Big Think Interview With James Martin

A conversation with the Jesuit priest and author of “The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything.”
  • Transcript


Question: How does one become a Jesuit?

James Martin: Becoming a Jesuit is kind of a long process.  You start as a Jesuit novice, which is two years in a place called the Novitiate and you do a combination of prayer and working with the poor.  In the middle of all that two years you do a thirty day silent retreat based on what are known as the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola, which is kind of an imaginative placing yourself in the gospel scenes and sort of accompanying Jesus through the gospel scenes imaginatively.  After the Novitiate you take what are called your simple vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  After that you do what is called first studies, which is a combination of philosophy and theology and then following that you do three years of full time work, which is called in the Jesuits, regency.  Most Jesuits like to teach.  They’ll teach in a high school somewhere.  I worked overseas in the Jesuit refugee service helping refugees in East Africa start small businesses for themselves.  So after that three years is done you go to theology studies and three or four years of theology studies and if you’re a priest you get ordained at the end.  There is Jesuit brother as well, people who are Jesuits, but are not called to the priesthood and then after ordination you work full time for a couple of years.  I’m working at a Catholic magazine.  And finally, at the end of probably five or six years after that you take what are called your final vows, so the whole process is pretty long.  It took me 21 years to become a Jesuit, which I think was a little too long for my taste, but that is pretty average.  It takes about 20 years to become a full-fledged Jesuit.  I like to say it’s like being a made man in the mafia or getting tenure at a university or becoming a partner.  You know you’ve been in for a while, but you’re finally, finally fully accepted, so it’s a pretty long process.

Question: What is Jesuit poverty and how has it changed over the years?

James Martin: Poverty is one of the three vows that we take.  We take a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience. Initially Saint Ignatius Loyola when he had his conversion experience he was injured in a battle and was taken home to recuperate and started to think about doing something else with his life.  He became very ascetical and gave up everything and really lived like a hermit, lived in a cave, let his fingernails grow long, his hair grow long and ultimately he realized that this wasn’t really doing him much good and he needed to moderate some of this.  He ended up going back to school to learn and so he thought, well Jesuits should be free of material possessions, but they don’t have to live you know like they’re hermits, like they’re living in a cave and eating twigs and things like that.  It’s not a complete poverty, so Jesuit poverty is really about freedom.  It’s about the freedom of not owning.  It’s about the freedom of living simply and it’s also about the freedom to not let any possessions come in between you and God.  At the same time it’s supposed to help us identify with the poor.  We do a lot of work with the poor and we’re supposed to try to live as close as possible to what Saint Ignatius calls a family of slender means, you know people who don’t have a lot and also it’s supposed to model Christ.  I mean Jesus when he lived on the earth was living very simply as a very simple man and so those are the three things.  It frees us up for service.  It makes it so we don’t have a lot of possessions to tie us down.  It helps us identify with the poor and it’s an imitation of Christ.  It’s really trying to follow Christ more closely.

Question: Is chastity really possible?

James Martin:  Chastity is the most difficult thing to explain about religious life.  I mean most people think it’s crazy or unhealthy or unnatural.  After the sex crisis did people think that the sex abuse crisis from chastity or from celibacy?  But it’s really as I see it a different way to love.  It’s certainly not for everybody.  I mean clearly you know most people are in romantic love and married lives and having children, but for some of us it works and really what it is it’s loving many people freely and deeply.  You’re not attached to just one person.  You don’t have an exclusive relationship, so you’re free to love many people, which is not to say that people who are married or are in a romantic relationship can’t love many people.  It’s just to say that this is what works best for people in religious orders and I find it very freeing.  I find people can be freer with me in a sense.  When I become close friends with somebody they’re not wondering is he becoming friends because of sex.  Does he have an ulterior motive, something like that?  Men and women can feel comfortable with you and really in a practical level it makes you a lot more mobile.  You’re not in a sense worried about what your wife or husband is going to be thinking about your moving or taking a new job, so it can be very freeing, but it really freaks people out.  Chastity, in a culture that values sex, and rightly so, it really disturbs people, but I think for those people who are called to it, it can work very well if you live it in a healthy way, meaning if you have friends and have healthy work and a healthy prayer life, so I’m all for it, but it’s not for everybody. 

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. 

Question: What’s it like being a regular on The Colbert Report?

