Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Prose and Poetry: Paul Mariani
[Etching credit goes to Barry Moser]
Gerard Manley Hopkins? He's one of the driving reasons behind creating The Fine Delight; he's a poet and priest who revealed the beauty in the idiosyncrasies of the faith. And Paul Mariani has done so much to maintain Hopkins's standing as a poet of importance, but also introduce a new generation of writers and readers to the particularly Jesuit identity of the man.
Mariani's sweeping biography of Hopkins--Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life--is a must-read for students of the poet, as well as those hoping for further insight into the pleasant quirk of 19th century literary conversion. And his memoir, Thirty Days: On Retreat with the Exercises of St. Ignatius, breathes life into the storied Jesuit tradition, and does so with a constant sense of self-reflection (after all, is this not one of the essential elements of the Exercises?).
Our previous interview with Fr. James Martin revealed some of the clear benefits of the Jesuit approach toward faith--and, in particular, the regimented, revealing actions of the Exercises--and Mariani's perspective is unique and useful. Mariani is a lay person, a poet and scholar of poetry, whose son, Paul, is a Jesuit. Mariani is certainly aware of the Exercises from an outside point of view, and the book is especially useful for lay persons because he is not a Jesuit reflecting on a constant practice. The beauty of the "retreat" is the movement from the normal, the relocation of oneself, the shock to the system of faith that forces (or enables, perhaps) the participant to redefine the world on the outside. The essential element of the retreat is that, though it is intense and all-encompassing, it is temporary, and the participant will return to the outside world. It is this return that reveals the success or failure of the endeavor.
Mariani leaves in a day of rain and fog, apprehensive about leaving his wife, unsure of his spiritual director. Mariani notes that he's long lived in the Jesuit literary tradition: Hopkins, Brian Moore, John Donne, Flannery O'Connor, and others who implicitly or explicitly represented the Order. He's also aware of the structure of the retreat, at least in a practical sense, with the "thirty days of silence" as the ambiguous, yet essential, core of the experience.
Mariani firmly places the reader in the world of the retreat. We see the spiritual director, the room, the offices, and the overwhelming silence of reflection. All throughout, Mariani shares the realities of his own backstory and life, including his decision to teach at Boston College after years at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Everything, though, is filtered through the silence and Scriptural reflection inherent in the exercises, where the Word is made real through extreme focus. This is not the focus of analysis, and not the sometimes dry deconstruction of theology, but instead the lived understanding of Christ (writers like Luke Timothy Johnson and John Meier are able to still maintain such life in erudite theology!).
Exercises, Mariani's life, physical setting, Scripture. The book, in a recursive fashion, moves between these four modes, and the effect may not be explicitly noticeable in the first half of the book, but as the reader moves toward the conclusion it becomes clear: Mariani's prose reveals that the retreat allows him to see the connections without the seams. To realize that his life as poet/writer/teacher/father/husband is one so grounded in belief that the doubts, the reconsideration, and ruminations are the natural result of a life lived with God on the mind.
Mariani has written much in the sacramental tradition, but one poem in particular, "Quid Pro Quo," captures the essence of his tonal relationship between God and man.
The poem is direct, and, though narrative in form, deeply considered. The setting is "an empty classroom," and the close context is the narrator's "wife's miscarriage." The impetus is a question from a colleague, who asked
what I thought now
of God's ways toward man.
The colleague is described as lapsed, but his identity is less important than the world of the question: how can the believer explain his belief when it has done little to really help him? Little, at least, in the world sense. The colleague obviously expects at downward gaze, a smirk. Instead, this happens:
I surprised not only myself but my colleague
by raising my middle finger up to heaven, quid
pro quo, the hardly grand defiant gesture a variant
on Vanni Fucci's figs, shocking not only my friend
but in truth the gesture's perpetrator too.
It's a rejection of the moment, a posture toward God (as we've seen powerfully done in the work of C. Dale Young). It's done for many reasons, not the least of which anger. Why hasn't God responded to this narrator? Shouldn't faith guarantee the individual some attention?
The narrator and his wife have a successful birth; it's no small feat, this miracle, and the narrator is aware. It leads the reader toward a reasoned, heavy final stanza that leaves me aware of Mariani's awe:
best, just last year, this same son, grown
to manhood now, knelt before a marble altar to vow
everything he had to the same God I had had my own
erstwhile dealings with. How does one bargain
with a God like this, who, quid pro quo, ups
the ante each time He answers one sign with another?
I love the movement here. The narrator's son is a priest; he's a man who's made his own contract with God, one that resides clearly within humility and service. The poem circles, but does not simply end with an admonishment of earlier selfishness and pride (what God, really, is worth believing in if He merely lives to judge in the ways of our petty world?). The narrator is grown, and he's smarter, and the word "sign" is perfect here: reason alone is insufficient when dealing with divinity. The narrator's attempts at bargaining have been replaced with an acknowledgment that his relationship with God is far more complex.
Posted by Nick Ripatrazone at 11:54 AM