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

What it’s like to make the switch from the Wall Street Journal to the Bible.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.


Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Do human beings have a magnetic sense? Biologists know other animals do. They think it helps creatures including bees, turtles and birds navigate through the world.

Keep reading Show less