The first post on Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy can be found here.
The second post here.
Part 1 was indeed just one day long, the day of August 15th, 1906, and Part 2 picks up on August 16th and ends on Christmas Eve, December 24th. If you haven’t noticed, each vignette starts off being dated with the Feast Day Mass in the liturgical calendar, so the reader can date the events. Other than the occasional inserted fragment of the inquiry into Mariette’s experiences, the narrative time flows sequentially.
Mariette begins to meet the various Sisters, accustom herself to the rhythms of convent life, and develop her personal intense prayer and contemplative practices, above and beyond what the Sisters at the convent are required. She meets with the Mistress of Novices, Mother Saint-Raphaël, a stern elderly woman who is able to discern Mariette’s personality. Mariette goes through catechism lessons, of which she is flawless, works the daily activities requiring manual labor, and increases her devotion through subtle acts of mortification. Mariette writes confidential notes to Père Marriott about the intensity and dearth of her personal connections with Christ, and Mother Céline has intercepted them and secretly reads them.
We see instances of Mariette’s self-flagellation and impulses to increase their severity. We see scenes of latent sexual desires and conduct, and even play. We see a deep, ardent relationship with Christ and a commitment to its fullest expression. Various sisters notice all these things, and we the reader can justify what we think happens to Mariette by pointing to something in this section.
Finally the last sections of Part 2 dramatize the discovery, painful endurance, and ultimately death from cancer of Mother Céline. Mother Saint-Raphaël allows Mariette in the care of her blood sister, where she watches her older sister undergo the humiliation of medical diagnosis and the suffering decline and death. Her father as the local doctor is called up to perform the medical exams. Part 2 ends with Mother Céline’s funeral and Requiem Mass and Mariette reaching her highest level of ecstasy yet, kneeling in front of the crucifix in a trance emulating the suffering of the Lord.
As I’ve said, I’m quite amazed at the skill level of Ron Hansen to capture life in a monastery and the personalities of the nuns themselves. Here’s a little scene of a nun who admires Mariette.
Compline. Sister Emmanuelle retreats a half-step in her stall so she can peer behind Sister Antoinette and discretely adore the new postulant in her simple night-black habit and scarf. She’s as soft and kind as silk. She’s as pretty as affection. Even now, so soon, she prays the psalms distinctly, as if the habit of silence has taught her to cherish speech. And she seems so shrewd, so pure, so prescient. Sister Emmanuelle thinks, She is who I was meant to be.
And then the sisters turn and walk out in silence, and Sister Emmanuelle thrills as she hesitates just enough so that Mariette passes by. And then she quickly presses her left hand into the postulant’s. Mariette walks ahead and hides her surprise as she secretly glimpses her hand and the gift of Sister Emmanuelle’s starched cambric handkerchief with its six winged seraphim holding a plumed letter M gorgeously stitched into it in hours of needlepoint. She gives the seamstress an assessing glance and then Sister Emmanuelle flushes pink as the girl shyly smiles.
Such a little scene, and yet so much is communicated. We see during the communal praying of compline that the sisters are not just vessels performing their religious tasks but flesh and blood people who get distracted and build affections. At the center of the first paragraph, we get Sister Emmanuelle’s thoughts in what is called indirect interior monologue, the actual thoughts of a character even though the narrative is not in first person. Even though they are praying, Sister Emmanuelle shifts her head so that Mariette is in her purview, and she thinks, “She’s as soft and kind as silk. She’s as pretty as affection.” As we see elsewhere, being distracted as thus is a minor sin and giving such a gift would also no be condoned. The very fact that Sister Emmanuelle does it secretly and that Mariette accepts it in secret is I think a de facto acknowledgment that it was not proper. Sister Emmanuelle is not a novice. We see from the directory she is 54 years old, and so quite conscious of her failing. But these sort of human would be quite natural.
While I have this scene up, I should bring up another motif that runs through the novel, that of latent sexual longing. We see here what might be construed as sexual attraction for another woman. Sister Emmanuelle sneaks peaks at her beloved, she admires her, she considers her attractive, she is thrilled as Mariette passes by, she gives her a secret gift, and she flushes pink when the beloved returns an acknowledging gaze. So does Sister Emmanuelle have a consciously or unconscious same sex attraction for Marietter? On the other hand, she also admires how Mariette prays the psalms, seems so pure and prescient, which implies a divine knowledge, and she thinks, “She is who I was meant to be.” This is the language of religious desire, not sexual.
So which is it? What I think Hansen is doing is intertwining sexual desire with religious desire. The Freudian bent reader – and we moderns have all been shaped by that intellectually flawed set of notions – would say there is a latent lesbian inclination. But we also know that longing for God is many times delineated as a sexual pining. Christ is described as a “bridegroom.” Various woman saints have undergone a mystical marriage with Christ. Indeed, the wedding ring St. Catherine of Siena received was Christ’s foreskin. Biblically we have the Song of Solomon. Isaiah 62:5 (“For as a young man marries a virgin, So your sons will marry you; And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, So your God will rejoice over you.”), Hosea 2:19 (“"I will betroth you to Me forever; Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice, In lovingkindness and in compassion.”), Rev 19:7 ("Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready."), Psalm 63:1 (“O God, You are my God; Early will I seek You; My soul thirsts for You; My flesh longs for You; In a dry and thirsty land; Where there is no water.”), and others. The language of religious intimacy is sometimes blurred with the language of sexual intimacy.
Freud might say that this is within the unconscious. I don’t know. In Christianity, God is love, and a component of love is sexuality. And just as in synesthesia, where one of the five senses is blend with another, so too different types of love can be commingle. I don’t think Sister Emmanuelle is having a sexual attraction to Mariette. I think she sees Mariette as she sees Christ, or at least connects her to Christ. She says that Mariette is the person she was “meant to be.” Well, Christ is the person we are all meant to be. This sort of sexual double entendre is a motif throughout the novel, and allows the reader to consider Mariette’s love for Christ to have a sexual connotation.
It’s interesting how there was no preparation for Mother Céline getting cancer, no hints, no talk of her being ill on occasion. In the early scenes she is perfectly fine. It comes out of the blue. If I were to ask Hansen a question, I would ask him why? I don’t quite have an answer for it, and because of the high skill in the authorship of everything else in the novel, it is unlikely it was an oversight.
But equally interesting is that we don’t really get that much preparation for Mariette’s stigmata. She goes from having “experiences” to bleeding stigmata and coma-like ecstasies. Now there are foreshadows and time shifts of bringing in clips from the inquest prepares us to some degree, but not fully. When you look at Mariette in August on her entrance and even throughout most of Part 2, she is completely changed in Part 3 after the stigmata. The amount of change in four months of time is breath taking.
Narratively Mother Céline is a sort of Mariette’s doppelgänger, a double who serves to show parallels and contrasts with the main character. The fact that she’s her sister raised in the same home, having a similar relationship with the father, taken the same vows, and in the same convent is pretty suggestive of that. That she experiences a crucifixion like Mariette (and here I’m jumping ahead to Part 3) is also indicative of a doublet. Her sufferings, like Mariette’s sufferings, are a recreation of the Christ’s passion. There is the carrying of a cross, pains in the flesh as of a scourging, stripping, stab wounds to the side, the release of blood and water, and finally the humiliations.
I’m not sure we realize just how a crucifixion was meant to humiliate. Stripped naked and staked to a cross (and believe me they did not leave a loin cloth for privacy) where one slowly dies in front of the world, unlike a hanging which is fairly quick, is about as shameful a death as possible. For a Jew it was deeply shameful because it says so in the Torah: Deut 21:23, “for he that is [so] hanged is accursed of God.” I’m sure Christ had loss of bladder and bowels during his passion and crucifixion, loss of physical control while asphyxiating, and loss of emotional control under torment. There are citations of sexual abuse of people undergoing the scurging, and I have read some speculate Christ may have been subject to that too. Scripture has undoubtedly cleaned up some of this out of respect to the Lord, but all of this was meant to destroy the dignity of the crucified.
Mother Céline’s sufferings, not having the ability to care for oneself, having to undergo the indignity of a medical examination of her private parts from her own father no less, having to urinate in front of people in a glass, and finally the uncontrolled expulsion of blood is destruction of her dignity. She is undergoing the Lord’s passion, of which we will all have to undergo at some time, unless we are blessed with a quick death.
I’ll delineate Mariette’s undergoing of the passion when we get to Part 3. There are differences, contrasts. The most significant is that Céline are completely biological while Mariette’s are completely non-biological. Theologically one could think of Céline as a forerunner to Marriete, just as John the Baptist is a forerunner to Christ.
Now there is also the suggestion that Mother Céline’s sufferings is a seed that works in Mariette’s psychology. This is another form of the psychosomatic theory of what happens to Mariette. And just like with the Freudian sexual psychosomatic theory, Ron Hansen wants the reader with the modernist world view to be led down this path. Here the theory would be that Mariette overly identifies with her sister and takes on her malady, or something to that effect. Perhaps the term is “psychological identification” but I’m not sure. But it can’t be. Perhaps one can say that her coma might be so induced, but there is no way a stigmata can be so induced psychologically.
Reply to Irene:
Irene, I wrote my thoughts before I read yours. Yes, the suggestion of psychosomatic with Mariette identifying with her sister is intentional but in light of the fact that Mariette's stigmata is real then one has to re-look at the validity of that cause.
No I don't believe there is sexual abuse going on with the father. That's what cancer doctors do. I take my mother to a hematologist and even though it was only suspected that my mother might have cancer, the doctor routinely examines her belly and breasts. It's rather embarrassing for me to be there, and I can imagine what my mother feels. I don't recall the scene with Mariette. I'll have to re-read that. But I thought the father was just doing doctorly things, of which are inherently humiliating. It's humiliating to be in a hospital.
I too can't put my finger on why those two big events happen on Christmas Eve. Perhaps you're right. Perhaps it has to do with the incarnation. I don't know.
II agree that Celine's examin is standard for a doctor. I just wondered why Hansen chose to have the father also be the doctor.
That's a good question. He didn't have to, did he? You had asked if he were anti-religious. There’s a little scene in Part 3 I just re-read where he happens on a chance meeting with Mariette at the church. The Grille separates them. She asks about her wounds and she informs him they have healed. He asks to examine them. She refuses to show him.
“Just let me look at your hands.”
She hides them behind her back.
“Are they bleeding still?”
She dully shakes her head.
“Are they healed?”
“Well then, let me see how that is done?”
“Examining them won’t hurt.”
“Christ has forbidden them to science.”
Her father frowns with irritation at Mariette and says, “You are talking idiotically.”
“I have said what I have to say,” she says. We love you Papa.” And she goes. (p. 140)
I still don’t know if he’s anti-religious but he definitely stands in for empirical science. She refuses to give into the science, though she will have to later. I can’t answer as to why Hansen combines it with her father. Perhaps because it makes it even more surprising and undermining of the scientific world view that it all started under his nose.
As I was typing the conversation above, I was struck with Mariette’s last words, “We love you Papa.” Who is included in the “we”? Céline is dead. The rest of the Sisters? Not sure why that would be. Christ? Interesting.