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Optics for exploring soul's topography: a perennial pilgrim describes his 30-day retreat with the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola.


By Paul Mariani

Viking Compass, $23.95, 302 pages

"Have I not prayed all these years to have my passions brought under check?" Ignatius Loyola? No, just another bloke making the Spiritual Exercises.

In this case, Paul Mariani, a biographer of four modern American poets, a poet himself with five books to his credit, and a professor of literature for 30 years and counting. As Thirty Days reveals, he has perceived himself as a perennial pilgrim to a variety of shrines. That's because he's been a perennial sinner, with the crime sheet to prove it. As antidote, he's resorted to all sorts of spiritual exercises, from annual retreats to daily Masses--all in an attempt to hold his spiritual mass together.

At the end of 1999, he decided to do the Big One. Not the Slim-Fast 8-day version, which he'd already done a number of times, but the 30-day version. The Long Retreat. The Pauline Decathlon. The "flashiest" event in the history of personal spirituality.

Apparently, all Mariani had to do to enter this exclusive club was telephone Gonzaga House in Gloucester, Mass., and ask the pretty voice at the other end to send him an admission form. That, and "30 dollars a day, plus [his] undivided attention" was all it took.

Once an estate of the rich and famous, Gonzaga House fronts on the Atlantic. There are winter birds riding wintry winds, a thousand shades of gray in the sky. On the horizon, a trawler going from left to right one day, the next, going from right to left. Isolation in excelsis.

Inside the rambling mansion, there was warmth of all sorts. A wood-paneled common room with glowing fireplace. A chapel with pillows. A library with books and newspapers. And a dining room where the retreatants sit facing the angry Atlantic and eating in silence. Candles ablaze, classical music and always fresh flowers. As for the food, "the same democratic cuisine, day after day." Not a bad place in which to review the progress, or lack thereof, of one's own poor soul.

Upstairs was Mariani's room with a view, if it could be called that. Cot, desk, chair, and a lamp with the last 100-watt bulb in Christendom. The spiritual director appointed him was Jesuit priest John J. Bresnahan. It was J.J.'s job to meet with the retreatant for up to an hour a day, provide him with scriptural quotations, and point him to certain passages of the exercises. That, and to keep the retreatant on the rails.

As for the spiritual exercises, whatever else they were, they were a set of optics through which the retreatant could explore the topography of his soul. A Hubble telescope through which nose pores quickly became big as moon craters. Not a pretty sight for Mariani, and certainly not for me as reader. J.J. may have been paid enough to go through the spiritual laundry, but I certainly wasn't.

Central to his sense of sinfulness was a love affair he had in 1994. A month into it, the other woman wanted to know where it was heading. He hadn't a clue, but he moved out of his home anyway, stunning his wife and three sons.

He writes: "It took me a little over a month to wake up to the enormity of what I had done. I was drowning. I wanted to stay with the woman. Why not? No responsibilities, just a little pasta cooked up,

a glass of wine, a few laughs." Lustful, yes, but apparently never prideful, he didn't see himself as last of the red-hot lovers.

Enjoying more the agony of lust than its ecstasy, he knew he was never really going to leave his wife. He ended the affair better than Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles did theirs in Graham Greene's famous novel. An eight-day retreat helped, and he soon regained entrance to his own hearth.

Such consolation and desolation as he enjoyed through the retreat were accompanied by tears and Kleenex--both supreme gifts in this precarious context. The days were filled with furious physical, intellectual and spiritual activity; the nights, with nightmares and erotic dreams. One day during a snowfall, making the outdoor Way of the Cross, at the Ninth Station (Jesus falls the third time), he fell to his knees and remained there until he'd turned into a snowman.

All the while he was praying, he was also writing, the sort of prayer a writer makes best. "Words. Page after page of this journal I've filled with words. But how can words capture what the heart feels?"

Concomitant with his account of the retreat, Mariani whipped up a mini-biography of Ignatius Loyola and a running historical documentary on the Jesuits. Particularly edifying is the martyrology; in the 20th century alone, 342 Jesuits were martyred worldwide. Impressive, if anyone was counting. Mariani was; he has a son who is a Jesuit priest by now. Indeed this whole work is something of a paean to the Society of Jesus.

In haste to write this review, I read Thirty Days in one sitting, which isn't the best way to read a diary. Now I think I may reread the book soon--perhaps I should say, pray the book--with Mariani, by way of his many and varied ruminations, leading me through the exercises as deftly as J.J. had captained him through the exercises.

A final word. Present on every page of Thirty Days, there seems to be the fleeting figure of his wife, Eileen. At the very beginning she's pictured "cleaning shelves, doing laundry, writing notes," a Nervous Nelly about her husband's departure for 35 days. Or so he worried. To me, though, she seemed more an attractive than a pathetic figure. A Penelope who on hearing Odysseus say, "See you later, hon', I'll be back in 10 years," cracked an invisible, and, if visible, inscrutable smile.

She survived the extramarital affair with strength and dignity, kept the family together, forgave her husband, and even fell in love with the lout again.

As interesting a fellow as Mariani is, I'd still rather have dinner with his wife. She's the one!

William Griffin was a Jesuit in the New England Province for eight years (1952-1960). He made the Long Retreat in 1952. With fondness he remembers having met in the 1950s nearly all the Jesuits Mariani encountered at Gonzaga House in 2000.
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Title Annotation:Thirty Days: On Retreat With the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius by Paul Mariani
Author:Griffin, William
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 17, 2002
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