By James Martin, S.J.

James Martin: Essential WritingsA life of poverty, chastity and obedience was the last thing on James Martin’s mind when he began his corporate career at General Electric in the early 1980s.

“To survive in G.E.,” he reported in his memoir In Good Company, “you had to be tough, almost impervious to criticism, willing to dump on others, work your butt off, and be able to triumph in Machiavellian maneuverings.” The rewards, however, were great—a nice salary and a glamorous New York lifestyle. A graduate of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, Martin looked to be on the fast track to riches and power in the corporate world.

One can imagine, therefore, the surprise his friends and family showed when just a few short years later, Martin became a novice in the Society of Jesus, commonly known as the Jesuits, and prepared to take perpetual vows committing himself to lifelong chastity, poverty and obedience to his superiors. He soon found himself living and working in a hospice run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity on the island nation of Jamaica, providing personal care to men dying of AIDS. When one college friend came to visit and observed Father Martin at work, he shook his head and said, “Boy, if your friends from Wharton could see you now.”

This is just one of many intriguing tales excerpted from Father Martin’s publications over the past three decades that are collected in James Martin: Essential Writings, a new offering in Orbis Books’ Modern Spiritual Masters series. As the editor of the volume, I had the great pleasure of reading almost everything the prolific Jesuit priest has written since 1988, including his many books, countless articles for America (where he still works as editor-at-large) and other journals, and even his online writings for portals as diverse as Slate and the Huffington Post.

Though Father Martin and I have been friends for many years, I still found myself taken with the spiritual depth and compassion of his writings, especially when addressing issues in the Church or society that have caused people deep wounds that need healing.

Along with his writing, Father Martin has also taken on a very public role in society as a spokesperson for the Catholic Church, parsing the complicated and nuanced teachings and practices of faith for a general audience. While he has been called a “latter-day Thomas Merton,” I also see strong parallels between Father Martin and Archbishop Fulton Sheen, the great radio and television evangelist of an earlier era. Both have to my mind an ability to explain the Church in straightforward ways without being condescending or glib, and both are able to reach out to non-Catholics and lapsed Catholics in surprising ways. Father Martin’s books are regularly New York Times best-sellers, and his social media audience is enormous— over 120,000 followers on Twitter alone!

Readers of James Martin: Essential Writings will also find much to treasure in Father Martin’s reflections on how to be a prayerful, contemplative person in the modern world. In a way, he has not so much turned his back on his former corporate life, but instead incorporated his experiences into a practical, honest spirituality that admits we all sometimes face doubt, depression, anger and confusion, as well as elation, consolation, joy and laughter in the spiritual life.

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