Book Review: The Unquiet Monk

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton. Merton was one of the most captivating religious figures in the 20th century. His book The Seven Storey Mountain made him an important public figure—the country’s most popular monk—and remains popular among Catholics today. But his legacy extends far beyond his famous biography, as Catholics and other admirers continue to find wisdom in a variety of his works from No Man is an Island to New Seeds of Contemplation. Given the fascinating nature of the subject, therefore, it’s not surprising that The Unquiet Monk by Michael W. Higgins offers a unique exploration into the life of Merton, one that should interest those who are familiar with the works and legacy of this “journalist, photographer, novelist, poet, social and political critic, calligrapher, essayist, priest.”

Higgins explores Merton’s life through a variety of prisms: Erasminian critic, Swiftian satirist, Camusian rebel, Cistercian prophet, and Blakean visionary. Higgins draws on decades of scholarship on Merton and numerous interviews with experts on Merton’s life and legacy.

He describes Merton as a “perpetual pilgrim: a pilgrim of the mind, the imagination, and the spirit.” He sees Merton as “an icon of wholeness for a fractured, alienated postmodern generation.” This perhaps helps to explain the enduring appeal of Merton. Materialism, consumerism, and the race for acclaim and affirmation afflict most of us. They foster a narcissism that leaves us not only fractured, but alienated from others, while Merton reminds us of the need for authenticity—an authenticity grounded in who we truly are at the most fundamental level, not what we consume—and the reality that no man or woman is an island.

Higgins touches upon another explanation of Merton’s enduring appeal, saying, “Merton’s honesty compelled him to chronicle his search for the true self in such a way that his readers could and can continue to vicariously share in both the light and dark sides of spiritual growth.” Even if our lives and personalities differ from his own, Merton remains a real person who is relatable on some level, not an otherworldly, esoteric figure who feels a world away. His honesty and authenticity have drawn readers in to his world and his inner life for decades.

Higgins seems to offer quite distinct, bold interpretations of Merton’s life and thinking, while providing a concise overview of his life, including key relationships and lines of thinking. Having only read a couple of Merton’s works, including The Seven Storey Mountain (which I read later in my life, despite receiving a copy from grandmother as a teenager), I hardly qualify as a Merton expert and cannot properly assess these interpretations, but I read Higgins book with great interest, learned more about Merton, and finished it with an even greater desire to learn more about this giant of the 20th century.


Fully Alive: Fr. John Main, Christian Meditation, and the Search for the Transcendent

It’s not uncommon for young people to look outside of the Christian tradition for a deeper spiritual experience. Fully Alive: The Daily Path of Christian Meditation by Fr. John Main is a reminder that this is not necessary. Meditation and contemplation have a home in the Catholic tradition, albeit one that is too often overlooked by the average Catholic. The search for peace—for the transcendent—does not require an embrace of Buddhism, Taoism, or other Eastern traditions or philosophies (though, of course, exploring the wisdom found in other religions can enrich one’s own faith). There is a long, rich tradition within the Church of meditation and contemplative prayer, and greater awareness of this would strengthen the Church and the spiritual lives of its people. In particular, for those young people feeling some isolation or alienation from the Church, who are perhaps feeling some spiritual emptiness or unease, introducing them to Christian meditation might be particularly helpful. It can show them a different side of the Christian faith, one that they may not have experienced growing up, but might enrich their spiritual lives as they grow older.

Fully Alive, a new release from Orbis Books, is a collection of talks given by the Benedictine priest and monk Fr. John Main, as edited by Fr. Laurence Freeman. I was unfamiliar with Fr. Main prior to reading the book and came away deeply impressed. His words reveal a deep devotion to the Christian faith and profound wisdom on the subject of meditation, prayer, and spirituality.

Fr. Main spends a good amount of time describing the basic approach to meditation that he favors. This includes picking a mantra and repeating it throughout the course of each session; finding a good posture, which may not happen right away; and, ideally, meditating for half an hour at a time, but at least 20 minutes. The mantra he recommends is maranatha, which in Aramaic roughly translates as “O Lord, come.” This word is to be said with simplicity and humility. Overall, the approach demands stillness, awareness, simplicity, commitment, and discipline.

