Uniquely Ourselves on the Path to Saintliness
Author Interview with James Martin, SJ,
My Life With the Saints
by Lisa M. Hendey
James Martin, author of the wonderful new spiritual memoir
My Life With the Saints (Loyola Press, March 2006, hardcover, 411 pages) has great
news for those of us who may feel that we fall short of the devout role
models provided by the saints. By sharing his own spiritual journey,
Martin offers the reader an intimate insight into the holy men and women
he looks to as inspirational companions. What is refreshing about
Martin’s book, however, is its “down to earth” look at these revered
individuals. Far from portraying them in airbrushed holy card fashion,
Martin shows them as individuals with struggles, foibles, and difficulties
just like the ones each of us face in our own day to day trials to live as
God would have us live.
As a wife and
mother, I find myself dually concerned with leading a holy and meaningful
life and with setting a good example for my children. Sometimes, in the
midst of the eighth load of laundry or the fourth toilet cleaned, it can
feel difficult to make the connection between domestic duties and a life
of meaningful service. In my own mind, I frequently encourage myself with
thoughts of St. Therese, the Little Flower, and her Little Way. When I
read Fr. Martin’s book for the first time, I felt like I was listening to
the voice of a friend – here was someone, like me, who found friendship,
consolation and encouragement in relating to the lives of the saints.
Martin’s saintly compatriots are shared chronologically in the book, in
relation to his encounters with them along his own spiritual path.
I had the
opportunity to catch up with James Martin recently, and am pleased to
share his thoughts on his vocation, his saintly companions, how saints can
and should be a part of our parenting and family lives and his wonderful
My Life With the Saints.
Q: Please briefly introduce yourself and share how you came to your
graduating from the Wharton School of Business and working six years in
corporate America, I started to get really stressed out and wondered if
this was the life I was meant for. While many of my friends enjoyed the
business world, it just didn't seem like the right "fit" for me. One
night, after a long day's work, I stumbled onto a TV program about the
Trappist monk Thomas Merton. At the time I wasn't particularly
"religious," but the show was so interesting that it made me track down
and read his 1948 autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain.
Merton's book, which describes his entrance into the monastery--a place
that seemed so peaceful and beautiful—started me thinking about doing
something different with my life. Two years later, in 1988, I entered the
Jesuit novitiate. It was certainly the best decision I've ever made.
my Jesuit training, I've worked with homeless men and women in Boston,
with street-gang members in Chicago and, for two years with East African
refugees in Nairobi, Kenya, helping them to start their own small
businesses. (Which was a great way of putting my business skills to good
use!) Since ordination I've been an associate editor of America
magazine, and have written a number of books on religion and
spirituality. Since many of my books are autobiographical, I always joke
with my friends that this means no research and no chance of making
mistakes! But with my latest book,
My Life With the Saints, I had
to hunker down and start doing some serious research. In the end, it took
ten years to complete. I hope readers find that it was worth it!
Q: What was the primary message you were hoping to share with
My Life With the Saints?
an easy question to answer--the theme of the book comes from a quote of
Thomas Merton. "For me to be a saint means to be myself," he wrote. When
you read the lives of the saints, it becomes clear that each of them was
are two stereotypes of the saints that I hope this book challenges.
First, they were dull--going around with literally holier-than-thou
expressions on their sour faces. But even a quick glance at their lives
shows the opposite: their lives were fascinating. Second, they were more
or less the same. But, as Blessed John XXIII said in one of his journal
entries, all the saints were called to be "holy in a different way."
think about the variety of the saints. You have St. Thérèse of Lisieux,
the Little Flower, praying in a cloistered monastery; St. Peter
crisscrossing Palestine preaching the Gospel; St. Joan of Arc leading her
troops into battle; and Dorothy Day (not a saint yet, but I hope she will
be!) founding soup kitchens in all over the United States. God called
them all to be holy in a different way.
me, this is tremendously encouraging. It means that being holy does not
mean being someone else, or trying to be Mother Teresa or Joan of Arc, it
means finding holiness in our own daily lives. The Catholic mom, for
instance, is meant to experience God right where she is. And doing just
what she’s doing. Certainly Mother Teresa's life can be an inspiration
and a challenge, but she's not meant to be Mother Teresa, she's
meant to be herself!
Another reason I wrote the book was to share with readers how I first
encountered the saints and to reflect on what they have meant in my own
life. So the reader follows me through my life and meets the saints the
same way that I do--often in surprising and funny ways--and shares in that
sense of discovery. The book is really a spiritual journey that I invite
the reader to take with me.
