The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life

Posted on: 26th August 2010  |
Author: James Martin SJ
Publication details: HarperOne, 2010 432 pages
ISBN: 9780061432682
Category: The Jesuits

The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. What a great title! The quirky name promised many pages of enjoyable reading. The frontispiece of the book only strengthened my favourable first impression: a beautiful pencil drawing of St Ignatius praying above the rooftops of Rome is executed with such gentleness that the Jesuit founder appears as a live human being, rather than as a stylised work of art, as is the fate of so many great saints.

The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything describes itself as ‘user-friendly’. That is an understatement. James Martin SJ writes in a direct, conversational, highly personal tone, using uncomplicated language to convey profound concepts and reflections. His refreshing honesty makes the book acceptable to the merely curious and the searcher, to the non-Christian and the Christian, the atheist and the deeply-committed. He does not take belief for granted and is not simplistic in his explanations. Each chapter, although sequential, is also stand-alone. As such, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything is not for skimming. One cannot devour several chapters in one sitting because Martin uses many thought-provoking anecdotes, often drawn from his own life, and asks challenging questions which require a reflective answer.

This book is ‘a good read’. However, it is also one to keep and to recommend to others, especially for use in spiritual direction. It is valuable, both, for Formators and for those in Formation, inside or outside an Ignatian milieu. An interesting point for readers in Britain is that Martin quotes some of the Jesuits on this side of the world, priests who are already very familiar Spiritual Directors, retreat givers and writers. This adds a pleasant ‘homeliness’ to a work that has an amazing versatility and universality of approach and application.

Setting the scene: Religion, Spirituality and Big Questions

Sensibly, because The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything is about Jesuit spirituality, Martin opens the book by differentiating between religion, spirituality and Ignatian spirituality. This is a valuable launching pad, especially in view of those who speak about being ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious’. In the first two key chapters, he lists ten pivotal questions which he describes as ‘proper to Ignatian spirituality’, but which others might simply call ‘The Big Questions’ concerning direction, motivation, suffering, prayer and God. Inevitably, Martin summarises their answers as ‘finding God in all things’ and ‘being a contemplative in action’.

These two fundamentals form the basis for the rest of the book, concretised within the life, experience and thought of Ignatius and his followers, past and present. This practical application of profound concepts to the lived experiences of real people is a particular strength of this book. Martin uses true stories to demonstrate that there are many different paths to God, who makes himself known as ‘the God of Surprises’, who stimulates an ever deeper desire which longs for fulfilment.

What do you want?

The next four chapters form a cohesive unit whilst dealing with three very different themes. ‘What do you want?’ offers a beautiful and very clear explanation of the way in which God works through our deepest and sometimes unspoken desires in order to awaken our hearts to spiritual realities: ‘Recognising our desires means recognising God’s desires for us.’ Martin takes the reader through several different types of experience – vulnerability, clarity, desire for holiness, etc – to show that God meets us where we are, ‘because God is ready now.’

‘Beautiful Yesterdays’ is an excellent introduction to the Examen, which Martin describes as ‘Finding God and letting God find you’. ‘You become more aware of where God was and where God is… Finding God by looking behind you makes it easier to see God right in front of you.’

‘Beginning to Pray’ leads on naturally from the Examen, because it asks the important question, ‘What happens when you close your eyes?’ Using his own fumbling steps as he learned to pray as a Jesuit novice, Martin demonstrates clearly that learning to pray is not like flicking a switch to achieve enlightenment, but is the start of a relationship.

‘Friendship with God’, therefore, is the logical follow-on from the previous chapter, because Martin looks at the qualities which constitute human friendship and then applies them to establishing a close relationship with God. Again using concrete examples, he shows that whilst God’s love is constant and ever-present, there are things such as honesty, listening, change and silence, which nurture and intensify the encounter with God. It is, again, not something that is over and done with in one simple act. ‘But the important thing – as in any friendship – is to keep at it and, ultimately, come to know and love the Other more deeply. And to let the Other come to know and love you more deeply.’

God meets you where you are

The beauty of the seventh chapter in The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything is that, within a few words and with another concrete example, Martin shows that Ignatian traditions of prayer are one form amongst many and that all lead to God. He gives a lovely example of his Jesuit friend attempting to draw his mother to a deeper life of prayer than merely depending on the Rosary. He was quickly cut down to size by his mother’s response that, through her Rosary, ‘God looks at me and I look at God.’ This retort, however, is also the springboard for a simple, direct and thorough discussion of Ignatian contemplation that comes within anybody’s easy reach. This chapter is an excellent one for anybody in Initial Formation or learning to pray with Scripture.

The Simple Life

The next four chapters, although independent, can also be grouped together insofar as they relate to the substance of the Evangelical Counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, but need not be applied to Religious Life, although Martin discusses them as they pertain to the vows.

