2016-06-30
In his new book, "In Good Company: The Fast Track From the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience," Father Jim Martin describes his journey from a high-powered, high-paying corporate position at General Electric to the Jesuit priesthood and a vow of poverty. Recently, he spoke with Beliefnet Catholicism producer Jenny Kinscy about his experience.

Your story calls to mind the major differences between the corporate world and the spiritual life. Do you ever see similarities?
Yes, I do. First of all, they're both organizations. The Catholic Church is a big organization, and General Electric was a big organization. There are a lot of parallels in terms of hierarchy and efficiency. The Jesuits are pretty efficient in what they try to do and General Electric is as well. They're worldwide organizations, so there's a sense of the international aspect, say GE and also the Society of Jesus and the church certainly. There are many more differences, though. At least where I worked at GE, I found that there was less of an emphasis than I would've liked on kindness, compassion.

I was amazed reading the horror stories from GE. Especially the story of the woman who had asked about overtime, and the supervisor was really rude to her.
All of the stories I tell in the book are almost verbatim. I eventually got tired of what I saw as a lack of humanity in the corporate world and the way people treated each other. I mean, the church is not perfect and the Jesuits are not perfect, but I have to say that that's one thing that I really appreciate in the church, and as a Jesuit, that sense of treating another person as a human being, not as just a means to an end, which is what I think happens a lot in corporate America.

In the book, you describe how you went from this job in a severely corporate atmosphere to a vow of poverty.
Right.

And only a stipend.
Yes, $35 a month...

I was going to ask if that was hard, but I think the question is more, how hard was that?
Surprisingly, it was not hard. Everyone says that it must've been hard to go from this high-flying, high-paying, yuppie lifestyle into this very (what some people consider) austere regimen of the Jesuits. It was great. I went from this stressful job, an insane 24/7 life, to a life in a religious order that was much more contemplative, relaxed, human...focused more on prayer and service to the poor. I had no problem shifting gears at all. I think the first year as a novice was the happiest year of my life up to that point. I welcomed it, and I was so happy when I left the corporate world.

Have you heard about the book from any of the people who were at GE?
All my friends who were at GE with me at the time tell me that they feel it's very accurate. One friend of mine called me after reading it and said that I had left out some of the worst stories. It was something I definitely wanted to move away from.

But the specific people that you speak about in the book--like the manager who arrived at a company picnic too late and missed lunch--you mentioned that he was so angry that he "glowered wordlessly" before storming out. What would he think of what you wrote about him?
In the book I say that the names are changed out of charity in these corporate horror stories. These are all real people at GE, but I didn't really think it was necessary to name them and point fingers at them. But I thought it was very necessary to tell some of these stories as explicitly as I could to just give people an idea of what I was reacting against, and what it was that compelled me to look for something else.

It seems like it helped you to get to that place where you'd say, "God! Give me a sign!"
It did in a way. I think God always takes us where we are. One of the hallmarks of Jesuit spirituality is to always ask people, "Where is God in this situation?" And so even in the midst of this misery of working in the corporate world, working at GE, God was working. God allowed me to see why I was miserable. I think that feeling of wanting something more came from my bad experiences in the corporate world, and God was even working through that. To lead me to something better, or something else.

Why the Jesuits in particular? I know you've gone over that a lot in your book.
Initially I knew almost nothing about the Jesuits. It was just a chance comment by my parish priest who suggested that I get in touch with the Jesuits at a nearby college. What appealed to me was that they seemed to be able to do almost anything as priests and brothers. So you would have Jesuit architects, lawyers, and doctors...I have a friend who is a Jesuit architect who helps design low-income housing for people. I found this notion of being able to use your talents and use them at the service of the church really appealing.

As I continued on in my Jesuit training, the spirituality really appealed to me. This notion of finding God in all things just fit me very well. I like to tell people that at the beginning, being a Jesuit was something that I was doing, and now it's more something that I am.

In the book, you mention that even after you were in the novitiate, you were saying, "Yeah, I haven't really studied Catholicism since I was 10 years old!" I'm used to hearing stories of people who have studied from birth until they were 13 and then gone straight into the order.
Yeah, I knew very little. Friends of mine used to joke and say that if you had gone to a Catholic school, you probably wouldn't have become a priest! I knew very little, like a lot of adult Catholics, and it wasn't until I entered the novitiate that I really started my education. The experience for a lot of Catholics these days is that they need to reappropriate their faith.

