Following the Voice Inside Him

Following the Voice Inside Him

Paul Mariani isn't exactly sure why he wanted to come to BC - but he's very glad he did

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Catholic writer Paul Mariani was making a spiritual retreat with the Jesuits in Weston in early 1999 when, he said, a small voice inside told him: "Go to BC. Go to BC."

"I keep being surprised by God. He has this knack for knocking you off your feet." -Paul Mariani (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Mariani was, at the time, well established as a senior member of the English faculty at the University of Massachusetts, with a family and home in the Berkshires, and a successful literary career.

But there it was. "Something clearly in my mind said, 'Go to BC,'" he recalled.

So he wrote Boston College President William Leahy, SJ. "Tell me if you think I'm crazy," he wrote. Fr. Leahy responded: "I'm interested."

It followed that Mariani was offered - and accepted - a professorship at Boston College.

Because Paul Mariani listened to his inner voice, BC added to its English faculty a noted Catholic poet and essayist who is one of America's foremost literary biographers.

The story of his arrival at BC, Mariani acknowledges, smacks of "Field of Dreams," in which the Iowa hero is directed by a muse to build a baseball diamond in his cornfield and make a cross-country pilgrimage to Fenway Park.

"There really was this sense," he said in a recent interview in his Carney office. "It was enough for me to leave a tenured job - I was a Distinguished University Professor four years from retirement - and come here.

"I don't know fully why I'm here yet," he said. But he recalled saying as he first set foot on the BC campus last year: "I'm home."

Mariani, whose papers were acquired this fall by Burns Library, recently completed his latest book. Thirty Days: On Retreat with the Exercises of St. Ignatius, an unflinching account of a midwinter spiritual retreat made at a Jesuit house in Gloucester, is to be released in hardcover by Viking Press in March.

His most recent biography, of poet Hart Crane, titled The Broken Tower, was published by W.W. Norton in 1998. Previously, his biography of poet William Carlos Williams was nominated for the National Book Award. Both of these biographies, as well as his life of poet Robert Lowell, were named a "Notable Book" by the New York Times.

Thirty Days springs from a diary he kept while following the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius on a 30-day silent retreat at the Jesuit's Eastern Point retreat house on Cape Ann.

"No one's ever done this before," he said. "Hundreds of books have been done for spiritual directors, but no one has actually written a book cataloguing the transformative experience of the Exercises hour by hour, day by day."

The regimen of silence and prayer during the so-called Long Retreat was "very powerful," Mariani said. "It brought me closer to myself than anything I've ever done."

The poetry editor of the Jesuit magazine America, he plans to complete a biography of Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in the next few years.
Mariani is among the contributing essayists in Signatures of Grace: Catholic Writers on the Sacraments, released in 2000 by Dutton. His fifth book of poems, titled The Great Wheel, was published by W.W. Norton in 1996.
His collection of essays, written over a 15-year period and titled God and the Imagination, is scheduled to be released next July as part of the University of Georgia Press' "Poets and Poetry" series.

A daily communicant at Mass, Mariani and his wife, Eileen, have three sons, the eldest of whom, Paul, was ordained a deacon in the Society of Jesus last month in California, and will be ordained a priest next June.

Said Mariani: "I keep being surprised by God. He has this knack for knocking you off your feet."


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