Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Best Book of My Year

I have just done something exceptionally wasteful.

Having finished listening today to the audiobook of Jesus: A Pilgrimage, narrated beautifully by its author, James Martin, SJ, I have purchased the book—new in hardcover—from Amazon. I wasn’t supposed to do that. I am supposed to be saving money.

But though I have gone through a year of getting rid of books, giving them away, clearing space in my house and heart after years of accumulation, this is one book I just “need to have.” I want to be able to pick it up at any moment, thumb through it to a chapter or passage that interests me, and (as the Jesuits say) pray on it.

It is that good a book.

Before I leave it behind, in its audio format, and while waiting for the hardcover to arrive free from Amazon on Saturday, let me just say why I think Jesus: A Pilgrimage should be on the shelf of every Catholic, every Christian, everyone who has ever considered becoming one or the other, and even any skeptic who thinks that Christian is the last thing he or she will ever be.

1. Jesus: A Pilgrimage is an artful blend of personal experience (Martin’s journey to the Holy Land with Jesuit friend George), a wide range of scholarship (Catholic and non, academic and popular, male and female), and thirty years (I’m guessing) of prayer. Ignatian prayer, the kind practiced by Martin and other Jesuits, is, as I am learning, a special kind of prayer. It takes one inside a Bible story, opening up an “old chestnut” and revealing the colorful glories inside.

2. As I wrote previously, Jesus: A Pilgrimage is structured brilliantly. Not only does it take the reader chronologically through Jesus’s life (roughly in parallel with Jim and George’s travels in Israel), but it ends each chapter with the Gospel passage that the chapter has spent many pages opening up for us. So that when we come back to the “old chestnut” and hear it afresh, it is shot through with new meaning.

3. As I wrote in my brief Goodreads appreciation, Jesus: A Pilgrimage is as amusing as it is inspiring. Martin speaks fondly of his traveling partner, George, a Jesuit prison chaplain he has known for many years. George, without ever being described physically, without our ever having much of his résumé, emerges as a true character, a sidekick, and a comic one in the tradition of Sancho Panza alongside Don Quijote. As a result, I began thinking of these two traveling Jesuits as “Abbott and Costello in the Holy Lands”—where Jim (Martin) plays the straight Bud Abbott to George’s hilarious comic Lou Costello. This is overstating the case, as Martin makes his own comical missteps and misstatements. But it is the closest I can come to saying that I laughed out loud in the middle of chapters before being hushed in awe at the ends of chapters.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Read it or listen to Martin’s excellent narration.

Or both.

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