For Fr. Main, meditation is not a practical technique to achieve immediate, limited goals, such as relaxation. Instead, “the essence and the purpose of meditation is the Kingdom of God; that is, God’s power released and having full sway in our hearts.” It helps us to achieve real freedom, peace and joy—liberation from possessiveness and selfishness. Meditation is not for a special group of extraordinarily holy mystics. Fr. Main says that it is the ordinary destiny of every man and woman “to be filled with the light of Christ and to learn to see everything by that light.” He sees the task of the Christian life as being open to the gifts of God, including the gift of knowing and experiencing the God that is Love.

Fr. Main describes the numerous ways that meditation can enrich our lives. One aspect revolves around unity. Meditation can be seen as “the way to harmony, the way to transcend the divisions that we encounter within ourselves.” So often a disconnect can develop between our thoughts and emotions, or what we think intellectually and how we physically act. Meditation can be a way of reestablishing the integral unity of ourselves as persons. In silence, we escape the superficial, the ephemeral, the unreal. As Fr. Main explains, “we discover, we experience, our unique personhood and we make this discovery because we lose our false ego.” In looking beyond ourselves toward communion with God, which inspires the desire for communion with others, we can become less fragmented. This exposure to love reveals that “we are not just autonomous, isolated individuals.” Our true identity is revealed “in this mystery of Christ dwelling in our hearts,” by which we see that we are called to love and be loved beyond all division. We experience our authentic personalities and experience unity as persons.

This embrace of stillness is an alternative to the chaos of materialism and consumerism, of ordering one’s life around fleeting pleasures and prideful competition with one’s neighbors. Meditation can help us by shifting our attention away from the past and future to the present moment. By embracing the present moment, we can embrace “the eternal now of God,” “the now of God’s infinite love.” It is the answer to the emptiness of nihilistic living, the middle class malaise, and affluenza. It is an alternative to the use of substances to bring the illusion of peace and happiness. Instead of trying to distract oneself from despair, one embraces reality—the reality of God, their own personality, and life’s ultimate meaning. By experiencing the transcendent, each person is able to see more clearly the true nature of what is present all around them in their everyday lives. This book has already helped me to find more time for silence—more time for escaping the blurred chaos swirling around me to experience the presence of God’s love. For anyone else looking to deepen their spiritual lives and find greater peace, I recommend picking up this brief but valuable collection of talks.


An Interview with Meghan Clark on CST, Solidarity, and Human Rights

Yesterday we featured Millennial editor Robert Christian’s review of The Vision of Catholic Social Thought: The Virtue of Solidarity and the Praxis of Human Rights by Meghan Clark. The review can be read here. Christian also had the opportunity to interview Clark on her new book:

Robert Christian (RC): In the simplest terms, what does it mean to say human persons are created in the image of the Trinity?

Meghan Clark (MC): In Catholic theology, we talk about living more fully (or less fully) human lives, of more fully embracing and living as the image of God in the world. To say that human persons are created in the image of the Trinity means asking are WE embracing and living as the image of God in the world – as the one human family.

RC: You talk about it a bit in the book, but how can we draw a distinction between solidarity and justice and explain the relationship between the two? If love (caritas) shapes our understanding of justice, but also calls us to go beyond it, is solidarity part of that ‘beyond justice’ that is rooted in caritas? Is it the desire for communion (that is rooted in love) that takes us beyond justice?

MC: The relationship between justice and solidarity is mentioned briefly in the book, but is something I will likely develop further in the future. You can meet the requirements of justice without having solidarity. You cannot however have solidarity without meeting the demands of justice. Justice focuses on what is required, what is due to you as equally and fully human (individually and structurally). Solidarity, on the other hand, pushes us to the next step of recognizing that we are human together and that, as I say in the book, my humanity is bound up in yours. There is a mutual vulnerability required by solidarity that is not technically required by justice. In reality, all lived solidarity is going to be intimately linked to working for social justice.

Before you tell me I’m still being too abstract, let’s think about campaigns for worker justice. On the level of justice, it is a violation of the dignity of workers for them to be subjected to unsafe working conditions, wage theft, fear, insecurity, and violence. It is a violation of their basic human rights. But if in working to protect their human rights, we move past distinctions of “us” and “them,” past only seeing ourselves implicated in possible guilt and complicity and start realizing that our own human dignity is under attack when yours is being violated, then we are talking about solidarity. Solidarity means we participate in the humanity of each other. This is why working for human rights, working for social justice starts to make solidarity possible but alone it isn’t enough. This link to justice also helps us pull back from a lot of talk and images of solidarity as warm and fuzzy but not costing anything. There is no solidarity unless I recognize that I have skin in the game and that my humanity is on the line too.

