"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Mariette in Ecstasy, Post 6

This is my final post on Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy.  It will amount to some noted excerpts from the novel and my final review I posted on Goodreads.

The first post can be found here.  
The second post here
The third post here.  
The fourth post here.    
The fifth post here.  


Excerpts:

In a note to Père Marriott, 14 September 1906:
I have so much to tell you of Christ’s kindnesses and promises to me, but before reading further I plead to you: Do not believe anything I say.  Writing you gives me such consolation, but as I begin to put words on paper a great fear overwhelms me.  I have such fantastic and foreign things to report that it seems highly likely that I have dreamed them.  I shall say it frankly here that my head is a bit strange, for I have seen and heard impossible things, and whenever before has Christ appeared to souls as sinful as mine?  (p. 58)


When the pains started in September, I had no idea what they truly meant. And then I persuaded myself that all sisters espoused to Christ by their vows would have experienced his wounds. You can’t know how stupid and innocent I was! (p. 130)


Mariette walks a toweled broom along a hallway by Sister Virginie’s cell and then kneels below a horrid crucifix that she hates, Christ’s flesh-painted head like a block of woe, his black hair sleek as enamel and his black beard like ironweed, his round eyes bleary with pity and failure, and his frail form softly breasted and feminine and redly willowed in blood.  And yet she prays, as she always does, We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.  And just then, she’ll later tell Père Marriott, she is veiled in Christ’s blessing and tenderness, she feels it flow down from her head like holy oil and thrill her skin like terror.  Everything she has ever wished for seems to have been, in a hidden way, this.  Entire years of her life are instantly there as if she could touch any hour of them, but she now sees Jesus present in her history as she hadn’t before, kindness itself and everlasting loyal, good father and friend and husband to her, hurting just as she hurt at times, pleased by her tiniest pleasures, wholly loving her common humanness, and her essential uniqueness, so that the treacheries and sins and affronts of her past seem hideous to her and whatever good she’s done seems as nothing compared to the shame she feels for her fecklessness and indifference to him.  And she is kneeling there in misery and sorrow when she opens her hands like a book and sees an intrusion of blood on both palms, pennies of skin turning redder and slowly rising up in blisters that in two or three minutes tear with terrible pain of hammered nails, and then the hand flesh jerks with the fierce sudden weight of Christ’s body and she feels the hot burn in both wrists.  She feels her feet twisted behind her as both are transfixed with nails and the agony in both soles is as though she’s stood in the rage of orange, glowing embers.  She is breathless, she thirsts, she chills with loss of blood, and she hears Sister Dominique from a great distance, asking “Are you ill?” when she feels an iron point rammed hard against her heart and she faints.  (p. 157-158)


Mass of the Conversion of Saint Paul, Apostle, 1933.

She kneels just inside the church of Our Lady of Sorrows, behind the pews of holy old women half sitting with their rosaries, their heads hooded in black scarves.  High Mass has ended.  Externs are putting out the candles and vacuuming the carpets.  And then there is silence, and she opens to Saint Paul: “We are afflicted in every way possible, but we are not crushed; full of doubts, we never despair.  We are persecuted but never abandoned; we are struck down but never destroyed.  Continually we carry about in our bodies the dying of Jesus, so that in our bodies the life of Jesus may also be revealed.”  (p.178)


###

Review Posted at Goodreads

The complexity of this novel belies its simplicity.  We are inside a Benedictine class of monastery, and a new novice, Mariette, has been taken in, a young woman of seventeen, passionately devout but filled with all the other fervors a young woman would have.  In the course of a few months, Mariette starts having extreme religious experiences (or perhaps the continuation of such experiences from before she entered the priory), climaxing with physically formed stigmata followed by a coma-like ecstasy.  Is this real, faked, or a psychosomatic induced phenomena? 

For much of the novel the reader is in a state of ambiguity and suspense.    To understand the novel, the key I think is to understand why the novel is set in 1906 going into 1907.  By 1906 medicine has developed to an understanding of germs, vaccines, and x-rays.  By 1906, psychology was the rage; Freud published Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality in 1905.  By 1906 religious experiences were being located inside the mind; William James published The Varieties of Religious Experiences in 1902.  And perhaps more importantly, in 1907 Pope Pius X published, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, the encyclical refuting modernism.  You the reader are placed inside the world of the novel to discern a supernatural phenomenon with a modernist worldview.  But mind you, if you believe the author leaves it at the end for the reader to decide the nature of the phenomena as some reviewers have stated, you have misread the novel. Hansen is quite clear.

