Do the Jesuits have all the answers? (& mapping mindfulness to faith) — A book review
Have you ever felt like you're on the precipice of drastic changes in your life? Like you can almost feel the profundity of what's to come?
That's where I am right now—on the next frontier of my mindfulness practice.
For a while now, I've been exploring the world of mindfulness: writing about it, podcasting about it, and practicing it. But things are about to change ... for the better.
At the start of the year, I decided to read one "important" book per month. In January, I read C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, which I loved. It felt like proof that I'm on the right track. But this second month felt like hitting a home run...
For February, I chose The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything by James Martin, S.J.
After a few days of watching me cart around this big orange book to and fro, my husband JJ asked me how I'd come across the book. Half ashamed, I told him the truth:
"Umm, I saw it on Just Jared, the celebrity news site I check sometimes... The guy who plays Spiderman was reading it, and it caught my eye."
(True story. The post from 2014 is right here.)
No matter how I found it, I'm so glad I did. It's now one of my favorite books EVER. (And books are important to me, so that's saying a lot.) At 450 pages, it's an extensive read, but I'm excited to share with you my favorite parts and takeaways from this amazing book.
What I learned
You'd think that I learned a slew of "new" things reading this book, but I found the experience to be quite the opposite. Instead, it was about something absolutely mind-blowing and surprising to me.
Everything I've been practicing over the past few years—mindfulness, meditation, fighting the ego—is also present in the Catholic faith.
That may seem obvious to some of you, but it was absolutely shocking to me. I've been a Catholic from the time I was born, but I never really learned much about the religion growing up. And, now, mapping the concepts I've come to love so much to my faith felt wonderful.
Here's are a few examples of how they fit together:
1. Relief comes from one thing
I've long believed that accomplishment won't bring us happiness, or even relief from our worries. The only thing that can is learning to manage our selves.
And the Jesuits rock at doing that. Their method is by far my favorite approach to mindfulness yet.
From the four years I spent at a Jesuit university, I remember the phrase "contemplative in action" being thrown around left and right ... but I had no clue what it meant. While I don't want to get too technical on you, this is how the book explains it:
Go out into the world to make it a better place—by doing things, making things, helping people—while always maintaining a mindful stance, knowing every moment is an invitation to serve and encounter God.
And that answers one of my biggest doubts about mindfulness.
The more I study and practice mindfulness, the more I realize that silence and calm is needed to truly kill the ego. If you have nothing to prove to anyone, you don't need to speak or do much of anything at all. Does achieving true mindfulness lead to becoming a hermit or monk?
I hope not! I love the peace of mind I get from mindfulness, but I also love making stuff. Many of the people I've interviewed on my podcast have agreed with me when I say I feel most alive when I'm creating!
The Jesuit approach is a sort of middle ground, calling on us to replace the ego with our true desires. Margaret Silf puts it this way:
"We tend to think that if we desire something, it is probably something we ought not to want or to have. But think about it, without desire we would never get up in the morning. No desire means no life, no growth, no change. Desire is energy, the energy of creativity, the energy of life itself. So let's not be too hard on desire."
For a person who loves adventure and exploring my interests, the concept of being a contemplative in action is a Godsend.
Quite literally, actually!
The book briefly mentions the idea that God meets us where we are, reaching us through our interests. If that's true, it would explain why we feel something like transcendence when we reach creative flow. Or, for example, it would explain why I'm exploring my faith through my love of books.
(Funny to think about this random religious book winding up on that celebrity news site I love. Was that you, God? 🙈😂)
While there is no relief in achievement, we can always find relief in being a contemplative in action.
2. Serve others first
So, assuming we all want to take action and make things, sometimes we come up against a tricky question:
"What should I make?" or "What should I do?"
You can examine your desires, but sometimes it's hard to choose. For me personally, I have so many different interests: writing, photography, fitness, public speaking (just to name a few). It can be difficult to decide which one to focus on.
The Jesuits speak of discernment: perceiving or recognizing God's will. Which, yeah, difficult. So they provide this helpful framework:
Follow the path that leads you to feel consolation, not anguish.
Seems simple enough, right? Which, again, brings great relief.
The Jesuits, though, focus on using our talents to improve the world, or "help souls."
