Paul Maillet always knew what he wanted to be, where he wanted to go. He would be a concert pianist, a great one.
From the time he was 5 years old, his life was utterly invested in music. He spent hours every day at his piano, composing, playing, practicing. His gift was evident to everyone who knew him, and who knew music.
For more than 30 years, the Peabody Conservatory graduate moved determinedly toward his goal, performing on stages across five continents and winning one prestigious piano competition after another. But as he progressed, as his solo performances met with the kind of critical acclaim reserved for those with world-class potential, he was also traveling along another path; another life was trying to make a claim on him.
Raised in a devoutly Catholic family, Paul Maillet had always been a person of deep faith. He loved going to Sunday Mass with his family. Sometimes, even while in grade school, he would go to Mass during the week by himself.
"I remember when I was young having very special feelings of peace when I was in church," he says.
Although he was never an altar boy, he went on retreats and served on lay committees that helped select the music for the Mass. His spirituality did not go unnoticed at his Catholic high school in San Antonio. At the age of 18, he was asked by one of the priests there if he wanted to be a priest.
"What I remember," he recalls, "was that the idea didn't sound crazy to me."
It was 1976; one year earlier he had made his professional debut as a pianist in Monterrey, Mexico. He was on his way. Any thoughts of having a career in some field other than music were not much on his mind.
But, still, through the years, as he studied at the Eastman School of Music at Rochester and under the Peabody's great Leon Fleisher, the question put to him by the priest in Texas, and its implications, never left him, no matter how hard he tried to push them away. Could he be a priest? Should he?
The answer came to him last year while he was doing volunteer work at the Gift of Hope AIDS hospice in East Baltimore. One October night a patient at the hospice died, and Mr. Maillet was the first to find him. It was a man he had spoken to only the day before, a wasted, intravenous drug user. The man had been full of anger, Mr. Maillet says. "I had read about patients who are about to die hanging on because they were waiting to resolve one final thing. This man was in tremendous pain, and he had been hanging on for a week," Mr. Maillet says.
"That night, when I was talking to him I wanted to relieve him, help him to let go. So I said to him, 'When you get to heaven, please pray for me. Pray that I'll have the courage to be a priest.'
"I knew it was coming from very deep within me," he says. "It just came out."
The two paths that Paul Maillet had been traveling along simultaneously for his entire life had finally crossed. He applied for permission to enter Mount St. Mary's Seminary, in Western Maryland, to study for the priesthood.
He is an abstemious-looking man. He has a narrow face and deep eyes, with dark skin around them. His hair is cut short, and yields a hint of gray at the temples. Though polite and attentive in conversation, he seems to be very much inside himself at all times.
At 37, Paul Maillet is about five years older than the average seminarian. He is one of a growing number of older men who leave established careers to enter the priesthood.
In the current class of 165 seminarians at Mount St. Mary's, there is one doctor, more than one attorney and a couple of former college professors, according to Frank Buhrman, a spokesman for the institution. "We had a guy a few years ago who had been a butcher," he says.
The age range of the current class goes from the early 30s into the 50s. Some are widowers and fathers; a few are even grandfathers.
These days Mr. Maillet wears black trousers and black shoes, a white shirt and black tie, and keeps a black cardigan nearby. It is the uniform of the pre-theologian, kind of a freshman priest. He has been at the seminary since August. He has five years of study ahead of him. After the third he hopes to take a break and work in a parish.
The reasons he gives for what he's doing sound simple and plain, especially in light of the long agony of indecision he had to go through before arriving here.
"I want to serve others," he says. "I want to spread the gospel. It's the most important thing in my life. It's something I wish to share."
He sits on a white chair on the high porch of the main seminary building at Mount St. Mary's. The Catoctin Mountains that rise up behind are approaching their full autumn blaze. The campus falls away below, crossed by white paths: There is a playing field, a dining hall, other buildings of white stone untouched by industrial grime. Across Route 15, the hay is harvested and trussed-up in oblong bundles and scattered in fields the color of cinnamon.
The seminarian's routine begins at 6:30 with morning prayer, then Mass at 7. That is followed by breakfast, classes in philosophy, introduction to theology, scripture and a course in the catechism of the Catholic Church.
In the afternoon he reads, more theology or logic, and writes papers. He swims in the new recreation building on the other side of U.S. Route 15 and once a day tries to drop into the archives building nearby, an old restored house.
His piano is there, a gleaming black Steinway grand he won in the Sherman Clay Steinway Piano Competition in 1982. It is positioned by a stone fireplace in a warm room cluttered with historical artifacts about the seminary, founded in 1808.
