Martin, James, SJ, JESUS, A Pilgrimage, Harper One, NY, 2014, pp 526
Not in a very long time have I concluded a book, closed the cover, and regretted that I had finished. I wanted more. James Martin's JESUS, a Pilgrimage, is just such a book.
The idea of going on pilgrimage is something which has fascinated me since I was a child and was given a beautifully illustrated retelling of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Some years after, I did manage to visit Canterbury Cathedral and quite liked it, although going once by train and a few times in a rented car didn't allow for the sense of adventure I had hoped for. More meaningful was my first experience climbing Croagh Patrick, the mountain that rises out of the sea in the west of Co. Mayo, Ireland. My cousins insisted that I climb "the Reek," as they called it, as a gesture of respect for St. Patrick as well as for my forebears who had climbed it before me. It would be an authentic pilgrimage even if we were just going by ourselves, and there would be plenty of praying to go along with it. Provided with a thorn stick given to me by my Great Uncle Mark, and steadied by a sturdy cousin, I did manage to make it to the summit. It was something to recount proudly when I descended.
But a pilgrimage to the Holy Land is something quite other, and the one which forms the framework of Father Martin's book, JESUS, is unique. I don't expect my description to do it justice, but I hope that sharing my enthusiasm may be enough to persuade you to give it your attention. To begin with, the author is a gifted storyteller, graceful and moving at times, and keenly observant and even humorous at others. But this is no ordinary travelogue.
Having laid out with his friend and travel companion the intention of covering the places mentioned in the Gospel associated with the historical Jesus, Father Martin moves through the life of Jesus from the Annunciation to Mary in Nazareth, through his birth in Bethlehem, to the years of his childhood, to the beginning of his public life with his baptism in the Jordan River. The narrative picks up tempo with the events in Galilee and the surrounding area, where Father Martin fills in the picture not only with the physical description of the locale but also with the interactions of Jesus, his miracles, his preaching, his experiences with the crowds who followed him. Ultimately, Jesus moves south until he comes to Jerusalem, his life culminating in his Passion, Death, Resurrection and appearances to his disciples.
Were this the totality of Father Martin's work, it would be a gift indeed, but it is supported and enriched by his sharing with us his prayer life and a deep knowledge of Sacred Scripture which makes his experience with the Jesus of Faith almost tangible. The process will be familiar to anyone who spends time in prayerful meditation, reflecting on a Gospel story. He gives the reader the Gospel passage itself, complete with a vivid description of the place and the likely circumstances attending the event. The author's lively imagination is coupled with substantive background information and study, (the man likes to ask questions and does not give up easily in his explorations,) He then goes on to "fill out" his prayer with increasingly involved and often moving reflections on the Jesus of the Gospel, often with surprising conclusions. Each chapter concludes with the Gospel passage itself. It is left to the reader to take it up from there. I hope I will have the opportunity to do just that. My regret at having finished reading the book might then be only short-lived.
Maureen F McDermott