There are several major themes that stem out of the novel: the ambiguity of religious experience, the shift to a worldview based on empiricism, the unwillingness of people to change their habitual lives even if Christ has entered it.  But for me I think the most profound theme in the novel is the theme of achieving holiness through humiliation.  For Mariette, the stigmata and ecstasy are not the culmination of holiness but steps on the way to reaching a fuller holiness.  We see at the end her pride extinguished, and the death of the old self into a new creation. 


This is a novel of high craft, fine prose, even poetic prose, complex characters, especially Mariette the central character, profound ideas, and the beautiful creation of an original world.  In short Mariette in Ecstasy is a work of art and Ron Hansen's masterpiece.


Monday, October 14, 2019

Matthew Monday: Sipping Ice Cream From A Straw


Just a cute picture.  We were at a NY style Jewish Deli, one of those places where one meal feeds at least six.  It’s ridiculous, really.  It’s a NYC thing, and if you haven’t experienced it it’s probably not comprehensible.  You go to one of these places with a dozen people and share about three or four entrees and everyone is full. 

We ordered an ice cream and whipped cream contraption that was supposed to feed four, but only if it were four elephants.  It probably fed ten.  We still didn’t finish it, so Matthew was tasked to finish what he could.  So he took his straw and just started sucking up melted ice cream.  It’s not very couth, but it makes for a good picture.




Kind of brilliant if you ask me.  ;)

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Lines I Wished I’d Written: In the Sewers of Paris, from Les Misérables

One of the great extended scenes from the novel is Jean Valjean’s saving of Marius by carrying him through the sewers of Paris, from section of the Barracades, which are being destroyed and where Marius’ companions are being annihilated, to somewhere downstream of the Seine, to freedom.  Neither the play nor the last movie really develops the sewer scene.  For the play, they set up the barricade defeat as the climax, but the story is far from over then.  That traveling through the sewers carries several metaphors.  It’s certainly the leveling of humanity, where it makes no difference if you’re an aristocrat or a slave.  It’s also a traveling into the underworld, a trip into hell.  It’s no coincidence that at the end an Jean Valjean, who is unrecognizable from all the mud, mire, and slime, separately meets Thernadier and Javert, the former the personification of greedy evil and the latter the personification of evil through the over scrupulous adherence to the law.

I’m going to present two scenes.  The first is when Valjean first enters the sewer.  From Volume Seven, Jean Valjean, Book Third, Mud but the Soul, chapter 1, “The Sewer and Its Surprises.”

It was in the sewers of Paris that Jean Valjean found himself.

Still another resemblance between Paris and the sea. As in the ocean, the diver may disappear there.

The transition was an unheard-of one. In the very heart of the city, Jean Valjean had escaped from the city, and, in the twinkling of an eye, in the time required to lift the cover and to replace it, he had passed from broad daylight to complete obscurity, from midday to midnight, from tumult to silence, from the whirlwind of thunders to the stagnation of the tomb, and, by a vicissitude far more tremendous even than that of the Rue Polonceau, from the most extreme peril to the most absolute obscurity.

An abrupt fall into a cavern; a disappearance into the secret trap-door of Paris; to quit that street where death was on every side, for that sort of sepulchre where there was life, was a strange instant. He remained for several seconds as though bewildered; listening, stupefied. The waste-trap of safety had suddenly yawned beneath him. Celestial goodness had, in a manner, captured him by treachery. Adorable ambuscades of providence!

Only, the wounded man did not stir, and Jean Valjean did not know whether that which he was carrying in that grave was a living being or a dead corpse.

His first sensation was one of blindness. All of a sudden, he could see nothing. It seemed to him too, that, in one instant, he had become deaf. He no longer heard anything. The frantic storm of murder which had been let loose a few feet above his head did not reach him, thanks to the thickness of the earth which separated him from it, as we have said, otherwise than faintly and indistinctly, and like a rumbling, in the depths. He felt that the ground was solid under his feet; that was all; but that was enough. He extended one arm and then the other, touched the walls on both sides, and perceived that the passage was narrow; he slipped, and thus perceived that the pavement was wet. He cautiously put forward one foot, fearing a hole, a sink, some gulf; he discovered that the paving continued. A gust of fetidness informed him of the place in which he stood.

After the lapse of a few minutes, he was no longer blind. A little light fell through the man-hole through which he had descended, and his eyes became accustomed to this cavern. He began to distinguish something. The passage in which he had burrowed--no other word can better express the situation--was walled in behind him. It was one of those blind alleys, which the special jargon terms branches. In front of him there was another wall, a wall like night. The light of the air-hole died out ten or twelve paces from the point where Jean Valjean stood, and barely cast a wan pallor on a few metres of the damp walls of the sewer. Beyond, the opaqueness was massive; to penetrate thither seemed horrible, an entrance into it appeared like an engulfment. A man could, however, plunge into that wall of fog and it was necessary so to do. Haste was even requisite. It occurred to Jean Valjean that the grating which he had caught sight of under the flag-stones might also catch the eye of the soldiery, and that everything hung upon this chance. They also might descend into that well and search it. There was not a minute to be lost. He had deposited Marius on the ground, he picked him up again,-- that is the real word for it,--placed him on his shoulders once more, and set out. He plunged resolutely into the gloom.

