My Life with the Saints (2006)

I finished Jim Martin’s My Life with the Saints yesterday and found it most helpful for understanding the living’s relation with the dead. I found the epigraph to his concluding chapter, a quote from John XXIII, to clearly state his opinion of the saints. It reads

From the saints I must take the substance, not the accidents, of their virtues. I am not St. Aloysius, nor must I seek holiness in his particular way, but according to the requirements of my own nature, my own character, and the different conditions of my life. I must not be the dry, bloodless reproduction of a model, however perfect. God desires us to follow the examples of the saints by absorbing the vital sap of their virtues and turning it into our own life-blood, adapting it to our own individual capacities and particular circumstances (qtd. on 373).

Later in the conclusion, Martin notes that we must beware not to take a “functional” perspective of the saints either, advising instead, following John XXIII, that we see them as friends and examples along the way. Thus, he uses the race metaphor—saints are runners ahead of us in a race, pacing us, giving us courage to keep running on the same course. We ask them for their prayers, and we trust they are in heaven praying to God for us.

Martin’s stated goad for the book was to introduce his reader to some of the saints he is particularly fond of, so the book is successful in that respect. I found myself adding just about every biography and autobiography of the saints mentioned in this book to my Amazon Wish List. So it’s a helpful read for directing the reader on to the next book, because, as Martin says, quoting C. S. Lewis, “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints” (qtd. on 6). After reading My Life with the Saints, I have to agree. The lives of the saints are so varied and so interesting. One is sure to find dear friends in the faith. One is also sure to find saints who make one scratch one’s head.

Enter St. Joan of Arc, the first saint discussed in detail in Martin’s book. I appreciated how Martin himself was a bit perplexed by this French woman who became a soldier, had visions, and would not recant. He found inspiration in her courage to follow her inspiration, but he also noted that it’s an odd story. I have problems with the sainthood of this warrior. In that respect, it’s a troubling image for me. I much prefer the story of St. Ignatius, who is discussed later in the book, who left military service to found the Society of Jesus. So Joan left me a bit perplexed.

I found Martin’s chapter on Ignatius of Loyola most helpful. I had never heard the width and depth of his story, but Martin’s memoir gives life to Ignatius’ life. Likewise, Martin helpfully discusses the totality of the lives of Pedro Arrupe (who I had never previously heard of), Thomas Aquinas (who I had only ever encountered superficially in Historical Theology classes in grad school), and Aloysius Gonzaga (who, I think, I had heard of only through the school bearing his name). Their stories especially captivated me.

Among the most powerful stories were Martin’s contemporary saints—Mother Teresa, Pope John XXIII, and Dorothy Day. It’s good to know that contemporary “not yet official” saints are guides for the church too. The chapter on Day was especially helpful, because I have only ever encountered caricatures of Day. Martin’s chapter on Day made her seem like an actual human being, who had actual human love for neighbors and—wait for it—for God and the church. So, I finally am at a place where I can at least put her autobiography (and her biography of Therese of Lisieux) on my Wish List. I think that’s a big step toward appreciating all that Day has to offer the church. I am thankful to Martin for presenting her in a way that makes me want to enter into ministry with her.

Speaking of Therese of Lisieux, her story and the story of St. Bernadette make me want to go on pilgrimage to France to see the places touched by these women’s lives. I am thankful that these women are praying to the Father for us.

For fear of being overly repetitive, I won’t mention how Martin deepened my appreciation of St. Francis by giving me the fuller picture of Francis’s life, but he did.

Martin introduces us to three biblical saints: Mary, Peter, and Joseph. I found the chapter of Joseph especially helpful because he frames it in terms of the hidden life—both the hidden life of Jesus with Joseph and the hidden life of Joseph in relation to the Gospels. Along these lines he mentioned Charles de Foucauld, which I thought both appropriate and helpful.

The final group of saints that Martin discusses is the Ugandan Martyrs. I did not know their story prior to reading Martin’s book, but I found their witness to be most inspiring. A group of some 45 Anglican and Catholic Christians were killed in fires. They were faithful to the end, dying with the words of Jesus’ name on their lips. I was especially touched by the Catholic memorial to these martyrs (though Martin himself was left rather unmoved by it, preferring instead the more contemplative Anglican memorial some little ways away). I think I was most moved by the way it looks like “Patty’s Wigwam”—the Catholic Church building—in Liverpool. I felt a connection because of that similarity. I’m thankful that Christians all over the world are worshiping and witnessing. “From the rising of the sun, to its setting, [God’s] name shall be great among the nations.”

May we all be such witnesses.

But lest you think that My Life with the Saints is a life of the saints only, it must be noted that it is most directly a spiritual memoir. Martin impressively weaves the story of his growth in admiration for the saints into the wider story of his growth as a Christian and as a Jesuit.

I must say, I tend to be drawn to spiritual memoirs. Perhaps because they are all so “gloriously different,” to borrow Lewis’s phrase. Martin’s has helped me understand who Jim Martin is, which makes me feel a connection with him (and I’ll undoubtedly be reading more of his books), but My Life with the Saints also makes me feel connected to the saints of the church. And it deepens my understanding of their relationship to us and vice versa.

May all these saints and holy people pray for us.

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