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Day two
photo of Gloucester harbor
On the long retreat
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Editor's note: In the winter of 2000, Paul Mariani, a middle-aged literary biographer and poet, made the 30-day Ignatian silent retreat--what Jesuits call "The Long Retreat."

Friday, January 7, 2000
8:10 A.M.: Clouds partly covering the rising sun, which would have peeped over the horizon at 7:13. Down to breakfast, intending to eat sparingly, as Ignatius suggests. But the box of raisin bran being "almost" empty I emptied it, for the thousandth time smashing my resolve as I sat there with a bowl of cereal that kept multiplying like the loaves and fishes.

9:45 A.M.: Another emotional meeting with JJ. It is not, of course, how I thought things were going to proceed. I had it mapped out that the retreat would start with ground well-covered: the First Week with the universe as God had laid it out; then mankind's fall, and the need to recover that world. It would be like looking at a history play, with myself as interested onlooker, the important episodes of history having played themselves out millennia before I ever came on the scene. Later, in the Third Week, when it meant spending days meditating over Christ's Passion--all right, then the tears might come.

We talked. Or rather I talked and he listened. What was it about the passage from St. John's gospel that so troubled me? Finally I saw what it was: a sense not only of Jesus' being rejected, but of my being rejected. I was thinking now of my father's mantra that he wished us kids would get married and move on, and my poor romantic failure of a mother drinking for solace, then leaving the house altogether for weeks.

JJ listened, then asked simply if I thought God could heal all this. I deflected the question and talked instead of my passion for justice that had come out of being unjustly treated, and how I hated a lie and the Father of Lies.

I spoke of my zero tolerance for cheating, for plagiarized work. Of the New York City detective in my prose composition course back in '68 who tried to palm off an essay I knew wasn't his. Only by luck did I discover the same essay in a brand-new textbook a publisher had just mailed to me at Hunter, which I opened on the subway on my way downtown to teach at the Police Academy on East 23rd Street.

"I didn't do it," he kept saying, even with the goddamn essay right there under his nose. A tough Irishman with a pockmarked face: tall, wiry, his fists opening and closing as if squeezing something. Capable--I realized--of real violence. Just do the goddamn thing over, I told him, and we'll forget this episode. His lying had the smell of rotten cheese, and he was right in my face with it. If he persisted in lying to me, I told him, I was going to the dean with the evidence.

It was late when the class ended--after 10:00 p.m.--and I noticed another cop had also stayed behind. I glanced up in the midst of my argument to see him staring intently at the bulletin board. Suddenly, the classroom felt very big and very impersonal. After the detective left, the cop--a young guy fresh out of the Academy--came up to me and told me that the detective had a bad reputation on the street. It was late, he offered. How was I getting home? The Lexington Avenue, I told him, with a transfer out to Flushing. Stay under the streetlights, he warned me. All the way home I kept looking over my shoulder. But the incident passed. The following week I received a bad essay from the detective. For three pages it focused on the broken toilet in a suspect's tenement room.

2:15 P.M.: JJ's question, so unlike what any psychotherapist might ask. Can God heal all this? Can He at least give me a right heart?

At the end of our session this morning JJ gave me a map and told me to get some exercise. I think he could see that I was getting overheated and needed to relax and let God work in God's own time. It's a control issue, I see, this continual search for Archimedes' lever--that I'm going to cure all this rather than God. That's what he was saying to me by his question.

"Take Farrington Avenue," he said, pointing it out on the map. "Take it over to Atlantic Road and follow that up the Atlantic side of Eastern Point to Bass Avenue. There's a beach there called Good Harbor. Sandy, broad, a place where you can walk." And so, after praying in chapel and writing in my journal, I put on my light jacket and ski cap and got in my car.

Forty degrees, blustery, clouds half-hiding the sun, low green waves rolling in and crashing against the sand. I crossed the bridge over an estuary of bluegreen water that was now flowing backwards out to the ocean. An old man was powerwalking, lifting his arms and shuffling a bit pathetically, like a character out of Beckett. Myself in 15 years, I thought. Two women in their twenties took off at a brisk pace, one jacketed, one leotarded, their two golden Labradors circling them, one of the labs dashing into the icy water like a crazy teenager: circling, running out again, then whirring itself dry. I trudged on, thinking, following in their fast-receding tracks, taking in the waves and sand and weather. I felt happy, as if somehow relieved of some great but undefined burden. How simple life could be if you let it. A walk on a beach in the wake of two happy dogs.

Afterward, I drove into Gloucester, this time intent on finding a specific landmark: the statue of Our Lady of Good Voyage that looks out to sea and beckons her mariner children safe passage, going and coming. Ten thousand fishermen from Gloucester lost to the sea in the past 350 years, and Our Lady of Good Voyage: mother of the sea, her eyes full of concern and caring. A woman holding in her large, capable arm--her left arm--a schooner, while her right hand is raised in blessing. "Look for the two blue-domed towers," JJ had said. "Up Prospect. You'll see her up there."

I parked in the lot beside the church. This is working-class Gloucester. The building is Portuguese in design, modest, five-windowed, with a school off to one side. There, above the school and a package store: Our Lady between two towers, the left one empty, the right filled with four bells. The church itself--like most churches now--was locked against vandalism so that I could not go in to say a prayer. But there she was, above me, cradling her schooner, double masted, nestled there like her child. "Captains coming into the harbor use the towers to bring their boats in safely," JJ had said. Looking up at her, I could believe it.

I drove about the streets, thinking of Charles Olson, a.k.a. Maximus, that six-foot-six poet who loved Gloucester as William Carlos Williams loved that other working-class town, Paterson, New Jersey. The filthiest swillhole in all Christendom, Williams had once called his beloved city, the place where my grandmother and mother grew up, working in the mills along that river. One comes to love such places, no matter how plain or ugly to an outsider. There is something in the very blood that keeps coming back to the mother, isn't there? I thought of Phil Levine, of his love for Detroit, of all poets from Whitman on who have sung our debased, beautiful, democratic cities, our people, our unsung masses. Vivas for all of them. And for all unknown poets and for all those who sing, or even croak, a song of joy.

I headed back as slowly as I could into East Gloucester and then on to Eastern Point. Inside the compound, a backhoe was opening a trench from the front porch down to the stone gate entrance of one of the grand houses that front the harbor. Laborare est orare. To work is to pray. Everything seemed to glow just then with a whole new life. This, I thought, is how Emerson and Thoreau must have seen things on good days. Rinsed and whole.

Paul Mariani

Paul Mariani is a professor of English at Boston College. He has published biographies of Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and William Carlos William, as well as his own poetry--including The Great Wheel (1997). This essay is drawn from Thirty Days: On Retreat with the Exercises of St. Ignatius, Paul Mariani, 2002. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, Penguin Putnam. The book is available at a discount from the BC Bookstore, via the BCM Web page: www.bc.edu/bcm.

Photo: Gloucester harbor

Gary Wayne Gilbert



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