I love the writing of James Martin, S.J., and have benefitted from each of the books he has written as well as from many of his articles in America and otherwise. This is no less true of his newest book, which I just finished reading: Jesus: A Pilgrimage.
Martin describes his book as “an invitation for you to meet the Jesus I have studied, the Jesus I follow, and the Jesus I met in the Holy Land,” with the aim of prompting readers to explore more about Jesus. He does this through chapters that explore major stories of the Gospels through the lens of his own life and prayer (and Martin’s honesty about his own weaknesses is both admirable and encouraging), stories from his teachers, and his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Each chapter ends with the Gospel passage, the story of which was the subject of the chapter, inviting prayerful reflection before moving on.
I should have been writing posts about the content of this book as I read it, because there is way to much to share in a single blog post, although I suppose I could simply say (a) put this on your summer reading list if it is not there already, and (b) Martin’s descriptions of his time in the Holy Land increase my desire to visit there.
But I will share here just three of the things that I found particularly helpful and worth reflecting on. First, in Martin’s discussion of Luke’s account of the miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5:1-11), Martin zeroes in on Peter’s reaction to the miraculous catch: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Martin suggests we “can try to imagine Peter’s possible frame of mind when he asked Jesus to leave him, but it is just as important to understand why we say to God, ‘Go away from me.'” He spends the next several pages looking at the some possible reasons, discussing our feelings of unworthiness, fear (of God and God’s power), fear of change, and fear of intimacy. He ends this helpful discussion with the reminder of Jesus’ response to Peter’s “Go away” – Jesus does not depart form Peter, but calls him to join him in his mission. Likewise, he does not depart from us when our fears cause us to move away.
Second, I found very helpful and moving Martin’s discussion of Jesus’ plea to his father to “take this cup.” As he says, “[w]ho among us hasn’t found ourselves in a situation where the inevitable seems impossible? Where the unavoidable seems unimaginable? Who hasn’t said to God, in so many words, ‘Remove this cup?'” Martin here talks about the need in such situation to – as did Jesus in the garden – express our feelings honestly to God. I found particularly consoling his reminder that Jesus felt the need to pray three times in Gethsemane before reaching a sense of peace. “Too often we feel obliged to move immediately into ‘Yet your will, not mine’ before we have lingered with our feelings and expressed them to God. Or we feel guilty for asking for what we want or what we wish to be relieved of, as if such prayers were merely complaints. But the honest expression of painful emotions is a process that even Jesus went through.” Too quickly expressing “thy will be done” is formalism; the invitation to take the time to do what we need to do to get there invites authentic relationship.
Third, I think Martin’s discussion of what Jesus means when he says to “Take up your cross daily?”, especially his unpacking of what it means to accept our crosses, is one of the best I’ve read. His discussion helps explain why accepting our crosses is “not a masochistic stance, but a realistic one.” And he reminds us that while accepting our crosses means not passing along any bitterness about our suffering it does not mean we should not share our suffering with others. Interestingly, he includes this discussion in his chapter on the resurrection, reminding us that accepting our cross means waiting for the resurrection and that “where the world sees only the cross, the Christian sees the possibility of something else.
A couple of final comments. First, since my own spirituality is heavily Ignatian, I loved reading Martin’s descriptions of some of the Ignatian contemplations he has engaged in over the years. Second, as in everything he writes, Martin’s joy in his faith spills out throughout the book.
I could write much more, but hopefully what I’ve written here will encourage you to pick up the book yourself. I know I’ll be returning to parts of it quite frequently.