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
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 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