Wild writing: holy stigmata and the aesthetics of "sacred pain" in Ron Hansen's Mariette in ecstasy.
Few things may be more perplexing to modern students of spirituality than the pursuit of pain in the service of God. In a world dominated by modern medicine, pain is regarded as an enemy, something to be vanquished from human experience, whether in the fierce pangs of labor when a child is born or in the hospice wards of cancer patients and others who suffer slow, agonizing deaths. Easing or ending pain has become an obvious ethical good--a medical, religious, and even human duty. What sense, then, can we make of those spiritual outsiders who seek out pain and or at least prize its presence in their lives?
This question about the spiritual meaning of pain is at the heart of Ron Hansen's 1991 novel, Mariette in Ecstasy. Hansen's novel focuses on a fictional stigmatic named Mariette, who dedicates herself to life as a nun in the upstate New York convent where her older sister, Mother Celine, is prioress. The novel's conflict emerges from two parallel patterns of painful events: first, Mariette's sister Ce1ine suffers and dies from cancer, and then Mariette herself experiences a series of trances and ecstatic visions that culminate in manifestations of the stigmata--the wounds of Christ. Mariette's painful wounds earn the reverence of some of her sisters and the suspicion of others, raising a bevy of disturbing questions. As the New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani asks:
Are these wounds real stigmata, miraculous physical symbols of Christ's passion on the cross? Or are they self-induced lacerations, created by Mariette to call attention to herself? Has Mariette really talked to Christ, or is she suffering from delusions, induced by grief over her sister's death and months of self-abnegation? Is Mariette a modern-day saint, doubted by those who are jealous of her calling, or is she a clever con woman, manipulating people's need to believe in the miraculous? (17)
The interrogations Mariette undergoes by the convent's authorities, Pere Marriott and Mother Saint-Raphael, ultimately tend toward the suspicious, resulting in Mariette's dismissal from the monastery because of the "disturbance" she has created. Hansen himself, however, does little to undermine the reader's trust in Mariette's experience; as another reviewer remarks, "the reader never doubts the authenticity of Mariette's experience, the only suspense element is the priory's response to it" (Kirkus Review 1032).
I suggest, however, that there is a more important element of suspense in the novel: not about the authenticity of Mariette's experience or even the priory's response to it, but rather regarding the meaning of her "sacred pain"(2)--the spiritual conundrum created by her pleasurable bleeding for God. Given the reality of Mariette's experience, what sense is a modern reader to make of the pain she experiences and her subsequent sanctification of it? How does Hansen interpret her painful wounds within his novel? How do his novel's style, structure, and theme affect our theological reception of her experience? And finally, what does her sacred pain illuminate about the spiritual and aesthetic significance of pain in human experience?
In the article to follow, I shall explore these questions about bodily pain, aesthetics, and theology in relation to Mariette's story. Unlike the modern photograph of Therese Neumann described in my introduction, Hansen's portrayal of Mariette is notable for the beauty he evokes in his depiction of her painful wounds. That beauty, however, is of a wild, sensuous kind, and as such, it contributes to his characterization of Mariette as a modern female version of the medieval "wild man;' a stock romance character whose wildness disrupts and challenges conventional society. In part one of my article, I show how Hansen draws upon this familiar medieval romance tradition to contrast the decorous beauty of civilized society--her father's secular world and the "civilized" convent--with the "wilderness" surrounding the convent and, indeed, with Mariette's own wildness. Like Mariette herself, the natural wilderness reminds readers of a rich sensory world that can itself give access to the divine mystery. Indeed, I argue that Hansen uses nature's wild beauty to defamiliarize the ordinary world and dilate the reader's conventional perspective, making readers more receptive to the supernatural mystery of Mariette's pleasurable pain.
In part two, I analyze how pain, like beauty, functions as a mode of divine revelation in Hansen's novel. In dramatizing that phenomenon, Hansen juxtaposes two forms of pain--Mother Celine's cancer and Mariette's stigmata. Although the former produces the natural suffering readers might expect of such pain, the latter issues in surprising joy and consolation, creating what Glucklich calls a central "mystery of religious life": "how unwanted suffering can be transformed into sacred pain" (6). This transformative view of suffering has a long tradition, evident especially among nineteenth- and twentieth-century French Catholic women, such as Therese of Lisieux, who partly inspired Hansen's novel. As Richard D.E. Burton notes in his study of women and the culture of suffering in France between 1840 and 1970, Christ's Passion was a form of suffering
which so many French Catholic women ... felt it was their calling and duty to repeat, not just, or even primarily, in the case of Catholic women, for their own individual salvation but, more pertinently, for that of their nonbelieving fellow countrymen and women for whose sake they willingly assumed, and even actively sought out, pain, suffering, illness, and, ultimately, death in order to redeem them--literally, 'buy them back'--from the clutches of the Enemy. (xiii)
Hansen is clearly working within a Catholic theological tradition in which suffering has redemptive potential, not just for the sufferer but also for all of humanity.
In Hansen's artistic rendering of this theological mystery about suffering, I argue that Hansen presents a theological paradox premised upon interpreting the stigmata as "wild writing." Using that metaphor throughout the novel, Hansen shows how Mariette's wounds are at once disruptive and civilizing, creating chaos in her conventional community, but at the same time bringing the Word that stands for authentic civilization and new identity. The stigmata confer that new identity by enabling Mariette to enter into compassionate suffering with Christ, and through him, with her sister. In this way, Mariette is able to answer the "problem of pain" created by Celine's solitary suffering, for her stigmata yoke her to Christ, her sister, and nature, revealing the young postulant's sense of belongingness to a world that includes but also transcends her finite life. Ultimately, therefore, her wounds are sacred gifts insofar as they communicate Christ's presence through her physical body, using her natural senses to achieve a profound experience of communion that paradoxically produces pleasure from pain.
