Finding God Off-Broadway

I just finished reading James Martin’s 2007 book, A Jesuit Off-Broadway: Center Stage with Jesus, Judas, and Life’s Big Questions. I have enjoyed and benefitted from every one of Martins’s books that I have read, and this one is no exception.

A Jesuit Off-Broadway is the enjoyable story of Martin’s six months with the LAByrinth Theater Company as they prepare for the production of the play, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (which I wrote about here). More than that, though, it offers Martin’s insights on a number of issues of Christian faith and on Ignatian spirituality. I would have enjoyed it for the story telling alone, but found much to reflect on in his observations about faith, religion and human nature, and on what he learned from the actors and others with whom he was involved during this period.

One of the things I found illuminating was Martin’s discussion of the directing style of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who directed the play. Describing Hoffman’s penchant for offering a story from his own life to illustrate a thorny point, Martin talks about his realization that Hoffman “was providing something like contemporary parables for the cast.” He quotes Scripture scholar C.H. Dodd’s definition of a parable as “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” Parables, Martin explains, open the mind, inviting its hearers to a deeper level of understanding.

The operative word, for Martin, is “invite.” When he discussed his insight with Hoffman, Hoffman found Martin’s parable analogy apt, believing the personal anecdote had an ability to communicate more effectively than firm direction. Explaining why he tried to avoid being too specific in his direction, Hoffman explained, “You have to keep suggesting. Otherwise the person becomes for of empty shell, and they end up performing in a way that’s not at all, well, spiritual.”

Hoffman’s comments offer a way of thinking about Jesus’ approach with his disciples. As Martin explains

In a sense [Hoffman’s] approach mirrored the way Jesus preached. One of my theology professors said that apart from the initial calls of the apostles, which seem peremptory, brooking little dissent (“Follow me, he says to Peter), much of Jesus’ preaching involves inviting his listeners to consider something new (“Consider the lilies…”) Or, to use Phil’s words, Jesus was always suggesting, in order that the decision to follow or not to follow was the person’s own decisions.

I like the analogy. It does a nice job of combatting the image some people have of God as a kind of marionette master. God doesn’t compel our moves. God doesn’t spell out in detail everything we must do. Instead, God directs by invitation and suggestion and leaves it up to us what to do with that.

There is much else I liked about this book, which has wonderful discussions of despair, of sanctity, of poverty of spirit, and a lot more.


Judas Had A Mother

For Easter, my husband gave me two books. Knowing how much I like and admire James Martin, S.J., he got me A Jesuit Off-Broadway, Martin’s account of the time he spend with the LAByrinth Theater Company in NY in connection with the production of the Off-Broadway plan, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. He also gave me a copy of the play itself, written by Stephen Adly Guirgis.

I decided to read the play before reading Martin’s book and yesterday’s rain gave me the opportunity to do that. The play is a courtroom drama – a trial to determine Judas’ ultimate fate. Plays are meant to be experienced in performance, and so I always have some difficiulty when I am reading them. Nonetheless, I’m glad I read it – it conveys a richer picture of some of the “cast” of the Jesus story we are already familiar with.

The play opens, however, with prologue by a character who is not part of the normal cast of our Bible stories – Henrietta Iscariot, mother of Judas. Her opening line is one I’ve heard from other mothers in her situation: “No parent should have to bury a child…No mother should have to bury a son.” She goes on to talk about Judas’ burial without a funeral, a burial his own sisters would not attend. And she talks about her immense love for her son – a love beyond all measure and understanding.

I found it a powerful way to begin the play, this soliloquy by a woman we never give a thought to when we read the Gospels. A woman whose heart was broken by what happened to her son.

The prologue reminds us that there are many things the Gospels did not record. Many people impacted by various of the events, whose feelings we know nothing about. Realizing that reminds us that our pictures of the people we read about are incomplete; we see only pieces and not the whole.

I was also reminded when I read the Prologue of a poem called Two Mothers, that I came across a couple of years ago. It records an encounter between this mother and another mother. I find it as powerful now as I did when I first read it; it is a good piece to pray with.

Two Mothers

Long time ago, so I have been told,
Two angels once met on streets paved with gold.
“By the stars in your crown,” said the one to the other
“I see that on earth, you too, were a mother.

And by, the blue-tinted halo you wear
“You, too, have known sorrow and deepest despair…”
“Ah yes,” she replied, “I once had a son,
A sweet little lad, full of laughter and fun.”

“But tell of your child.” “Oh, I knew I was blessed
From the moment I first held him close to my breast,
And my heart almost burst with the joy of that day.”
“Ah, yes,” said the other, “I felt the same way.”

The former continued: “The first steps he took-
So eager and breathless; the sweet startled look
Which came over his face – he trusted me so.”
“Ah, yes,” said the other, “How well do I know”

“But soon he had grown to a tall handsome boy,
So stalwart and kind – and it gave me so much joy
To have him just walk down the street by my side”
“Ah yes, “said the other mother,
“I felt the same pride.”

“How often I shielded and spared him from pain
And when he for others was so cruelly slain.
When they crucified him – and they spat in his face
How gladly would I have hung there in his place!”

A moment of silence – “Oh then you are she –
The mother of Christ”; and she fell on one knee.
But the Blessed one raised her up, drawing her near,
And kissed from the cheek of the woman, a tear.

“Tell me the name of the son you love so,
That I may share with your grief and your woe.”
She lifted her eyes, looking straight at the other,
“He was Judas Iscariot: I am his mother.”
Author Unknown