I have always enjoyed Jesuit Father James Martin's books as well as his commentaries on television, so it was surprising that when I picked up his latest work, "The Abbey," I did so with mixed emotions. It's not that I anticipated questioning the overall quality of his thoughts or his writing; rather, I was wondering whether he could successfully navigate the switch in genres. Father Martin, who has produced some very moving commentaries, retreats, reflections and memoirs, has now ventured into the world of novel writing, and I was curious to see if he could pull it off.
For the most part, he has. While he will not be rising to the level of the greats – think Twain, Tolstoy or Dickens here – he has done what he does best in the context of a story, and ultimately, it is what he has to say about God and, in particular, God's relationship with us, that makes this book worth the read.
In the interest of not including any spoilers, the basic premise of the novel is this. There are four characters who show up most often: Mark, a young handyman/ carpenter who works at the Abbey of Saints Philip and James, which is the abbey of the title; Mark's landlady, Anne, a divorcee who is grieving the death of her teenage son; Father Edward, an elderly monk who baptized Anne as an infant and knew her parents well; and finally, Father Paul, the abbot, who becomes, as it were, the main "voice" of "The Abbey."
The two characters who are most well drawn are Father Paul and Anne, which is appropriate as the story unfolds most thoroughly through their interactions. Father Edward plays an important, but supporting role, and Mark, although the author does make some valuable points through his character, is perhaps the least well developed. Together, however, they reflect various stages of the Christian journey by way of believable life circumstances, and the reader has plenty to learn from getting to know them.
Not surprisingly, Father Martin is at his best through the thoughts and words of Father Paul whose character, I suspect, might be based most closely on the author himself. In reflecting on his role as abbot, for instance, Father Martin puts the following words in the priest's mind: "That was another reason he liked talking to visitors . . . He could see how God tailored his approach to fit each individual. In one person, God might work through a close relationship, in another through a book, in another through prayer, in others through music, nature, dance, children, coworkers or art."
The conversation I found to be most moving, however, was when he was talking to Anne about the images of God that we carry around with us. When explaining why she no longer went to church, Anne talked about her difficulty relating to a harsh and judgmental Deity. "Sometimes," Paul says in response, "we have an image of God that really isn't God . . . Sometimes . . . our images of God come from the way our parents treated us. So if we had parents who were judgmental or harsh or exacting, we often transfer those same attributes to God . . . " He then invites her to look at some of her more recent experiences, and to see in them a different kind of image, more loving and inviting, that God wants to reveal to her.
Although the book ends on an "up" note, there are plenty of loose ends left over, just as there are in real life. (I would have cringed, frankly, if things had ended "happily ever after".) Despite some weak points – having to do with genre, not theology – this is a book worth reading, and will certainly satisfy long-time fans of Father James Martin.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jesuit Father James Martin is likely familiar to many readers by way of his many television appearances; an eclectic mix, they include all the major network and cable outlets as well as programs as diverse as "The Colbert Report," "The O'Reilly Factor," the History Channel and the BBC.
Currently editor at large of the Jesuit magazine, America, Father Martin came to his vocation from a wide-ranging background. A self-described lukewarm Catholic in childhood, his initial career was very firmly situated in the secular world. A graduate of the Wharton School of Business, Father Martin worked for six years in corporate finance with General Electric in New York City before entering the Society of Jesus in 1988. He was ordained in 1999 and became a fully professed Jesuit in 2009.
He is a prolific writer, having written such books as "Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life" and "My Life with the Saints," a memoir which received a Christopher Award, a Catholic Press Association Award, and was named one of the "Best Books" of 2006 by Publishers Weekly.
Father Martin currently lives in America House Jesuit Community in New York and assists on weekends at the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola, also in New York.
By James Martin SJ. New York: Harper Collins, 2015. 224 pages.
Hardcover: $14.02, Paperback: $14.99, Kindle: $13.99, Audio CD: $22.00, Nook: $13.99.
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