Q: As a mother, I am always looking for support and inspiration in my
parental vocation. I enjoy my daily readings on the lives of the saints,
and have a special devotion to St. Therese of Lisieux and her "Little
Way". Which other saints would you recommend a parent turn to for
intercession in our parental vocation?
a great question! My sister and brother-in-law are the parents of two
children, Matthew, who is just seven months old, and his older brother,
Charles, who is seven. And when I see what they do to raise their
children, I am filled with absolute awe: getting up early to feed their
kids, driving them to school and day care, commuting and then putting in a
full day's work, coming home and feeding and bathing them and doing
laundry, and then getting up at all hours to feed their youngest one!
Now, the life of a priest is quite challenging, but I can’t imagine any
life more difficult than that of parents—especially of young children.
Frankly, I think that mothers and fathers (and caregivers of elderly
parents or any ill family members) are the real unheralded saints
of today. And I really believe that—many parents are as holy as any saint
you see in a stained-glass window.
Catholic parent doesn't have to look far for role models in family life.
(On the other hand, I think that the church needs to canonize more
parents. We already have plenty of founders of religious orders as
saints!) I'll offer just two patron saints for parents: one obvious, the
other not so obvious.
first one is St. Joseph, the patron of the family, who led a quiet and
simple life. Or, as spiritual writers say, a "hidden life." But even
though his life was pretty down-to-earth, and pretty ordinary, Joseph was
one of Jesus’ first teachers. Think about that: the life of this
small-town carpenter was one way that Jesus learned about holiness.
what was Joseph's life? It was the life that many people lead
today: loving and caring for his son and wife, going to work each morning,
saying his prayers--again, not very different from the lives of today's
Joseph gets only a few lines in the Bible, and so remains largely hidden
from us. For me, though, this kind of holiness is the best kind of
sanctity--unknown by all but a few. So Joseph is someone that I always
encourage parents to pray to--since he understands them, and understands
how many of our greatest sacrifices and loving acts remain hidden to
others--but not to God.
Another, less obvious, holy example for parents is Dorothy Day, the
American founder of the Catholic Worker movement, which cared for the
urban poor. Most people may not know that Dorothy Day struggled with a
great deal of pain in her life. As a young woman she even had an
abortion. But she did not let this deter her from seeking forgiveness and
doing good in the world. And when, several years later, Dorothy became
pregnant again, with her common-law husband (who abandoned her after the
child's birth) it was this experience that drew her to God. The
experience of giving birth made Dorothy think more deeply about God in her
life. Later in life, she also struggled with the demands of raising her
daughter, Tamar, who she loved dearly.
Dorothy is an especially good patron for working parents, who feel the
challenges that come with that sort of difficult life. Like St. Joseph,
Dorothy Day understands parents.
Q: How can we, as families, incorporate devotion to the saints into our
family lives and what do you think will be the benefit to our children?
best way to encourage devotion to the saints is to tell your children the
stories of the saints. And the real stories of the saints are far from
dull! Some of them are like adventure stories! They could rival "Star
Wars" or "The Lord of the Rings" for their color and interest. One of the
reasons I wrote
My Life With the Saints was to tell the stories of
my favorite saints, and challenge people's notions of the saints and
blesseds as boring.
St. Francis of Assisi. For most people, Francis is sort of a good-natured
hippie who liked animals and prayed for peace. He's a non-threatening
saint. That's why people feel comfortable placing his statue in their
backyard gardens. But the real St. Francis, who lived in the
thirteenth century, was far more lively and than his garden-variety
was a person, after all, who to prove his independence stripped naked in
the town square and deposited his clothes at his father's feet. Later in
life, when he stumbled upon a tiny house that his Franciscan brothers had
built for themselves, Francis was so upset by what he saw as their refusal
to live simply that he climbed atop the roof and began tearing the house
apart. No one in Assisi would have described Francis as boring. ("Crazy"
would have been the more popular adjective!)
Telling your children about the lives of the saints means that they will
also see that it's okay for them to be a little different--which is, I
think, a wonderful message for children to hear. You don't have to be
like everyone in your class or in the neighborhood. You can "march to the
beat of a different drummer." When I was in third grade, my teacher
posted that saying on our classroom bulletin board and I still remember
it! Henry David Thoreau said it in the nineteenth century, but the saints
were saying it with their lives for centuries before! In other words, you
can still be a good Catholic and good Christian by being yourself. The
saints' lives teach us this.