Caritas is a little more complicated and now you have me thinking about what maybe I should write next. I’ve written elsewhere giving a detailed argument for how and why we cannot have caritas as love of God without love of neighbor. For St. Thomas Aquinas, caritas is the virtue where love of God seeks to become union with God and he even uses the language of friendship with God. I can’t be friends with God if I am not friends with my neighbor. On the most basic level, I can’t be friends with my neighbor, love my neighbor if I am not just towards them –and this justice is social as well as individual. I’ve argued that today we need to push beyond where Aquinas ended to include a robust understanding of the preferential option for the poor as absolutely necessary within our understanding of the virtue of caritas. In the 21st century, love of neighbor must be grounded in the preferential option for the poor and marginalized. What I hadn’t really thought of in this way before – but am now, thanks to your question – is that I think solidarity is what the “love of neighbor” part of caritas is aiming at.

RC: In talking about mutuality and participation, you seem to caution against impersonal charitable giving and efforts to eliminate injustice, but isn’t this sometimes inevitable and maybe even acceptable for promoting justice? If a group of people take a trip to another nation and help build a house and experience real solidarity with a community, how do we weigh that against using the money that would be spent on plane tickets, etc. on building five or ten houses instead? Is there a place for both of these types of actions? When it is governments that are acting either at home or abroad (particularly to alleviate widespread injustice), while again I think you demonstrate the value of participation and benefits of solidarity, isn’t some level of action which does not fully meet the standard of solidarity going to exist, given the nature of bureaucracies?

MC: It isn’t all or nothing. My caution is against thinking the impersonal charitable giving and efforts to eliminate injustice are enough. One of the things you see a lot now, especially when a crisis or disaster first happens is: Text HAITI to XXXX and donate $5 to relief efforts. Sign this petition for the ONE Campaign. Both of these actions are good and useful, but they need to be gateway actions. These small impersonal ways, particularly through technology, make these small acts really quick and easy but are only effective for cultivating justice or solidarity if they spark us into taking more action. Do they inspire us to go to a Save Darfur rally? Do they help push us to learn more about what is going on in Syria? Do they push us to HEAR and listen to the voices of the people on the margins of a particular situation? One assignment I’ve given students is to use and investigate Twitter during a particular crisis – can they identify and verify the voices from the margins on social media? Can Twitter be a gateway to accompaniment and, by extension, solidarity?

The (RED) Campaign is a good example and a controversial one. As a gateway, this helps us to start thinking about our consumption habits in a broader context. If you get someone to start thinking: I’m choosing between 2 models of the same item, do I buy the (Red) one or the trendy color that doesn’t give any money to charity? If I stop, start thinking about how I’m spending money, where is it going, and the broader context, this is a gateway into a much deeper set of questions and the first step towards practices that can, eventually , cultivate solidarity. But if I think: hey I bought the (RED) phone so I’ve done my part to help fight Aids and my iPhone is “washed clean” of any questions of conflict minerals and labor conditions, then we have a very big problem. This is what I’m afraid of if we don’t raise caution about impersonal actions. There is no quick and easy solidarity, and really, there is no quick and easy justice.

RC: Should serious Catholics defend and promote the public positions they favor using the language of solidarity more than appealing to the enlightened self-interest of others? There are certainly pragmatic reasons in a pluralistic society to frame them in the latter way, but does that undermine efforts to build solidarity?  

MC: I think we need to curb the appeal to enlightened self interest as the default position. I think what we are seeing now is a lot of evidence that when it comes to structural injustice, enlightened self-interest doesn’t motivate action and change. In the US, we are currently in a major crisis of communal identity, of the common good, and I think using the language of solidarity and the common good is desperately needed if we hope to find a way forward together.

RC: You quote Martin Luther King Jr. in the book. Do you think it’s the personalism in his thought that is the reason why so many of his key insights seem to parallel Catholic Social Teaching?

MC: I think it’s the Gospel. When King talks about the triple threat of militarism, economic injustice, and racism, he is offering a consistent vision very similar to CST, and in particular, what Pope Francis is doing when he points to all the aspects of a throwaway culture. It’s not just personalism, it’s the good news.

RC: You discuss how essential participation is, not just at the interpersonal or global level, but also at the international/interstate level. But what does this look like with corrupt regimes? What does it look like with other regimes that violate human dignity? Should development assistance always allow such governments to shape the nature of the assistance? Is it possible that there may be times where international and global solidarity clash?