Can you say more about the precept of "where is God in this situation?"
If I could encapsulate Ignatian spirituality in just a few words, it would be finding God in all things. No matter where you are, there's always the opportunity to find God there. And to find out what God is trying to say to you in this situation. The thing for me was that at the time, I wasn't aware of that. But at the time, I think what God was doing was helping me to see that there might be something else that I'd want to do with my life.

How did your family and friends take the news of your becoming a priest?
They were really not prepared for it. I had essentially 28 years to prepare for this, and when I sprang the news on them about it, they had five minutes to respond. At the time, I was very surprised at how negative a lot of people's reactions were. I think my family was worried that I wasn't going to have a family of my own, they thought I'd be lonely, they thought I was giving up a career that I'd worked really hard at.

My friends of course thought I was crazy. Most of them didn't know a lot about the Jesuits, and nor did I, for that matter. What happened was that the more they got to know other Jesuits and the work they did, the more comfortable they got with my being a Jesuit, to the point now where everyone is just happy to see that I'm very happy.

I think people generally have this idea of feeling separated from priests.
People have these images of priests being very holy all of the time. I mean I try to be holy, but I'm definitely not all of the time. My brother-in-law came in once to one of the Jesuit communities, and he said, "Well it must be great because you never fight." And I said, "Well, why would you say that?" He said, "Well, you're all priests. How can you fight?" And I said, "Well, live with us for a while, and you'll see."

I think that's the fallacy. People suspect that once you go on the spiritual path, you'll be perfect and holy. You're still human, and God has to work with that.

Do you ever feel the urge to go back into the corporate world?
No! You know, most of my friends who are Jesuits are working, doing corporate work. I visit them in their offices, we go out and we keep in touch. I think I miss the glamour of being in a fancy office and having people working for you. There's a part of me that misses a little of that. But then when I think about what I'm doing now, I really don't have any regrets.

You've gone to Wharton Business School and you have this great professional background with you. Have you ever thought of incorporating any of that?
After the novitiate, I spent two years in Africa working with refugees in Nairobi, helping them start small businesses like tailoring shops, carpentry shops, bakeries, and things like that. I have to say, I've never used my Wharton background as much as I did when I was in Africa as a Jesuit. I think God can use all of your talents if you open yourself up to Him.

People go for college degrees in business and other fields that they know will lead them to a job with good pay. It seems to me like it all really depends on what we mean when we say "good pay."
Right. Jesus talks in the gospel about the hundred-fold. When I was in Kenya, I had a lot more job satisfaction than I ever did when I was working at a corporation, because it was a combination of being able to use my business skills and working in service towards other people, based on compassion and kindness, religious values. I was able to use my own skills that I brought with me for, as the Jesuits say, the greater glory of God. It was remarkable.


For seekers, people who are in spiritual limbo, some are in the same situation you were in. Do you have any advice?
My advice is always to trust that God is at work in your life right now. Just be open and attentive and listen to where God might be. I think God speaks to us in different ways. I think one of the challenges of the seeker is to realize that any one of those ways is valid. For example, if you are very close with friends, God may be speaking with you in conversations with them. If you like to read, God may speak to you somehow through reading, whether it's scripture or other kinds of reading. So I think "God takes us where we are" is a wonderful maxim. It's just a question of listening, being attentive, and praying and reflecting on what's going on in your own life to be able to see where God is at work. I think sometimes we mistakenly assume that it's going to be like a voice or something.

Or the proverbial "burning bush."
Right. Hey, I haven't seen too many burning bushes...I think if I did I'd probably be scared out of my mind! But it's usually nothing like that. It's usually something small or something more personal, and I think that a lot of people downplay those smaller personal moments and say, "Well that can't be God. God has to be something really extreme or really dramatic." But I can think of something like someone holding a little baby and feeling this wonderful feeling of warmth and gratitude and awe. That's God speaking to you. What is God trying to tell you and reveal to you?

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