Q: In the midst of Lent, do you have any suggestions for helping our
children emulate the good examples provided by the saints in leading lives
might roll their eyes when they hear this, but one clear example that the
saints give us is that helping the poor is an important part of the
Christian life. And though we tend to focus on giving things up during
Lent, it's good to remember that one of the original reasons for doing
this was to save money and give it to the poor. And when kids hear the
stories of the saints like St. Aloysius Gonzaga, who as a very young man
helped the plague victims in Rome, or Francis of Assisi, who gave away
everything he had to the help poor, it's a gentle reminder that there are
poorer people out there who need help. Telling them these stories is an
inviting way to get kids to think about those who are less fortunate.
That's a hard message to get across in our culture--where kids are so
concerned about the latest Yu-Gi-Oh card or Xbox game! But, if they are
familiar with the saints, they'll know that it is possible to live a life
of charity and giving. More importantly, they'll know that the people who
act charitably aren't losers, but wonderful people, loved and treasured by
their friends, family and community.
Q: For those who don't know much about the lives of the saints, along
with reading your book, what other resources would you recommend for
learning more about these holy men and women?
the joker in me wants to say, "Read
My Life With the Saints for a
beyond that, there are plenty of great resources on the saints. Let me
recommend some of my favorites. One of my favorite books is Robert
Ellsberg's All Saints, which is compendium of all sorts of
saints--both traditional and non-traditional. He gives us a list of the
saints according to their feast days so that you can follow along
throughout the year, one saint a day. Another great book, and a short
one, is Lawrence S. Cunningham's A Brief History of the Saints,
which traces the development of the idea of the saints throughout
Christian history and also tells some of their stories. For children,
there are plenty of books on the saints, including Amy Welborn’s
accessible and lively Loyola Kids Book of Saints.
are an equally good teaching tool, so I'll suggest three: First, A Man
for All Seasons, about St. Thomas More, the Englishman who remained
faithful to his beliefs even in the face of persecution by the king;
The Song of Bernadette, about the visions of Mary to a poor young girl
in 19th-century France; and Romero, about the martyred archbishop
of El Salvador, Oscar Romero. All three are very different types of
saints and all remind us of the unique ways that God has of working
through human lives.
Q: I, personally, take great solace in learning about the humanity and
struggles faced by many of our saints in their daily lives, as it offers
me great hope for rising above my own weaknesses as a person. To which
saints would you direct people like me who want to strive toward holiness
in our own daily lives?
I could say "All of them!" since they all struggled at one point or
another. But as far as confronting with one's humanity, St. Peter might be
the very best to take as a model. As the Franciscan Richard Rohr said,
Peter shows us that often we come to God not by doing right but by doing
think about it, Peter really got things wrong a lot. He often
misunderstood the message of Jesus--even though he had the benefit of being
with Jesus for several years. And at the crucifixion, when things really
mattered, Peter denied his friend and ran away. That’s a pretty big sin.
But Jesus forgave Peter and even asks that he lead his new church.
Sometimes I think it was precisely because Peter understood his own
sinfulness--his own humanity--that Jesus knew that Peter could be a good
leader and good pastor. In other words, Peter was not just strong enough to
lead the church, he was weak enough to do so, too. So Peter is a
natural person to pray to for help in accepting our own inherent sinfulness,
for seeking forgiveness and for persevering enough to move closer to
sanctity. He's one of my all-time favorites.
Fr. James Martin, thank you so very much for sharing your own saintly
friendships with this wonderful book. Are there any additional thoughts or
comments you'd like to share with our readers?
thank you, too! If there's one thing that I hope that
My Life With the Saints offers readers it's the idea that being a saint means being who
you are, being the person who God created.
parent this means that part of sanctity comes in being a good parent and a
good spouse--as well as a good neighbor, and coworker and so on. We need
not lament the fact that we're not doing what Mother Teresa or anyone else
did. The trouble comes when we start to use someone else's roadmap
to holiness when God has already planted all the directions we need within
our soul. And I think if people really accepted that, we would have more
happy people--and a lot more saints!
My Life With the Saints visit
Lisa M. Hendey is a mother of two sons, webmaster of numerous web sites,
http://www.christiancoloring.com, and an avid reader of Catholic
literature. Visit her at
http://www.lisahendey.com for more information.
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