MC: Here is where subsidiarity is so important; solidarity requires the participation of those on the ground, it doesn’t require the participation of the government. In normal cases, especially within democratic developing countries, this will be with the formal participation of the federal and local governments in the country. However, under corrupt regimes, that participation should not be located in the governments. One example of possible partnerships is working through churches or other community organizations. The challenge and requirement here is that the aid is driven by the concrete needs and agency of the people it is supposed to help. If we do not ask, “What do you need?” we are almost guaranteed to get the answer wrong.

RC: When I look at the chart on page 120 (see below), as a political scientist, I feel the urge to fill in the space where solidarity is located with terms that perhaps best reflect a solidarity-based approach. I might write:

Political philosophy: Personalist Communitarianism or Christian Democracy

Philosophy: Personalism

Economic: Regulated market economy with economic and social justice, including an adequate social safety net (with possible alternatives drawing from social democracy or distrubitism)

International affairs: Global communitarianism 

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Can a case be made for outlining how Catholic Social Teaching leads to the adoption of certain philosophies or political approaches that can be defined using this type of secular terminology or is it so transcendent that only ‘solidarity’ or ‘Catholic’ can be included in a chart like this?

MC: On the one hand , the examples you mention would be ones that move us closer to a solidarity-based understanding of politics, economics, etc. The common thread is the necessary duality of both individual human dignity and the common good. One cannot be sacrificed for the other and, in fact, if you try, you will lose both. But I also want to push back and say CST isn’t providing an “alternative political theory.” If you notice the vices I listed under each, they aren’t individual incarnations but ideologies. What that chart and the book is trying to do is to lay out a theory of solidarity and human rights that can give us the parameters within which solidarity is possible. The book tries to give you all you need to take a purported case of market regulation with a social safety net or global communitarianism and evaluate whether or not the reality and rhetoric lives up to the requirements of the virtue of solidarity.

 


The Vision of Catholic Social Thought, Solidarity, and Human Rights

A Review of The Vision of Catholic Social Thought: The Virtue of Solidarity and the Praxis of Human Rights by Meghan Clark

In The Vision of Catholic Social Thought, Meghan Clark shows a truly exceptional understanding of Catholic Social Teaching—both in her knowledge of the key documents in the tradition and its development and, more importantly, in her ability to grasp and articulate precisely what the Church teaches and why.

As someone who has spent far too much time reading the work of Catholic writers who tout their own commitment to Catholic teaching while often haphazardly transposing Catholic concepts onto their existing beliefs—beliefs typically derived from ideological commitments to either contemporary American conservatism or liberalism (or even libertarianism!)—it is rewarding and encouraging to read an author whose analysis is authentically rooted in Catholic thought itself. From Clark’s description of what it means to be a human person, to the purpose of authority and government, to the relationship between love and justice, to the deficiencies of collectivism and individualism, Clark’s book provides a clear and accurate delineation of key Catholic concepts and principles.

In the book, Clark—an assistant professor of Moral Theology at St John’s University (NY) and my colleague at both Millennial and the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies—sets out to explore the relationship between human rights and solidarity, while making the case that “one cannot truly be present without the other.” The source of this linkage is the nature of the human person. Clark notes Pope John Paul II’s debt to personalism; her approach shares the personalist understanding of the human person that is central to Catholic social thought.

What does personalism say about the human person? Each person is made in the image of God; has innate worth and dignity due to this fact; and reaches their full development in communities, not as an isolated, autonomous individual. This worldview, which is foundational to her understanding of both human rights and solidarity, contrasts with individualism and an individualistic conception of rights.

One interesting aspect of the book is the approach Clark takes in addressing what it really means to be made in the image of God. She argues that our belief in the Trinity should shape how we understand persons as imago dei—that human persons and communities are, in fact, imago trinitatis. If the Trinity provides the ultimate paradigm of personal and social life, this should shape how we understand human rights and solidarity. This leads her to conclude that the unifying force of authentic community is not any form of self-interest (as even some non-personalist communitarians contend), but love and self-gift with communion as the ultimate goal. In helping to clarify the integrated and relational view of the human person, Clark utilizes the work of philosopher Charles Taylor.

