Ron Hansen responded to an email I’d written as an undergraduate at Susquehanna. We had never met, but he answered a question I posed: how was he able to achieve such success in the literary world as an admitted Catholic? The question was framed with 20 year-old naiveté; as Rev. James Martin has noted during an earlier interview at this site, anti-Catholicism pales to other prejudices in this country. And I was just beginning to discover the incredibly rich and diverse Catholic tradition in American literature, a tradition that continues to evolve in contemporary letters.
Hansen responded quickly, and graciously, noting that he had to first write The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford—a “western,” and certainly mainstream literary fare—before he could publish Mariette in Ecstasy. Hansen needed to establish publishing credibility before he could release a book saturated in deep and complex Catholicism. But the attentive reader of Hansen knows that all of his texts are tempered with a Catholic worldview, even if that touch is implicit and careful.
His next note was even more interesting: that more writers than he could mention came to him on the sly, “like Nicodemus,” and wanted to talk about Catholicism. At this point Hansen was not yet a deacon; merely a writer who happened to be Catholic. The Fine Delight was created in part to communicate with such “seekers”. Hansen was clear (and I join him) that attempts to proselytize and convert are misguided and not the point; rather, the dramatization of the Catholic worldview made readers pause and reconsider the world (and the Word). RCIA didn’t need to be in their future; the Catholic sense, as Flannery O’Connor has intimated, is one of awe and grace, and it sometimes only speaks in whispers.
Mariette in Ecstasy is the most important Catholic work in recent memory. I am biased, since the book was an incredible influence on my own writing (and on my first book of prose poems, Oblations), but I have had many like-minded supporters. It is a condensed novel in length, but the concepts and characters and milieu are frighteningly real and powerful. I recommend it to everyone I meet that has even the faintest interest in literature, fiction, Catholicism, faith, stigmata, or language in its purest form. Mariette in Ecstasy works so wonderfully well for Catholics, and it also works so well for non-Catholics, or non-believers; the text is innately Catholic but an example of great art that is also catholic with the lowercase “c.”
The novel begins with two lists; first, the members of the convent, with Mariette being the only postulant (and immediately establishing the locus of the text in femininity, as the list is obviously devoid of men). The second list is titled “The Winter Life of the Sisters of the Crucifixion,” a daily schedule where the collective pronoun is valorized: “We rise in silence, go to choir, recite Matins.”
Hansen does not compose the novel in lists, but a central characteristic of litanies is the delineation of an idea into both part and progression, and Hansen recreates such specificity throughout the book. Prose often fills the typical novel’s page, and rhythm tends to disappear as text reaches the margin; not so in this work. The first section (and much of the book) occurs in individual, well-drawn lines, so that the work is close to prose poetry. The world, the setting of Du Couvent de Notre-Dame des Afflictions arrives in palpable snapshots, hued to perfection:
“Workhorses sleeping in horse manes of pasture.”
“Wooden reaper. Walking plow. Hayrick.”
“White hallway and dark mahogany joists. Wide plank floors walked soft and smooth as soap.”
“Wings batter and bluster. Tree branches nod and subside.”
These poetic lines frame the turn-of-the-century, cloistered milieu: a world of wonder. Setting transitions into ritual: prayer for the arrival of Mariette occur concurrent with (but dislocated from) her final nights at home, where her staid, doctor father stares out “at his hate” while she disrobes upstairs. The paragraph is the first clue that Hansen is doing something progressive here: Mariette “skeins her chocolate-brown hair . . . She haunts her milk-white skin with her hands.” The section concludes with the pointed pronouncement: “Even this I give You.”
Readers unfamiliar with the mystical tradition might be confused here. Isn’t this a postulant, a young woman ready to enter a celibate community of religious? Why is she standing in front of a mirror, naked, offering herself to someone?
These are necessary questions to ask. The novel provides not answers, but possibilities, and in doing so subverts and redefines our traditional conceptions of sexuality and ecstasy, blurring the lines between heresy and honor. Consider that Mariette’s entry into the convent is advertised as “the Spiritual Wedding of Their Son JESUS Our Lord and Redeemer to MARIETTE BAPTISTE.” Is not the religious existence a marriage to Christ? Hansen pushes the concept: later Mariette is not only “wedded” to Christ, she becomes Christ-like: “Mariette is kneeling on the floor, unclothed and seemingly unconscious as she yields up one hand and then the other just as if she were being nailed like Christ to a tree.”
Mariette is, at times, pure sexuality; she is envied by the other Sisters, she is reminded “to not tempt the holy priest with pretty wiles and movements and flattery as Satan may invite a young woman to do.” She is asked to revise herself, to, perhaps, reject and hate sections of herself. The Reverend Mother continues:
“She should expect loneliness and sadness and illness and hard use. She should expect, too, that she will be tempted to have particular affection for some of her sisters. Such affections are not permitted. For Jesus Christ ought to be their grandest passion, just as la sainte volonte de Dieu, God’s holy will, ought to be their only desire.”
That is Mariette’s only desire. Her connection to Christ is deeper than anyone else can imagine; deeper than her father’s skeptical admonitions, and perhaps even deeper than the old priest who considers her stigmata cases. Yes--now people might recognize this book as that book from 1991 that even wowed The Village Voice, The New Yorker, and The Nation. It should be no surprise that such a corporeal miracle occurs in one subsumed with Christ. Everyone wants Mariette to be a quiets postulant, but true prophets cannot exist in silence. Mariette’s palms begin to sting “like hate inked on a page.” Later more blood arrives, and notice Hansen’s nod, again, toward the Word:
“Blood scribbles down her wrists and ankles and scrawls like red handwriting on the floor.”
She begins to have Marian dreams: she is transforming. She is living testament, and an already unique book reaches new levels of oddity and beauty:
“Each foot is torn with injury. Each leaves a red print of blood on the floor. . . She holds out her blood-painted hands like a present and she smiles crazily as she says, “Oh, look at what Jesus has done to me!”
I know. Some might think this an idiosyncratic form of Catholicism, but I find it refreshing. If you really, really consider the tenants, the elements, the complexity, and the beauty of the faith, you must engage and accept the honest oddities that make it so permanent and powerful. Hansen, through some grace, captured this better than any writer I have ever read.
The final third of the novel reaches a fever pitch as Mariette’s stigmata comes under heavy institutional and social inquiry, and her status as a prophet, martyr, or mystery will have to stay secret until readers find this book. It’s an absolutely necessary read for Catholics, but for anyone interested in original fiction, or the power possible in a compressed novel, it is a blessed find.
One other thing--the final two words of this book will haunt me forever.
Tomorrow: an interview with Ron Hansen.