said in the Gospels. What was Nazareth like in Jesus’s day—so small it doesn’t appear in many other historical accounts? We learn from Martin’s wide, deep reading in the latest work of archaeologists and historians.

Each chapter (so far) ends with his recitation of the relevant Gospel passage(s). Set up this way, with Scripture at the end of the chapter, the book provides rich material for deepening one’s understanding of the Gospels. So when you come to the passage, there is a deep, satisfying sense of aha.

Listening to the book is wonderful, though it has its drawbacks. In particular, Martin cites a surprising number of scholarly sources, making me wish I could stop the recording and flip to the bibliography at the back of the book I don’t have in my hands.

But listening to Martin’s voice is a special pleasure. He’s an excellent reader, and all the joy and fascination he takes in his subject (the greatest subject in history, Jesus Christ) comes through in his voice. It is a voice completely without irony, which comes as a surprise after watching and laughing with him so many times as the chaplain for “The Colbert Report.”

I am grateful that Jesus: A Pilgrimage has landed in my hands at this very moment in my life, and I will probably have more to say and write about it later.

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