In her approach to international and global politics, Clark operates from a worldview that might be best described as “cosmopolitan communitarianism” or “global communitarianism.” There is a commitment to universal rights and global solidarity fused with a belief in strong communities at multiple levels where there are duties that correspond to these fundamental rights. It is cosmopolitan in that it is rooted in the belief that we are members of one human family and that our destiny is bound together. It is communitarian in its rejection of both individualism and collectivism. It recognizes the importance of multiple levels of community, while eschewing the provincialism and insularity of a more localist understanding of subsidiarity.

Clark also utilizes the work of Amartya Sen on development, while highlighting some of the differences between Sen’s approach and the Catholic understanding of the human person and development. Sen’s work is used to demonstrate the relevance and practicality of the Catholic approach to integral human development and authentic freedom. She uses Sen to highlight that freedom demands more than negative liberty, an insight deeply rooted in Catholic social thought. Clark also ties in virtue theory. She writes, “Moral virtues within Catholic social teaching are framed by the call to realize more fully human lives within a more fully human community.”

Virtue is developed through our habitual actions. Solidarity can be developed as a virtue through practicing respect for human rights—both as individual persons and communities. Clark identifies solidarity as an attitude, duty, and virtue. The first two are ideally building blocks for the latter. As a virtue, solidarity sits between two vices: excessive individualism and collectivism.

Ultimately, the state has the responsibility to protect human rights. However, all levels of community have a responsibility to do what they can to promote human rights because they are called to be participants in creating a civilization of human rights out of solidarity. We all have an obligation to promote the rights and flourishing of others.

Clark’s analysis is particularly relevant when it comes to how the international community should respond to the gravest violations of human rights. From the fascists of the 1930s and 1940s to the mass murdering tyrants of today, far too many Catholics have defended the legitimacy of brutal regimes that violate the most fundamental rights of their citizens, adopting an understanding of civil authority rooted in legalistic secular theories. Clark, citing Pacem in Terris, explains the proper Catholic view of legitimacy: “the legitimacy of civil authority is directly related to its protection and promotion of the human rights of its citizens or members.” Ultimately, this understanding of authority, the unity of the human family, and the centrality of solidarity leads her to endorse the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and highlight the contribution Church teaching could make to reframing sovereignty. If the Church lives out its commitment to solidarity, we can expect to see R2P fully incorporated into formal Catholic Social Teaching at some point.

Overall, Clark’s book is must-read for scholars, intellectuals, and everyone else who is interested in Catholic Social Teaching, human rights, or solidarity. Though dense in content and requiring careful reading to grasp some of the more complex points and arguments, it is nevertheless written in an accessible way that allows non-theologians to understand her points without sacrificing any of the depth that should come from a scholarly approach. I suspect this is the first of many valuable books by Professor Meghan Clark.

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A Faithful Guide: A review of Jesus: A Pilgrimage by Fr. James Martin, SJ

“I think he said to follow the stones…painted purple?” After several fruitless inquiries, Fr. Jim Martin, SJ, and fellow pilgrim, Fr. George Williams, SJ, finally had their first promising lead on how to find the so-called “Bay of Parables,” a site on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus is supposed to have taught the crowds (see Mk 4:1-9). Following directions scribbled out by a monk in a nearby gift shop, the duo walked through the blistering heat and dry grass until the ground suddenly dropped away, and there they were. Staring down at a naturally occurring amphitheater sloping toward the sparkling water, Martin thought to himself in amazement, “Jesus was here!” After another moment of scanning the scene, his astonishment heightened as he noticed the terrain: rocky ground, fertile soil, and even a thorn bush. They had walked straight into the middle of one of Jesus’ parables.

Through this memorable scene and many others like it, Fr. Martin leads his readers deep into the world and life of Jesus of Nazareth in his new book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage. The book represents Martin’s attempt to answer the question that Jesus posed to his apostles all those years ago and that the world has been struggling to answer ever since: “Who do you say I am?” (Mk 8:29) The answer Martin offers is distinctive in its synthesis of Biblical exegesis, historical Jesus scholarship, theology, and his personal experiences of prayer, spiritual direction, and pilgrimage. In Martin’s words, “It is a look at Jesus, as he appears in the Gospels, through the lens of my education, experience, prayer, and most recently a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And through the lens of faith.”