The truth is, that they were less safe than Jean Valjean fancied. Perils of another sort and no less serious were awaiting them, perchance. After the lightning-charged whirlwind of the combat, the cavern of miasmas and traps; after chaos, the sewer. Jean Valjean had fallen from one circle of hell into another.

When he had advanced fifty paces, he was obliged to halt. A problem presented itself. The passage terminated in another gut which he encountered across his path. There two ways presented themselves. Which should he take? Ought he to turn to the left or to the right? How was he to find his bearings in that black labyrinth? This labyrinth, to which we have already called the reader's attention, has a clue, which is its slope. To follow to the slope is to arrive at the river.

This Jean Valjean instantly comprehended.

He said to himself that he was probably in the sewer des Halles; that if he were to choose the path to the left and follow the slope, he would arrive, in less than a quarter of an hour, at some mouth on the Seine between the Pont au Change and the Pont-Neuf, that is to say, he would make his appearance in broad daylight on the most densely peopled spot in Paris. Perhaps he would come out on some man-hole at the intersection of streets. Amazement of the passers-by at beholding two bleeding men emerge from the earth at their feet. Arrival of the police, a call to arms of the neighboring post of guards. Thus they would be seized before they had even got out. It would be better to plunge into that labyrinth, to confide themselves to that black gloom, and to trust to Providence for the outcome.

He ascended the incline, and turned to the right.

When he had turned the angle of the gallery, the distant glimmer of an air-hole disappeared, the curtain of obscurity fell upon him once more, and he became blind again. Nevertheless, he advanced as rapidly as possible. Marius' two arms were passed round his neck, and the former's feet dragged behind him. He held both these arms with one hand, and groped along the wall with the other. Marius' cheek touched his, and clung there, bleeding. He felt a warm stream which came from Marius trickling down upon him and making its way under his clothes. But a humid warmth near his ear, which the mouth of the wounded man touched, indicated respiration, and consequently, life. The passage along which Jean Valjean was now proceeding was not so narrow as the first. Jean Valjean walked through it with considerable difficulty. The rain of the preceding day had not, as yet, entirely run off, and it created a little torrent in the centre of the bottom, and he was forced to hug the wall in order not to have his feet in the water.

Thus he proceeded in the gloom. He resembled the beings of the night groping in the invisible and lost beneath the earth in veins of shadow.

Still, little by little, whether it was that the distant air-holes emitted a little wavering light in this opaque gloom, or whether his eyes had become accustomed to the obscurity, some vague vision returned to him, and he began once more to gain a confused idea, now of the wall which he touched, now of the vault beneath which he was passing. The pupil dilates in the dark, and the soul dilates in misfortune and ends by finding God there.


Now only Victor Hugo could have a character find God in the bowels of a sewer!  The second passage is also from Volume Five, Book Third, but from Chapter VI, “The Fontis.”  Here we see the epic strength of Jean Valjean.  He has been walking through the sewer unknown amount of time, perhaps a day, carrying the unconscious body of Marius on his shoulders.  Valjean is close to eighty years in age, so not a youth, and carrying a lifeless body is no small feat even for twenty minutes.

Jean Valjean found himself in the presence of a fontis.

This sort of quagmire was common at that period in the subsoil of the Champs-Elysees, difficult to handle in the hydraulic works and a bad preservative of the subterranean constructions, on account of its excessive fluidity. This fluidity exceeds even the inconsistency of the sands of the Quartier Saint-Georges, which could only be conquered by a stone construction on a concrete foundation, and the clayey strata, infected with gas, of the Quartier des Martyrs, which are so liquid that the only way in which a passage was effected under the gallery des Martyrs was by means of a cast-iron pipe. When, in 1836, the old stone sewer beneath the Faubourg Saint-Honore, in which we now see Jean Valjean, was demolished for the purpose of reconstructing it, the quicksand, which forms the subsoil of the Champs-Elysees as far as the Seine, presented such an obstacle, that the operation lasted nearly six months, to the great clamor of the dwellers on the riverside, particularly those who had hotels and carriages. The work was more than unhealthy; it was dangerous. It is true that they had four months and a half of rain, and three floods of the Seine.

