Mariani stands apart from this. His poetry, as explained in my essay, restores the term “confessional” to its sacramental significance. It is not a secret diary blown open by the wind or a police blotter plunging downward in a column of newsprint, as it were, but a prayerful record of self-discovery made in the presence of God. Saint Augustine’s Confessions is the most obvious antecedent alongside those distinctly modern features of his poetry that come from Lowell among others. I return to Mariani’s work, once again, because his own discussion of the vocation of the Catholic poet seems such a fruitful point of departure in answering the question, what must the Catholic artist do, in our day or in any day?
For his answer, Mariani draws our attention finally and above all to the example of Saint Paul, and to surprising effect. In the very center of the Acts of the Apostles, we watch as Paul comes to Athens; he finds a great “market place” of ideas, where “Epicurean and Stoic philosophers” meet him amid the Jews and gentiles of a city that, as Paul himself proclaims, must be “very religious” (17:18; 22). Very religious indeed, as the city is chock full of idols; their various devotions are multiplied by their decadent curiosity, which Luke describes by recording that “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21). This is not the Athens of Plato, where the question of philosophy was a question of life and death, but the Athens of the Roman Empire, where Roman curiosity has become a kind of indulgent decadence, a place where interest in ideas was only increased by a doubt that any of them finally were to be credited and adopted. They had an interest in wisdom but little hope that anyone actually could be wise.
These pagans had, however, arrived at an intellectual maturity, where philosophical reflection had deepened traditional religion until the bold natural theology of Aristotle, with its prime mover and final cause, and Plato’s absolutely transcendent Good, understood as one god, supreme, father of all, had become something like the common sense of all educated persons. They represent therefore an unfortunate but familiar coupling: genuine intellectual sophistication, rigorous refinement, and decadent unseriousness.
Saint Paul, as he comes to address these pagans in the Areopagus, appeals to both dimensions of their character. To their sound metaphysics and natural theology, he proclaims that the “unknown god” at last has been given a name and may be known to each person most intimately: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth . . . is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’”(17:24; 27-28). More subtly, he corrects their clever unseriousness, by wryly observing, “I perceive that in every way you are very religious,” and by provoking them to recall that, beneath decadent curiosity, lies a genuine eros to know the truth and to be saved, to “seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him” (17:22; 27).
Read it all.