The entertaining narrative of Martin’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land carries the reader through the significant places and events of Jesus’ life. Though the author’s personal anecdotes lend a satisfying narrative arc and a healthy dose of humor, readers who are more interested in an encounter with Jesus than with the urbane Jesuit will be pleased that the book proceeds according the chronology of Jesus’ life rather than that of Martin’s itinerary. Each chapter focuses on a passage (or two) from the Gospels. The author describes the event as recorded in Scripture, drawing the reader in through first-hand accounts of the sites where Jesus walked, taught, and healed, through scholarship on Jesus’ world, and through reflection on the event’s spiritual significance. Martin helpfully includes the Gospel passage at the end of each chapter, inviting the reader into the Scripture itself.

A chapter on Nazareth begins with Martin sitting in the Basilica of the Annunciation. Following along with Mass, he is struck by the similarity of the Arabic words he is hearing to those Jesus would have spoken in his native Aramaic. He closes his eyes and imagines how Jesus’ voice would have sounded. These musings lead into the story of Jesus being lost and found in the Temple, the Gospels’ sole account of Jesus’ words and actions during the mysterious years of his youth. Delving into current research, Martin fills out some of the details of Jesus’ “Hidden Life”—the sort of simple stone house he lived in; the diet of grains, vegetables, and fruits he ate; the clothing he wore; his work as a tektŌn (woodworker); the economic and political hardship of living as a marginal Jew under Roman rule. Martin revels in these quotidian details, pointing out that it was in these realities of daily life that Jesus was most like us. Thus immersing his readers in this bounty of particularities, the author makes tangible not only the life of the man many would come to revere as “Lord and God” but also the sanctity of one’s own everyday living.

In a later chapter, Martin leads the reader across the Sea of Galilee to Kursi, where Jesus is said to have healed the man possessed by a “legion” of demons (Mk 5:1-20). His description of the scene sends a tingle down one’s spine: a quiet town in the shadow of hills pockmarked with the tombs in which the demoniac is said to have dwelled and, just a few hundred yards away, the sea into which the herd of swine plunged to their death following Jesus’ expulsion of the demons. Reading Martin’s words, one can almost hear the howling of the possessed man and feel the fear that must have gripped the disciples when the demoniac came charging down the hillside toward them. Capitalizing upon the gravitas of the scene he has described, Martin challenges readers to look for the humanity in the possessed man, as Jesus did, and to face down the demons warring within themselves.

In the final chapter, the author writes, “This book has been an invitation for you to meet the Jesus I have studied, the Jesus I follow, and the Jesus I met in the Holy Land.” As the above excerpts are meant to suggest, Martin succeeds spectacularly in his aim. Jesus is impressive not only for the careful research that clearly went into it, but even more so for the way in which the author puts it to use. His allusions to conversations with Fr. Dan Harrington, SJ, (may he rest in peace) and frequent references to John Meier, Gerhard Lohfink, and other eminent scholars serve a greater purpose than merely establishing the book’s credibility. Martin relates what he has learned from his studies for the sake of enabling readers to make a more intimate acquaintance with Jesus than they are likely to achieve by engaging the Gospels’ compact accounts alone. Whether newcomers to the genre or longtime students of theology, readers will not only learn a great deal from this book but also encounter an invitation to relate to the One they read about on a deeper, more personal level.

In this lies Martin’s greatest contribution. Jesus enthusiasts have been gratified by a recent spate of fine scholarship. However, no other author (at least that this reviewer has encountered) has been so successful as Martin in bringing readers face-to-face with the person Christians profess as Teacher, Savior, and God. This success is due in great part to his willingness to share out of his own relationship with Christ. In reading this book, not only was I touched by Martin’s forthcomingness about personal failings and struggles in his spiritual life; I was also challenged and inspired to reflect on my own. A book such as this could only be written by someone who has prayed with these Scripture passages for years and meditated upon them in the deliberate, imaginative manner that characterizes Ignatian contemplation. Spreading the fruit of that prayer and spiritual exertion across these pages, Martin goes beyond telling his readers about the person of Jesus to model how one enters into and sustains a relationship with him.

Lest this review read like a book jacket, it must be acknowledged that Martin’s book (inevitably) falls short of the perfection of its subject matter. In numerous places the author repeats himself in such a way that reflects the difficulty of editing a lengthy manuscript rather than didactic intent. However, such minor oversights hardly detract from an otherwise captivating and edifying book. A less gifted writer might not have been able to sustain readers’ attention for 510 pages, but the combination of Martin’s engaging writing style, the wealth of entertaining anecdotes and fascinating historical tidbits, and the frequent profundity of the author’s reflections makes Jesus a rewarding read from start to finish.