The fontis which Jean Valjean had encountered was caused by the downpour of the preceding day. The pavement, badly sustained by the subjacent sand, had given way and had produced a stoppage of the water. Infiltration had taken place, a slip had followed. The dislocated bottom had sunk into the ooze. To what extent? Impossible to say. The obscurity was more dense there than elsewhere. It was a pit of mire in a cavern of night.

Jean Valjean felt the pavement vanishing beneath his feet. He entered this slime. There was water on the surface, slime at the bottom. He must pass it. To retrace his steps was impossible. Marius was dying, and Jean Valjean exhausted. Besides, where was he to go? Jean Valjean advanced. Moreover, the pit seemed, for the first few steps, not to be very deep. But in proportion as he advanced, his feet plunged deeper. Soon he had the slime up to his calves and water above his knees. He walked on, raising Marius in his arms, as far above the water as he could. The mire now reached to his knees, and the water to his waist. He could no longer retreat. This mud, dense enough for one man, could not, obviously, uphold two. Marius and Jean Valjean would have stood a chance of extricating themselves singly. Jean Valjean continued to advance, supporting the dying man, who was, perhaps, a corpse.

The water came up to his arm-pits; he felt that he was sinking; it was only with difficulty that he could move in the depth of ooze which he had now reached. The density, which was his support, was also an obstacle. He still held Marius on high, and with an unheard-of expenditure of force, he advanced still; but he was sinking. He had only his head above the water now and his two arms holding up Marius. In the old paintings of the deluge there is a mother holding her child thus.

He sank still deeper, he turned his face to the rear, to escape the water, and in order that he might be able to breathe; anyone who had seen him in that gloom would have thought that what he beheld was a mask floating on the shadows; he caught a faint glimpse above him of the drooping head and livid face of Marius; he made a desperate effort and launched his foot forward; his foot struck something solid; a point of support. It was high time.

He straightened himself up, and rooted himself upon that point of support with a sort of fury. This produced upon him the effect of the first step in a staircase leading back to life.

The point of support, thus encountered in the mire at the supreme moment, was the beginning of the other water-shed of the pavement, which had bent but had not given way, and which had curved under the water like a plank and in a single piece. Well built pavements form a vault and possess this sort of firmness. This fragment of the vaulting, partly submerged, but solid, was a veritable inclined plane, and, once on this plane, he was safe. Jean Valjean mounted this inclined plane and reached the other side of the quagmire.

As he emerged from the water, he came in contact with a stone and fell upon his knees. He reflected that this was but just, and he remained there for some time, with his soul absorbed in words addressed to God.

He rose to his feet, shivering, chilled, foul-smelling, bowed beneath the dying man whom he was dragging after him, all dripping with slime, and his soul filled with a strange light.



The heroic carrying of Marius is emulating the passion of Christ to the cross.  The water spewing wall that Valjean comes to a metaphor for a baptismal font, where he and Marius are reborn before God.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Lines I Wished I’d Written: Jean Valjean Takes His Revenge, from Les Misérables


I’m nearing the end of Les Misérables and there are a number of scenes that are so rich I really have to post them.  Here is one.  There will be more.  Let me set this up.  The revolutionaries are at the barricades and the fighting is not going well.  Jean Valjean is there just to watch and protect Marius and his hated nemesis, Javert is a prisoner.  Since the battle is about to begin, there is an order to execute the prisoner, since he could no longer be guarded, and Jean Valjean volunteers.  This is from Volume Five, Jean Valjean, Book First, The War Between Four Walls, Chapter XIX, “Jean Valjean Takes His Revenge.”
 
When Jean Valjean was left alone with Javert, he untied the rope which fastened the prisoner across the middle of the body, and the knot of which was under the table. After this he made him a sign to rise.

Javert obeyed with that indefinable smile in which the supremacy of enchained authority is condensed.

Jean Valjean took Javert by the martingale, as one would take a beast of burden by the breast-band, and, dragging the latter after him, emerged from the wine-shop slowly, because Javert, with his impeded limbs, could take only very short steps.

Jean Valjean had the pistol in his hand.

In this manner they crossed the inner trapezium of the barricade. The insurgents, all intent on the attack, which was imminent, had their backs turned to these two.

Marius alone, stationed on one side, at the extreme left of the barricade, saw them pass. This group of victim and executioner was illuminated by the sepulchral light which he bore in his own soul.

Jean Valjean with some difficulty, but without relaxing his hold for a single instant, made Javert, pinioned as he was, scale the little entrenchment in the Mondetour lane.



When they had crossed this barrier, they found themselves alone in the lane. No one saw them. Among the heap they could distinguish a livid face, streaming hair, a pierced hand and the half nude breast of a woman. It was Eponine. The corner of the houses hid them from the insurgents. The corpses carried away from the barricade formed a terrible pile a few paces distant.

