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.
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.