I think I’m a Jesuit at heart. I’ve admired the Jesuits since learning in my Global Church History class about how their approach to missions frequently involved becoming part of the community they were ministering to, learning the language and the philosophy of life and even adopting the dress and cultural habits of the people. Especially admirable were the Jesuits who worked to protect indigenous South Americans from the slave trade (work made famous in the marvelous film The Mission with Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro). In reading James Martin’s The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, the latest selection for my church book club, I’ve also fallen in love with the pragmatic Jesuit spirituality that Martin describes.
There’s a strain of Christian thought that is drawn to extremes. Instructions to give up all you have or put Christ first are taken to such a literal degree that owning any not obviously necessary item or taking pleasure in any activity that isn’t overtly Christian becomes a source of guilt. It is this strain of thought that pushed me out of my former conservative evangelical world and toward a more moderate version of evangelicalism and eventually into the Episcopal church. I simply couldn’t bring myself to commit to such a way of life for any length of time. I’d try, I’d try very hard, but burnout would quickly ensue.
This extreme spirituality is most decidedly not the kind of Christian life that Martin, who is himself a Jesuit priest, embraces. His view is extreme in an entirely different way. Instead of making sure all things in our lives are about God, we are to see God in all things. You see the difference? God is present not just when we take pleasure in the music of Handel but also when we enjoy a great jazz tune or rock out to whatever’s on the radio. We can encounter God’s voice in not just scripture, but also in great (and not so great) literature, even literature that would never get published by a Christian publishing house.
Founded in 1534 by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the Jesuit order, according to Martin, takes a practical approach to spirituality, one in which every aspect of life is seen as touched by God:
In Ignatian spirituality there is nothing that you have to put into a box and hide. Nothing has to be feared. Nothing has to be hidden away. Everything can be opened up before God.
In this book, Martin explains how we can see God in every aspect of our lives. He touches on different disciplines, such as the daily examen, a brief reflection on the day, that can help us gain perspective. He also discusses how certain Jesuit commitments, such as those to obedience and yes, celibacy, can be relevant even to those of us who haven’t taken those vows. There’s helpful discussion on how our desires can inform our decision-making and the notion of vocation. In one way or another, Martin touches on virtually every aspect of life.
One thing that truly impressed me about this book is how flexible Martin’s version of Ignatian spirituality is. For example, when discussing the examen, Martin explains the five steps as presented by Ignatius and then shares several adaptations that others have made. He then encourages readers to experiment to find what pattern works best for them. In his chapter on different paths people take to God, Martin shows that he clearly understands that not everyone has the same spiritual needs, and he present lots of different examples to illustrate how people live by the ideas he discusses. Through dipping into his own past, telling stories of Jesuits throughout history, and recounting anecdotes from other Christians of his acquaintance, Martin shows the great variety of religious experiences people may have. He even goes so far as to say that many Ignatian practices would be of value to non-Christians (and no doubt many non-Christians practice some variation of the examen or the Ignatian approach to decision-making).
I wouldn’t say that I learned a lot that was new in this book. It was more of a book that put into words some of the thoughts I’ve had in the back of my mind for years. I did gain some ideas for habits I’d like to develop and a little push toward pursuing my own spiritual growth more purposefully. There were some times when it seemed a little too self-helpy, and it could have done with some trimming. Although Martin takes some pains to be religiously inclusive, I’m not sure that this book would offer much to someone who isn’t interested in specifically Christian spirituality. I think the best audience for this book would be those who are new to the Christian faith and those who are newly trying to make their faith something more than just church on Sunday, but it can also have value for believers just looking for a refresher. We all need reminders of the things we know sometimes, and that’s what this book was for me.