I just finished My Life With the Saints by Fr. James Martin, and I want to thank everyone who recommended it to me during my wish list panic attack. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.
In each chapter Fr. Martin lovingly chronicles the life of a particular saint, and weaves in stories of how this holy man or woman inspired him during the ups and downs of his life, which has ranged from the corporate fast track to the Jesuit priesthood.
There are so many inspiring stories here, and not just from the canonized saints themselves. I found just as much inspiration in the stories of the many saintly people Fr. Martin has met in his journeys as a Jesuit priest: the religious sisters who cheerfully ran a hospice in the slums of Jamaica; the African refugees who had suffered unspeakable tragedy and lived in squalor and yet were moving on with their lives by starting small businesses; the Little Sisters of Jesus in Nairobi whose tiny house with hardly any possessions, no electricity and very little water overflowed with joy and laughter; and the countless saints who will never have a canonization ceremony, never have the world know their names, yet humbly serve God and see joy in beauty in the world around them, even in circumstances that are miserable by worldly standards.
For example, Fr. Martin recounts a story told by former Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe of a man he met in a poverty-stricken slum in Latin America. Fr. Arrupe had just celebrated Mass in a decrepit building with dogs and cats wandering in and out of the service, and afterward he received an unexpected gift:
When it was over, a big [man] whose hang-dog look made me almost afraid said, “Come to my place. I have something to give you.” I was undecided…but the priest who was with me said, “Accept, Father, these are good people.” I went to his place; his house was a hovel nearly on the point of collapsing. He had me sit down on a rickety old chair. From there I could see the sunset. The big man said to me, “Look, sir, how beautiful it is!” We sat in silence for several minutes. The sun disappeared. The man then said, “I didn’t know how to thank you for all you have done for us. I have nothing to give you, but I thought you would like to see this sunset. You liked it, didn’t you? Good evening.” And then he shook my hand.
As much as I loved these stories, I think my favorite part was just how human and accessible Fr. Martin makes all the great saints whose lives he covers. For some people (ahem, me) it’s easy to think of the saints as those perfect images who beam at you from prayer cards, who didn’t have to struggle with doubts and temptations since they were just naturally good people, that it was somehow “easy” for them to be completely dedicated to God. Probably the biggest thing I took away from this book was how incredibly, well, human the saints are. The implications are inspiring yet a little bit daunting. Realizing that it wasn’t necessarily easier for any of these men and women to be dedicated to God than it would be for me starts to make all my excuses sound like just that: excuses.
“But I still have doubts!”…Mother Teresa had doubts. “But I have a really hard time being humble and obedient, it just doesn’t come naturally to me!”…It didn’t come naturally to Thomas Merton either. “But I have so few people who really support me in my faith!”…Neither did the Ugandan martyrs, or Bernadette Soubirous, or a lot of the saints.
Fr. Martin says it best in his chapter on the great St. Peter, who is the ultimate example of the fact that God doesn’t reserve the call to holiness for people who are perfect:
Peter was not perfect…A perfect man would never have denied Jesus and therefore would never have understood the human desire for forgiveness. A perfect man would never have argued with the other disciples and therefore would never have understood the need for reconciliation. A perfect man would never have realized how desperately he really needed Jesus, and would never have understood how this truth is the basis of all discipleship. […]
Sometimes I wonder if Jesus chose Peter not despite his imperfections but because of them. Peter’s knowledge of his own limits led him to understand his reliance on God. It also enabled him to appreciate the love that Jesus had for him, as well as to celebrate the fact that God can work through anyone, no matter how human. And that’s not such a bad message to carry to the ends of the earth.
Not a bad message at all. Thank you to Fr. Martin for such a delightful book.
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