Forms of Beauty: The Country Estate, the Convent, and the "Wilderness"
The contemporary American author Ron Hansen launched his fictional career by writing westerns: a first novel Desperadoes, about the notorious outlaw gang, the Daltons, and a critically acclaimed novel about the assassination of Jesse James. Such a proclivity for "wild west" tales might make him an unlikely candidate for exploring the religious experience of a young nun and stigmatic. But according to Hansen, even his westerns are imbued with theological significance, and he considers himself a fundamentally religious novelist, despite the outsider status that confers upon him. For, he notes that as a writer of faith in contemporary America, he is something of an "exile" in an artistic culture that has largely rejected writing about faith (A Stay Against Confusion 2). Considering that artistic "exile," readers can understand one possible reason for his attraction to other outsider figures, whether literal outlaws such as Jesse James or spiritual outsiders such as Mariette. Indeed, Hansen even represents the Prodigal Son as an artistic exile in the 1996 novel Atticus, a novelized parable that juxtaposes the father's desire for "order and cleanliness" (10) and the son's "wild living" (9) and wanderlust, filial qualities that lead him to wild adventure in the heart of Mexico, far from the father's comfortable Colorado ranch.
Hansen's interest in a world of wild adventure is evident in Mariette in Ecstasy just as much as in his western novels, but perhaps in less obvious ways, given that Mariette is a "convent novel," whose action takes place mostly within the upstate New York convent of the Sisters of the Crucifixion. The convent world Hansen establishes as the backdrop for Mariette's spiritual drama is a conventional, orderly place. In depicting that world, however, he allows fleeting pictures of the "wilderness" to intrude unpredictably upon the main narrative by describing a natural world whose eccentric movements shift the reader's focus from the unfolding human events to a broader and more mysterious reality. Hansen's universe of sharply contrasted realities is aptly captured by the critic Pico Ayer, who calls Hansen's novel "a world as close and equivocal as Emily Dickinson's, alive with the age-old American concerns of community and wildness, of sexual and spiritual immensities, of transcendence and its discontents" (qtd. in ASAC 9). With such oppositions, though, his novel evinces something older even than Dickinson's nineteenth-century poetic--something vaguely medieval even in his narrative approach. After the fashion of many medieval romance narratives, Hansen juxtaposes a civilized world and a natural world, portraying the natural world as an enigmatic wilderness that haunts the boundaries of civilized society. But, whereas in the medieval romance tradition, it is an aristocratic court that represents civilized society, in Hansen's novel, both the convent and secular society play that "courtly" role.
To establish the conventional civilized world, Hansen parallels the bourgeois milieu of Mariette's father to the nuns' convent. Those two worlds might seem like they should be radically different because of their secular and religious orientations, but as Hansen portrays them, both represent a conventional order hostile to the unusual or unexpected. For instance, Mariette's father, Dr. Baptiste, displays a bourgeois decorum and rationalistic perspective that render him unsympathetic to what he derisively calls Mariette's "inner wrenchings" (Mariette in Ecstasy 31). Initially, Hansen describes Dr. Baptiste "stand[ing] at a kitchen window in red silk pajamas, drinking chickory in the sunrise, looking outside as if his hate were there, hearing Mariette just above him" (9). In this description, his accoutrements reflect his taste for civilized niceties and his complacent contentment with fine things. Yet, the quality of his gaze suggests anything but contentment, and indeed his gaze illustrates his orientation to the values of conventional society and his alienation from nature--both the natural world itself and his "natural" kin (his daughter Mariette). For, he sees only himself (his "hate") outside, not the sun beyond. Nor does he comprehend the reality of Mariette above him; he "hears" her above, but he does not understand her.
Later, when Dr. Baptiste visits Mariette in the convent, Hansen describes him "hulking behind the iron grille in a handsome Kashmir overcoat, an inch of Murad cigarette held inside his hand and grayly hazing the room with its reek" (MiE 77). This description again emphasizes his taste for secular luxuries--that is, for the material symbols of conventional society. But the material objects in this descriptive passage also subtly suggest his separation from reality. The "grille" divides him from his cloistered daughters. The "overcoat" cloaks his body, hiding his flesh-and-blood self in opulent fabric. And the smoke from his extravagant cigarette creates a kind of "haze" that obscures both sight and smell, discoloring the air and creating a "reek." His conversation, as Hansen depicts it in the same scene, evokes a less negative connotation, but it, too, reflects his proclivity toward the conventional, the ordinary, and the expected. In conversing with his religious daughters,
Their father tells them both about the house, his patients, the great canal that is being built on the Isthmus of Panama, a book of tales by O. Henry that he is enjoying, about the Chicago White Sox beating the Chicago Cubs in the third annual World Series, that he is voting for Charles Evans Hughes for governor of New York. (77)
Those topics display his concern for conventional topics--for the prosaic rather than the extraordinary. And they illustrate the pleasure he takes in the beautiful surfaces of mundane life.
Admittedly, his work as a physician exposes him to a messier, less beautiful world. As Hansen describes him in yet another passage, "Although he has dressed in European elegance and bathed himself in perfumes of musk and civet, he carries in his clothes from his morning rounds an odor of illness that is still so offensive that Sister Aimee has cupped a palm over her nose and Sister Philomene inches back her chair half a foot" (95). Here, Hansen contrasts Dr. Baptiste's beautiful appearance and smell with the stench that clings to him from his work. His elegant apparel and perfumed smells reflect his efforts to distance himself from his patients' suffering, separating him from the ugliness of illness and the rougher life of pain he sees as a physician. Through his own aesthetic choices, he can inhabit a world that is beautiful in its civilized refinement and distance from forms of suffering, whether they be the psychological "wrenchings" of his daughter or the physical pain of his patients.
Yet in many ways, the convent itself is no less conventional than the father's secular world, nor does it seem less concerned with civilized refinement. Hansen prefaces his novel with a schedule of the nuns' liturgical hours, a schedule reflecting the perfect orderly rhythm, the exquisite decorum of the nuns' daily lives. Indeed, that aesthetic value--decorum--seems to be chief among the virtues inculcated in the nuns as they strive to imitate the Virgin Mary. For instance, "Sister Saint-Leon has been humbly required to teach table etiquette to all who would imitate Our Lady in decorum and delicatesse"(53). What follows, then, is a careful description of how the nuns are taught to preserve cleanliness in their hands and face during meals; how they are schooled in eating with delicacy and restraint; and how they are taught the mannerly use of tableware. In this way, the nuns are held to a civilized ideal of "politesse" (54), premised upon a concern for the pleasing rules of society--civilized beauty.
