Every so often someone sends me one of those online multiple-choice quizzes that match your personality to a Catholic religious order. No matter what questions they ask, my results are always the same: “You’re a member of the Society of Jesus, a.k.a. the Jesuits!”
I can’t say I’m surprised by the match. Ten years in a Jesuit parish and almost as many years in graduate programs at two Jesuit-run institutions have left me with an unmistakably Ignatian outlook. I’d be fascinated by any organization that could produce brilliant theologians like Karl Rahner, gifted poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins, and courageous martyrs like Ignacio Ellacuría. And Jesuit spirituality—with its emphasis on “finding God in all things”—is attractive to busy Catholics like myself, who must find God in the warp and woof of everyday life if we are going to find him at all.
In his new book The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, Fr. James Martin tries to introduce a new generation of spiritual seekers to the Jesuit tradition. Martin, the culture editor at America magazine, is the author of several books on Catholic spirituality, including the popular My Life with the Saints. He believes that Jesuit spirituality provides resources for wrestling with basic questions like “How do I know what I am supposed to do in life?” and “How can I make good decisions?” While such practical questions may seem more secular than religious, Martin argues that there is no distinction. Struggling to answer these basic questions is the way we encounter the presence of God in our lives.
In an attempt to meet readers wherever they may be, Martin begins the book by looking at the diverse ways in which people seek God. Some are committed believers, while others have left the religion of their childhood. An increasing number were raised with no religious tradition at all. Whether explicitly religious or not, though, all human beings experience moments of joy, sorrow, contentment, or confusion that raise questions of ultimate meaning and purpose.
The insight of Jesuit spirituality is that it sees these movements of the heart as signposts that point the way to God. Martin recounts the story of Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, who discovered his vocation to religious life by paying close attention to his desires and emotions. As a Spanish soldier recovering from a serious war wound, Ignatius had a lot of time to read. He found that when he read stories of the saints, he felt inspired to follow their example. Stories of knights and their military deeds, by contrast, left him dry and uninspired. Ignatius discerned God’s call by examining these feelings.
My favorite chapter of The Jesuit Guide focuses on the Examen, a form of daily prayer developed by Ignatius that has become an important part of my own spiritual practice. It begins with thanksgiving for blessings received that day. The one praying then reviews the day systematically, hour by hour, paying close attention to actions and emotions. Where did I act freely and generously, and where did I fail to act in such a manner? When did God feel present or absent? Although awareness of sin is part of the point of the exercise, that awareness is the fruit of a deeper relationship with God that comes from paying closer attention to the ways He is present in our daily lives.
In the second part of the book, Martin moves from prayer to action. He uses as his lens the religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, which he argues are more intense expressions of basic commitments needed to live a fully human life: simplicity, fidelity in relationships, and openness to mystery and suffering. A spirituality of the vows, suggests Martin, gives us the strength to resist the lure of what Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises calls “disordered affections,” the inordinate attachments to money, sex, and personal liberty that can easily warp our lives.
Toward the end of the book, Martin turns his attention to decision-making, particularly around basic life choices such as work and family. He covers an enormous amount of ground here, and the reader may quickly become lost in an Ignatian forest of numbers: three types of decisions, two methods of making decisions (each of which has several steps), and more than a dozen rules for discernment! All of these techniques, though, ultimately rely on the systematic evaluation of a situation and the close attention to the movements of consolation and desolation that are the hallmarks of Jesuit discernment.
The strengths of the book are Martin’s own strengths: his writing is accessible, comprehensive, and often humorous. Like other spiritual writers from Augustine to Thérèse of Lisieux, he effectively mines his own biography to illustrate many of his points. Despite his years of Jesuit formation and priestly ministry, Martin admits that he, too, is often unsure about what God is doing in his life. His honesty on that point may be of particular value to young people—and some not so young—who are struggling spiritually.
If there is a weakness in the work, it may be that Martin has simply tried to do too much. By the time the reader makes it through 420 pages of Jesuit history, spirituality, stories, and jokes, he may well feel trampled under the hooves of the “swift, light cavalry of Christ,” as the order was once described. At times it is not clear whether the book is aimed primarily at spiritual novices or merely those with a passionate curiosity about the Society of Jesus. A clear choice of audience would have produced a more focused work, albeit one that might have been less interesting.
These are minor defects, however, in a book that stands as an excellent introduction to Jesuit spirituality for a general reader. It would make a wonderful gift for a child or grandchild heading off to a Jesuit college or, indeed, any college at all.
Related: Kathleen Sprows Cummings reviews James Martin's My Life with the Saints