This essay originally aired January 28, 2016.
When Stephen Colbert was hosting his satirical news program on Comedy Central, he christened Father James Martin the “official chaplain of Colbert Nation.”
Martin is a Jesuit priest, journalist, and author of several books including, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything and Jesus: A Pilgrimage. So when it comes to Pope Francis, church politics, and Catholic theology, Martin is a familiar and reliable voice. And with his most recent publication, this celebrity-priest has added “novelist” to his resume. In The Abbey: A Story of Discovery, Martin applies his trademark charm, wit, and intelligence to fiction. The result is a delightful and thought-provoking allegory of faith in the modern world.
As the title indicates, the novel is set at a Trappist abbey—a place where monks work, live, and pray according to a rule-bound way of life. This abbey happens to be on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Here, the three main characters confront their deepest questions of meaning, morality, and mortality. We are first introduced to Mark, a young and aimless former architect who works as the abbey’s handyman. Next, there is Mark’s landlady, Anne, a divorcee whose thirteen-year-old son Jeremiah died in a tragic accident. Finally, we have Father Paul, a kindhearted abbot who oversees the abbey’s daily operations. He becomes a spiritual guide to Mark and Anne.
While each character has a unique persona, the questions that they confront are ones that anyone might ask: “What does my work say about me as a person? How can I find and keep romantic love? And why do bad things happen to good people?” This final question is the one that understandably plagues the grieving mother, Anne. In her conversations with Father Paul, she openly questions her faith, and directs her anger at God. Father Paul does not judge, condemn, or explain away Anne’s feelings. Instead, he listens, affirms, and stands by Anne as a comforter.
In scenes like these, Martin never betrays the first unofficial rule of fiction: “show, don’t tell.” That is, he avoids blunt narration in favor of allowing his underlying message to emerge from the words, deeds, and thoughts of his characters. So hidden in the subtext of Father Paul’s character, we might hear the echoes of Pope Francis, urging priests to be like “shepherds living with ‘the smell of the sheep.’” Messengers of the faith, in other words, should situate themselves among those whom they serve, meeting them where they are, and walking with them wherever they go.
Where Martin is most effective, then, is in fictionalizing a religious way of being that is life-affirming, merciful, and compassionate. Moreover, readers have an opportunity to join the characters, to temporarily leave behind the frenetic pace of their daily lives, and experience the calm and contemplative environment of the abbey. In this sacred space, Martin urges each of us to take a deep breath, and to listen and learn about ourselves, others, and our understanding of what really matters in life.
“The Abbey” by James Martin is published by HarperOne.
Our reviewer, Arthur Remillard, is a professor of religious studies at Saint Francis University in Loretto, PA.