Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Father Martin's Penance, 2007 Edition

Forgive James Martin SJ for seeming omnipresent -- he's filling a big need out there.

In the year since his My Life With the Saints struck publishing and spiritual gold, the assistant editor of the Jesuit flagship America has become one of the church's most visible presences in media and on the speaking circuit, a demand that can be chalked up to the Philly native's engaging style and vibrant, accessible spirituality. Such is his circulation in the public square that, recently, a secular cleric reported hearing that "the Fr Martin who wrote the book on the saints" was now on-staff at the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, and that the Jesuit was the guy to call if anyone needed anything.

However (wildly) amusing the rumor may be, it's categorically false. But it speaks well to the effect a dose of exposure can have among the church's chattering class.

One element of Martin's lore that has its roots long before he got to America House (and some clerics conjured him into the Vatican's service) comes from his undergrad days at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. Fascinated with the discipline of Lent -- and thinking it too easy for one to choose his own sacrifice -- a group of his Jewish friends took it upon themselves to assign Martin his annual penance.

A quarter-century on, the tradition's taken on a life of its own, so much so that to mark last Mardi Gras, the Jesuit recorded a piece on the unusual practice that ran on NPR.

A day early, the lone remaining penance-giver called in his decision this afternoon -- three decisions, actually, in keeping with the custom.

Now fulfilling his Wharton destiny in Boston, Rob Schlakman was Fr Jim's junior-year roommate. For 26 years without fail, Schlakman has dutifully selected a spice, "a sweet thing" and a substantive food that, in the name of his spiritual betterment, the Jesuit is barred from for the seven weeks leading up to Easter. Martin's "penitentiary" clearly relishes the task; so he can't cheat by gorging up on the contraband in advance, the items are usually communicated early on Ash Wednesday. Even during his mission to Kenya with Jesuit Refugee Services, Martin said a note would arrive "right on time" from the States bearing the notice of his annual sacrifices.

Just in case anyone thought he's getting off easy, Schlakman's list is just a part of Fr Jim's Lenten practice, the bulk of which is comprised by a ramped-up set of spiritual elements. The tradition can't be reciprocated, of course -- in accord with the Mosaic law, the penance-giver must fast from everything on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement which marks the most sacred observance of the Jewish calendar.

Last year, as the radio piece prepared to run, Schlakman informed Martin that his '06 "Lents" would be popsicles, pumpkin seeds and meatballs. One could've heard a pin drop as, milking the suspense, the Jesuit's onetime flatmate announced that this year's offerings would be anise, beets and caramel.

"Caramel?!" a shocked Martin asked. "But that's so hard!"

All wishes for a Blessed and Fruitful Lent to the newly non-caramelized Fr Martin, and to you all.