Every day, just after breakfast, for the past few weeks, I’ve enjoyed a morning devotional with this lovely book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage. It’s by a Jesuit priest named James Martin, who also works as a ‘spiritual director.’ I’d never heard of that particular calling before, but essentially, a spiritual director is someone who works with people to help them understand the specific ways God may be working in their lives. In any event, I can see how his work informs this book.
A few years back, Father Martin went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In each of this book’s twenty-five chapters, he talks about a place in the Holy Land that he visited, his experiences there, the insights he gained, contemporary Bible scholarship about those places or the events that took place in them, and a quiet meditation on the larger themes suggested by the New Testament. He writes with such good cheer, humor and optimism that he’s a delightful companion for this kind of spiritual journey. But the emphasis is always on the scripture itself, on his own prayer-life, and on both the historical Jesus, and his own personal encounter with Jesus-the-divine.
What I found was that this wasn’t a book that’s meant to be read straight through, like most books. It’s rather a book meant to be savored, a chapter at a time, quietly meditating and praying each morning. As I read it, I found myself remembering my own visit to Israel, back in the late 90’s. I remember visiting the Garden Tomb, and the Garden of Gethsemane. I remember the Old City of Jerusalem, and the Palestinian vendors, and their good cheer and kindness, and how fun it was to bargain with them. It came rushing back, all of it.
And I love Father Martin’s insights.
Consider his words “Blessed are the poor.” Not every poor person is grateful or generous. And grinding poverty is an evil. But Jesus of Nazareth, who grew up in a poor village, knew that we can often learn from the poor. Jesus comments about poverty are frequent in the gospels, so it’s always surprising when professed Christians set them aside. But Jesus is saying that more than helping the poor and more than combating the systems that keeps them poor, we must become like them, in their simplicity, generosity and dependence on God. We are to become poor ourselves, to strip away everything that keeps us from God.
Naive? Possibly. But in an America where so much rhetoric is focused on the poor as ‘takers,’ it’s refreshing to see this modern King Benjamin, focusing on the way we all of us must rely on the bounty of God. And this is an earned insight; Father Martin spent years working with the super-poor in Kenya.
Anyway, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. At the time I was reading it, I realized that I was, unaccountably, angry. A lot. I don’t have a lot to be angry about, honestly. I’m comfortably enough off financially. I have a wonderful family, and a wife who loves me and who I adore. But years of chronic illness had begun to drain my patience. I was tired of constant pain, tired of being unable to walk more than fifty yards at a time, tired of feeling exhausted and without energy. And so even the most minor slights began to feel like major insults. And I woke every day, and went to bed every night, tensed with anger and resentment.
But as a Christian, as a Mormon, as someone who genuinely would like to live by the Sermon on the Mount, I needed to find some perspective. I needed to cultivate gratitude, as the Beatitudes urge us to. I needed to say “I believe; help thou my unbelief.” I needed to embrace the richness and joy of life, and let minor tribulations go. I needed to continue to see my illness as a great blessing, and not as a limitation. I needed to pray again. I needed to worship.
And then this book fell into my hands. And I read it, one chapter a day, for a little shy of a month. And it led me back to works I consider scripture. And it led me back to a deeper relationship with my Father and my God, who I so often neglect, but who will never cease to love me.
And as I was reading it, my parents came to visit, and to be honest, my relationship with them hasn’t always been as good as it should be. But this was a good visit, a joyful visit. I found myself seeing them differently too.
Sometimes the right book comes to you, as a special gift. This has been that, for me. And so I humbly recommend it to you. And it’s for everyone, I think, for believers and non-believers, for Bible scholars and for neophytes, for Mormons and Christians, and probably also for my wonderful, kind, gentle atheist friends too, because we can all learn to love our brothers and sisters more completely. Or maybe it’s just the right book for me, and one that doesn’t mean anything to you. If that happens, then that’s fine too. We all find our own ways towards forgiveness, charity, compassion. We all find our own path toward love.