Brief Reviews, VOLUME 5

Stephen Martin – The Messy Quest for Meaning [Review]

Stephen Martin - The Messy Quest for MeaningA Prolonged Conversation with a Wise Mentor

A Review of

The Messy Quest for Meaning: Five Catholic Practices for Finding Your Vocation

Stephen Martin

Paperback: Sorin Books, 2012
Buy Now:  [ Amazon ]  [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by Kevin McClain.

Some people form, at a very young age, a strong sense of what they want to be when they grow up. These people are fixated on a destination, and they move through life assured of their meaning. Such people know what education will best help them achieve their goal and what activities, including employment, satisfies their quest. Other people find themselves in jobs in which they are fully capable, but which fail to resonate with them at a deeper level. They have a gnawing sense that something is just not matching up; they are not quite in the right place, there is more they could be doing. Sometimes this feeling overwhelms them with angst, which may foster serious health conditions or worse, bad coping habits. How should one respond to such people? One response would be to tell them that the disconnected feeling is normal; it’s called “work” for a reason. Humanity is fallen, and work is part of the curse. There really is no escaping that feeling, and so the best strategy is to “tough it out” in the most socially responsible manner possible. Develop hobbies – that is their purpose. Find the job that pays your bills best and push through the misery until you can retire. Everyone has a public self and a private self, and only the very few are able to have the two selves meet. You should not be surprised if you are not one of those privileged few (less the definition of “privileged few” lose its meaning!). The other response can be found in books like Stephen Martin’s The Messy Quest for Meaning. A book written for people like me.

The Messy Quest for Meaning: Five Catholic Practices for Finding Your Vocation explicates the profound truth found in the deepest traditions of the church, where the history and diversity of experiences, where both contemplation and labor, have contributed to streams of Christian Mysticism and Christian Humanism: the struggle that is making one’s way in the world is good! It is good for you, and it is good for your neighbor. Miraculously, God works it for good. And although we are not always granted direct knowledge of the good that results, we are charged with trusting God and embracing this struggle. Not to have it eliminated, but rather to fulfill the genuine needs of others that exist. In doing so, we will find ourselves more fully satisfied, and appreciative of God and our neighbor. Through the struggle we learn how God delights in us, weaving us into his plan of redemption of creation, accomplishing his work through us. This sentiment may be best summarized by St. Irenaeus: The Glory of God is a human being who is fully alive”.

All this to say that this is no easy task. It requires wisdom and discipline. Martin provides five practices, or areas of life, one should seek to cultivate: Desires, Focus, Humility, Community and lastly, what he calls, “The Margins”. Martin devotes a chapter to each practice, skillfully weaving the stories of a rich ensemble of characters, from famous athletes, to artists, from social activists to academics. The most frequent source of wisdom is the Trappist tradition, and Martin demonstrates a deep affection for these monks. They are like the extreme athletes of the spiritual disciplines. While he concedes that the life of monk is not for everyone (including himself), he is convinced that the Trappist way uniquely reveals universal spiritual insights.

The book is very much autobiographical; the first two chapters reveals much of Martin’s own story. He begins by telling how he found himself near a physical and mental breakdown, in a Wilderness (chapter 1) away from the community that is the church where his Awareness (chapter 2) of his situation was made more acute. Chapters three and four, “Desires: Digging For What You Really Want” and “Focus: Channeling Your Passions”, make the case that one should become a student of one’s self, and begin deliberately moving toward what draws you and cultivate space to practice your passions. Chapter five, “Humility: Embracing What You Don’t Know”, reminds the reader that vocational exploration often requires hard decisions and occasional results in what appear to be dead-ends. But Martin reminds the reader that such are part of the process. All this inspection might tempt one to embrace an individualism so acceptable in today’s society. Chapter six, “Community: Getting Outside One’s Self”, advocates that readers immerse themselves within larger groups of people. With the community, find the work that meets the needs of others, attempt to satisfy that need and then be attentive to their response to your efforts. Healthy community serves a sounding board for vocational experimentation. Finally, Martin encourages the reader to not become complacent with success, but instead to be attentive to the needs of others and continue to grow by taking risks. Ironically, the risk is not necessarily in doing new things, but more often by faithfully wrestling with the mundane. Chapter seven, “The Margins: Probing Your Potential”, reminds us that both flexibility and patience, or fidelity, are worthy disciplines to be cultivated.

The experience of reading Stephen Martin’s The Messy Quest for Meaning is like that of a having a prolonged conversation with a wise mentor, who in response to your droning on about your angst-filled career hand-wringing, tells you stories about how he, and others, have wrestled similarly. Your situation, he communicates, is not so unique, it’s actually very typical. We can take great comfort in the fact that others have hoed this row and have shared with us the lessons reaped.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

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Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
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