He plays the Prelude in F sharp minor from the "Well-Tempered Clavier," Book 2, by Bach, and as he plays he seems to have reconciled all ambivalences he may have been harboring, found the coherence in his life, at least for the moment.
When he finishes, he says, "I try to get here every day, but sometimes I only make it four or five times a week."
He comes to play, not practice: no drills for three to five hours a day, none of the rigorous exercises, the disciplined repetition required of full-time concert pianists. There is no time for that now, nor is there ever likely to be if he goes all the way through to his ordination in 2001, and becomes a diocesan priest. Priests have other things to do: their pastoral work, their teaching, the mundane administrative duties that go with the priestly life.
In this, one sees what Paul Maillet has given up: He will never play at the level of his potential. It is something he thinks about, but says does not disturb him.
The same cannot be said for some of his friends.
"It was very shocking," says Dorothy Taubman, his piano teacher for the past six years. "Though I shouldn't have been shocked. I knew of his religiosity, but you don't know what he had reached. Especially with the 110th [Beethoven's Sonata in A flat] and the [Schumann] "Carnaval." I'm sorry. He could have been one of our greatest pianists. To the music world he is a great loss. To the church he is a great gain."
Paul Maillet has performed in Europe, Asia, Latin America and North Africa, Canada and all over the United States. In 1982 he won the prestigious Yale Gordon Concerto Competition. He did his undergraduate study on a full tuition scholarship at the Eastman School and received an Artist Diploma from the Peabody in 1985, where he studied under Mr. Fleisher.
He has won the National Endowment for the Arts Solo Recitalist Grant, and First Prize in the Sherman Clay Steinway Piano Competition. There are many other prizes and awards on his resume, and from the way he was going, there would have been many more.
Paul Hume, the Washington music critic, said after a Maillet performance of the Schumann "Carnaval" in the National Gallery of Art six years ago, that it "fulfilled all that I ever long to hear in it, and that is a view that began with the incomparable Rachmaninov performance fifty years ago."
The Sun's critic, Stephen Wigler, also acknowledged Mr. Maillet's great potential, though he questioned whether he could make it "in a commercialized, cut-throat world in order to have the career that he should deserve as a pianist."
Less than a year ago, he performed as soloist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Lorin Maazel, which is acknowledged as one of this country's top orchestras.
Now he has walked away from it all.
Asked again, at the Peabody Conservatory, if he is fully reconciled to his choice, he remains silent for a long, long time. Maybe he is annoyed at having it brought up to him time after time. "Well, if it means I won't have a chance to have a major international career, I'm reconciled to that," he says. The archdiocese, he adds, expects to use his gifts in some capacity.
"I hope to continue playing, if at a slower pace."
He has a concert engagement in Florida during his spring break; he will have others; he will continue teaching at the Peabody Prep in Baltimore. He does not expect to leave the world of music behind entirely.
For Paul Maillet, music and religion were always the twin preoccupations of his life, always there, always strong within him.
He was born in Colorado City, Colo. His father was a social worker in the Army, so the family traveled around a lot. Wherever the Maillets went, their faith went with them. They attended Mass together every Sunday, honored the saints' feast days, prayed at mealtimes, decorated their houses with crucifixes and pictures of saints here and there.
And it was a musical family. Mr. Maillet's father, Edward, sang in church choruses. His mother, Jane, played piano and flute. His sisters Ann and Monica played piano; his sister Madeleine played violin; his brother Peter's instrument was the trumpet.
"And we all played the recorder," says Mr. Maillet, the middle child. "Sometimes we played together."
But for Paul, the music became something more. It began, he recalls, with a recording of the opera "Carmen."
"I remember, I was sick and my mother asked if I would like to hear some music," he says. "She put that on, and I just fell in love with it." At first he thought he would be a composer, branch out to other instruments like the violin and cello. But it soon became clear that he would be a pianist.
Yet even as he won scholarships, prizes and critical acclaim, he felt the pull of the priesthood. In Baltimore, while at the Peabody, it grew so strong that he sought guidance from three different priests.
He turned to the first of those, Father Leo Murray, a Jesuit priest at St. Ignatius, in 1983. Father Murray, now in Philadelphia, remembers him as "a very talented young man who was sincerely interested in the church and how God was calling him to live. At that point, he was convinced his career would be in music."
For several years, Mr. Maillet tried to reconcile the demanding and competing emotions that roiled within him. He says he had "no desire to be a priest" back then and, in fact, was fearful that God might be calling him.
"First, I knew it would involve giving up what I wanted to do. And the idea of celibacy was not attractive to me," he says.
