Month: September 2014

Gone Fishing

I’m about to move house (move countries, as it happens) and so Project SJ will be taking a short-as-possible hiatus. In the meantime, please enjoy these videos featuring some of the Jesuits and allies who’ve participated in the project so far. Click on the hyperlinked names to see the original interviews.

Br Guy Consolmagno was my first Jesuit interviewee, both on Project SJ and elsewhere. (This interview took place in 2010, when I barely knew what a Jesuit was; note how graciously he answers my rather silly questions.) Here he is at Heythrop 400, talking about the Jesuit contribution to science.

My next interviewee was George Williams SJ, whose words on prison ministry are here. This video from America Magazine gives some idea of how he works with the prisoners at San Quentin, and how some of them respond.

Peter McVerry SJ, of The Peter McVerry Trust, spoke frankly about vocation, freedom and charity. His homily at this year’s Portlaoise Novena is a window into his experience working with those who are homeless and marginalised, and what they have taught him. (I couldn’t, unfortunately, embed it: right-click to open in new window.)

Peter McVerry SJ: Portlaoise Novena 2014

Finally, Rowan Williams is not just a churchman and theologian, but also a poet and literary scholar. Here’s his inaugural lecture at the University of Chester on “The Messiah and the Novelist: Approaches to Jesus in Fiction.”

Enjoy! And I’ll see you again soon.

The Public Jesuit: In Good Company, by James Martin SJ

imageSo I invited a few close friends from Penn to my favourite restaurant in Manhattan, called Le Brasserie, to spring the news on them. They were miffed at all the secrecy that I had intentionally let accompany the dinner. We sat down and I watched them squirm in anticipation. Finally, my friend Jim said, “Okay, Martin, what’s going on?”

I said flatly, “I’m going to become a priest.” All three of them said nothing for a good five seconds.

At that point the waiter arrived and asked us if we needed more time.

“Yes,” said Andy, “we need a lot more time.” (p. 100)

When James Martin—then in corporate finance at General Electric—announced that he was going to leave the business world and become a Jesuit, those around him were understandably surprised. But nobody was so shocked, so fundamentally shaken by this decision as James Martin himself.

In Good Company was written just a few years after Martin entered the Society of Jesus in 1988, and first published in 2000, happily unrevised. I say happily, because the narrative still bears the marks of the extraordinary process that brought a bright young executive and “lukewarm Catholic” to give up all he owned and join the priesthood. The James Martin of today is an outstanding communicator. His 2006 spiritual memoir, My Life with the Saints, is a masterful piece of theological outreach: funny, polished and poised. But this isn’t a story that needs poise or polish. What it needs is precisely what it has: the quick, rather feverish pace; the spiky humour; the lingering note of wonder and of bafflement. It needs to be raw.

The interest of this book goes far beyond the procedures of Jesuit formation, or even the strange and cloistered world of corporate finance (I found the latter much more alien). What drives it is the desire at its heart: a surprising desire, often described but never explained. That the mechanism of Martin’s conversion—because it is a conversion if it is anything—remains partly concealed is no bad thing. It serves to reinforce the fact that a vocation story can only ever be an attempt to impose order on something essentially disorderly; to give form to the subjective, the transcendent, the felt.

If one thing can be taken from this complex and sometimes messy narrative, it is that to go from G.E. to the Jesuits is not only a matter of exchanging one habit, or set of habits, for another. It’s something far more concrete: a radical shift in the self that can only be accommodated by an equally radical change in context.

I read the 10th anniversary edition, Sheed & Ward 2010. Paperback, 216 pp. ISBN: 978-1580512367

Rowan Williams on Jesuit education

Many thanks to Dr. Williams, who kindly answered my questions by email despite a very busy schedule.

“I remember reading an article about the Jesuits in a Sunday newspaper supplement in the mid-sixties, and being fascinated by the diversity of intellectual and spiritual gifts displayed by the people interviewed. Since then, I have had Jesuit friends and students for over thirty years. What has always impressed me has been (a) the businesslike approach to vocation and service: complete flexibility grounded in the daily attempt to become radically available to God, and (b) the sense that such a wide range of employment for mind and body is all of it equally likely to offer the opportunity of doing God’s will.”

So Rowan Williams outlines the history of his relationship with the Society of Jesus: a working relationship of friendship and respect. Williams is not so prominently associated with the Ignatian tradition as he is with other strands of Catholic theology; he is primarily known for his work on, among other things, Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton and the Rule of St Benedict. But his lecture on Jesuit education, delivered at the 400th anniversary celebrations of Heythrop College in June 2014, reveals that his connection with the Jesuits is not merely a matter of admiring coexistence, but of common ground.

The main thrust of his analysis (or, perhaps more accurately, the thing that most appealed to me) relates to the idea that studying something, and studying it thoroughly and well, is intrinsically valuable in itself; that education is not merely a matter of individualistic self-realisation, or of preparing the student to be of economic value in ‘the real world’, but is a constituent part of the formation of a soul. This is a fundamental principle of Jesuit education, and it gives concrete meaning to the tired old phrase ‘God-given talents’. It is also something with which Williams clearly has great sympathy, and which is consistent with his own approach to the politics (and theology) of education. (I was fortunate enough to hear some of his views in conversation last year: the part relating to the academy is here.)

On this occasion, I couldn’t resist asking him the same question I put to my Jesuit interviewees: What does the Jesuit identity mean to you? Here’s what he had to say:

“The ‘Jesuit identity’ is so diverse, united it seems simply by the conviction that all skills are relevant to sharing the gospel; but of course underlying it all is the Exercises, shaping a spirit ready to be put to any kind of service. I suppose because my own spirituality has been so much influenced by Benedictine and Carmelite sources, I haven’t been so devoted an advocate for Ignatian methods as some in recent years; but I have come to see that some of the polarities people see between these worlds are pretty artificial. There is also, to me, a refreshing distance in the Society from conventional ideas of church hierarchy (no abbots! Discouragement from becoming bishops or whatever—which is why a Jesuit Pope is a remarkable thing, and potentially a very creative one; as we see).”

Dr. Rowan Williams is the former Archbishop of Canterbury and now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge.