f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 5 of <em>Mariette in Ecstasy</em>—Religious Writing or Writing Religiously?

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Friday, January 23, 2004

Day 5 of Mariette in Ecstasy—Religious Writing or Writing Religiously?

A nun’s life is supposed to be about daily, hourly, and even moment-by-moment lived in dedication to Jesus. They’re a bit like the Marines in a way, putting God, church, convent, and sisters ahead of themselves. In that way, it’s necessary for Ron Hansen to write about prayer, fasting, worship, communion and as well as have his characters contemplate on issues of faith. Turn to almost any page in the book, and there is some sort of “church talk” going on.

Still, it’s one thing to write about such things and another to do it convincingly. I think Hansen succeeds for the most part. Nothing struck me as deeply out of tune or absurd. The one escape he allows himself, is that Mariette’s experiences are related post-ecstasy. Usually, she is describing what she felt and experienced to another sister or the local priest. It’s a necessary cheat (and therefore not a cheat at all) because Hansen’s point is to keep us in doubt as to whether Mariette is telling the truth or lying. If we were in her mind through these experiences, we would know for sure.

Mariette has maybe three or four major discussions/examinations throughout the last 1/3 of the book. Here she tries to talk about her experience:

“In prayer, I float out of myself. I seek God with a great yearning, like an orphan child pursuing her true mother. I have lost my body; I don’t know where I am or even if I am now human or spirit. A sweet power is drawing me, a great and beautiful force that is effortless but insistent. I flush with excitement and a balm of tenderness seems to flow over me. And when I have gotten to a fullness of joy and peace and tranquility, then I know I have been possessed by Jesus and have completely lost myself in him. Oh, what a blissful abandonment it is!”
If you’ve read stories of possession or bad romance novels that the section above may ring some bells. In fact, the priest questions Mariette if the words are truly hers or whether she borrowed them from other accounts. This is an acknowledgement that we struggle for words to describe such an event. It’s also another little twist on whether we believe Mariette or not.

Later, she is confronted by Mother Saint-Rapheal (who gets many of the best lines in the book) who says:

“I have been troubled by God’s motive for this,” the prioress says. “I see no possible reasons for it. Is it so Mariette Baptiste will be praised and esteemed by the pious? Or is it so she shall be humiliated and jeered at by skeptics? Is it to honor religion or to humble science? And what are these horrible wounds, really? A trick of anatomy, a bleeding challenge to medical diagnosis, a brief and baffling injury that hasn’t yet, in six hundred years, changed our theology or our religious practices. Have you any idea how disruptive you’ve been?
In that one outburst Mother Saint-Rapheal sums up the unanswerable questions that come up in the face of a miracle. And she closes her accosting of Mariette with a perfect and revealing statement of the conflict she feels in her own heart:

“And so I pray, Mariette, that if it is in your power to stop this—and I presume it is—that you do indeed stop it.” She pauses and then stands. “And if it is in your power to heal me of the hate and envy I have for you now, do that as well.”
There are more interesting sections throughout the book including others that deal more explicitly with the lines between sexual and religious ecstasy. I can’t really say too much more about the writing other than to point out how Mariette’s talk is mystical and untethered and Mother Saint-Raphael’s, in accusation, is rooted in religion but straight-forward and concise. You want the language to match the occasion and Hansen does that.

He also pipes in with one nice little aphorism that I’ll end with. This comes out of Mother Saint-Raphael’s mouth as she is addressing all the nuns and trying to convince them to be patient as Mariette’s experiences are examined and tested. She closes by saying:

“And let us remember that sainthood has little to do with the preternatural but a great deal to do with the simple day-to-day practice of the Christian virtues.”
Amen to that. And have a wonderful weekend.