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My Life with the Saints
by James Martin, SJ
Loyola Press, 2006

review by John Koize

Books on the lives of the saints are often marred by one or more common flaws, the first involving perspective. Authors oftentimes place their subject so high above everyday human experience as to make them nearly supernatural. By doing so, these well-meaning writers inspire feelings of inadequacy and an uneasy hopelessness among their readers that defeats the church’s purpose for setting people apart: emulation.

The ordinary details of their earthly lives can be so hidden by legends, miracle stories, and tales of heroic virtue that we forget or ignore that they lived and breathed and suffered the same slings and arrows of daily life that we do.

James Martin’s captivating new memoir (and a few others, to be fair) exhibits none of these flaws, and in fact rises above the rest so thoroughly as to create an entirely new sub-genre: Lives of the Saints that Might Actually Get Read. His bright, conversational style reveals as much about the spiritual life of this young Jesuit as it does of the friends in the faith he illuminates: well-known saints such as Mother Teresa, Ignatius of Loyola, and Joan of Arc, and lesser-knowns like Pedro Arrupe and The Ugandan Martyrs.

Martin does not so much present the life of each saint, as one would expect in an ordinary biography, or in a reflection on an icon. Rather he introduces them to the reader in much the same way one might introduce a friend or companion. He shares both aspirations and frustrations held in common with each. Thomas Merton, for example, struggled with the same pride, ambition and selfishness that Martin confesses. Dorothy Day represents, among other spiritual ideals, the union of action and contemplation to which he aspires and which remains an important dimension of his Jesuit vocation.

For Martin, the saints represent not so much lessons to be learned as lives to be encountered and friends to be met. Each portrait is rendered with the kind of loving detail that must only be the result of long hours in prayer and contemplation of the spiritual force that guided their lives. Through these portraits emerges a new understanding not only of the life and mission of each saint, but also of the notion of sainthood itself.

While miracle stories, legends, spiritual classics and even prayers can reveal something about each saint and engage our curiosity, these traditional trappings are not of primary importance. Rather it is relationship—with God, with each other, with their truest selves—that is at the heart of their spiritual lives, and which sustains Martin’s abiding interest and affection.

Peppered throughout the text are reminders that the author was not raised in the Catholic faith, nor even particularly religious in his young adulthood. Martin prompts us to recall that there are saints and holy ones who are remembered chiefly for their amazing conversions to the faith, something those of us who are converts can relate to—and all of us are converts in one way or another. Ignatius of Loyola, Francis of Assisi, and Thomas Merton are noted among them.

It is in this way that My Life With the Saints is a sweetly persuasive apologetic for the saints as models for all Christian believers—and a solid counter for those who do not understand Catholic interest in the saints, or worse, hold it in contempt.

Equal parts storytelling and reflection, revelation and reminiscence, it is difficult to imagine a better way to approach a topic that already has enough entries to stock entire libraries. Martin’s own life and spiritual journey is revealed in a way that mirrors the deepest connections between the saints he encounters and the readers he addresses. These holy ones aren’t simply images or deftly carved hunks of marble. They are truly human, deeply in love with God, and people whom you wouldn’t mind going out of your way to meet. The same might be said of the author.

Copyright ©2006 John Koize

My Life with the Saints
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