Mariette in Ecstasy
by Ron Hansen
HarperCollins, 179 pages, $20
Ron Hanen’s Mariette in Ecstasy is a haunting, enigmatic novel that is almost impossible to categorize, and it represents a radical departure from Hansen’s previous work. His first two novels, Desperadoes and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, are inventive retellings of myths of the American West. His collection of short stories, Nebraska, won an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
What makes Mariette especially fascinating is that it deals with a subject that must appear esoteric and bizarre to today’s reading public. Set in a Benedictine convent in upstate New York at the turn of the century, it is the story of a young girl who experiences the stigmata, the five wounds of Christ, in her own flesh. The cloistered world of these thoroughly pre-Vatican II nuns, with their rigid rules, harshly penitential disciplines, and permanent, world-denying vows, must seem more alien to contemporary readers than the futuristic realms of most science fiction novels.
Given the remoteness and “abnormality” of this world, the expectations and preconceptions of the reader undoubtedly play an important role in how the story is perceived. There is, of course, a long and undistinguished tradition of lurid, melodramatic tales of masochism and smoldering sexuality in the monastic enclosure. The genre, which probably began with Boccaccio’s Decameron, moves on to nineteenth-century anti-Catholic novels such as The White Cowl to contemporary psychological fables such as the film Agnes of God. The publisher’s promotional material appears to build on the expectations associated with this sort of story, describing Mariette in Ecstasy as “a powerful portrayal of the disturbing world beneath the placid daily life of an American convent.”
But if Hansen works with some of the same materials, he has fashioned an altogether more serious and profound exploration of suffering and religious passion.
The novel’s form mimics the ordered time of the monastic day and the Christian year, an order that creates a backdrop of timelessness not unlike the patterned backgrounds in medieval illuminated manuscripts. The headings of each short section are from a saint’s day or memorial in the Church calendar. Brief scenes fade in and out, ranging from lyrical vignettes to nightmarish visions. The natural world, with its varying moods, its meaningful silences and latent violence, provides a continuous counterpoint to the novel’s action.
In addition, the narrative abounds in rich, sensuous descriptions that are central to the novel’s meaning. Living as we do in a more sterilized and abstracted world of steel, plastic, and fiberglass, the organic, tactile immediacy of the world Hansen depicts is arresting. In that time and place, things were more easily understood as sacramental; the physical and the metaphysical existed in close proximity.
Troughs of sunlight angle into the oratory like green and pink bolts of cloth grandly flung down from the high, painted windows. Still present are the wood oil smells and habit starch and an incense of styrax and cascarilla bark. Mother Céline and her postulant genuflect together and Mariette’s right knee touches down on a great red Persian carpet that seems as warm as a sleeping cat. She sees faint gyres of dust in the hot upper air.
The daily life of the convent is a mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar, of common sense and the seemingly irrational, of sanctity and gnawing discontent. The penitential practices of the nuns can run to the extreme. “Tightly sashed around [Mother Saint Raphael’s] stomach just below the great green-veined howls of her breasts are cuttings from the French garden’s rosebushes, the dark thorns sticking into skin that is scarlet with infection.” However harsh these mortifications may be, they do not create grotesque fanatics. Mother Saint Raphael is a humorless, autocratic superior, but she is also shrewd, practical, and painfully aware of her own failings.
For Hansen the convent, despite its austerity and isolation, is just as complicated as the world outside. It is a form of life that involves an intensified struggle with the self and its “devices and desires.” If the Seven Deadly Sins continue to assault the nuns, the convent, as a spiritual battleground, is a place that demands our respect.
The novel’s protagonist, Mariette Baptiste, is the daughter of a possessive, hyper-masculine father (her mother died when she was young). Mariette is an intelligent and strikingly beautiful seventeen-year-old when she enters the convent. She is the type of woman who would cause jealousy, envy, and adoration anywhere she went, including the monastic enclosure.
