James Martin, SJ: How to Let God Renew You

by | Aug 15, 2021 | Prayers, Spirituality

A few years ago a Jesuit friend of mine told me that he was looking forward to “Jesuit summer.” Huh?

When he explained that phrase, it made sense. For him, Jesuit summer was the period between the Ordination Mass for Jesuit priests, usually in the second week of June, and Vow Mass for younger Jesuits, usually in the second week of August.

That phrase never caught on, but it’s lodged itself in my consciousness. And for many Jesuits that time of year is a time of renewal. Whether or not Jesuits work in a college, university, high school or middle school, the Jesuit year tends to revolve around the school year. So “Jesuit summer” is naturally a time for not only ordinations and vows, and a chance to reconnect with other Jesuits, but also one’s annual eight-day retreat. And of course rest, that increasingly precious commodity. Maybe even some vacation, or “villa,” as we Jesuits call it.

I’m writing this from my own time of “villa” in Cape May, New Jersey. After over a year of Covid, I felt an almost physical need to go to the shore and swim in the ocean. I had never felt anything remotely like that before. I’m all for vacations (though I usually limit myself to one week a year), but I’d never felt that I needed it as much. In short, I needed some renewal.

We all need renewal. That includes the Catholic Church, a statement (a fact, really) that sometimes surprises people who think about the church as only embodying an unchanging tradition. Yes, the church embodies tradition, but part of that embodiment is the openness to being renewed. Pope Francis, in a talk to the Vatican Curia in 2019, said, “Tradition is not static. It is dynamic. It is the guarantee of the future, not the custodian of ashes.”

In this he echoed St. John XXIII, who said on the eve of the conclave that would elect him Pope, “We are not here to guard a museum but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life.” What a beautiful metaphor for renewal!

As the church needs renewal, so do we all.  Even websites like TJP need renewal.  Thus their redesign!

But that leads us to ask a hard question: How can we renew ourselves? Especially in a time of pandemic, when it’s difficult to break away from old routines, and when the very goal of cultivating a “garden of life” may mean resisting new things—new places, new people, new events—in order to preserve life, how can we renew ourselves?

Let me suggest a few ways.

First, take time. “Jesuit summer,” as I mentioned, is the time when many Jesuits make their annual retreat. St. Ignatius Loyola required Jesuits to do this once a year, because he knew that no matter how experienced in the spiritual life one is (and we’re all learners, after all) we all need to be refreshed in our relationships with God. One important way to renew is to make a retreat: weekend, five-day, eight-day, even 30-day.

Now not all of us can do this, for reasons of money, time, or health. But even a day of personal retreat—turning off your phone, giving yourself solitude and spending time in prayer with God—is helpful. This can be at home, in a church, even in a park. Give yourself time to renew. Gardens need time to grow.

Second, be open to challenges. Often the people who are the most adept at renewal are those who listen to others who really challenge them: a spiritual director, a therapist, a trusted friend. You might be challenged to let go of an unhealthy pattern of behavior, to forgive someone who wronged you (or to seek forgiveness) or to start a new practice that will help you to grow in love (not gossiping, being less sarcastic, opting for a positive outlook). It’s extremely difficult to be challenged in these ways, and yet, like a garden that needs to be weeded and pruned, it’s necessary for true growth and renewal.

Third, remember that it’s God who is renewing. This may be the most important step of all. Often, we are liable to clench our fists and try to “white knuckle” the process of change. “Oh, I must change!” Our intentions are important, but in the end, it is God who is doing the renewing. Your role is to be open, to participate and to say yes to the change.

That can be frustrating as you wait for God to move you ahead in the renewal process; it may not seem that things are going fast enough. In fact, it almost never seems that way! But it’s ultimately consoling because the process is not simply in your hands. You have a partner in this renewal: the Master Gardener. But it happens in God’s good time, not yours.

When is the time for renewal? When is the kairos moment? Jesuit summer is a good time. So is summer proper. So is the fall, winter, and spring. The time for renewal is now, is always. And on the other side of that process is a beautiful garden, which God is weeding and pruning and tending and watering and feeding and delighting in. For that garden, which is ever being renewed, is you.


James Martin, SJ, is editor at large of America Media and consultor to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication.  His new book is Learning to Pray.