An Unusual Path to Priesthood

Question: What made you switch from the corporate to the religious world?

James Martin: I worked for GE for six years and I had studied at the Wharton School of Business before entering GE and after about six years I started to realize that this really wasn’t for me.  Business was a real vocation as it were for a lot of my friends and I just got more and more miserable.  The workload got more difficult.  As anyone who works in the corporate world knows it can be really stressful and I saw some friends of mine really enjoying the work while I just seemed to get bored by it.  At the same time I was getting all these stomach problems and sort of stress related illnesses.  One night I came home dead tired after this long day of work and I sort of plopped down on our couch and turned on the TV and there was the PBS documentary about a guy name Thomas Merton who was a Trappist monk, a cloistered monk and I had never heard of him and the documentary really just captivated me.  The look on his face just spoke this great sense of joy and peace and calm and consolation and it really called out to me and that was so interesting that one documentary that I went out and purchased his autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” which is pretty well known in Catholic circles.  I had never heard of it.  I devoured it.  I read it in a couple of nights and I really couldn’t get it out of my mind that that’s what I wanted to do, something like what he did. I wasn’t particularly religious.  I was Catholic, but I wasn’t super Catholic.  I had never thought of anything like that before and I read a lot about Thomas Merton and one day I went up to my parish priest and I said: I think I’d be interested in being a priest, which was kind of weird because he had never even met me before. And he said, “Well you know you should talk to the local diocese and you might want to talk to the Jesuits who are up the street at Fairfield University.”  In Connecticut that was the only connection I had to the Jesuits. 

So I visited the Jesuits at Fairfield.  They gave me some vocational literature, kind of promotional literature about the Jesuits and I read it and I thought this is crazy.  I actually ripped it up, threw it away and thought this is insane, this is not who I am, but I read some more and continued to read.  Around the same time I started to go to a psychologist because of all these stress related stomach problems as a result of work. So I’m reading and thinking and going the psychologist at the same time and finally one day he said to me, “Well you know you’re in this business world and you don’t seem very happy, so what would you do if you could do anything you wanted to do?”  And I thought for a moment and I said I’d be a Jesuit priest and he said, “Well why don’t you?”  And I thought yeah, why don’t I?  So it made sense and I felt, well this is really something that I’m actually interested in.  Why am I doing something that I dislike?  So I called the Jesuits and they didn’t know who I was and I said I’m ready to enter and they were nice enough to sort of start me on the application process, which took a couple months, but a couple months later I was in, so it was pretty rushed, but I have to say looking back on it, it was probably, well it was the best decision I’ve ever made. 

Question: Which saint stands out as influencing your life the most?

James Martin:  Well I have to say Saint Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits who lived from 1491 to 1556.  You know his spirituality, which can be summarized as finding God in all things or being a contemplate of an action, a person who has a sense of awareness in the midst of a very busy world, has really changed the way I live my life.  I think you know for me Saint Ignatius is kind of the model for all Jesuits, but I don’t just like Jesuit saints.  I also like Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, who was a nineteenth century Carmelite nun, who lived what she called her little way, which was basically doing small things with great love for God.  I love Blessed John the 23rd, who was pope from 1958 to 1963 because he was so funny basically.  One joke from John the 23rd: a journalist asked him once how many people work in the Vatican and he said about half of them.  He shows you can be someone with a sense of humor and be a saint.  And then finally Thomas Merton, the fellow whose book I read who kind of got me started on religious life, so those are my I’d say top four.

Question: Do you need to believe in God to find Saint Ignatius’ insights useful?

James Martin:  You don’t need to believe in God to find his insights useful.  It helps to understand the totality of his message because Jesuit spirituality without God or without Jesus you know will only make partial sense, but that being said Saint Ignatius knew that people were on different paths in their life you know to God and different paths in general and so some of the insights are really useful to people who are not only devout believers, but even doubtful seekers, people who are agnostic or atheist.  For example, he talks about how to make decisions, living freely, how to be a good friend, how to work well, how to be in a healthy relationship with somebody. So there is a lot of things that you can take from the way of Saint Ignatius that are applicable to anybody, but really to understand it in its totality you have to see it as sort of a path to God, so I like to say that anyone can benefit from the way of Saint Ignatius, but to get to the final end you really do have to keep your eyes focused on God. 

Question: What is spiritual about loving your vocation?

James Martin:  Well a lot of Ignatian spirituality talks about desire and that is sort of a bad word in some spiritual circles because some people equate it with just selfish wants, like I want a new car, I want a new iPhone, I want a new PC, something like that. Or they think of it as sexual desire, which is: oh my gosh, God forbid we should talk about sexual desire.  I mean that’s healthy, right?  But desire on an even deeper level is the desire that we have to be who we are, to be our true selves and the desire for God. There are also desires that lead us to our vocations and what we want to do in life. For example, a married couple might discover their vocations through desire, so the desire for sexual intimacy, for emotional intimacy, for a sort of connectiveness.  I mean that brings that together.  People understand that in terms of desire.  Desire works the same way in terms of our jobs and our vocations.  Someone who is interested in video might be interested in it because they feel this attraction to it.  It’s really interesting.  They feel this desire for it.  Someone who is a doctor might find talking about medicine and the body and things like that just really attractive, so desire is a really important thing to pay attention to and ultimately our desires I believe our deepest desires are God’s desires for us really and the deepest desires we have to be our true self, to really live out who we’re meant to be and what we’re meant to do are the ways that God has of drawing us to happiness and also ways that God has of drawing I think to fulfill God’s desires for the world, so I don’t think we should be too ardent on desire in the spiritual life or in any part of life. 

Question: Do you believe true happiness exists?

James Martin: I don’t think we can find true happiness this side of life.  There is always going to be certain suffering and struggles.  Everybody has problems in their life, but I think you can obtain a great sense of joy and peace if your life is centered on God.  Now that sounds really cheesy.  What does that mean?  It means in the Ignatian way of looking at things, the Jesuit way of looking at things a lot of freedom and detachment from things that keep you from being connected to God.  It means being grateful for the things that are blessings in your life.  It means as a contemplate of action being aware of all the blessings you have in life, but a certain amount of suffering is inevitable in anyone’s life.  I think any religion, any really healthy religion will tell you that, so full joy I think is only achieved with God you know in the afterlife God willing, but I think you can experience a lot of joy in your life today on earth.  Thank God. 

 Recorded on March 26, 2010

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