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

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


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. 

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Mariette in Ecstasy, Post 3

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

Part 2


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.

Irene Commented:
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.

My Reply:
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?”
“No, Papa.”
“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.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Matthew Monday, Analysis of Four Baseballs

Toward the end of August, I brought Matthew into work with me, and we had a task to analyze four different baseballs.  It seems like there are some claims in the baseball world that the current baseball is different from the ones in the past.  This year they are obliterating the record for the number of homeruns and pitchers are complaining that the baseball has changed.  Matthew and I wanted to closely analyze four different baseballs that we had that span the recent past.  Since we have some highly accurate instruments at work, we took it as a little project on a slow day in the summer.

So here’s what we did.  We had four baseballs.  They are listed under the column “Type.”  (1) Identified as the 2015 Major League ball autographed by Henry Urrutia.  (2) Second is new 2019 major league ball that was thrown to Matthew by Juan Soto at a game we went to in July.  Third is a ball I caught at batting practice at an Arizona Diamondbacks game some 15 years ago, roughly dated to 2004.  Fourth is a new 2019 ball from a minor league game this August, from Single A New York-Penn league. 

Here is a picture showing the four baseballs, with Matthew’s face as background. 

The balls are arranged from left to right in the way I list them in the paragraph above.  Visually, other than a slight discoloration for the 2004 ball, probably from age, the balls all look alike.

So we took the weight of the balls, the diameter of the balls (in two places), the width of the seams in several places, and the height of the seams in several places.  Let me preface that this is a very small sample size.  We could be led astray from a particularity of an individual ball.  But my hunch is that the conclusions we reach are pretty much true.
We took the weight of the balls on a very accurate scale which measured pounds to three decimal places.  See Table 1 below.  What is remarkable is that all three major league balls weighed exactly the same to the thousandth of a pound.  That is incredibly consistent.  Even the minor league ball was only 6 thousandths of a pound more.  Baseballs all weigh the same and just under a third of a pound or just over five ounces.  

Baseball Type
Weight (lbs)
2015 “Urrutia” Major League Ball
2019 “Juan Soto” Major League Ball
2004 Arizona Diamondbacks Major League Ball
2019 NY-Penn Single A Minor League Ball
Table 1

We also measured the diameter of the balls in millimeters using digital Vernier calipers, and here we did it in two places. Holding the close part of the seams up, we measured the diameter from the top to underneath, noted in Table 2 below.  Then we flipped the ball 90 degrees so that the wide part of the seams was up and measured that diameter, noted in column E.  Here is two interesting finds.  First off the two diameters for each ball were very close indicating the balls are very round.  Second, the two 2019 balls were all over 73 mm, the 2004 ball was almost two millimeters smaller.  The minor league ball was in between the two.  We conclude that the newer balls are slightly larger.

Baseball Type
Diam (Close)
Diam (Far)
2015 “Urrutia” Major League Ball
2019 “Juan Soto” Major League Ball
2004 Arizona Diamondbacks Major League Ball
2019 NY-Penn Single A Minor League Ball
Table 2, Units in MM
If you don’t know what Vernier Calipers are, you can read about them here.  

Here’s another conclusion, and this runs counter to conventional thinking.  Since the old balls are smaller but weigh the same, they are denser.  Matthew even said he could feel the old one being harder. 

Because Justin Verlander complained about the seams, we measured the seam width and the seam height.  Measuring the seam width was not difficult.  We stuck the tips of the calipers in the holes the threading makes.  We took four random measurements around the ball.  The average and standard deviation are listed in Table 3 below.

Baseball Type
Seam Width (Ave)
Seam Width (Std Dev)
2015 “Urrutia” Major League Ball
2019 “Juan Soto” Major League Ball
2004 Arizona Diamondbacks Major League Ball
2019 NY-Penn Single A Minor League Ball
Table 3, Units in MM

Measuring the height of the threads we used the depth gage part of the caliper, put it into a thread hole and measured the height to the top of the thread.  I’m not sure how precise this was, but we did see a stark difference, so the trend was probably true though the numbers might not be precise.  Again we took four readings around the ball for each ball.  Results are listed in Table 4 below.

Baseball Type
Seam Height (Ave)
Seam Height (Std Dev)
2015 “Urrutia” Major League Ball
2019 “Juan Soto” Major League Ball
2004 Arizona Diamondbacks Major League Ball
2019 NY-Penn Single A Minor League Ball
Table 4, Units in MM

Some conclusions on the seams.  There really wasn’t that much of a difference between the 2015 and 2019 balls.  But there was a difference between the 2004 and the newer balls.  Newer balls had wider seams than the old.  The minor league ball much wider.  The height of the new balls was some 20% smaller than the old.  Verlander is right.  The seams are lower on the new balls.  So the old ball had a narrower seam but taller than the new.  Also the standard deviations of the old ball were better, which means it was better manufactured.  The stitching process of the newer balls appears to be poorer, maybe to save money.

So here’s a list of all the conclusions:

1. New balls are slightly larger than previous but weigh the same.
2. Old ball is harder (denser) than the new.
3. The width of the seams on the new balls are wider.
4. The height of the seams on the old are higher.
5. The new balls are not as well put together as the old.

Does this all indicate the new ball travels farther?  One of the theories out there is that the lower seams on the new balls cause less drag when in flight.  I guess that’s true but how much I don’t know how to figure out.  Intuitively it doesn’t seem to me it would make that much of a difference.  But Verlander is right about the height difference. 

I would think the lower height on the newer balls might make it harder to spin off a breaking ball.  But then would the extra width of the seams on the newer balls help the pitcher spin it?  You would have to ask a pitcher which seam he would prefer.

Since the old ball were denser, you would think they were the more “juiced up” ball.  But I think the slightly larger new balls make it easier to see and hit. 

So do the new balls go further?  I don’t know, but this was a fascinating study.  Both Matthew and I learned a lot, and I got Matthew to see how some basic engineering analysis is performed.  He got to learn about weighing to three decimal places, measuring with Vernier Calipers, some basic statistics, tabulating in Excel spreadsheet, and drawing conclusions from data.  I hope you got something out of this too.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Mariette in Ecstasy, Post 2

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

 Part 1, Continued.

I didn't provide my thoughts yet as to why I thought the novel was set in 1906.  Let me do so here.  The novel hinges on the mystery of Mariette's religious experiences culminating with the stigmata, whether it's true, a hoax, or some psychosomatic condition.  The early 1900's had the confluence of three threads in the medical-cultural world.  Through these three threads, Hansen is creating what I'll call stress points for the reader on which to question the nature of Mariette's experiences and condition.

(1) Medicine was finally becoming a real science.  Fifty years before there were still bleeding patients to cure them of "humors."  Understanding of germs and vaccines had finally developed and implemented in the medical process to the best they could.  Blood types were understood, x-rays were developed, and real medicines based on empirical experiments were being performed.  So by 1906, there has to be some sort of empirical explanation for the stigmata.  One could not just accept God "zapped" Mariette.  A couple of hundred years earlier and people might have easily accepted it.  Now there is a higher level of credibility that has to be achieved.

(2) Psychology was the rage.  Freud had rocked the world with his papers.  In the 1890s he had studies on hysteria published and he was linking it to sex.  In 1899 he published The Interpretation of Dreams, which defined a distinction between the conscious and unconscious, so that according to him there existed unconscious thoughts that went beyond our wills.  In 1905 he published Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality where he provided theories of sexual development from infancy through maturity.  Now don't get me wrong; I consider 90% of this psychoanalysis/therapy to be bunk and having no empirical basis, but the intellectual world was sold on this.  But by 1906, one could point to psychological reasons for religious experiences and people were linking them to sexuality. 

(3) William James, a philosopher, also started writing on psychology but with the perspective of religious experience.  In 1902 he published The Varieties of Religious Experiences.  Now I don't know that much detail of James' work (by the way he was author Henry James' brother) but from what I could research there were both positives and negatives to his conclusions.  On the positive side he gave credibility to the notion of religious experience and that it was not some disorder as Freud seems to imply.  He classified different types of religious experiences and their apparent expressions and manifestations.  On the negative side he does still link them to some mindful state that that one either can put oneself in or gets from experience.  While ultimately I think James sees positive value to these mystical experiences, for him they are some sort of psychosomatic phenomena rather than God doing something to the mystic.

So I think Hansen has chosen 1906 because the world now looks differently on mystical experiences differently than in the past.

Kerstin Replied:
Unfortunately Manny, much of this is a myth. People have always had the ability of keen observation. Our forbears were far more astute then we give them credit for. Medicine, then as know, has many successes, but also a lot of snake-oil salesmen. Yes, there have been a lot of advances and we all have benefited, but at the same time not everything in school medicine is sound. What do you think is better for the patient, bloodletting or a lobotomy?

In Europe, before school medicine, you had what is today called monastic medicine. It is a fascinating subject. Obviously the concept of Galen of the four humors are outdated, but the concept of the four temperaments (= body type) isn't. It is a kind of proto Myers-Briggs. Doctors used to administer medicine according to the specific to your temperament, meaning, they would treat the same illness differently with different people. This was based on a long tradition of observation. Today, if you have high blood pressure, for the first few months you're nothing but a guinea pig figuring our which one will work.

Then there is serious research going on in at least one university I know of, in Würzburg, Germany, studying monastic medicine, the precursor of school medicine. Monasteries used to have huge medicinal herbal gardens. Since they as a rule ran the hospitals and infirmaries, they also provided much of the medical care of their immediate vicinity. Much of their knowledge ("science" is Greek for "knowledge") was written down, and there are texts that survive. These are the texts that are being systematically studied. The university of Würzburg also has a huge herbal garden where they grow the plants we know were grown then. They have made astounding discoveries. One is a salve for infected eyes. When the researchers put the everyday ingredients together they were amazed they had found in essence a precursor to penicillin.

My Reply:
I don’t know Kerstin, I think we’re going to disagree.  Let me first address the easier to articulate points you made.  (1) Understanding temperament is not science.  I’m sure all civilizations everywhere in all times understood temperament.  Homer consciously delineates various temperaments in The Iliad. But there is nothing scientific about that.  Even today, Myers-Briggs is not science.  It’s just not.  (2) I’m sure all civilizations had home remedies that worked and some that didn’t work.  That doesn’t mean they understood the biological principles that made them work.  That scientific understanding of principles is world view changing. 

Now the harder part to articulate.  Absolutely the middle ages – and again probably all civilizations could use observation and apply reason.  St. Albert the Great, one of my favorite saints, advocated empirical observation of nature back in the 12th century.  (Actually there is a new bio out which I may nominate for our next read.)  But observation and reason fall short when you are trying to solve a problem where one doesn’t have knowledge of the fundamental phenomena.  For instance, many people observed the plague and all the deaths it caused.  But it was impossible to link it to germs and microorganisms because they weren’t aware of them.  When one observes an event and tries to link it to a cause, one thinks through a drop down menu of potential causes, and reason applies the most likely, and if you’re scientifically minded, you would do an experiment to prove it.  But in the middle ages, as one looks through that drop down menu, for causes of plagues, there isn’t anything in the menu for microorganisms.  No matter how intelligent and observant a person from the middle ages could be – and St Thomas Aquinas and St Albert the Great are two of the smartest people who ever lived –he wouldn’t be able to have reasoned microorganisms to be at the root of the plague.

Now apply this to a stigmata.  The drop down menu that a person would have today would be (1) hoax, (2) psychological/psychosomatic, and (3) God.  Today in 2019, I suspect most people would say it’s a hoax and very few today would say it’s from God.  How many people in 1225 questioned St. Francis of Assisi’s stigmata as an act from God?  I far as I can tell no one but I’m sure there were some.  How about even today, how many of us believe the St. Francis’s stigmata was real?  I would like to think it was real, but if someone proved it indisputably fake today, it wouldn’t surprise me.  That element of skepticism has entered western culture, probably irreversibly, and at this point spread across the world.  It has altered how we look at the world. 

Ron Hansen, at least until the very end, is making the reader choose from that drop down menu, and 1906 is just about the year all three of what I listed for the menu have an equal weight.  I also think he does not leave it ambiguous in the end, which has huge implications, and makes us re-evaluate the themes of the novel.