He had dated a lot of women. In at least three of those relationships marriage had been discussed.
So he continued to push it from his mind, to focus on his music. And his career continued its ascent.
The first people to learn about Paul Maillet's decision to enter the seminary were his parents. He had kept them informed of the tortuous play-by-play going on in his mind by weekly phone calls.
They were ecstatic about his decision, he says. So was his sister Anne, a nurse in Boston.
"I think it's great," she says. "I know he considered it long and hard. He seems like he's really happy about it."
His two other sisters and brother, she reports, are all behind him.
The news did not go down so easily in other quarters, though no one who knew Paul Maillet well was completely surprised by his choice.
"It's very hard for me to understand that kind of commitment," Mrs. Taubman says. "My commitment is to my music. He's happy with it [the decision]. It has made him very happy. He hasn't finished with the piano. He's finished with the piano as a career."
In fact, Mr. Maillet believes his playing has improved since he entered the seminary. And, perhaps more importantly, he has found someone to emulate, who has experienced the same conflicts that he is going through now. It is the Rev. Sean Duggan, a Benedictine priest in New Orleans. He, too, is a pianist. He is also a two-time winner of the Bach International Competition in Washington -- the first time as a Benedictine monk in 1983, the second time as a priest in 1991.
"He is one of the greatest pianists I've ever heard," says Mr. Maillet of Father Duggan. "It's as I referred to before, it's playing at a spiritual depth. A lot of pianists have the muscular techniques and the gymnastics down. I've found it paradoxical that the more I've taken steps in the direction of the priesthood, my playing has gotten better. I think most people think that."
Father Duggan, 41, is flattered by Mr. Maillet's high regard for him. But he also stresses the pianist's need for practice.
"Nothing can replace practice," he said. "My big problem in life is I never have enough time to practice." But he adds: "On the other hand, people can practice until they're blue in the face, and if they don't have that something, their performance is not going to be up to par."
Father Duggan, with all his priestly duties, his teaching of Latin and music at St. Joseph's Abbey, says he does the best he can. He usually confines his engagements to the New Orleans area.
The two men see things in the same light.
"I think the more spiritual a person becomes, the more spiritual his playing becomes," says Father Duggan. "That's part of what makes a great artist, the depth of the spirituality in the artist's performance."
So it is not a matter of accepting a depreciated musical life in exchange for another kind of fulfillment. One can nourish the other.
Mr. Maillet says he is being drawn more and more to a certain kind of repertoire. "Ten years ago I was interested in Liszt and Prokofiev, and lot of the 'knuckle-busters,' as Leon Fleisher called them." Mr. Maillet describes them as pieces "that have virtuosity display as one of their primary purposes."
"The Prokofiev Toccata is one of them; I used to play it a lot," he says. "Now I'm interested more in the late Beethoven, Schubert, Bach, some Schumann. This is music that emphasizes content over showmanship. Music more likely to move an audience than excite them."
In fact, he adds, "I expected to have a lot more anxiety and doubts after making the decision than I actually have. There has been a feeling of resolution and freedom."
But his decision to abandon his career in favor of the Catholic church, though firm in his own mind, still awakens ambivalence in some of those close to him. His friends want him to be happy; they endorse what he is doing. But at the same time their conversations suggest faint, if lingering, hopes that, perhaps, everything is not settled. And, in a way, perhaps it's not.
"This is what he's chosen to do," says Mrs. Taubman. "Who can understand? All I can say is I love him very much."
But, she adds, "You know, the seminary is five years, and many of them leave." Then, on reconsideration: "But with Paul, I don't think he will."
Cecilia Di Medici, who runs a foundation set up to help American pianists, and who holds a music festival every year at her villa in La Gesse, France, says she encouraged Mr. Maillet in his course of action. She is a pianist herself, and a direct descendant of the brother of Lorenzo di Medici, the great patron of Renaissance Florence.
"Most people gave him a hard time," she says. "I said, 'Baby, it's wonderful. Go ahead.' He's very mystic, a very religious man. I think it's his place, the church. We have two popes in our family, so I may be biased."
But she, too, left open that other possibility. "I said to him, 'Paul, if you don't want to continue, you come out.' "
Surprisingly, even the subject of all this concern has admitted the possibility that maybe the final decision is not entirely final, or even his to make. He takes counsel from his uncle, John Hilts, a priest at St. Martin De Porres Parish in Yorba Linda, Calif.
"Just tell people you are going to the seminary, not necessarily going to become a priest," he advised his nephew. "It is a long time, and in the end, it is up to God."