Mariette's sister, Mother Celine, is perhaps the epitome of this ideal, and as she is described early in the story, her appearance and demeanor reflect a civilized refinement reminiscent of their father. The narrator relates:
Mother Ce1ine seems a glamorous actress playing a nun, or one of the grand ladies of inheritance that Mariette has seen in paintings of English society. Without her black veil and gray habit, the prioress would seem a genteel and handsome mother of less than forty, blond and lithe and Continental, but tense and initiating, too, with green eyes that seem to strike what they see. ... She arranges and grooms her papers on the green felt of the desktop and then she briskly sits opposite Mariette and puts her hands on her knees. (29)
As Hansen describes her here, there is an incongruity between her natural deportment and her religious role, for much like the famous Chaucerian Prioress, she "seems" a fine lady "playing a nun." After the fashion of an aristocratic lady, her fine manners, elegant bearing, and grand presence stand out to the observer, suggesting a personality at odds with the somber nun's habit she wears. And her automatic actions, "arranging" and "grooming" the papers, subtly signify her preoccupation with order, neatness, and cleanliness, the very ideals in which the nuns are schooled. Like the Chaucerian Prioress, she values etiquette and decorum to a degree that raises questions about how much she and some of her sisters are in contact with the divine, as opposed to being merely the "face" of religion.
Despite such attention to surface beauty, the nun's world is also, paradoxically, a place in which there is a suspicion of beauty and art. One nun "worries over the pleasure she takes in viewing the yard, but she thinks it is like a prayer, seeing so many of God's favors and blessings on their priory" (54). Other nuns fear beauty that is florid or excessive--that which is not controlled. For instance, because Mariette does not conform to a "plain style" in her writing, she is chastised by Mother Saint-Raphael, who "worriedly scowls at Mariette's high school essay about her yearning for a religious life. 'We teach a plain style of writing" the mistress of novices says, and shuts the pages ... " (49). Mother Saint-Raphael also dismisses the young postulant's poetry as "affected" (50), a word that implicitly criticizes the artistic contrivance and excess of feeling evident in Mariette's verse.
Not surprisingly, in this world guided by decorum, neatness, and orderliness, the nuns place a premium on predictable routine. As Sister Genevieve remarks, "We see the same people hour after hour. And you can predict just what they'll do. ... Exciting things just don't happen here that often" (37). Indeed, Mother Saint-Raphael's rhetoric almost suggests that truth and virtue are predictable, for later, in the face of Mariette's strange revelations, she warns, "Let us therefore be wary of hallucinations and tricks and whatever seems wonderful or surprising. And let us remember that sainthood has little to do with the preternatural but a great deal to do with the simple day-to-day practice of the Christian virtues" (134). In distancing herself from Mariette's eccentric behavior, Mother Saint-Raphael outlines a theology that is clean and clear; she espouses the kind of "prosaic ethic" natural to the novel by encouraging a rational commitment to ordinary virtue. (3) Hansen is not wholly critical of such an ethic; after all, it is just those values that ensure the smooth conduct of convent life. But he does suggest that a narrow focus on prosaics can foreclose the kind of openness to the mysterious that is necessary for access to the divine. (4)
By contrast to the conventional orderly world of the convent, the natural world in Hansen's novel is a place of predictable surprises. Nature is wild not so much in the sense of being savage, but in that it is distant, enigmatic, and radically other. At the start of the novel, Hansen employs a paratactic narrative style to insert laconic descriptions of natural phenomena, simply placing one description alongside another. Often Hansen merely names natural phenomena, withholding the kind of narrative explanation that might make sense of nature's movements or relate them to the human sphere:
Wind, and a nighthawk teetering on it and yawing away into woods. Wallowing beetles in green pond water. Toads. Cattails sway and unsway. (3)
Apart from the final line of this passage, the fragmentary syntax here relies on nouns alone or nouns floated by mere participial descriptors; without main verbs to complete each sentence's action and extend the strand of a story, readers are left wondering why nature does what it does. Of nature's being--its existence--readers are made keenly aware, but they learn nothing of nature's purpose or meaning. In addition, Hansen's paratactic style creates "gaps" in the text, spaces of emptiness, which hint at the mystery surrounding each created thing. Such gaps function as a kind of "narrative stigmata" They are beautiful to the eye, but also frustrating, even painful to read in that they slow the unfolding narrative, disrupting the story's flow by withholding the traditional comforts of narrative continuity. Through this "broken" narrative, Hansen transposes Mariette's bodily stigmata to the body of the text, allowing nature to pour through the text's many gaps. And the natural world that breaks through such gaps is a strange, indecipherable realm, seemingly independent of the nuns' ordered cosmos.
Not only is the natural world portrayed as more mysterious than the nuns convent (or the father's secular world), it also has a different aesthetic. (5) Compared to the beauty of the nuns convent and daily rituals, there is something less refined about the natural world and its form of beauty. Juxtaposed to description of the nuns' practiced etiquette (MiE 53) is a description of the rougher manners of animals eating: "[W]ide milk cows are tearing up green chocks of grass in the pasture. Each chews earnestly, like a slow machine, until the roots appear in her mouth and she goes back to the grass again" (54). The cows are efficient but graceless in their eating, "tearing" and "chewing" Although the startling simile of the "slow machine" gives the cows a kind of aesthetic character, this particular trope suggests that they are more useful than beautiful. Indeed, Hansen's natural world is one in which beauty exists side by side with ugliness. In one line, we read of "toads" and "wallowing beetles," but in another of "Jasmine. Lilac. Narcissus" (4). The distanced, impersonal description of those natural phenomena gives little preference to one over the other--to the good or bad, beautiful or ugly. Nature is as hospitable to splashy, burgeoning hothouse flowers (54) as to cows chewing their cud. In its rhythmic alternations, it includes both ugliness and beauty within its total aesthetic, resulting in a stranger and more capacious vision of beauty.
