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The Calling

One man’s path to the priesthood.

James Martin

Saul of Tarsus’ path to sainthood began when a celestial light enveloped him on the road to Damascus. He heard Jesus’ voice, inaudible to his companions, saying: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” The conversion experience of Father James Martin was less dramatic. Once a corporate finance grunt, he came home one night after a particularly frustrating day at the office and flipped on the television. PBS was airing a documentary called Merton: A Film Biography, about Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who had chucked his dissolute New York life to serve God in rural Kentucky. Onscreen, Merton’s face glowed with an otherworldly peace; Martin was so stressed and miserable at work that he regularly suffered stomach aches and migraines. “I still remember his expression, so much happier than the one I saw in the mirror every morning,” the priest [or Jesuit] recalls. “His life—the monastic life—seemed exotic, mysterious, romantic.”

A seed was planted. The next day, 25-year-old Martin unearthed Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, at a local bookstore. It was, Martin writes in his spiritual memoir, My Life With the Saints, “a beautiful book. …When I finished [it] late one night and set it on my nightstand, I knew with certainty that this was what I wanted to do … that’s what the ‘call’ was for me.”

Martin has spent 25 years as a Jesuit, 14 of them as an ordained priest. (The Jesuits, formally the Society of Jesus, are a Roman Catholic religious order devoted to poverty, chastity, and obedience.) He is one of several top editors at Americamagazine, the country’s largest-circulation Catholic weekly, where, he jokes with some pride, his spacious corner office boasts three panelsof fluorescent light bulbs. (In Dante’s Paradiso, the more dazzlingly bright the angel, the closer he sits to God.) He also appears frequently on The Colbert Report, in the capacity of the show’s “official chaplain,” and has contributed to Slate.   

But Father Martin took a rather unorthodox path to the priesthood. After an undergraduate degree from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania—he’d studied finance—he worked for six years in accounting and human resources. He lived a fast life of clubbing and boozy lunches in New York City before relocating to Stamford, Conn., where the nightlife was tamer but the paychecks were fatter and the work more interesting.

How did Martin get from the often ruthless, hedonistic world of business to the Society of Jesus? What did he have to cast away—and what could he carry over—as he undertook something that was both a career gutting and a spiritual renovation?

To start at The Beginning: He grew up in a mildly observant Roman Catholic family, attending Mass on the major holidays but rarely reciting the rosary or saying grace before meals. By the age of 10, he was a Sunday school dropout.

In college, Martin went to church almost every week but avoided extracurricular clubs for Catholic students. His scattershot approach to faith persisted after he joined the corporate world in 1982.

“I was a bit of a grind,” Martin admits, using a characteristically self-deprecating term to describe his strong work ethic. He’d decided to study business because it seemed respectable and lucrative. The Wharton classes were moderately interesting. But once he entered the professional sphere, logging frequent overtime hours on painfully involved accounting projects, he found that something wasn’t clicking. Martin remembers watching his friends flip through business magazines in their free time. He couldn’t comprehend it—how could they read that stuff for fun?

He also began to notice a cruel streak in some of his supervisors, an unscrupulous selfishness that pricked him with moral disgust. At one point, a manager informed Martin that he planned to fire another man, “Joe,” even though Joe had just earned an award for excellent performance. When Martin, protesting that the move was unnecessary and undeserved, begged the manager to show a little compassion, he got a simple answer: “Fuck compassion.” Another time, he overheard a colleague making grossly sexist remarks about a female co-worker. He developed stomach problems from excess anxiety. “It started to seem so circular,” he says. “I was going to work so that I could afford food, shelter, and clothes, so that I could go to work. I remember sitting at my desk and realizing no one at Wharton had ever asked me, ‘What do you want to do with your life? Are you sure?’ ”

Into this fog came Thomas Merton, the priest in the documentary, whose example offered Martin a way out. But being called is one thing; answering the call is something else entirely. “At that time, joining the priesthood would have been like becoming an opera singer or running away to the circus,” Martin says. He consulted a psychologist instead.