Javert gazed askance at this body, and, profoundly calm, said in a low tone:

"It strikes me that I know that girl."

Then he turned to Jean Valjean.

Jean Valjean thrust the pistol under his arm and fixed on Javert a look which it required no words to interpret: "Javert, it is I."

Javert replied:

"Take your revenge."

Jean Valjean drew from his pocket a knife, and opened it.

"A clasp-knife!" exclaimed Javert, "you are right. That suits you better."

Jean Valjean cut the martingale which Javert had about his neck, then he cut the cords on his wrists, then, stooping down, he cut the cord on his feet; and, straightening himself up, he said to him:

"You are free."

Javert was not easily astonished. Still, master of himself though he was, he could not repress a start. He remained open-mouthed and motionless.

Jean Valjean continued:

"I do not think that I shall escape from this place. But if, by chance, I do, I live, under the name of Fauchelevent, in the Rue de l'Homme Arme, No. 7."

Javert snarled like a tiger, which made him half open one corner of his mouth, and he muttered between his teeth:

"Have a care."

"Go," said Jean Valjean.

Javert began again:

"Thou saidst Fauchelevent, Rue de l'Homme Arme?"

"Number 7."

Javert repeated in a low voice:--"Number 7."

He buttoned up his coat once more, resumed the military stiffness between his shoulders, made a half turn, folded his arms and, supporting his chin on one of his hands, he set out in the direction of the Halles. Jean Valjean followed him with his eyes:

A few minutes later, Javert turned round and shouted to Jean Valjean:

"You annoy me. Kill me, rather."

Javert himself did not notice that he no longer addressed Jean Valjean as "thou."

"Be off with you," said Jean Valjean.

Javert retreated slowly. A moment later he turned the corner of the Rue des Precheurs.

When Javert had disappeared, Jean Valjean fired his pistol in the air.

Then he returned to the barricade and said:

"It is done."

Excerpt taken from The Literature Network.  

As we will see, allowing him to live becomes a devastating blow to Javert.  Such an act of kindness from a person he had tortured many times in life pierces his heart and disturbs his conscience.  He cannot live with such an act of love.



Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Mariette in Ecstasy, Post 5


The first post on Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy can be found here.  
The second post here.  
The third post here.  
The fourth post here.  


Just skimming through the novel to put my final thoughts together and I came across this interesting tidbit.  When Mariette first enters the convent and has a little discussion with her sister, Mother Céline, they discuss the letter that their father wrote explaining that Mariette suffers from “trances, hallucinations, unnatural piety, great extremes of temperament, and…’inner wrenchings’”  Mother Céline asks:

“Was he dishonest in his description?’
“I have no opinion, Reverend Mother.”
“Was he duped then?”  (p. 31)

Now go to the examination scene where when she puts her hands in the water the wounds disappear.

She tells him, “Christ took back the wounds.”
She expects her father to stare at her with fear and astonishment, but he is, as always, frank and unimpressed, as firm as practical as a clock.  “And your feet?” he asks.
“I have no wounds.”
“Even that is miraculous!” Père Marriott says.
Dr. Baptiste smirks at him and then at Mother Saint-Raphaël.  “You have all been duped.” (p.173)

There’s the word twice, “duped.”  That certainly wasn’t an accident.  I’m now convinced that Irene was right at the beginning of our discussion.  Dr. Baptiste is anti-religious.  What I think is central here is that Mariette “expects her father to stare at her with fear and astonishment,” but he does not.  There are two opposing world views here coming into opposition: the supernatural Catholic and the empiricist modern.  It is also interesting we get the supernatural Catholic world view not so much from the Sisters at the priory but from the readings they read as a group.  There are several writers they read.  I can’t remember exactly but I think St. Augustine, St. Benedict, and especially Blessed Julian of Norwich.  The Julian of Norwich readings actually foreshadow Mariette’s experiences. 


###

We have discussed three of the major themes of the novel: the ambiguity of religious experience, the shift to a worldview based on empiricism, and the unwillingness of people to change their habitual lives even if Christ has entered their space.  But for me I think the most profound theme in the novel is the theme of holiness through humiliation.  It’s a rather complex theme, so let me try to walk you through it.

First off, I don’t think Mariette’s spiritual “crucifixion” is really from the stigmata.  That is just a sign from God.  Her real “crucifixion” is the humiliation she undergoes first as she is examined and criticized, next when she is expelled from the convent that she dearly wanted to be part of,  and then when for the rest of her life she is looked upon as a fraud.  Those final vignettes of her leading a lonely and isolated life are very poignant.