If repeated quests for the historical Jesus have shown us anything, it is that such inquiries are severely limited in their ability to help us know the Jesus who transformed the lives of those he encountered. Today, just as in the days of the early Church, we depend first and foremost on the witness of others in coming to know Christ. That being the case, Fr. Martin’s book and in particular the personal witness he gives therein will surely be the occasion for many to grow in knowledge and love of the person around whom he has built his life.


Book Review: Mercy in the City

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I heard about Kerry Weber’s book, Mercy in the City: How to Feed the Hungry, Give Drink to the Thirsty, Visit the Imprisoned, and Keep Your Day Job, in an America Magazine podcast. I was in my office sorting, stapling, and stacking handouts for a campus ministry presentation on Charity, Justice and the Structures of Society, and the book struck me as perfect material for a future program.

Weber gives a quick background on her Lenten mission to attempt all of the corporal works of mercy in one short liturgical season, while also skipping sweets, serving as an RCIA sponsor, online dating, and keeping her day job as a member of the editorial staff at America Magazine. After reading through the introduction and the first chapter, I was hooked on the book’s 5-minute chapters, written in witty, idealistic, and honest prose.

The reader follows Weber through a New York City adventure as she volunteers on an early-morning bread line and in the Clothing Room at a Catholic Worker house, learns about worldwide water use and shortages, spends the night at a homeless shelter, visits prisoners and elderly Sisters of Mercy, and does her darndest to bury the dead. Along the way, she introduces readers to various Catholic figures: Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy; Dorothy Day, co-foundress of the Catholic Worker movement; St. Peter Chrysologus, a fifth-century bishop; and many present-day saints-in-the-making.

The chapters skip along quickly, and they reveal experiences that are likely familiar to many young Catholics: calculation of the length of the Stations of the Cross, for example, and the constant worry that we won’t accomplish our Lenten goals—or that our grumbly attitude is negating the influx of grace as fast as we accomplish them. I’d recommend Mercy in the City as a Lenten pep talk, inspiring us to raise the bar on what our hearts can give this year.

Her Mercy

My favorite part of Mercy in the City is Weber’s exploration of the mercy charism. In this section, she introduces readers to the Sisters of Mercy and their foundress, Catherine McAuley, and goes on to share her experience of post-grad service in the Mercy Volunteer Corps and her discernment on joining the Mercy Associates.

As a child, I attended a Catholic elementary school that had been served by the Sisters of Mercy for generations. Some of my grandmother’s girlhood friends joined the order, and both my mother and I were taught by the sisters. Eventually, my mother’s early years as a teacher were spent amidst the sisters working at this Catholic school. Due to diminishing numbers and pastoral changes, the Sisters of Mercy left after my 4th grade year.

Until I read this book, it never occurred to me the profound effect that the mercy charism likely had on my family. My grandmother was an icon of mercy. She was the little old lady who drove littler, older ladies to the grocery store or to doctor’s appointments when they could no longer drive. It seemed that she attended every funeral in the parish with a casserole in hand. My grandparents provided financial assistance to relatives in need, and early in their marriage, they even invited a pair of penniless newlyweds to move into their home. My mom has a similar heart for mercy, particularly in offering patience and kindness to people young and old who drive everybody else nuts!

After reading chapter 8, I realized that the charism of mercy must have rubbed off from the sisters, leaving its fragrance on my grandma and mom, and probably many others in our small town, spreading comfort and healing and kindness across generations. Though my grandmother passed away 15 years ago this winter, Weber’s book provided a new insight into what shaped her merciful spirit; for this, I am deeply grateful.

A Warm Invitation

Weber’s lifestyle is familiar to many millennial Catholics that dove into post-graduate volunteer opportunities and later discovered ways to blend careers and vocations as a young professionals in lay ministries or Christian non-profits. She reveals the joy, restlessness, creativity, camaraderie, curiosity, and even the doubts that charge through the experience of Christians of our generation. For those who haven’t waded so deeply into a life of intentional Christian discipleship, Weber’s book offers an inviting glimpse of what could be, along with the promise that there would be fellow travelers with warm hearts to welcome newcomers.

As a campus ministry professional, I barely made it through the first chapter before I’d made a mental list of dozens of former students, family members, and colleagues to whom I wanted to give a copy of the book. The joy of the Gospel permeates Weber’s writing. There is no rejection or judgment of our world, only an exploration of what it means to be a transformative presence. Mercy in the City is a roadmap to a healthy Christian life for young adults, which illustrates the kind of service that Jesus calls us to live while plumbing the depths of Catholic traditions and delighting in today’s culture.

