On the Radio

I’m settling in at the Starbuck’s down the street from where I was scheduled to do a radio interview last night, when the phone rings.  I answer it, and my mother says, “are you alright?”  I say, “Yeah,” emphatically, wondering why she would think otherwise.  It’s about 7:05, and the show I’m scheduled to be on at 8:20 has just started.  They said something about a tornado, and “don’t worry, Father Mark is alright,” she tells me.  Not only am I alright, but I’m clueless about the storm, possibly a tornado, that ripped through New York City last night.  I’ve just walked across Manhattan, and it wasn’t even raining.  My mother reassured, I settle in to my light sandwich and chai tea, as I listen to the show to try and calm my nerves a bit, and get a feel for what they are talking about tonight.  It’s my first radio interview.  Shortly, I’ll be in the studio, and I don’t know what to expect.  I’m happy to discover that it’s “faith and culture” Thursday, where they discuss the intersections of popular culture and faith—right up my alley, and in many ways the theme of my book!  I’m feeling a bit more comfortable, and glad I wasn’t able to do the show the night before during which they answer questions about the mass (not that I have anything against that, but it just wasn’t as good a fit!).

I head over there early, and I’m glad I did, because there’s a not-so-fast and a bit complicated security procedure to get in the building, and I’ve just entered behind a band that’s playing in one of the other studios.  Off I go up to the 36th floor, where I arrive finally only about 5 minutes early.  And wait.  It’s an interesting place.  The waiting area is kind of what you might expect, a spacious advertisement for Sirius XM, with ticker-type displays showing what’s playing on various channels at that moment.  I’m ushered down past a row of studios, to the studio of the Busted Halo show.  It’s a small rectangular box, not even as big as my room, with equipment and four people.  Ruben Blades is in the next studio over.  I say hello to Father Dave Dwyer, the host, and Robyn, the producer.  She shows me the chair the microphone, and the headphones (which seems strange, because Fr. Dave is only a few feet away from me).  I announce that this is the first time I’ve done this.  Don’t be afraid to get too close to the microphone, I’m told, and just talk, the sound guy will take care of everything else.  “Did you hear about the tornado?”  Father Dave asks.  And I tell them about the phone call I’d just received.  Great way to break the ice.  And we’re off!

Sure, I was nervous, but I was surprised at how comfortable I felt.  I was a little self-conscious.  I noticed that my arms were talking too, which seemed kind of silly.  And, since there were three other people in the room to my left (Fr. Dave was to my right), I found myself instinctively looking in their direction from time to time.  As I settled into the conversation it got easier, and it seemed like we were speaking for more than 20 minutes, in a good way.

It was fun.  We got to talk about general ideas about encountering God in all things, especially in culture.  We talked about the book.  We spoke a little about my experience of my vocation.  And it just seemed like a fun chat, though I felt a little under pressure to respond quickly, and avoid “ums.”  It seemed to go OK, and it was a good way to cut my teeth for a couple other radio interviews I have coming up, where I won’t have the advantage of being in the studio.

It’s strange this new moment in my life where I find myself now speaking frequently about “my book.”  I’m hoping it remains clear to people as I go about this that as much as the focus might be on me sometimes, as with this interview, the most important thing for me—and the reason I wrote the book—is in hopes that I can help people to better connect with God.  I hope that I did so last night with my little foray into the radio world.  Today, it’s back to ordinary life, where hopefully I can do the same, outside of my book.  Thanks for reading/listening.  And if anything I’ve said or written has helped you get better connected with God, please share that with others.  You needn’t give me any credit because, really, all the credit goes to God!  Happy Friday!

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My Favorite Book by Fr. Jim Martin (so far) . . .

One of the exciting things about being a priest, especially a Jesuit priest, is that we are not always sure what kind of situations we might find ourselves in that demand our ministerial skills. The recent General Congregation spoke several times, as has the Pope, about how often as Jesuits we are especially called to be on the “frontiers” of faith and culture. Some of my most privileged moments of connecting with people have been outside of typical “church” contexts. Traveling from one place to another, for example, you never know what kind of need you might encounter. Often there’s a chance to help someone, or listen to their story in a way that is part of my priestly vocation, even if that person doesn’t even know that I’m a priest (I don’t wear clerics 24/7). But I also like it when I’m with a group of people, my fellow German language students one summer, for example, in which I just happen to be a priest sharing an experience with them. A lot of the time the fact that I’m a priest doesn’t make a difference, but there are times that it does. There are the conversations—what’s it like? And there are the times when people do have a need to talk about something, or ask for help, and they know that I’m someone who they can probably count on.

I’ve noticed recently that I run into a lot of people that I would term “religiously indifferent.” They’re not hostile toward God or religion. And they are often very good people. However, for some reason, it hasn’t occurred to them that God should be a part of their life. It makes me wonder what it would be like to be “chaplain” to a group of people that one is not typically chaplain to. Like bikers, circus performers, journalists, buskers, CEOs or something like that. Those are interesting “frontiers” one could explore!

Father Jim Martin has offered a peek into just such an experience in his bookA Jesuit Off-Broadway. Don’t let the title fool you. This isn’t a light-hearted reminiscence on one Jesuit’s brief dalliance with the New York theatre world. It is a remarkably engaging and often deeply moving account of being a priest on the frontiers of faith and culture, of finding God in new and surprising ways. He almost seamlessly moves from his account to being theological advisor to the off-broadway production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot to reflections on some of the most profound theological questions, and does so by showing us how the troupe of actors which he came to know and love struggled with those same questions. Fr. Martin admits to being a little star-struck at first, especially having the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman as the play’s director. But he soon enough got over that to see how real these people were, and how serious they were about honoring the lives and beliefs of the characters they were portraying—Saint Monica, Saint Thomas the Apostle, Judas, Jesus, Mother Teresa, etc. As his story progresses, we witness not only the sometimes uncomfortable birth of a work of art, we see how Fr. Martin and the cast are transformed by the experience. All this is placed in the context of the Christian tradition in a revealing and enlightening way, and as one continues to read, one starts to feel as if they know and love this group of people, just as Father Jim comes to know and love them too. And one sees how the Spirit works in varied and surprising ways because a priest has been introduced into what at first seems a “foreign” context, but which eventually is revealed by compelling portraits of each of the cast members, as a place—a holy place—not so foreign at all. I think I’ve become one of this book’s biggest fans.

One of the most moving parts of the book for me, came at the very beginning, in the foreword by the playwright, Stephen Adly Guirgis. He explains:

“I asked many questions that, perhaps, one is not supposed to ask, and, on occasion, Father Jim would reply with answers that perhaps he was not supposed to give. I tried to—and needed to—leave no stone unturned, and Father Jim, secure in his faith and his priesthood, never did anything but supply direct answers to pointed questions. And he did so kindly, thoughtfully, and with both a passion for the subject and a wealth of com-passion for me—his confused, often irate and disconsolate lapsed Catholic Interrogator. In short, he was everything I think a Priest should be: caring, thoughtful, strong, unimpeachable—and up for the challenge. In short, I have no doubt that Father Jim is one of Jesus’ true soldiers. And trust me: I’m not the doubt-free type. I drown in doubt, and to the degree that that’s true, Father Jim, from our first meeting and right up to today, is slowly teaching me to swim.”