But this theme of crucifixion through humiliation runs throughout the novel.  Of course we get its opposite, pride.  Pride is the one sin that is most feared.  And as a seventeen year old, zealous in her faith, Mariette suffers from pride in many places.  On her first day at the convent in a conversation with Sister Hermance, the two share their deepest desires.  Sister Hermance first:

“When I joined the order I prayed to go away from home and have home totally forget me.  I have been praying since for humiliations and hardships and perfect atonement for my sins.  And perhaps, too, consumption and an early death.”  She thinks for a second or two and asks, “Is it too much, Mariette?” 

She shrugs.  “I have been praying to be a great saint.”

Sister Hermance peers at her seriously.  “Such pride, Mariette!  You surprise me.”

She smiles.  “I’ll try to be irresistible.” (p. 19)

We do see Mariette’s youthful exuberance in her devotion.  And while we’re all called on to be saints, to want be a great saint requires an exertion rooted in pride.  Sister Hermance reacts to its boldness.  What Sister Hermance desires is way more humble: to be forgotten, perhaps alluding to the Blessed Mother as she fades from the center of the Gospels.  She also wants “humiliations and hardships and perfect atonement.”  We will see Mariette go through all that in time.  Sister Hermance finally adds, “consumption and an early death.”  Mariette too will undergo a spiritual death and the death of her convent life.  We see in Sister Hermance’s desire what Mariette will learn.

If you read through the novel looking for pride and humiliations you will see they come up frequently.  Here are some of her prides: Mariette is Mother Céline’s sister.  She is the lovely girl who’s hair is still uncut.  She is the one they gossip about.  She is the holy one who writes the profound paper on theology.  She takes on penances.  She prays perfectly.  When she is alone in Père Marriott’s chambers, she thinks of herself as a priest, acting it out (p. 39).  In one of the embedded inquest dialogues, Sister Catherine is asked what she thought of Mariette, she says, “She is passionate.  She is perhaps too proud.  She is not hysterical.”  Here is another Sister who sees Mariette’s pride.

And it is Mother Saint-Raphaël who publically identifies Mariette’s pride.  She does at the scene of the open confessions, well prior to Mariette’s first stigmata:

“Our postulant has been too proud.  She has been a princess of vanities.  She has sought our admiration and attention in a hundred ways since she has joined our convent.  She hopes we will praise her for being pretty and fetching and young.  She is slack in her work and lax in her conscience.  She has been a temptation to the novices and a pet to all the professed sisters.  Ever since I have been her mistress, she has been a snare and a worldliness to me and terrible impediment to the peace and interests of the Holy Spirit.  (p. 88)

Look too at Mother Saint-Raphaël’s self-discovery dialogue with Mariette, where the Mother confesses to have also had the sin of pride in her youth (p. 50-51).   So when Mariette gets her stigmata, the one in a handful of people in all of history to have been blessed with one, there too one senses a pride.  The first happens on Christmas Eve:

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.”  (p.112)

This perhaps is her moment of most pride.  No one has questioned her yet.  No one has doubted.  Clearly there is an element of pride in her manner of stumbling forth, holding her wounds as a “present.”  Look at the phrasing: “Look at what Jesus has done to me,” with emphasis on the personal pronoun, “me.”

But throughout the novel, Mariette is also aware of her pride and her necessity to eradicate if from her person.  In her first note to Père Marriott written on her first night at the convent, concluding Part 1, she explains:

Every day and in the midst of every kind of disobedience and failing, I have asked Jesus to have pity on me and either take my life entirely or, in his justice and mercy, give me a great deal to suffer in atonement for my foolishness and the sins of the world.  While there have been times when he permitted me to enjoy the greatest consolations, there have been times of darkness and silence, too, when I felt disliked and in disfavor and, with hopelessness and pining and tears, I prayed to Jesus that was very near Hell.  (p. 42)

She is quite conscious of her sins of which, from what the reader can see, pride stands out.  She asks to suffer in atonement, and the process for that is mortification.  Written on a rafter somewhere in the convent is “They mortify their bodies with abstinence” (p. 48).  Mortification is at the center of the novel.  Mortification in most dictionaries is differentiated into four related definitions.  From the Online Dictionary:

noun
1. a feeling of humiliation or shame, as through some injury to one's pride or self-respect.
2. a cause or source of such humiliation or shame.
3. the practice of asceticism by penitential discipline to overcome desire for sin and to strengthen the will.
4. Pathology. the death of one part of the body while the rest is alive; gangrene; necrosis.

Definitions (1) and (2) are interrelated in that (1) identifies the result of (2) the source, but both at their heart is “humiliation.”  Definition (3) identifies a process of which one overcomes an interior desire for sin, and definition (4) identifies a bodily death, which is at the etymological root of mortify.  So there are three categories here, humiliation, ascetic discipline, and death, and all three figure into this grand theme of the novel.

I mentioned in an earlier comment that, in addition to suffering, humiliation is at the heart of Christ’s crucifixion, and at the start of this comment I mentioned that Mariette’s real crucifixion is her humiliation. 

We see Mariette frequently mortifying herself as an attempt to extinguish desire to sin.  We see her praying all night, we see her lie face down in sympathy with a punished sister, we see her use some sort of instrument to draw blood, we see her welcome a sting from a thorn, we see her scald her hands, among other instances.  When she is asked about scalding her hands, Mariette mysteriously says, “I just want to hurt” (p. 70).  The reader may jump to the conclusion this is part of the self-flagellation that leads to what might be a self-inflicted stigmata.  Hansen makes it ambiguous but the true underlying reason is Mariette’s attempt to extinguish her pride and in turn come closer in sympathy to Christ.  The pains and spilled blood of the stigmata then are not a sign from God that Mariette is any more holy than anyone else, but God’s grace of mortification for her to become more holy.  In that letter to Père Marriott I quoted above, Mariette tells the priest what Christ prophecies for her:

“You will have no solace or pity, not even from your superiors.  You will be tortured by gross outrages and mistreatment, but no one will believe you.  You will be punished and humbled and greatly confused, and Heaven will seem closed to you, God will seem dead and indifferent, you will try to be recollected, but instead be distracted, you will try to pray and your thoughts will fly, you will seek me fruitlessly and without avail for I shall hide in the noise and shadows and I shall seem to withdraw when you need me most.  Everyone will seem to abandon you.  (p. 43)

That letter from that first night is actually the novel in a microcosm.  Abandoned, as Christ was abandoned on the cross, Mariette achieves the ultimate mortification, a humiliation that will last throughout her life.  There is nothing now that she can take pride in.  She is expelled from the convent and defined as a hoaxer.   Thirty years later in her letter to Mother Philomème she writes:

Children stare in the grocery as if they know ghostly stories about me, and I hear the hushed talk when I hobble by or lose hold in my hands, but Christ reminds me, as he did in my greatest distress, that he loves me more, now that I am despised, than when I was richly admired in the past.   (p. 179)

We see now how her pride has been extinguished.  She has arrived at definition (4) of mortification, the death of the old self into the new creation.  He loves her more “now that I am despised.”  So why does God bring her through this humiliation?  Because through the humiliation she has arrived at true and full holiness.  It is not the stigmata that made her holy.  It is the mortification. 



Saturday, September 28, 2019

Mariette in Ecstasy, Post 4



The first post on Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy can be found here.  
The second post here.  
The third post here.  


Part 3

Summary

After her sister’s burial on Christmas Eve, Mariette is seen praying intensely in front of a crucifix.  Moments later she comes forth bleeding from her stigmata wounds. And as the sisters try to care for her, she goes into a coma-like trance, her ecstasy.  The priory runs with rumors of speculation, and Sister Saint-Raphaël, now the Mother Superior, writes to her Mother General of the shocking events.

Two days go by before Mariette comes out of her ecstasy, and now every sister’s reaction to Mariette has changed.  Some are in awe of what appears to be a supernatural event and some are suspicious and skeptical.  She is sent to Père Marriott where he questions her on her experiences.  Marriott comes away believing her.

As the days go by the two camps (those that believe Mariette and those that don’t) become more convinced of their positions.  Mariette has also become more and more a distraction, both to life inside the convent and the convent’s relation to the outside world.  Everyone wants a glimpse of postulant.  A formal investigation is started and led by Marriott, and witnesses, some from each camp, are called.

Mother Saint-Raphaël feels compelled to restrict Mariette’s activities.  On the one hand she is intellectually skeptical of the genuineness of Mariette’s stigmata, and so has convinced herself Mariette is pulling a hoax, but on the other hand in the depths of her spiritual core she has an inkling they are real.  But the disruption Mariette has created, irrelevant to the stigmata’s validity, requires she treat Mariette strictly.

By early February Mariette’s wounds are healed.  On the feast day of the apparition of Our Lady of Lourdes (Feb. 11th) while performing housework Mariette takes a moment to kneel before the crucifix and go into intense prayer.  As before, her hands, feet, and side bubble out with blood of now a second stigmata experience.  This only reinforces the already existing beliefs in the two camps, but now the skeptics force Mother Saint-Raphaël to have Mariette placed in a make-shift jail cell.

With her hands still fresh with the wounds, a doctor—her father—is called in to examine their authenticity.  She is forced to strip naked in front of him and a panel of witnesses.  As the doctor examines, he can’t quite discern the nature of the punctures and asks for some instrument to pick open the scab.  But Mariette says to just put them under water, and she goes over to a basin and dips her hands in.  When she lifts them out, the wounds are gone, and with that the doctor instantly declares it to all have been a fraud.

Mariette is expelled from the convent, and we see a series of vignettes of her isolated and disgraced life.  Thirty years go by when she writes a reply to a letter from her old friend at the convent, Sister Philomène, who has now become the Mother Prioress.  Mariette tells Philomène of the sadness and joy her life has been.  She still receives from Christ pains of the stigmata and still feels His overwhelming love.

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The central mystery within the story is whether Mariette’s mystical experience is real, psychosomatic, or a hoax.  Once the reader gets to the second stigmata, one can no longer hve any doubt.  Here is the delineation of the second stigmata.

Mariette walks a toweled broom along a hallway by Sister Virginie’s cell and then kneels below a horrid crucifix that she hates, Christ’s flesh-painted head like a block of woe, his black hair sleek as enamel and his black beard like ironweed, his round eyes bleary with pity and failure, and his frail form softly breasted and feminine and redly willowed in blood.  And yet she prays, as she always does, We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.  And just then, she’ll later tell Père Marriott, she is veiled in Christ’s blessing and tenderness, she feels it flow down from her head like holy oil and thrill her skin like terror.  Everything she has ever wished for seems to have been, in a hidden way, this.  Entire years of her life are instantly there as if she could touch any hour of them, but she now sees Jesus present in her history as she hadn’t before, kindness itself and everlasting loyal, good father and friend and husband to her, hurting just as she hurt at times, pleased by her tiniest pleasures, wholly loving her common humanness, and her essential uniqueness, so that the treacheries and sins and affronts of her past seem hideous to her and whatever good she’s done seems as nothing compared to the shame she feels for her fecklessness and indifference to him.  And she is kneeling there in misery and sorrow when she opens her hands like a book and sees an intrusion of blood on both palms, pennies of skin turning redder and slowly rising up in blisters that in two or three minutes tear with terrible pain of hammered nails, and then the hand flesh jerks with the fierce sudden weight of Christ’s body and she feels the hot burn in both wrists.  She feels her feet twisted behind her as both are transfixed with nails and the agony in both soles is as though she’s stood in the rage of orange, glowing embers.  She is breathless, she thirsts, she chills with loss of blood, and she hears Sister Dominique from a great distance, asking “Are you ill?” when she feels an iron point rammed hard against her heart and she faints.  (p. 157-158)

The delineation is in objective third person point of view.  These events happen to Marriete, and so we can tell they are not a hoax.  The first stigmata was off stage, so to speak.  The second stigmata is in front of the reader to see.  We can also state that it goes beyond realm of credulity to claim that they are a result of psychosomatic phenomena.  As I’ve stated in one of my previous comments, psychosomatic stress can cause ulcers, aches, heart problems, grey hair, but there is no possibility that in three minutes of time it could cause flesh to burst out into hemorrhaging and at the five wounds of Christ.  Hansen is clearly intending this to be a supernatural event.

Though the mystery has been unlocked for the reader, it remains a mystery for the rest of the characters.  So is Hansen just writing a religious mystery to titillate readers by keeping the validity of the stigmata ambiguous as long as possible?  I would say no, because there is a religious theme that is central to the novel.  One has to ask, if it is a real stigmata, why does God not make it clear for everyone?  But then we could ask that about any religious event.  Why is God not front and center to the world so that there is no ambiguity to the true faith?  Père Marriott quotes Isaiah to Mariette during a confession, “Truly you are a hidden God,” and he quotes Christ, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (p. 81).  In the end, God has clearly forsaken Mariette.  But it is Mother Saint-Raphaël at her final scene where she expels Mariette. 

When she and the postulant are alone, Mother Saint-Raphaël shifts a chintz pillow and pats a sofa cushion beside her.  She stares impassively at Mariette as she sits.  She says, “That was simply political, what I said—that you disappoint me.  I personally believe that what you say happened did indeed happen.  We could never prove it, of course.  Skeptics will always prevail.  God gives us just enough to seek Him, and never enough to find Him.  To do more would inhibit our freedom, and our freedom is very dear to God.”

Besides admitting to what I think is a grave sin, that she truly believes Mariette and yet carries out this injustice, she does articulate one of the central themes, that is, God never fully makes Himself certain.  I don’t know if that comes from Thomas Aquinas but it certainly sounds like it.  And so, Hansen is not just titillating the reader by hiding facts.  It’s critical to the novel’s theme.