Katie Diller is the National Coordinator of the ESTEEM Leadership Program and the Director of Student Outreach at St John Catholic Student Center serving Michigan State University.


Millennial’s Summer Reads: Sarah’s Selections

Over the past two years, I’ve planned my wedding, been pregnant, and had my first child, now a precious four-month-old little girl.  With so much going on, I’ve been struggling to find any time at all to read anything other than wedding planning and/or baby books, and my spiritual reading has definitely suffered.  But there are some standout books I’ve read that I would recommend for anyone looking for a great end-of-summer spiritual lift – books that I pick up myself when I can snatch a moment, books that yield peace, thoughtful reflection, and sometimes a little laughter for my soul.

Anything by Fr. James Martin tends to be a winner, but I especially enjoyed The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life. It offers an overview of Ignatian spirituality and the Jesuit way of living in a fresh, easily accessible way, and outlines ways that we can adopt aspects of this way of life into our normal everyday experiences.  His guidance on discernment (decision-making led by the Holy Spirit) continues to be especially valuable, and there is a striking passage on accepting oneself as God sees you—beautifully made—that brought me to tears and still resonates strongly with me.  I would highly recommend this to anyone, Catholic or not, as a way to help see God in all things, a cornerstone of Jesuit spirituality.

Like Fr. Martin’s writing, anything by Thomas Cahill is pretty much a sure bet – especially his Hinges of History series.  I recommend two of them in particular: The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels and Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus.  Both books are a delight to read, with a sometimes playful tone and giggle-worthy asides (more so in the former than in the latter, however).  Cahill’s writing is informal, but the subject matter is fascinating and informative.  In the Gifts of the Jews, he explores the famous tales of the Old Testament and how the Jewish people and their monotheistic beliefs helped to reshape the world.  In Desire of the Everlasting Hills, he provides an entirely readable popular analysis of the writers of the gospels and the letters of the early Christian communities, examining how they interpreted and were influenced by Jesus’ message.  Cahill makes some speculative leaps here and there, but this only adds to the pleasure of reading!

Pope Benedict XVI’s introduction to his series on Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, captivated my attention.  Not as accessible as the other books I’ve recommended, I finished reading this, turned to my husband, and said “Wow.  This pope is BRILLIANT.”  His exceptional commentary on the Sermon on the Mount alone was worth the read.  I admittedly had a hard time wading through the chapter on John, as I was unfamiliar with the academic controversies surrounding that gospel, but was otherwise delighted and inspired by this book and am determined to read back through it at a slower pace to chew on the thoughts a little more – and then of course, on to the next in the series!

I’m going to recommend Waiting for God by Simone Weil for purely selfish reasons: I would really like someone to read this along with me again to help me digest it!  I found her work to be very challenging, and will probably need to beat my head against it for a while to really solidify my thoughts and feelings towards this short, intense book. However, Weil’s thoughts are fascinating and troubling, sometimes beautiful, and seem to be well worth the effort, as she explores the nature of God and our relationship to Him.

For those short on time and in need of some daily inspiration, I would recommend All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, & Witnesses for Our Time by Robert Ellsburg. He provides short biographies of saints and other inspirational figures throughout history in daily reflections, from St. Therese of Lisieux to Gandhi to Vincent van Gogh.  Not only will you find inspiration, you may just find yourself longing to learn more and hunting down additional reading material to better acquaint yourself with these people who made the most of the lives they were blessed to live, lives that might inspire us to do the same.

As for fiction, I have a soft spot in my heart for beautifully written, peaceful, heartbreaking books.  If you have similar tastes, I would highly recommend Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, which follows an aging minister leaving an account of his life to his young son.  It is very moving and reflective.  My favorite quote should be enough to reel you in: “I remember once as a child dreaming that my mother came into my bedroom and sat down in a chair in the corner and folded her hands in her lap and stayed there, very calm and still. It made me feel wonderfully safe, wonderfully happy. When I woke up, there she was, sitting in that chair. She smiled at me and said, ‘I was just enjoying the quiet.’ I have that same feeling in the church, that I am dreaming what is true.” My heart ached for days while reading this (in a good way), and the novel made me reflect upon my own soul and my humanity.