I spent the month of July doing the 30-day Ignatian Spiritual Exercises at a Jesuit retreat house in Gloucester, Mass. I couldn’t have chosen a better time to read Jesuit Father James Martin’s new book: “Jesus: A Pilgrimage” (HarperOne).
“So what is this book?” he asks right away.
“It is a look at Jesus, as he appears in the Gospels, through the lens of my education, experience, prayer, and most recently a [two-week] pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And through the lens of faith.”
Father Martin is a member of the order founded, as we know, by St. Ignatius of Loyola. “Ignatian contemplation encourages you to place yourself imaginatively in a scene from the Bible. For example, if you’re praying about Jesus and his disciples caught in a boat during a storm…you might ask: What do you see?...What do you hear? What do you smell?...What do you feel?
Thus, we learn what Jesus ate: grains, vegetables, fruits, olives, lentil stew, salted fish, pita bread. We learn what Jesus wore: likely a tunic, loincloth and linen or woolen cloak. We learn of the abysmal sanitary conditions in first-century Nazareth. We learn, interestingly, that Jesus might have owned his own home (from which the friends of the paralytic possibly tore off the roof so as to lower him down to be healed).
“Jesus saw this!” Father Martin keeps thinking. “Jesus saw this!”
I’ve never been to the Holy Land, but that’s what I’d be thinking, too. Not Hmmm, does this comport with the most recent developments in archeology, history, and Biblical scholarship? Has this been fully authenticated by people with many degrees?
No, when you love someone, you want to see what they saw. You want to see the lilies, the mulberry bush, the Sea of Galilee, the hills from which Christ might have preached the Sermon on the Mount, the Zacchaeus tree — or something that could very well have been the Zacchaeus tree, or a descendant, or a distant cousin. Close enough, Father Martin finds, is true for many of the Holy Land sites, and it was close enough for me, too.
Father Martin takes us through Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection by traveling to various places from his ministry and exploring in depth a related Gospel story. He contemplates Jesus’ Hidden Life: the 30 years before he was in the public eye. He emphasizes that Christ would have known first-hand the life of the marginalized, the outcast, and the worker who labors for his daily bread. He explores the question of why, sinless, Christ needed to be baptized.
He observes, “Especially in times of difficulty and scandal, we need to be reminded that our faith is not in an institution but in a person: Jesus” (p. 163).
In Capernaum, he explores the subject of unclean spirits. In Gennesaret, he analyzes the first call to the disciples, where Peter and the others let down their nets for a miraculous catch (Luke 5:1-11). In Bethany, he digs deep into the raising of Lazarus from the dead.
Father Martin treats us to many delightful instances of New Testament Greek. Among them:
—Esplagchnisthē — “he felt in his guts,” applied to the Father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son when, from a long way off, he sees the younger son coming home and is “filled with compassion”
—Existasthai, literally “standing outside themselves,” to describe the amazement the people felt upon seeing that paralytic rise and pick up his mat.
Of course, not everyone visits the Holy Land with the orientation of heart we might wish. At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Father Martin observes the guy in front of him obsessively fooling with his smartphone.
“Probably ignoring some code of pilgrim’s etiquette, I peeked over his shoulder to see what could be so important and half-expected him to be typing, ‘Can’t talk. In church where Jesus died. Call you in five.’ Instead, he was playing a video game.”
The book would have been worth reading if I’d come away with only one thing: Father Martin’s take on the parable of the rich young man (Mark 10:17-30). For years I’ve read the passage with a furtive sense of guilt, thinking, I’m the rich young man. I’m always holding on to something. I can never quite measure up. Father Martin points out that years after becoming a priest, and reading the passage dozens of times, at last he noticed the one short phrase at verse 21: “Then Jesus, beholding him, loved him.”
Jesus looked at the rich young man with love. That changes everything. Jesus isn’t mad at the rich young man. He looks at him with love. All over again, I’m reminded that we’re works in progress. For the thousandth time, I remember: There’s always hope.
On the way to Caesarea Philippi, the disciples first pose the question: “Who is Jesus?” Father Martin has beautifully chronicled a pilgrimage, his pilgrimage. Those of us who, since the day we met Christ have asked little else, know the book could just as well have been entitled “Jesus: The Pilgrimage.”
Heather King is the author of “Parched: A Memoir,” “Redeemed: Stumbling Toward God,” and “Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Therese of Lisieux.” She lives in Los Angeles.