Monday, April 18, 2022

Bring Your Pilgrimage with Jesus into the Present


Book title: Jesus: A Pilgrimage
Author: James Martin, SJ
HarperCollins, New York, 2014
538 incredibly engaging pages, including discussion questions, endnotes, topical index, and bibliography.

“Show me. Don’t tell me.” That’s a line Mrs. Conners, my English Composition teacher tattooed into our brains every Monday morning my junior year in high school. On Friday’s we had a hundred word paragraph due. “Thou shalt not be boring,” she would call out as we bolted toward the door when the lunch bell rang. 

There’s a good chance Father James Martin, author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage, had Mrs. Conners or an equally inspirational writing mentor somewhere along the way. Martin is a brilliantly descriptive story teller. Martin’s purpose in this book is not to preach (although I imagine he’s an engaging orator), but to coax the reader out of an itchy, dusty, churchy mindset into one of wonder. 

“Ignatian contemplation encourages you to place yourself imaginatively in a scene from the Bible,” Martin writes. “For example, if you’re praying about Jesus and his disciples caught in a boat during a storm on the Sea of Galilee, you would try to imagine yourself on board with the disciples, and ask yourself several questions as a way of trying to place yourself in the scene.” 

“You might ask:” Martin continues, “What do you see? How many disciples are in the boat? What is the expression on their faces? How rough is the sea? What do you hear? The howling wind? The fishing tackle shifting about in the boat? What do you smell? You’re in a fishing boat, so you might smell residues from the day’s catch. What do you feel? Homespun clothes were probably heavy when soaked by storm-driven water. And what do you taste? Maybe the spray on your lips. With such imaginative techniques you let the Gospel passage play out in your mind’s eye, and then you notice your reactions.” 

These two paragraphs are what prompted me to pick the title for this review. 

Martin’s storytelling keeps you on the edge of your seat. He uses a technique that great fiction writers employ when they introduce supporting characters to move the plot along and create space for compelling dialogue. You’re familiar with the mechanics of this method: Sherlock Holmes has Watson. Luke Skywalker has Yoda. Neo has Morpheous. And Father Martin has his traveling companion George. 

We, as readers, get to drop in and listen to Father Martin and George discuss what they are seeing as they literally follow Jesus’s footsteps through the Holy Land and watch Bible scenery in Technicolor clarity unfold before their eyes. We discover that God is working in George’s heart. Martin shares excerpts from George’s journal and journey through deep depression, humanizing George and Father Martin. 

And Jesus. And his disciples. And, for the group of us that read this book together, we discovered - or became reacquainted with - the tangled mess where our flesh wrestles with spirit. Father Martin helps us tap out, quit struggling, and bask in a pilgrimage with Jesus through his Holy Land narrative. 

Often, non-fiction talks at you. Authors want to prove how much they know. Not Martin. His memoir approach is, at once, humble, human, and spiritual. He helps you postpone paying too much attention to your own mess so you can meet with Jesus. He introduces you to a humble, human Jesus. 

If you open the book to the table of contents, you’ll see how Martin organizes the book into 25 chapters titled with a single, biblically-rich word and then sub-titled with a snippet of scripture. Here are some examples (BTW, these aren’t spoilers; this is just what’s found in the table of contents which is where I always like to prowl before choosing a book) : 

  • Rejection - “Is not this the carpenter?” 
  • Immediately - “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” 
  • Happy - “Rejoice and be glad.” 
  • Storms - “Teacher, do you not care?” (Just sit and think on this one for a minute) 

Then there are the chapters with holy land, geographical names: 

  • Gerasa - “Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.” 
  • Tabgha - “They all ate and were filled.” 
  • Jericho - “He was trying to see who Jesus was.” 
  • Gethsemane - “He threw himself on the ground and prayed.” (Pause again). 
  • Golgotha - “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.” 

My hands down favorite chapter was Emmaus - “Their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” 

Martin recounts the familiar gospel story from the two men being joined by a “stranger” while traveling on foot on the road to Emmaus. They were expressing grief and exasperation about Jesus's Crucifixion and his ministry and the incredible stories some of the ladies in their group were telling about a resurrection and living Jesus. 

Maybe you know the story; Jesus pretended he didn’t know what they were talking about. Which I love that about the Jesus style. You know what Jesus said often: “He who has an ear, let him hear.” Jesus set things up so that people had to forage a little bit in the words he spoke. He doesn’t leave the most valuable nuggets of truth right on top like they were a $100 bill lying on the sidewalk. 

Martin writes, “They then sadly describe the events of the Crucifixion and share with him their crushed hopes: ‘We had hoped that that he was the one to redeem Israel.’” 

Then Martin writes this: “‘We had hoped’ may be the saddest words in the New Testament.” And Martin camps here for a few more pages in the Emmaus chapter. 

This makes my mind wander and camp somewhere else. This concept of Jesus “hiding” in camouflage before he springs who he is on them because I think - I’m convinced - that Jesus - from a hiding place - springs who he is on us from time to time. Jesus wraps his truth inside a tasty-parable-sushi-roll. Rice and seaweed on the outside with tasty sauces and delicacies on the inside waiting to delight you. 

Jesus hides himself in obvious places. He hides where he’ll be discovered by those who want to discover him.

On the Emmaus Road the Jesus guys walked with were talking about Mary at the empty tomb. Mary had the worst weekend of her life. She watched her friend crucified on a cross. She is confused and disoriented when she arrives a couple of days later at an open, empty tomb. 

Here’s how John describes it in his gospel: 

They (angels at the open tomb!) asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” 

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 

At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” 

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” 

Jesus said to her, “Mary.” 

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” 

How come she didn’t recognize him? Jesus was hiding; he was hiding in her distress. 

But Jesus hides where he’ll be found. Especially those places familiar to us like our own distress, depression, or disillusionment. We need to our eyes ease out of focus a bit and we'll see him.

That’s what Martin brings out so masterfully in this book where he explores the Holy Land with a friend. Jesus lived and worked among regular people is a regular place to show them how they can become holy through him in their normal, work-a-day lives. It doesn’t take a trip to the holy land to discover this. It takes looking a little below the surface where Jesus is hiding in plain sight waiting for you to find him. 

Pick up this book.

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