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