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  • James Martin: Essential Writings by James T. Keane
  • Wendy M. Wright
James Martin: Essential Writings. Introduction by James T. Keane. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2017. 256 pp. $22.00.

The Modern Spiritual Masters Essential Writings series published by Orbis Books at present numbers close to seventy volumes of carefully selected and edited works by spiritual luminaries from the late nineteenth through the twentieth centuries, including figures such as Thérèse of Lisieux, John Henry Newman, Mahatma Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Dom Helder Camara. It might initially seem odd to include the writings of a living American who has not yet reached the age of sixty in the series. But Jesuit James Martin does present himself in these pages as a legitimate candidate for inclusion in such a lineup.

In his introduction, editor James T. Keane compares Martin to Thomas Merton as the public face of the Catholic Church for the contemporary era. The comparison is apt in terms of prodigious output and popularity, but the late Cistercian monk drew wisdom primarily from the springs of the Christian eremitic and monastic traditions while Martin remains firmly within the worldview shaped by the Ignatian principles cultivated during his life as a Jesuit: among them finding God in all things, apostolic orientation, discernment of spirits, and imaginative prayer focused on the life of Christ.

Unlike the Cistercian, who was a convert, Martin was raised nominally Catholic. But like his counterpart, the younger man only wholeheartedly embraced the Catholic faith after a thoroughly worldly secular young adult journey: in his case training at the Wharton School of Business and the fast track of corporate Wall Street. Interestingly, reading Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, that vivid conversion account of “leaving the world” and entry into the cloister, was a catalyst for Martin’s own entry into the Society of Jesus.

As a chronicler of twenty-first century American Catholicism, the mildly progressive-yet-rooted-in-tradition Martin has no equal. Editor Keane arranges brief selections from Martin’s books (chiefly The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything and My Life with the Saints), journal entries (America Magazine and The Tablet), and news outlets like The [End Page 71] Huffington Post into four thematic segments: “Motions of the Soul,” “God in All Things,” “Solidarity with the Suffering,” and “Models of Holiness.” Martin’s style is crafted for the type of publication or audience for which he writes. He is often journalistic in tone, homiletic in his use of clarifying or humorous examples to make a point, and generally current in his references, often commenting critically but lovingly on current Catholic and U.S. events.

The selections thus often reveal him as a spokesperson for a sizable segment of the current American Catholic population as he shrinks back in horror at unfolding revelations of clerical abuse and episcopal cronyism in the church or wrestles with classic questions of theodicy with his fellow New Yorkers as he ventures into the smoldering aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But Martin also gives equal and open-minded attention to more traditional Catholic territory as when he finds himself moved by the faith of those he accompanies on a pilgrimage to Lourdes or as he discovers intimate companionship with the saints of the past whose frequent imperfect witness inspires him in his own quest for holiness. In both instances, some faith resolution or insight, however tentative, always emerges from his pen.

Thus he both unleashes the potential of the progressive themes emerging from the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath—the universal call to holiness, the option for the poor, attention to the Word of scripture, the church conceived as a pilgrim people who are journeying but yet not arrived—while at the same time freshly opening up the richness of Catholic devotional practice such as intercessory prayer, pilgrimage, devotional imagery, and companionship with the saints.

Martin’s spiritual writing is perhaps best described as theological reflection that emerges out of his lived experience, an approach cultivated in the daily examen or examination of conscience so characteristic of Jesuit, Ignatian spirituality, that prayerful daily backward glance at the events of the previous hours to discover...


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