Jesus: a pilgrimage, by James Martin

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The years that I was teaching, my subway stop was in Tribeca. On top of the stairs I often came across tourists checking their guidebooks or looking for landmarks to get to where they wanted to go. What is the difference between a tourist and a pilgrim? A tourist travels to attraction places he is attracted to. To tag his visit, the tourist just might bring home a few trinkets from the gift shop. A pilgrim travels to religious places for religious purposes. At pilgrimage’s end, she brings home experiences that have inspired and will inform her life anew. Their differences are glaring when the author recalls waiting on line to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchral. While standing in that holy space, he is deep in meditative prayers. In front of him is a man playing video games on his smart phone.    

Father James Martin’s captivating book, Jesus: a pilgrimage, is a travelogue. It is his notes from a two-week travel in the Holy Land. He and his companion walk where Jesus lived, walked, taught and ministered. But his book is not for tourists. Written for pilgrims, he weaves an illuminating fabric with strands of gospel exegesis, theological reflections, personal contemplations, archaeological studies, vivid narratives and spiritual directives. He writes, “It is a look at Jesus as he appears in the gospels, through the lens of my education, experience, prayer, and . . . a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And through the lens of faith.”

With humor and humility, borrowing from Protestant, Jewish as well as his Catholic traditions, through his experiences that include personal struggles and failures, Martin’s prose is assiduous in ushering me into Jesus’ presence. His vivid narratives massage my imagination. St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, the order of which Martin belongs, says this – God meets us in our imagination. Indeed, the pages inspire my multi-sensory perceptions. They feed my anemic cognitive and nurture my emotive fealty for Jesus. Often I mutter, Hmmm, I didn’t see that.

Take Mary’s incredulous submission to God with her pregnancy. In a patriarchal society, Martin offers that it is even more incredulous that she does not pause to consider the two men over her, Joseph and her father, before she utters, “Behold, your handmaiden of the Lord; let it be unto me . . . . ”  Or what are the existential implications that the Son of God spends almost his entire life on earth in the “backwater towns” of Nazareth and Capernaum. Or what egregious loneliness Jesus must have felt after he is rejected by his village and lives dejected from those he loves. Or what enters our thoughts when we watch the paralytic’s friends tear off the roof of someone’s house so he can encounter Jesus for healing. Or while watching Zacchaeus struggling to climb a Sycamore tree, Martin posits that sometimes crowds may keep us from getting close to Jesus. Or what would we see, hear, smell, taste and feel if we are in the same boat with Jesus in the Sea of Galilee when he rebukes the torrential storm.

My reading of Jesus: a pilgrimage intertwines two soul-caring experiences. The book, with the Bible, has been my readings for Lent. After I read the gospels, and Martin, I reflect, write and pray. During this Lenten season, indeed God has met me in my imagination with numinous sensory from Martin. These daily contemplations also prepare my “pilgrimage” in a few weeks to the Holy Land. Two quotes come together: “Scripture and daily life are both places in which we recognize Jesus” and “This book has been an invitation for you to meet the Jesus I have studied, the Jesus I follow and the Jesus I met at the Holy Land.” And I have on both counts.