Yet the two worlds--convent and wilderness--are not totally disconnected, as the natural world from time to time penetrates the human one. In so doing, nature adds to the convent a sensuous beauty some of Mariette's sisters seem inclined to suppress: "Troughs of sunlight angle into the oratory like green and blue and pink bolts of cloth grandly flung down from the high, painted windows" (32). The natural world is deeply and sensuously beautiful as it invades the convent walls, yet only the "wildest" nuns seem truly to notice the beauty of nature. For instance, on the novel's first pages, the narrator's meticulous attention to the strange, spare phenomena of nature--nighthawks, toads, jasmine, mooncreep and spire--contrasts sharply with the attention of Mother Celine, who is described "gracefully walking, head down" (4). In this initial description of Celine, her mode of walking introduces readers to her practiced, elegant behavior, and her "downcast head" emphasizes a gaze directed to the ground rather than to the lively flora and fauna around her. Amidst so much natural beauty, she walks as if in an isolated world. Later, although eight sisters mingle amidst yellow butterflies and thigh-high horsetail grass, "[o]ne sister pokes her teeth with a grass stem. And then the wildest sister rejoices and whirls and flumps down in the horsetail. Even at a distance their rich laughter peals like piano notes" (27). Here, the "wildest" sister's abandonment to nature produces beautiful laughter among her sisters, but this pleasurable enjoyment of nature seems exceptional, rather than habitual among Mariette's sisters. Indeed, Hansen's focus on the nuns' cultivation of their interior community over against their exterior one (nature) suggests a subtle alienation from their natural surroundings. (6)
Thus, the odd and unsettling rhythms of nature that Hansen sporadically depicts throw into relief the predictable and complacent rhythms of the nuns' convent life and the father's bourgeois milieu. Further, the strange, sometimes puzzling movements of nature lay the groundwork for the reader's reception of Mariette's strange, inexplicable experience. Through this interplay of worlds--convent, secular household, and wilderness--Hansen seems to suggest that the world is odder and more mysterious than humans know, both in the natural world outside our window and, ultimately, in the supernatural world invisible to our ordinary eyes.
Mariette's Stigmata: Wild Beauty, Sacred Pain
The setting of Hansen's novel, therefore, juxtaposes two different kinds of beauty: the formal, controlled orderliness of the father's secular and the nun's religious milieus, in contrast to the "wild" more erratic aesthetic of the natural world, a landscape inhabited by peculiar animals and plants, and lit by unexpected sources of beauty. Much as the natural world intrudes upon the refined convent, so Mariette springs up among her convent sisters like a wildflower trespassing in a cultivated garden. Hansen suggests this metaphorical connection between Mariette and an exotic wildflower in an early interchange between Mariette and the priest Marriott. When Mariette tells Marriott that she has "had an experience" during which "Jesus spoke to me" (40), he "smiles insincerely and scratches his hair as he stares at the jar of wildflowers and thinks" (41). In the conversation depicted here, dramatic irony arises as the reader senses what Marriott does not: that Mariette herself is a kind of wildflower--beautiful to behold, but difficult to understand. As a wild outsider within a more conventional world, Mariette reincarnates the literary "wild man" figure familiar to many medieval romance tales. Indeed, whereas in many medieval romances a "wild man" often emerges from the natural world beyond the boundaries of society to challenge conventional courtly ways of thinking or acting, in this novel, the "wild man" is not a man but a woman--the young postulant Mariette, and her wildness emerges as much from her spiritual congress with a supernatural world as with a natural one. She is an outsider, an interloper, someone who is troubling to those around her; as Mother Saint-Raphael remarks to her, "There's a great deal about you that troubles me" (65). Above all, though, she is a woman whose spiritual experiences surprise and challenge those in the convent.
Mariette's spiritual experience is marked by several qualities, all of which define her as an outsider and relate to her experience of the stigmata. These qualities include sensuousness, wildness, and artistry. From the start, Mariette is depicted as an individual from a world of sensuous beauty--a world in which the material things that surround her are beautiful to the senses. In the days before her entry into the monastery, when she still lives with her father:
She is upstairs in a great country house and sitting at a Duchess desk in a pink satin nightgown as she pens instructions to the housemaid, saying to whom her jewelry and porcelains and laces and gowns ought to go. She then stands and unties the strings at her neck so that the pink satin seeps onto a green Chinese carpet that is as plush as grass. And she is held inside an upright floor mirror, pretty and naked and seventeen. She skeins her chocolate-brown hair. She pouts her mouth. She esteems her full breasts as she has seen men esteem them. She haunts her milk-white skin with her hands. (8-9)
The last lines of this passage portray a young woman whose body is youthfully beautiful, mirroring the artful colors, shapes and tactile qualities of her rich domestic surroundings. Moreover, Mariette seems to take as much pleasure in her body as she might in the aesthetic finery of her country house, with its fine porcelain and exquisite carpets. For, we see her luxuriating in her thick hair and enjoying the shape-making potential of her mouth, the ample expanse of her breasts, and the color and softness of her skin.
This sensuousness does not disappear even after she renounces the beautiful world of her father's estate and enters the ascetic realm of the convent. For instance, Mariette's sensuous character resurfaces during the nuns' dramatic enactment of the Song of Songs, a biblical text whose radical sensuousness well suits Mariette's nature. In describing her role within the reenactment, Hansen emphasizes her dramatic physical presence: "Mariette is glamorously there, her great dark mane of hair in massacre like the siren pictures of Sheba. She's taken her habit and sandals off and shockingly dressed her soft nakedness in a string necklace of white buttons that are meant to seem pearls and red taffeta robe that is like a bloodstain on linen" (82-83). In this dramatic appearance, Mariette's sensuous appeal is viscerally present to the other nuns, and it shocks many of them. Furthermore, even though she is appareled in civilized finery (a pearl-like necklace and taffeta robe), Hansen's simile suggests that there is something primal and wild about her apparel. The robe itself evokes an image of the most elemental substance--blood, and as it metaphorically "stains" her naked body, the robe seems to mark her as a transgressive character, enacting a sinful or at least socially forbidden role.
Mariette's sensuous nature not only distances her from many of her religious sisters, but it also links her to the natural world, a world with which she seems intimate as other sisters do not. Mariette's sympathy with nature is evinced at several points in the narrative. For instance, Hansen describes one nun, Honore, polishing the piano inside and gazing outside "at northern winds and storm clouds in ferment and their postulant happily wading in a purple flow of maple leaves. Mariette stoops and puts her hand down in them and they froth up to her chin like sudden pets" (76). In this interlude, Mariette joyfully luxuriates in the leaves as if they were a sea of pleasing waters. While several sisters join Mariette in this sensuous playfulness, Sister Honore, by contrast, plays the piano inside, creating an image of one who restrains rather than revels in beauty. Amidst the revelry, "She [Honore] hears their high giggles and hectic talk as she plays one measure of a Chopin etude and steps on the damper pedal" (76). Notably, Honore "plays" inside the convent rather than outside in nature, and she is shown to experiment with beauty but then pull back from it by dampening the romantic sounds, rather than abandoning herself to beauty, as Mariette so naturally does. Because Mariette's sensibility is so alien to Honore and other sisters like her, Mariette's natural sensuousness and intimacy with nature converge to make her seem an outsider whom others do not understand. Even her sister, Celine, discerns something wild and unsettling in Mariette. Having read Mariette's private letters detailing her interior life, Celine finds their natural passion disturbing. From those interior revelations, she has come to regard Mariette "as she would a sudden noise" and she confesses, "You're my sister, but I don't understand you" (92).
