I am forever grateful to Paul Mariani for his biography on Gerard Manley Hopkins. When I first started reading Hopkins, his poems lit a spark in my soul, but at the same time they baffled me. The man behind the poetry, the convert and Jesuit priest who died young, remained unknown. A wonderful poet in his own right, Mariani believes poetry is transformative in part because through it the reader and writer become friends. When reading someone like Hopkins, there’s a yearning to know the man himself. Mariani writes, “I love poems…when I read something that touches me, I want to go deeper, probe further, go beyond the text to the human being who wrote those lines…the grit and the sand that the poet somehow turned into a pearl of lasting, resonant beauty.” So very true, and the reason I was thrilled to get my hands on Mariani’s recent book of essays and autobiographical musings, The Mystery of It All: The Vocation of Poetry in the Twilight of Modernity.
Poetry is a declaration that, “things and events and people do matter,” and even if the perfect word doesn’t come easily, a poem participates in the mysterious reality it attempts to name. Beauty comes to us as if from a foreign kingdom and breaks upon our shores, as Mariani writes, “And we pick up the pieces – luminous shards, really – wherever we can.” The vocation of the poet is to light the signal fire. Mystery is “gleaming and beckoning, gleaming and beckoning,” not only in words but also the poetry of our lives, such as, “A spouse caring for a wife undergoing dialysis three times a week,” or, “A son at a funeral service telling us how his father gave away his shoes to a shoeless man down in Kingston, Jamaica.” Poetry intimates a deep, cosmological reality underlying a seemingly ordinary veneer, so a poet never fully masters words but, rather, spends a lifetime growing into them. It’s a form of surrender. “To say yes to something,” Mariani writes, “to give oneself over to it, can be a dangerous thing.” Beauty is a gift that, if we get too close, burns.
A decade ago, after fighting it for many years, I was finally mastered by beauty and entered full communion with the Catholic Church. The journey began when I first read deeply in poetry – Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Robert Southwell, William Shakespeare, George Herbert, John Dunne, and always, always Gerard Manley Hopkins. I fell in love with how close Hopkins stood to the fire as he peered into the deepest-down mysteries of the world. His poetic insight revealed Christ in strange places – the flight of a bird, the bottom of a well, the Welsh mountains, and most of all in Mother Church. He gave me courage to follow his example, to surrender my spiritual home in the Anglican Communion and follow beauty into the Church – she is the most beautiful living poem I have ever encountered and the most dangerous yes I have ever given.
As a convert and priest, I’m often asked to explain myself. Why join the Church? I can only shrug and respond that the Church is a love letter, written in a poetic language I barely comprehend. Mariani says that certain poems are, “A living dream of the Holy.” This, for me, is the fearsome reality I face every day at the altar of God. I suspect that for most converts, intellectual argumentation is far down the list of reasons to enter the Church. To paraphrase Benedict XVI, no one makes such a major life change for an idea. One might, however, do so for love.
This is precisely why poets have a singularly important vocation. They speak to the mystery of love, and ultimately all love springs from a single, divine font. Mariani gets it exactly right when he says, “…at the heart of the matter is a Mystery so profound that thought alone, language alone, no matter how compelling its force of eloquence or rightness, can never of itself convince us…But I have found that poetry – of all languages – with its metaphor and music and its resonating underthought offers the best way of touching the hearer’s heart as well as his or her head.” Poetry is the language of God. It is the language of coming home. Mariani describes it beautifully, writing about a theophany in the mountains; “and you will descend, returning / to a world which will or will not / care. But know too that this moment / may well return and it will be / as if we came together then / forever and for good.”
I’ve never met him, but I’m glad to call Paul Mariani my friend. We are all on the same pilgrimage together and poetry is our summons to lift our face to the sun and walk.