James Martin: Sometimes you’re on shows where people are aggressive or are confrontational and it’s important to remember to always to be charitable because you know when I’m talking it’s not just representing me or talking about my book.  I’m also for better or worse representing the church and so if I come off as being argumentative or mean or snappish or whatever then people will say look, the Catholic church you know once again you know they’re being whatever, so charity is the first thing and I sometimes get nervous about the topics that people choose to bring up.  You never know what they’re going to bring up, but on Colbert it’s a lot of fun.  I mean he himself is a Catholic, so I know that he understands what I’m talking about.  He is funny.  One of the great challenges of being on that show is just not laughing.  I mean he is so outrageous sometimes and so unpredictable that the things he says just make me laugh.  One time I was on and we were talking about the recession and how people find God in the midst of difficult times and I said that we’re sometimes more open to God’s activity in our lives when we’re more vulnerable, which is true because you know when our defenses are down we can let God in more easily, which happens when people are sick or when they’re you know going through difficult times and he said, “You make God sound like an opportunistic disease.”  And I thought I guess I do, but it was hard not to laugh because it was so silly, but yeah, I really enjoy being on the show. 

Question: Why do you believe we have an anti-Catholicism problem in the entertainment industry?

James Martin: On the one hand are people who say that anti-Catholicism is just as bad and anti-Semitism or homophobia or racism.  It’s not clearly.  It’s not as virile and not as prevalent.  On the other hand are people that say it doesn’t exist at all, but it does basically.  I think a lot of portrayals of nuns and priests on TV and in the movies are stereotypical.  You know post sex abuse crisis frequently when you see a priest show up on a TV cop show you know he is usually a pedophile.  Nuns are usually portrayed as like ninnies basically or stupid.  I mean I would say here are women who kind of built the Catholic healthcare system in the United States and ran universities and but when they come on TV they’re portrayed as being idiots basically, so there are some subtle anti-Catholicism in that.  I think you know you hear people taking potshots at priests for being celibate or being pedophiles or being insane or whatever, so I think there is a lot of stuff that slides by you know on TV and in the movies that would never be allowed to happen with other groups.  You know if you portrayed a rabbi or an Imam like that people would rightfully complain, but in a way I think because we live in a largely Protestant culture I think because of the sex abuse crisis and I think because of you know some suspicion about the Vatican and Catholic theology in a sense, anti-Catholicism is more acceptable.  In fact, one person once called it the last acceptable prejudice, so it’s there, but I think we need to keep in sort of a context exactly what that means.  It’s not a virile as some other stereotypes are, but it is present.

Question: Has it gotten better or worse over the past decade?

James Martin:  I think it has gotten worse because of the sex abuse crisis.  I think things are said about priests and celibacy which are stereotypes, so you take a very small population of priests who have committed these crimes then you magnify it and you say well that applies to all priests and you know I read stuff in mainstream newspapers and on TV and you hear jokes and things like that. As priest myself who keeps his vows, it’s offensive. And I often say to people: would you say this about rabbis? Would you say this about Imams? The answer is no, but somehow people think because of the sex abuse crisis it’s okay to stereotype all Catholics.  All Catholics are like this, all Bishops are like this, all priests are like this-- which would never fly for any other religious group, so I just think it’s basically unfair. 

Question: Has the pope done enough to address the abuse scandal?

James Martin: I think he has really started to do some really important things. His visit to the United States was historic and really unprecedented.  I think though there is always more that can be done for the sex abuse crisis.  In 2002 the US bishops met in Dallas to formulate their zero tolerance policy, which I think was necessary, but I think that the clerical culture that gave rise to that. The sex abuse crisis, which is essentially a few very sick men who were moved around from parish to parish by some bishops for fear of quote, unquote, causing scandal--that’s more of a cultural type thing.  I think that needs to be addressed, so I think what the church needs to do is to have a culture of much more transparency. Frankly when these guys do these things they need to kicked out. And in the United States that has already happened, so I don’t think you’ll see it in the United States.  You might hear reports of ones that happened in the 60s and 70s, but going ahead there is this zero tolerance policy.  I think other countries are starting to realize now what needs to be done.  It really needs to be just sort of taken out root and branch and blamed on the right sources.  It has nothing to do with celibacy.  It has nothing to do with gay clergy, anything like that.  Neither of those two things lead to pedophilia.  It has to do I think with this culture of secrecy and the wrongheaded notion that we shouldn’t quote, unquote, cause scandal by revealing some of these things, so I hope the Catholic church really takes the lead in showing other organizations about this because you know I mean most sex abuse takes place in families.  You know there is sex abuse in schools.  There is sex abuse in children’s organizations like the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts, so I think that the Catholic Church has an opportunity here to really take the lead and be in the vanguard of preventing children from being abused.

Question: What is your problem with Glenn Beck?