Rather than using her intelligence and beauty in the more conventional modes of academic achievement and marriage, Mariette withdraws into an intense inner life. She becomes a spiritual prodigy. All of her sensual energy and vivid imagination is channeled into her courtship with her divine lover, Jesus.
Within her first year in the convent, Mariette experiences the trauma of seeing her sister, who is also a nun, killed by cancer at the age of 37. She undergoes a spiritual crisis in which she loses any sense of Christ’s presence. Then, in the midst of this agitation, the stigmata appear on her body; she bleeds from hands, feet, and torso.
When questioned, Mariette claims that the stigmata were given to her by Christ Himself. It becomes clear that, far from being proud and ostentatious about these wounds, Mariette is embarrassed and troubled. The convent is thrown into a turmoil of conflicting opinions and emotional responses.
Here is a subject that is perfectly suited for Freudian analysis. If there was ever a paradigm of repressed sexuality, the apparently masochistic mysticism of the female religious would seem to be it. And yet Ron Hansen’s novel makes no attempt to explain Mariette’s experiences; there is no sense in which the author stands above and outside his protagonist’s life, ready to share a knowing look with his reader about this sadly deluded girl. The story is open-ended, allowing the reader to interpret Mariette’s experience in any number of ways. That is exactly what happens in the convent, where almost every possible reaction, from adoration to loathing and fear, is evoked by Mariette’s stigmata.
The open-endedness of the narrative is not a cop-out, but a sign of Hansen’s respect for mystery, that dimension of the Christian imagination championed by Flannery O’Connor. For the writer who acknowledges mystery, O’Connor held, “the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted. Such a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do . . . He will be interested in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves—whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not.”
O’Connor’s words describe not only Hansen’s vision but also his protagonist’s significance. The modern reader, consciously or unconsciously schooled by Freud, will note the eroticism of Mariette’s spirituality and be tempted to think that in 1906 repressed sexuality led to religious hallucinations. But Hansen’s narrative also takes into account the tradition, from the Song of Songs through Carmelite mysticism, of Eros as a metaphor for the soul’s relation to the heavenly bridegroom.
The final level of ambiguity in the novel concerns the perceptions of those who must interpret Mariette’s ecstasies. These perceptions are colored by the characters’ deepest hopes, fears, and needs. Mariette’s stigmata, like any intense and miraculous religious experience, act as a touchstone, revealing the inner lives of those around her. Though such revelations include jealousy, credulity, and anger, Hansen’s compassion is broad enough to forgive nearly all of them.
Hansen seems to leave the reader free to embrace almost any explanation of Mariette’s stigmata. But he is doing more than that. In leaving the narrative open-ended, the author is asking us to make our own judgments, and thus to confront and question our deepest beliefs and emotions. Despite the strong evidence for the truth of her experience, why is it so hard for us to let go of our suspicion that Mariette may be nothing more than a brilliant fraud? Is there something in us that refuses to accept such signs of God’s grace irrupting into our world?
At the end of the novel, Mother Saint Raphael says to Mariette: “God gives us just enough to seek Him, and never enough to fully find Him. To do more would inhibit our freedom, and our freedom is very dear to God.” Taken out of context, this might sound like a relativist’s creed, but the prioress is talking, in simple and direct language, about the nature of faith itself.
It is difficult to imagine someone like Mariette Baptiste living today, in the wake of the sweeping changes and liberalizations of the post-Vatican II years. The spirituality of the convent depicted in Mariette in Ecstasy would be condemned by many in the Catholic Church today as psychologically unhealthy and preoccupied with personal salvation at the expense of social justice. And yet, despite the allegedly morbid tendencies of the preconciliar Church, it is hard not to feel that something has been lost in the process of change. In returning us to that world, Ron Hansen communicates what the philosopher Unamuno called the “tragic sense of life.” That is why Mariette in Ecstasy deserves to be compared with the fiction created by such twentieth-century Catholic novelists as Georges Bernanos, Francois Mauriac, and Graham Greene.
Gregory Wolf is the editor of Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion.