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