Yet wild as Mariette may seem to the other nuns, it is Celine's sudden illness--cancer--that functions as a wild intrusion in her own life and in Mariette's. Hansen depicts Celine's cancerous body as a force of nature that disrupts her calm life and appearance, leaving a wilderness in its wake. Prior to the cancer's onset, Celine is described as beautiful insofar as she displays a civilized dignity and reserve, a formal control and distance; she is the paradigm of decorum for the rest of the convent. When she is afflicted with cancer, however, her appearance radically changes. It is more natural insofar as there is something wildly uncontrolled about it: "Wild sleep has tossed aside the gray wool blanket and sheet and twisted her nightgown on her body so that it seems shameless and slatternly. A great gush of blond hair veils her pillow" (91). In this depiction of Celine's suffering body, images of sickness, sexuality, and sensuousness overlap in a surprising way, with the words "shameless" and "slatternly" conjuring up the bed of a whore as much as of a sick nun. The connotations in these lines suggest that illness functions as a force of nature that rapes Celine, leaving her exposed and vulnerable. Moreover, her illness is ugly, not beautiful; indeed, it mars Celine's once-beautiful appearance, as when "sudden pain misshapes her face" (92).
On the surface, Mariette does not seem disturbed to see the pain that "misshapes" her sister's face when she visits the bedridden Celine, for "Mariette stands there impassively and softly prays as she puts her left hand onto her sister's side" (92-93). In fact, though, Celine's illness has significant ramifications for Mariette's life, creating a problem of pain that disturbs Mariette psychologically: not only does the pain disfigure ("misshape") her sister, but Celine's suffering further alienates her from her sister, and death makes that alienation final. In the aftermath of Celine's death, other nuns testify to the psychological effect of Celine's illness and death on Mariette by describing the latter's "turbulent psychological state" (119). Celine's suffering and death, then, create a psychological storm that precipitates the dramatic crisis represented by Mariette's stigmata. For, as Hansen structures his novel, Part 2 climaxes in Mother Celine's illness and death from cancer, events that are subsequently paralleled by the manifestation of Mariette's stigmata. The one form of pain imitates the other, although each sister's emotional response to pain differs radically. (7)
That is not to say Mariette's stigmata are reducible to a single cause, such as psychological disturbance over her sister's death. From the novel's beginning, Mariette seems to have a twin desire for artistic expression and affliction, both of which are relevant to the manifestation of her stigmata. Mariette's artistic inclinations are evident in the letters and private writing she regularly does as well as in her artistic sketches. At one point, she crystallizes the desire for artful communication of her interior life in a confession to Pere Marriott when she acknowledges, "[H]ow I yearn to give you [Marriott] a place in my heart and confide in you and paint in their radiance all of my secrets and experiences [emphasis mine]" (43). The verb "paint" here is significant because it subtly conveys her sense that the self-revelation of her interior life is an artistic endeavor, with aesthetic potential. In Mariette's view, her inner life possesses a beauty to which she wants to give physical color and shape.
But as much as she desires artistic expression of her inner life, she also has a desire for pain, a desire she reveals to the other nuns after deliberately scalding her hands. She explains bluntly: "I just wanted to hurt" (70). In this regard, Mariette evinces a passion analogous to that of the medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, whose Revelations of Divine Love are read in the nuns' refectory as part of their Lectio Divina. During one day's reading, Sister Saint-Michel reads Dame Julian's three petitions:
"These revelations were shown to a simple and uneducated creature on the eighth of May 1373. Some time earlier she had asked three gifts from God: one, to understand his passion; two, to suffer physically while still a young woman of thirty; and, finally, to have as God's gift three wounds." (25)
Like Julian, Mariette desires physical suffering, and she too longs for the wounds of Christ--the stigmata--and their peculiarly intense pain. Just prior to Celine's death, in one of the earliest intimations that she will be "gifted" with the stigmata, Hansen writes:
She tries to rub the hot sting from one palm with her thumb but the hurt persists like hate inked on a page. Eventually the sisters rise and slowly pass by Mariette as she sits there for a half hour more, hoarding the pain. (99)
The verb "hoarding" here implies that pain is a treasure Mariette cherishes and is loathe to share or relinquish.
Given this evidence about Mariette's longing for pain, readers may wonder why she so strongly desires pain; after all, the pain described seems negative insofar as it "persists like hate inked on a page" But as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that she cherishes pain because of how it connects her to Christ. The particular way that the painful stigmata do that is illuminated by the images Hansen links to them. A dream shortly after Mariette experiences the initial stinging in her hands underscores how her mind inclines to images of being fed by and, in turn, nurturing Christ. In the dream, "Mariette is pregnant and her great breasts ache with milk, but she holds the infant Christ to them and he smiles as he feeds on her" (100). Although this dream about nursing the Christ child might seem unrelated to Mariette's cherished wounds, in fact Caroline Walker Bynum has noted that during the high Middle Ages, the blood flowing forth from Christ's wounds was often regarded as analogous to the milk emerging from a mother's breast (206). She observes, "There were several separate strands on which medieval mystics drew in identifying woman with flesh and Christ's flesh with the female" (Bynum 206). Such a link between female flesh and Christ's body helps to explain medieval artistic depictions of the communicant "nursing" on Christ's nourishing "milk" during the Eucharist: "Miniatures and panel paintings showed Christ exuding wine or blood into chalices or even into hungry mouths and drew visual parallels between his wound and Mary's breast offered to suckle sinners" (206). By extension, then, those women who experienced the stigmata (and stigmatics were almost always women) were able to replicate this maternal Jesus role by allowing Christ's blood to flow through them to nurture others (204). Based on the imagery in Mariette's dream, she seems to have an unconscious desire for this kind of nutritive connection to Christ, wanting to be fed by Christ and to have her body transformed into a vehicle for feeding others his divine nourishment.
This "medieval" interpretation of the stigmata, however, is not natural to the twentieth-century nuns in Mariette's priory. Indeed, for the inhabitants of the convent, the stigmata raise a series of vexing interpretive questions--are the wounds authentic or false, good or bad, beautiful or ugly? From one outsider's perspective, the wounds are ugly, not beautiful. Sister Aimee bluntly calls the wounds "hideous" (113). Further, from the perspective of some nun observers, Mariette's extraordinary behavior--her trances, ecstasies, and bleeding--is simply wild. Sister Saint-Estephe remarks, "We never had wildness like that here before" (152). By contrast to Mariette's revolting wildness, Mother Saint-Raphael is depicted as the "handsome" embodiment of controlled nature: Mother Saint-Raphael "sits down beside Mariette and is as still as a book of ritual, disarray's opposite, her handsome face neutral, her hard sandals flat on the floor" (158-9). In this description, Hansen reminds readers of the order and predictability on which the convent is premised and against which Mariette is defined. To many of the nuns, Mariette's wounds are bad because they disrupt the ordinary world on which their feet are firmly planted and in which they are grounded. (8)
From Hansen's own narrative perspective, however, Mariette's wounds are beautiful and are connected to enhanced health rather than illness. Shortly after an episode of bleeding, "She seems flushed and surprisingly healthy, but ashamed of the hushed attention of the sisters" (122). In addition, Hansen insists upon the sensuousness of her wounds: "Blood seeps silkily from the hand wound, turning and rumpling underwater until it gradually untangles into nothing more than color" (120). The language Hansen uses here links the blood to a luxurious, costly cloth--silk. He even underscores the aesthetic character of blood dissolving into water by describing it with subtle notes of alliteration and assonance, rendering beautiful the process by which one substance seamlessly blends itself with another. When the bleeding occurs again, Mariette resists regarding it as illness, as others perceive it. "You're ill," Sister Monique remarks. '"No; she whispers. 'Look at my hands'" (136). Later, Mariette makes clear that it is not the gaping wounds of the stigmata that mar her beauty and make her ugly, but rather deprivation of Christ. She confesses, "And yet I should think myself hateful if being deprived of him for these six days had not grossly disfigured me" (162). In these terms, the exuding of Christ through the human body--radically manifested by the stigmata--confers beauty, whereas the absence of Christ is "disfiguring" (162). (9)
Not only do the wounds have a sensuous quality, but they also have an artistic dimension as well, inasmuch as Hansen repeatedly invokes the language of writing--ink, pen, paper, page, book--to characterize Mariette's stigmata. For instance, Hansen uses the language of literary art to describe the first wounds that emerge on Mariette's body after her sister's death: "Blood scribbles down her wrists and ankles and scrawls like red handwriting on the floor" (107). When the wounds recur, Hansen further builds upon the metaphoric link between Mariette's wounds and art--the book in particular: "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 the terrible pain of hammered nails ... " (158). Again, when several sisters observe Mariette beside Mother Celine's grave, they see her raise "her hands as if she's written on the palms" (166). In these passages, Mariette's hands are like a book, her palms are like a book's open pages, and her wounds are like inked letters, although they record a language that, on the surface, confounds as much as it communicates. Even Mariette's very self seems to be a foreign form of communication, for after the stigmata have appeared, "Mother Saint-Raphael stares at Mariette as if she has become an intricate sentence no one can understand" (144). Through repetition of such images and portrayal of the wounds as a form of writing, Hansen rings changes on traditional medieval metaphors for the stigmata as natural phenomena ("nurturing milk"). In so doing, he creates a striking paradox within his novel, for writing is a product of civilization, not nature. Throughout the novel, Mariette has been linked more to nature than to civilization.
In one respect, the metaphor of blood writing implies that the stigmata mark the stain of human sin. Mariette confesses, "Every sin I have committed is written in ink on my skin" (167). And indeed, as Lowell Gallagher explains in analyzing the etymology of the term stigmata, "In Graeco-Roman antiquity, the stigma was ... the mark engraved on the face or forehead that identified the criminal" (93). This semantic link gave rise to a theological link between wounds and crime that was expanded most notably by St. Augustine. As Ian MacInnes notes in his study of the Nun of Portugal (an early modern stigmatic), Augustine developed the idea of sin as a wound that only the physician Christ can heal (385); paradoxically, in Augustine's view, Christ's wounds were the "medicine for human sin, itself conceived of as a wound" (387). Reflecting Augustine's theological connection between wounds and sin, Mariette sees her stigmata as recording the "crime" of human sin, externalizing what is internal and making it apparent for all to "read."
But the stigmata are also a sign of Christ writing on and speaking through her. This metaphoric connection between the stigmata and divine writing becomes theologically intelligible upon examining Mariette's understanding of writing itself, which she describes as "a kind of prayer" (163). That is, she sees writing as fundamentally a communication between the human soul and the divine. Hansen echoes her belief about writing in an essay titled "Writing as Sacrament" Therein, he argues that writing has "sacramental" potential insofar as written texts can be seen "as graced occasions of encounter between humanity and God" (ASAC 3). If, then, the stigmata are metaphorically linked to writing, and if Hansen views writing as potentially "sacramental," then it follows that the stigmata have a sacramental quality, serving as a vehicle for God to speak to and through the human body. Indeed, Mariette thinks of the wounds not just as marks of sin, but also as gifts that somehow communicate the Word of God; explaining their coincidence with Christmastide, she claims that her wounds are "the Word being made incarnate" and "God's gifts to me" (MiE 126). (10)
Mariette's conviction that Christ's Word has appeared on her flesh--as letters written in blood--helps to explain why the stigmata are linked both to nature and to civilization. They appear in the flesh and thus use the natural, physical body as their vehicle. But in taking the form of writing on the body, they are the tools of civilization, too. Indeed, by figuring the bloody traces of Christ as a kind of writing, Hansen implies that the ultimate form of civilization is Christ himself and his mode of being. Given how superficially civilized behavior is construed by Dr. Baptiste and some of the nuns in Mariette's priory, Hansen may be reminding readers of a more fundamental kind of civilization, suggesting that true civilization depends not upon good breeding or fine manners--the delicatesse to which the nuns are perhaps unduly devoted--but upon Christ's transformative Word. The blood writing thus captures the paradox of Christ as both wild and civilizing. For Christ is an agent of disruption, brazenly breaking through the conventional veneer of ordinary reality at the same time that he inaugurates a new order and way of being.
This theological paradox may help to explain the emotional paradox that defines Mariette's experience of the stigmata. Describing that paradox, Mariette notes the coincidence of pain and joy in her experience of the stigmata:
Kneeling there below [Christ's] cross, I saw that blood no longer issued from his wounds, but only flashing light as hot as fire. And all of a sudden I felt a keen hurt as those flames touched my hands and feet and heart. I have never felt such pain before, and I have never been so happy. (129)
In this exclamation, she testifies to the central mystery at the heart of the novel: the bleeding wounds on her hands and feet are a source of both exquisite pain and perfect happiness. Mariette explains this coincidence of pain and joy in terms of her desire for absolute identification with Christ. As Mariette articulates that desire:
I found myself again before Jesus, who was suffering such terrible pain. He was horrible with blood and his breathing was hard and troubled, but his pain had less to do with that than with this human sense of failure, injustice, and loneliness. An unquenchable desire to join him in his agonies took hold of me then, as if I could halve his afflictions by sharing them, and I beseeched Jesus to grant me that grace. (129)
Mariette's passionate desire to find happiness by sharing Christ's pain is consistent with what Bynum reports about the experiences of medieval stigmatics:
Horrible pain ... bleeding ... were not an effort to destroy the body, hot a punishment of physicality, not primarily an effort to shear away a source of lust, not even primarily an identification with the martyrs. ... Illness and asceticism were rather imitatio Christi, an effort to plumb the depths of Christ's humanity at the moment of his most insistent terrifying humanness--the moment of his dying. (131)
Through the stigmata, therefore, Mariette becomes a co-sufferer, sharing Jesus's profound pain. And although she seems merely a passive recipient of His wounds, her comment shows that she views herself as an agent, too, "halv[ing] his afflictions" by "sharing them."
In Mariette's case, though, the pain of the stigmata links her to her sister as well. Indeed, Mariette's experience of Christ's wounds may be a kind of solution to the "problem of pain" created by Celine's cancer, although such an idea may at first seem counterintuitive. As Glucklich notes, modern people may assume that pain necessarily issues in suffering, creating what C. S. Lewis once famously dubbed "the problem of pain" (qtd. in Glucklich 12). (11) But as Glucklich exclaims at the start of his study, "Pain is frequently not a problem at all, but rather a solution!" (12). In making such an assertion, Glucklich is careful to distinguish between unwanted pain and voluntary pain. He notes,
There is an enormous difference between the unwanted pain of a cancer patient or victim of a car crash, and the voluntary and modulated self-hurting of a religious practitioner. Religious pain produces states of consciousness, and cognitive-emotional changes, that affect the identity of the individual subject and her sense of belonging to a larger community or to a more fundamental sense of being. More succinctly, pain strengthens the religious person's bond with God and with other persons. (6)
This voluntary form of religious pain Glucklich calls "sacred pain." As he explains it further, "The task of sacred pain is to transform destructive or disintegrative suffering into a positive religious-psychological mechanism for reintegration within a more deeply valued level of reality than individual existence" (6). Thus, based on his study of "religious self-hurting," Glucklich asserts that pain can be "socially and spiritually integrative" and even transformative (34).
Celine's own pain is of the former sort: the cancer that ravages her body is undesired and seems to leave her its victim. Furthermore, Celine's cancer seems to isolate her even further from Mariette and the other nuns and ultimately takes her from them, thus creating a deep psychological "pain" for her sister, Mariette. But it is just this psychological "pain" that Mariette's subsequent experience of the stigmata enables her to "solve" Although the pain of her wounds marks her as a "wild" person, seemingly alien to civilized society, her pain is nevertheless transformative. The physical wounds she bears allow her to participate actively in both Celine's suffering and Christ's affliction. She thereby enters into a trinity of suffering with Jesus and Celine, sharing pain in way that creates an intimate bond with them. Yoked to Christ and her sister in this way, she is able to achieve a strengthened sense of belongingness that helps to redeem the devastating loss of her sister, transforming her former sorrow into joy. As an agent of that transformation, her pain is sacred and indeed beautiful to her.
For others in the convent, however, Mariette's experience of the stigmata seems more destructive than transformative. As a result of their suspicions and their discomfort with her "wild" behavior, the convent ultimately dismisses Mariette. Although Mother Saint-Raphael privately confesses that she believes in the authenticity of Mariette's experience (174), her public dismissal of Mariette suggests that the tide of suspicion within the convent is too strong to oppose. The convent's rejection of Mariette is explicable partly in terms of the later history of responses to paramystical phenomena such as the stigmata. As Glucklich remarks,
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was a strong tendency to link some phenomena of mystical ecstasies with psychological pathology, particularly hysteria. The church itself had struggled for centuries to distinguish between mystical experience and various forms of "insanity", such as epilepsy, possession, humoral imbalance, and others. (84)
Within Mariette's early twentieth-century convent, the growing strength of a "medicalized" perspective that views supernatural experiences as pathological may help to explain some of the suspicion surrounding Mariette's stigmata. However, another factor contributing to suspicion of Mariette's bodily revelations relates to the dichotomized view of body and soul voiced by Pere Marriott early in the novel. In one of his conversations with Mariette, he rejects the idea of a Christ perceived through the senses, asserting, "He does not make himself present to our human senses but in the holy desires of the will. Jesus impresses His form upon the soul and fills the heart with joy" (41). Contrary to Marriott's claim, Mariette's experience underscores how readily Christ manifests himself through the senses.(12) Indeed, Hansen uses both pain and beauty to illustrate how knowledge of God is conveyed as much through the senses as through the will or intellect. (13)
Despite the convent's theological and practical dismissal of Mariette, Christ does not abandon her in her "exile" back at her father's country estate. She still experiences Christ's pains even in her old house--extraordinary communications amidst the ordinary communications of conversational French lessons she now gives (177). Furthermore she retains a sense of God's immanence in the world around her--a sense that God is present not just in the convent, but also in the "wild" world beyond it. In a letter to one of her former sisters, she echoes Dame Julian's ability to see the world in a "hazelnut" by writing,
I look out at a cat huddled down in the adder's fern, at a fresh wind nagging the sheets on the line, at hills like a green sea in the east and just beyond them the priory, and the magnificent puzzle is, for a moment, solved, and God is there before me in the being of all that is not him. (179)
This holistic perspective represents a remarkable transformation for Mariette, inasmuch as she had passionately desired life in a religious house rather than a secular one. Although that self-desire is thwarted in the course of the novel, she is able to experience God even in her father's home, a place from which she once felt she needed to escape in order to find God.
