In Desolation and Consolation

Book cover
Thirty Daysby By Paul MarianiPenguin Putnam. 285p $23.95

Paul Mariani is a poet, critic, biographer and holder of an endowed chair in the English department of Boston College. (In his idle moments he is also the poetry editor for America.) In Thirty Days he gives us a spiritual memoir, tracking his experiences while making the long retreat set out in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. The journal begins with his arrival at the Gonzaga Retreat House on Eastern Point in Gloucester, Mass., on Jan. 4, 2000, and ends when he leaves to return home on Feb. 7. (The time frame includes days for both preparation and debriefing.) The book’s divisions reflect the retreat’s composition of four weeks, with several entries for each day.

The book’s subtitleOn Retreat with the Exercises of St. Ignatiusexpresses, I think, both Mariani’s use of and his respect for this traditional form of Jesuit spiritual renewal. He is not offering us a how-to manual; much less is he writing a treatise on the spiritual life. His goal is more personal and more difficult. Mariani sets out a story of sin and grace...and the intimate knowledge of God’s love operating day by day. He does this to help his readers, who might perhaps even be encouraged to undertake the Exercises for themselves.

Mariani is a gifted poet, a mature writer, whose control of his material is beautiful to witness. For so talented an artist, everything is grist for his craft. And therein lies the difficulty: can he be true to what he is experiencing, while recording it for an already contracted manuscript? Mariani acknowledges the dilemma, but wisely neither dwells on it nor allows it to deter him. Rather, he seems to move through the retreat purposefully un-self-conscious. I believe that if he had not been able to do this, he would have jettisoned the contract. Why am I so sure? Because the book radiates the intensity of his 25-year desire to spend this time in silent pursuit of God. No one who reads the book will doubt his motive. Moreover, Mariani makes it possible for the reader to feel his confusion, delight, fear and passion as he struggles to meet his God more intimately.

I did not find Thirty Days an easy read. The author’s soul-baring at times made my skin crawl. References to erotic dreams, marital infidelities and a painful childhood told me more than I wished to know. His frequent bouts of tears struck me as both authentic and off-putting. Several times I found myself wondering if I liked this personwould I enjoy knowing him? Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet the farm.

Still, I was drawn to read his journal slowly, reflectively. My reaction puzzled me until I remembered a similar experience when I read C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed in the weeks after my husband’s death. Much of what I read in both works was foreign to my experienceyet how deeply each author spoke to me. In both, the pain of separation and the longing for presence were palpable. Repeatedly I found myself pausing, caught by an insight that led me to pray.

Mariani makes use of his knowledge of biblical studies and his travels in Israel, calling on them when he engages in the Ignatian practice of composition of place. His keen imagination allows him to set the scene for each meditation with startling clarity. Were one to see these exercises of imagination as ends, rather than means, one would destroy their efficacy to open the retreatant to God’s grace. Mariani is reasonably aware of the temptation. When he stumbles, his director steadies his resolve. Over and over, in ways big and small, Mariani (re)learns the truth that in the spiritual life everything is important and nothing is important. Everything is important because God is there; nothing is important because nothing is God.

On the evening of Day 24, Mariani writes: I’ve been thinking again of what JJ [his director] said: what is it I’ve been looking for as I make these Exercises. For one thing I’ve been trying to answer the question Jesus asked Peter, and now seems to be asking me. Who do you say I am? One thing is clear. I’ve been trying to do with Jesus what I’ve done as a biographer with the lives of others: discover who the real Jesus is. But the mistake is to fully equate the real Jesus with the historical Jesus.... [T]here’s that other Jesus, the Christ of the Resurrection, transformed and transforming, the one who acts upon me and remakes the questioner, the pilgrim, the seeker. It is this Jesus I have spent these past weeks trying to approach. Isn’t it true thatat the most unexpected momentsI have been touched by this Jesus...? I don’t think I’m afraid of being touched, though I see now that I have used words as much to hide from Him as to find Him. All I can really do at this point is wait for Him to reveal himself in His own good time.

Thirty Days is a glimpse of the effects of grace in a man who tries, through silence and prayer, to come closer to God. Perhaps, like the retreat itself, it replicates the rhythm of any serious effort to find God in all things. Mariani writes in the Afterword that the Thirty-Day retreat recorded here was not the end but only the beginning of a healing, which has turned out to have ongoing implications, both in its desolations as well as in its deeper consolations.

Our task, I think, is to trust that such is ad majorem Dei gloriam.

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