Book review: A priest bares his soul

Finally available in English decades after the Chinese version was published, ‘Journey to Mexico’ is a breezy but thoughtful and personal read about Barry Martinson’s spiritual journey that will challenge your inner cynic

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Thu, Jan 10, 2019 - Page 14

Up until last month, Father Barry Martinson’s Journey to Mexico was an unusual case in that only a Chinese version was available despite the book being written in English. In 1985, Martinson’s close friend and late writer, Sanmao (三毛), was so impressed by the manuscript that she translated and published it as Chanashiguang (剎那時光), which roughly means “a fleeting moment.”

However, the Jesuit priest remained hesitant about publishing it in English because it was “so excruciatingly personal,” he writes in the afterword. “But as the years passed, I cared less about this and just wanted to get the book out while I was alive.”

The original title, On Becoming a Father, probably better encapsulates the book, as it is not just about Martinson’s trips to Mexico and his friendships with Mexican migrant workers in Oregon, but about his spiritual journey from when he first started wanting to be a priest in third grade up until 1982 when he took a sabbatical from his duties at Hsinchu County’s Chingchuan (清泉) and returned to San Diego to study art.

In these pages, Martinson comes off as different than the calm and serene figure that visitors to his church in Chingchuan may encounter. He is insecure and still seeking his way as a Jesuit priest despite having already been serving in Taiwan for six-plus years.

“After once again experiencing the joy of just being a ‘brother,’ the challenge then was to return to Taiwan and carry on my life as a ‘father,’” he writes.

He worries about his shortcomings and has a hard time letting go of his friends and family, and his musings and innermost thoughts are interspersed with the lively and well-paced narrative, making for a breezy yet thought-provoking read. Martinson’s prose is simple yet descriptive, sprinkled with anecdotes, episodes and reactions that make the reader chuckle.

It’s understandable why he was reluctant to publish it, but there was probably no reason to worry as the average person likely struggles with many more demons, and the average memoir features a greater amount of scandal. Priests are human too, and it’s these kinds of deeply personal revelations that resonate with the reader, regardless if they share the same religion or not.

“But often what is most personal is often most general,” Martinson aptly writes in the introduction.

Yes, Martinson’s observations and interactions with the migrant workers and his art teachers could make interesting articles, but it probably wouldn’t be enough for a book.

Those interested in missionaries in Asia or who live in Taiwan will be drawn to this book, especially those who have rubbed elbows with Martinson. While his other books, Chingchuan Story and Song of Orchid Island, focus on his experiences in those locales, Journey to Mexico really gives us an understanding of Martinson’s motives and how he became the person he is today.

LEAVING WORLDLY PLEASURES BEHIND

Most people would find it difficult to fathom why someone would voluntarily give up their worldly pleasures for priesthood, considering especially the Catholic Church’s reputation. Although it’s not an easy path, Martinson’s intentions seem driven by a simple desire to help the poor and spread God’s word. From the moment he gave up the money he saved to buy his high school class ring to help destitute children in other countries, his path was set and he wavered but never strayed.

In fact, almost all the people he meets in the book are also full of kindness, which will undoubtedly make the story rather surreal for the more cynical readers, such as this reviewer.

Martinson briefly mentions a young man who experienced a more drastic turnaround than the author, giving up a promising law career and girlfriend to become a priest. But his girlfriend is not bitter, and supports his decision because she only wants him to be happy. It’s hard to imagine this happening in today’s ego-driven world, and maybe a little bit more could have been expounded on this couple to contrast with Martinson’s experience. But, it’s his story after all.

And given Martinson’s character, it really isn’t a surprise that he attracts and surrounds himself with like-minded people. Or perhaps it’s just that he tends to see the good and beauty in people, as he frequently reveals in the book. He’s never reluctant to describe a person’s physical appearance as “attractive” and “beautiful,” and when his art teacher criticizes him for making his life drawings look like “movie stars,” he simply replies: “That’s what I see.” Perhaps that’s the only way he’s been able to carry on for so long while still retaining such an unadulterated character.

“Why paint ugliness when the world is so full of beauty?” he asks later. “If I see something beautiful in people, shouldn’t I paint what I see?”

Martinson has continued his art career in Taiwan, and visitors to Chingchuan will be able to his work, especially his murals outside his church, and he’s been selling his glass paintings to raise money for various improvement projects.

Fortunately, the book is not overly preachy, with the religious parts integrated into the stories and musings. It shows that Martinson knows how to appeal to a wider audience because, after all, his life’s mission is to convert people, and you don’t achieve that by shoving the Bible in people’s faces.