Novelist Frederick Buechner once wrote that the real message in all his books is this: people should pay attention to their lives. James Martin has paid attention. For Martin, living the examined life means being in conversation not simply with God but with those friends of God who have modeled authentic holiness of life. These friends are the “saints,” a term used by Martin to refer to companions on the path to holiness—some officially canonized as saints by the Church, and others not—whose prayers have helped Martin at crucial points in his life, but who, more importantly, have served as mentors on the journey.
My Life with the Saints is a spiritual memoir, the story of Jim Martin’s life from his earliest introduction to the saints (a mail-order plastic statue of St. Jude) to his leaving the business world in order to embrace the vows of the Society of Jesus. The journey takes Martin and the reader around the world—retreat houses, the inner city of Chicago, a hospice in Jamaica, the slums of Nairobi, a Boston jail—all places of ministry, but likewise places of encounter where Martin gains insight about himself. In each case, a particular saint’s life was a witness to holiness and self-giving love in the midst of struggles, a companion in the work, and an intercessor to God.
Martin describes this book as “a personal introduction to some of my favorite saints, holy persons, and companions” (p. 8). The book does, in fact, provide a brief overview in each chapter of a particular saint whose life story or situation has become important for Martin’s own journey. But what makes this book more than simply an introduction to the lives of the saints is Martin’s wonderful ability to discover a particular aspect of the saint’s life that providentially intersects with an aspect in his own life.
Martin’s saints are widely divergent in many ways—historical time, geographical location, personality, type of spirituality, etc. His companions—in the order in which their lives became significant to him—include Joan of Arc, Thérèse of Lisieux, Thomas Merton, Ignatius of Loyola, Pedro Arrupe, Bernadette Soubirous, Mother Teresa, Pope John XXIII, Dorothy Day, Peter, Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, Joseph, the Ugandan Martyrs, Aloysius Gonzaga, and Mary. An bibliography is provided for further reading.
My Life with the Saints is a delight to read. As one might expect from Martin, associate editor of America magazine, the writing is lively and sprinkled with humor. But perhaps most importantly, Martin’s honest and frank sharing of his life’s journey allows us to walk with him not only on the mountaintops but also in the valleys.
The ultimate message of this book is that the saints are not to be imitated in a dry and wooden way. We cannot be Mother Teresa or Ignatius of Loyola, nor should we try to be. Pope John XXIII once wrote that each saint is holy in a different way, and therefore I must seek holiness “according to the requirements of my own nature, my own character, and the different conditions of my life” (p. 373). Ultimately, the saints teach us about our selves and our own humanity, both its possibilities and its limitations. It’s a lesson wonderfully conveyed in My Life with the Saints.