“What would you do if you could be doing anything?” the doctor asked him, a year or so into his therapy.

“I’d be a priest,” Martin replied.

“Well, why don’t you?”

The next day, Martin was on the phone with the local office of the Jesuits.

The formation program for Jesuit priests takes its roots in the plan originally laid out by St. Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the order. You start off with a two-year sprint through “spiritual boot camp”—called the novitiate—during which you learn about Jesuit history and spirituality, and perform charitable works. This period is capped by a 30-day silent retreat and officially ends when you pronounce the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Next up are “first studies,” a two-year curriculum of philosophy and theology taken at a Jesuit university (Martin did his at Loyola in Chicago); then dawns a three-year period called the regency, devoted to work of a nonstudious nature. (Martin flew to East Africa to work with refugees.) Four years of intense theological study follow, crowned—whew—by ordination, first as a deacon and then as a priest. Last of all comes tertianship, the ultimate stage in formation, a stretch of contemplation about Jesuit spirituality that closes with another 30-day retreat. Final vows are then made, including a special vow of obedience to the pope.  

The whole process took 21 years, and Martin’s family and friends spent the early portion of that time being horrified. His parents fretted that their promising young businessman had been swallowed whole by a cult. Former colleagues at his corporate job weren’t shy about voicing their skepticism. (A typical conversation: “You should see a psychologist.” “I am.” “You should see another psychologist.”) But eventually Martin’s family came to terms with his new life: “They thought I would be lonely, which is ironic because I have more friends now than ever,” Martin explains. “They held this old-fashioned idea of Jesuits being cloistered.”

When asked about the priesthood’s greatest challenges, Father Martin doesn’t hesitate. “Chastity,” he says. “It’s difficult living without sexual intimacy, the intimacy that comes with having one person you can rely on. You’re never going to be the most important person in anybody’s life.” And yet he describes the stricture as a blessing, a way of becoming close to many people at once—of more fairly rationing out finite stores of time and emotion. It’s our noble hope that we can love lots of people simultaneously, but in practice that gets harder once you start factoring in life partners. Plus, “people open up to you quicker when they know you don’t have a sexual agenda,” Martin says.  

His inner HR manager has found an afterlife of sorts, as a dispenser of professional tough love. Not infrequently, Jesuit brothers present him with human-resource-related dilemmas. (“How do I deal with very sweet employees who waste too much time chatting with each other?” was a query a few years back. “What would you do if you ran a McDonald’s? Tell them to get to work,” Martin replied.) He is thankful that his time in the business sphere taught him the secular virtues of setting goals, working hard, and being efficient. Such values have a place in faith, too: St. Ignatius, he observes, “basically ran a multinational corporation—he had to hire and fire, train recruits, raise money, and get things done.” Occasionally Martin finds religious institutions too forgiving of lackluster performance. Holy folk tend to mistake niceness for competence. Still, he says, “the corporate world could learn a lot from the religious one in terms of the dignity of every human person.”

My Life With the Saints highlights an almost preternaturally apt Whitman quote: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Martin’s story is a collecting basin for contradictions: the earthly and the sacred, the supposedly pre-ordained and the supposedly freely chosen.

He looks at his second start with a kind of double vision. On one hand, he felt bored and unhappy in the corporate world, intellectually intrigued by religious life and desperate for escape—that’s the natural explanation. But he proposes a supernatural narrative, too, in which God fills his heart with longing, “the happy inability to think of anything else.”

Søren Kierkegaard dubbed the man who can hold two paradoxical ideas in his mind at once and still remain at peace the “knight of faith.” In Martin’s case, perhaps we should just call him “Father.” 

This month, Slate is sharing stories of people who started over—like budget wonk Ina Garten, better known as the Barefoot Contessa—in our "Second Acts" Hive. We want to hear your tales, too. Please hit the "Enter your proposal" button or go here to submit your story about starting over.

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