Of course, this isn't just a religious concept—I spoke about this with Ali Nelson back on the first episode ever of Process. Even more recently, my friend Justin Jackson mentioned serving others in his discussion of makers confidently promoting their work. Serving others is popular these days, which I love. 🙌
Once you determine what kind of work you should be doing, or what you'll do to improve the world, the Jesuits emphasize doing our very best work to serve others.
The book tells the story of an elderly stone-carver who spent hours and hours working on a statue for his church. One of his colleagues grew impatient with him and came to examine his work, only to find the elderly man toiling over the back of the statue that nobody would ever see in a dark corner of the church. The elderly man answered him, “God will.”
Always do your best work to help others, no matter what.
3. Identify with nothing
This parable from the book describes this perfectly:
The wise man had reached the outskirts of the village and settled down under a tree for the night when a villager came running up to him and said, “The stone! The stone! Give me the precious stone!”
“What stone?” asked the wise man.
“Last night God appeared to me in a dream,” said the villager, “And told me that if I went to the outskirts of the village at dusk I should find a wise man who would give me a precious stone that would make me rich forever.”
The wise man rummaged in his bag and pulled out a stone. “He probably meant this one,” he said, as he handed the stone over to the villager. “I found it on a forest path some days ago. You can certainly have it.”
The man gazed at the stone in wonder. It was a diamond, probably the largest diamond in the whole world, for it was as large as a person’s head.
He took the diamond and walked away. All night he tossed about in bed, unable to sleep. The next day at the crack of dawn he woke the wise man and said, “Give me the wealth that makes it possible for you to give this diamond away so easily.”
If only we could all be that wealthy! Don't get me wrong—I'm by no means against having enough income to promise a healthy, safe and bright future. (I am, after all, an entrepreneur at heart.) But I am against the anxiety and stress that the "rat race" can create.
Instead of striving for money and fame, strive for release from the mental traps they create.
Growing up in a capitalist society, this is hard to fathom, right? There are two ways that have helped me.
Which is why I meditate.
The Jesuit version of meditation is called the Daily Examen, where you spend at least 15 minutes reviewing your day, looking for moments of gratefulness or remorse, and asking for grace for the following day.
I, on the other hand, just sit in silence and dismiss thoughts as they pop up.
Practicing quieting my mind for prolonged stretches of time trains my brain to stay in the present moment throughout the day. (There's that whole "contemplative in action" thing again.) Through that increased awareness, I'm able to identify things I can feel grateful for as they happen. (The book refers to these positive events as "God's graces.") The more I connect to the present moment, the more I enjoy tiny little moments that used to slip by unnoticed.
Whichever way you practice mindfulness, I'm all for whatever helps you become as "wealthy" as the wise man under the tree.
It's obvious I deeply enjoyed this book.
It's thorough but not overwhelming.
It's instructive but not dry.
It's actionable but not a to-do list.
It's inspiring but not corny.
I applaud you, James Martin, S.J.! You did a wonderful job with this book. 🙏
That being said, I'm only just getting started reacquainting myself with the Catholic faith. I don't know everything about the Jesuits, and I'm sure there are some aspects about them that I may not totally love.
Do they have all the answers? Not all of them—the book's title is The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything for a reason, I'm sure. The key word being "almost"! 😂 But the Jesuits definitely hit upon a lot of the concepts I've been practicing.
I still highly recommend the book if you're interested in the Jesuit approach to universal struggles like who to make the right decisions, getting to know yourself, and more. The Jesuits are an interesting bunch, to say the least. 😉
Up next: Important book for March
My book for March will be: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.
I'm so excited to jump into fiction this month! The last two books have been a great stretch for my spirituality, but I'm looking forward to relaxing into a story, you know?
I've tried to read this book a few times (at least three) and always give up around the 100 page mark. In full transparency, one of those times was because I got exhausted by a few difficult passages. That was at least eight years ago, though, so we'll see how I deal with the book's reading level this time around.
Also, the book is a historical murder mystery that takes place in an Italian monastery. I wonder if the past two books I've read (both on Christianity) will influence how much I enjoy this story.
Here's a recap of the books so far, in case you want to follow along:
Want to read along with me? Please do! Pick up Umberto Eco's book The Name of the Rose, and let me know what you think. I'll report back at the end of the month with my take on it.
And thanks for reading this monster post! I know it was a long one.
If this article resonated with you, you can find more info like this over at my free email series called Mindfulness for Makers. You'll receive 10 emails about mindfulness: what it is, why it matters, and how it can help you make better stuff. (Did I mention it's free?!)