f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Get Thee to a Nunnery!—A Week of <em>Mariette in Ecstasy</em> by Ron Hansen

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

Monday, January 19, 2004

Get Thee to a Nunnery!—A Week of Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen

Two weeks ago we had a vengeful albino monk trashing the Louvre. This week we flip the coin on the Catholic orders and go contemplative with Mariette in Ecstasy, a whisper of tale about a young woman who joins a convent, The Sisters of the Crucifixion, in upstate New York, 1906.

This book, like David Guterson’s Our Lady of the Forest and Mark Salzman’s lovely Lying Awake look not only at faith, but a faith augmented by miracles, and asks the question: Does this stuff really happen? Interestingly, all three books choose different signs. Guterson uses visions of Mary. Salzman takes up inspired poetry. Hansen, meanwhile, inflicts us with perhaps the most challenging of the three: stigmata.

Stigmata, for those not up on their supernatural occurences of bleeding, is not just a bad movie starring Patricia Arquette. Throughout history, it is defined as the mystical appearance of wounds on the hands, feet, side, back and head that correspond with the wounds suffered by Jesus in his passion. These are spontaneous (obviously they can’t be self-inflicted to be real) and are blessings to the bearer because it means Jesus is allowing her—most often it is a woman—to share in his sufferings. Most famous stigmatic you’ve heard of: St. Francis of Assisi—also the first to document it.

That definition out of the way, I want to spend a moment of time today talking about preparation, research, and how a writer can get these across without clanging facts about like Dan Brown and the tech-y writers.

Ron Hansen, from all reports, is a Catholic. He may have gone to Catholic school at some point and come across some nuns. That said, he isn’t a nun himself and therefore this isn’t a first-person account. Hansen needed to do much research—not only for time-period (1906)—but for the veracity of his convent. The work he does is substantial and the landscape and setting he creates are made solid by fact embroidered with details and polished with his honed writing skills. Like many excellent books, you learn history by seeing it happen rather than having it spoken at you as a lecture (once more, see Dan Brown.)

One simple trick is that he offers readers a prefixed schedule of life at the convent, including all holy rites and practices, and then uses those terms to give a sense of time and place. Instead of 5:00pm, he says Vespers. This forces you into the ritual and cycles of the nuns. The same is true for naming days after the Holy Days—e.g., 14th Sunday after Pentecost or Mass of the Beheading of Saint John the Martyr in lieu of July 15th. Again, this reveals his research but to the effect of forcing us into the nuns world and the year of the church.

Hansen gives time period to us in bursts and details. Life in the convent is never going to seem modern by when alkali water and sodium carbonate are used as floor cleansers or when the local doctor smells of peppermint and iodine you know you’re not in 1987. These are just little tricks we can think on and remember. It compacts and tightens the narrative. Words and sentences are used to maximum impact. Something—be it plot or characterization or setting is conveyed in every possible moment. Too often our books are flabby, bulked up with weak sentences. We can look to Hansen to learn a quick lesson in treating the novel more like a short story or poem.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about laying one’s cards on the table and the give and take between reader and author. Who’s supposed to do the heavy lifting so that the story is understood? And what happens when reader’s expectations aren’t met by what’s on the page.