James Martin: Glenn Beck’s comment really betrayed a fundamental understanding of the gospel. Jesus in the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew basically says that the litmus test for how we’re going to be judged at the end of our lives is not what church we pray in, how we pray, even how often we go to church.  It’s how we treat the poor.  I mean it’s pretty cut and dry.  If you want to enter to heaven, treat the poor well.  Now social justice is a way of looking at what keeps people poor and as the church in its 2,000 year history has reflected on Jesus’ commandment to serve the poor and love the poor it has realized that we need to look at what keeps them poor.  It’s not enough to give someone a handout. It’s important to look at what keeps the people poor, so someone told me the other day the gospel story of the good Samaritan where the guy sees someone by the side of the road who has been beaten and he takes care of him.  He brings him back to an inn.  He dresses his wounds.  He gives him money for staying overnight in the inn.  Someone said to me today we’d also be looking at why that road is dangerous.  What is it that makes that road dangerous?  How can we fix the situations that lead for crime and things like that?  So that is what social justice is.  It’s basically working for a just society.  Now how anybody can be against that is beyond me frankly.  He compared people who support social justice to Stalin and Hitler and I just found that frankly, outrageous.

There have been people other than me that have talked about this and he has responded by saying, “Well I didn’t mean this.”  “What I meant was this.”  “I meant that charity is okay as long as it’s not sponsored by the government.”  But once again, how else does the community respond socially other than through governmental policies?  You can do things individually.  You can do things in church, but I mean we have all sorts of public works in terms of social security and Medicare and Medicaid and public transportation. That, in a sense, is providing for the common good, so I still think he basically just doesn’t like the idea of helping the poor. I think often times this critique of social justice is really just a thinly veiled excuse for not wanting to deal with the poor and a lot of people find the poor as Pope John Paul said, irksome intruders into our comfortable life. But what good is the gospel if it doesn’t disturb you?  It’s supposed to disturb you.

Question: Why is it hip to be spiritual these days without being religious?

James Martin:  It’s very hip to be spiritual, but not religious.  Almost everybody I know says they’re spiritual.  Now that is good.  I mean spiritual is good.  Spiritual means that you have a relationship with God.  Spiritual means that you connect with God, that spirituality is an important part of your life.  You try to lead a good life.  You try to be in concert with what your relationship with God tells you, which is terrific.  You have to have that.  Religious on the other hand in current parlance is bad because that seems to say that oh, I believe in this organization that has all these hidebound dogmas and beliefs and I would never be able to belong to an organization that tells me what to think.  The problem with being spiritual, but not religious is that you’re not part of a community in a sense and so there is no one to bump up against to tell you when you might be a little off track.  As well, you’re not really able to connect in your spiritual life with other people.  There is a great saying from Isaac Hecker who is a nineteenth century American priest and he said, “Religion enables us to connect and correct.”  So we connect with other people.  We’re naturally social animals and we like to worship in common.  That makes sense.  We connect with one another and we’re corrected.  If I have a direct line to God that means that by definition anything I think or say is from God, right?  And that’s as we know a problem, so being spiritual without being religious means that you’re lacking the wisdom of the community as well as the support of the community when you’re struggling.  Being religious without being spiritual is just as bad.  Being religious without being spiritual just means all you’re doing is following rules.  You’re just following rules.  You’re just listening to the community and you’re not reflecting on things yourself.  So the one thing is what Jesus was warning against, being religious without being spiritual you know to some of the religious authorities of his day.  What I’m warning against is being spiritual without being religious, which is much more common today, so I think it’s not an either or. 

Question: What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever received?

James Martin:  The worst career advice I’ve ever had was when I was at the Wharton School studying business. I went to my faculty adviser. Wharton students are supposed to be focused really on the business and I said that I would be interested in taking an American poetry class and he said, “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”  He said, “Don’t take an American poetry class.”  “It’s a waste of time.”  “No one will care if you ever studied American poetry when you want to get a job at GE, so I would strongly advise you not to do that unless you want to be thought you know not serious about your job.”  So fortunately I didn’t take his advice and it’s one of the few courses I remember very well from school.  The best career advice I’ve ever gotten was from the psychologist who said, “What would you do if you could do anything you wanted to do?”  I think that’s a question I ask a lot of people and it’s very clarifying for people because we frequently have these expectations put on us by family, by friends about what you should do.  A friend of mine called that shoulding all over yourself, s-h-o-u-l-d-i-n-g, rather than saying, “What are my desires?”  “What do I like?”  “What gets me excited?”  And I tend to think that you will do better at things that you’re really interested in because you’re going to spend more time with it.  You’re going to read about it outside of work and you’ll be enthusiastic about it, so when I was at GE working in business I realized that the people who were going to do well were the people who loved it.  You know my friends would read The Wall Street Journal and say, “This is fascinating.”  And I would say, “How can you read that stuff?”  And they’d say, “This is fantastic.”  “How can you not read it?”  And so this notion of you know following you desires is really important. What would you do if you could do anything you wanted to do is probably the best career advice or the best question I’ve ever been asked about career.  

Recorded on March 24, 2010