‘The Simple Life’ would gladden the heart of any Franciscan even though written from a Jesuit perspective. Martin speaks of the liberation he experienced in divesting himself of his possessions prior to entering the Novitiate and of the freedom of not being attached to wealth, position and power. He is sensible and practical in his discussion of Poverty, relating it to poverty of spirit and humility: ‘A total immersion into our consumerist culture, which tells us that we can only be happy if we have more – is a dead end.’ ‘Poverty of spirit reminds you that there is only so much you can do.’ ‘Spiritual poverty also means freedom from the need for constant motion, constant work and constant activity. It encourages you to say no from time to time…’

‘Like the Angels?’ addresses Chastity, Celibacy and Love and, in a brief chapter, covers a great deal of ground. Martin once again uses real examples to show that a life of celibacy does not exclude friendship at a deep and intimate level. He is at pains to stress that ‘one of the main goals of chastity is to love as many people as possible as deeply as possible’ and that ‘chastity is about both love and freedom.’ He is very concrete and clear about ways in which one can love chastely, pointing out that ‘the insights of chastity can enrich all of us, whether or not we make a vow to live that way of life.’

Thus, ‘More by Deeds than by Words’ is a natural sequel to the previous chapter, because it looks at the beauty of friendship and love. Again, it is down-to-earth, giving examples of community life that we would all recognise, but as a lead-in to the Presupposition of St Ignatius: ‘that we ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbour’s statement than to condemn it.’ Martin stresses that true friendship is not possessive but is open and welcoming of others. Describing the qualities of friendship and all that is needed in order to find and to keep a friend, this chapter is best summarised in its final sentence: ‘Even with all the work that is involved, even if you only find one friend in your whole life, it’s worth it.’

‘Surrendering to the Future’ is another important chapter as it reflects on obedience, acceptance and suffering. True obedience is not mindless and acceptance demands clear vision, however difficult that might be. Martin uses his own experiences to highlight the difficulty sometimes associated with obedience and also the way in which God uses occasions to bring about something better. Jesuit martyrs knew and accepted that their obedience to the Gospel would lead to suffering and death. ‘Like Jesus who weeps at his best friend’s tomb, God was not standing outside [their] pain, but was a companion within it…’ Martin then takes up the issues of obedience, acceptance and suffering within the framework of the Exercises and the Call of the King: ‘Suffering is a mystery to be pondered within the context of a relationship between God and you, and some of this can be done in prayer, especially by meditating on the experiences of Jesus of Nazareth… The Cross leads to Resurrection.’

What should I do?

The final three chapters of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything form a clear and comprehensive approach to discernment in ‘work, career, vocation… and life!’ thereby offering several more reasons why the book is a ‘must read’ for anybody, but especially for those who are on the brink of a life-changing decision, perhaps particularly for those discerning whether or not they might have a Religious Vocation.

‘What should I do?’ is an excellent introduction to the process of discernment. Martin shows that there are several types of decision-making, looking at the familiar steps discussed by St Ignatius and illustrating them with real examples which, whilst highlighting that decision-making is not always easy, also show how to apply the process he has just described. ‘Good decisions mean a wholehearted yes to both the positives and the negatives that come with any choice… It also means saying yes to the negatives… Every state of life, every decision, includes some pain that must be accepted if you are to enter fully into those decisions and into new life.’ ‘But at heart it is simple. Ignatian discernment means trusting that through your reason and your inner life, God will help to draw you to good decisions…’

‘Be Who You Is’ describes the way in which God works through our desires to lead us to our true vocation and to become the person he has known from all eternity. ‘God calls each of us to different vocations. Or rather, God plants within us these vocations, which are revealed in our desires and longings… Vocation is less about finding one and more about having it revealed to you as you pray to understand “what I want and desire”.’

‘The Contemplative in Action’ is a deeply personal conclusion of an excellent book. Martin declares, ‘The goal is God.’ Perhaps that is the best way of describing this short chapter. It is not surprising that he ends with the prayer, ‘Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty…’ He has said almost everything in that prayer... almost, but not quite. I had the feeling that, in writing these last few paragraphs, Martin poured his heart into each word. He took those familiar words and paraphrases them: ‘I offer you everything, God. All I need is your love and grace. This is all I need to be “yes, alive.”’

Any complaints? Well, there is one... Perhaps Martin was trying to be conversational and direct, but as one who was brought up to avoid the use of the second person singular in a piece of formal writing, I was conscious that he uses it throughout the book. Although my personal experience of the book was not so, his over-use of ‘you do this’ and ‘you do that’ could be interpreted as paternalistic or prescriptive rather than a thorn in the flesh of grammarians. In fact I am surprised that this point escaped the many reviewers who obviously wrote their reviews before The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything actually went to print.

The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything is written for a varied readership, whilst simultaneously addressing Jesuits in particular. Martin is very open about his own life story, using many examples from it to illustrate a wide range of ideas. I wonder if, at a later date, his depth of honesty will be something he will appreciate or regret. Will there be one or two things he might wish he had kept more private? Only he can say. His examples do not detract from his writing: my query only concerns its impact on Martin himself.

My conclusion? The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything has to be one of the best, if not the best, book I have read this year!

The reviewer, Sr Janet Fearns FMDM, is Communications Coordinator for Missio.

 Find this book on Harper Collins' web site

Distributed in the UK by Kuperard Publishers and available from Orca Book Services.



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