That Mariette is able to be at home even on her father's old country estate is due in part to her mature theology, one based on a sacramental sense of nature. As Wendorf notes, "There is a subtler theology at work in the convent--one grounded in the Catholic conviction that the world is sacramental, that grace works through nature" (41). Within the convent, that sacramental sensibility is distinctively linked to Mariette, a link Hansen highlights at two key points towards the end of the novel. One gray, snowy day, while the sisters trudge back to the convent, protected from the snow by their galoshes and caught in small talk, Mariette pauses to hear and see Christ. In the seemingly vacant landscape,
Mariette tries not hearing for the hour and she rests her seeing on the whiteness. Haystacks have softened into breasts. The horsetail grass is hooded. Everywhere they walk they are tearing holes in the snow. She finds the Host in the grieving gray skies overhead. (146)
This passage aptly captures Mariette's sacramental perspective. In her view, the landscape itself--riven with holes, pained, "grieving" and womanly--reveals Christ, just as her own wounded body has done. For, like her body, the landscape itself is eucharistic--a vehicle for communion with the divine. And in the pained face of that landscape, as in her own painful body, she perceives Christ "hosted" This parallel between the sacramental character of nature and of Mariette's body is echoed again in the novel's final tableau. There, Hansen closes the novel with another letter from Mariette, though a literal letter this time, not a metaphoric one. Describing her life thirty years after her time at the priory, Mariette confesses to Mother Philomene that Christ continues to send her "roses" (179), a metaphor for her stigmata and a reminder of Christ's abiding love for her. In using this natural metaphor for the red wounds of the stigmata, Mariette closes the gap between nature and herself. Her wounds are roses; body and nature are one. Both are key means of God's revelation, conveying the essential substance of civilization through the vehicle of the natural senses.
In Hansen's novel, therefore, beauty and pain are profound experiences for the senses, opening a path for revelation of the divine and transformation of the self. We readers witness that transformative revelation both in the book of nature and in the book of the body. As Hansen himself remarks, "I hoped to present in Mariette's life a faith that gives an intellectual assent to Catholic orthodoxy, but doesn't forget that the origin of religious feeling is the graced revelation of the Holy Being to us in nature, in the flesh, and in all our faculties" (ASAC 9). Pain, like beauty, is a human experience that affects the human person in "all faculties" in a visceral and profound way. In its extremity, there is something wild, brazen, and uncontrolled about it, linking it more to the wilds of nature than to the decorous confines of civilized society. And in its wildness, it gashes the person open to levels of reality that the person may not hitherto have had access to. Celine's painful suffering, Mariette's stigmata, and the paradigmatic model of Christ's cruxificion all bear the marks of this wildness, this outlandishness. But whereas Celine's cancer issues in suffering that is neither beautiful nor desirable, Mariette's joyful pain testifies to what Glucklich calls a central "mystery of religious life": how pain can become both beautiful and sacred (6). In rendering that "sacred pain" Ron Hansen suggests that the wilderness of pain and illness is not always a negative antithesis to civilization: sometimes it is the uncharted geography for passage to new realms of knowledge.
Burton, Richard D.E. Holy Tears, Holy Blood: Women, Catholicism, and the Culture of Suffering in France, 1840-1970. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2004.
Bynum, Caroline Walker. Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion. New York: Zone, 1991.
Day, Marele. Lambs of God. New York: Riverhead, 1998.
Gallagher, Lowell. "The Place of the Stigmata in Christological Poetics?' Religion and Culture in Renaissance England. Eds. Claire McEachern and Debora Shuger. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.93-115.
Glucklich, Ariel. Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001.
Hampl, Patricia. Rev. of Mariette in Ecstasy. New York Times Book Review 20 October 1991, late ed.: 11.
Hansen, Ron. Atticus. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.
--. Mariette in Ecstasy. New York: HarperPerennial, 1991.
--. A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
Kakutani, Michiko. "In a Convent, Rapture, and Questions of Reality?' The New York Times 5 November 1991, late ed.: 17.
Maclnnes, Ian. "Stigmata on Trial: The Nun of Portugal and the Politics of the Body?' Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies 31 (2000): 381-97.
Rev. of Mariette in Ecstasy. Kirkus Review 59 (15 August 1991): 1032.
Morson, Gary Saul. "Prosaics." The American Scholar 57.4 (Autumn 1988): 515-28.
Therese of Lisieux. The Autobiography of Therese of Lisieux: Story of a Soul. Tr. John Beevers. New York: Image, 1989.
Pope John Paul II. Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris. 11 February 1984. <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_letters/documents/ hf_jp-ii_apl_11021984_salvifici-doloris_en.html>.
Wendorf, Thomas A., S.M. "Body, Soul and Beyond: Mystical Experience in Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy and Mark Salzman's Lying Awake" Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 7.4 (2004): 37-64.
Wilson, Ian. Stigmata: An Investigation into the Mysterious Appearance of Christ's Wounds in Hundreds of People from Medieval Italy to Modern America. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.
Zimdars-Swartz, Sandra L. "The Stigmata of Elisabeth of Spalbeek: A Case Study in the Construction of a Religious Experience." Magistra: A Journal of Women's Spirituality in History 10.1 (Summer 2004): 3-35.
(1) My description of Neumann's appearance is based on the photograph in figure 2 of Ian Wilson's 1989 study, Stigmata: An Investigation into the Mysterious Appearance of Christ's Wounds in Hundreds of People from Medieval Italy to Modern America.
(2) I borrow the term "sacred pain" from Ariel Glucklich's 2001 study Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul. I will discuss Glucklich's definition of this term later in my analysis.
(3) Drawing upon the ideas of Mikail Bakhtin, Gary Saul Morson describes this ethic in his 1988 essay "Prosaics: An Approach to the Humanities" In that essay, he examines Tolstoy's fiction to demonstrate how the novel typically privileges everyday, ordinary virtue over against the romantic ideals valorized by other genres. For instance, in discussing Tolstoy's novel Father Sergius, he describes Tolstoy's "prosaic" view of sainthood in a way that parallels Mother Saint-Raphael's anti-romantic advice to the convent's nuns. Morson writes, "Sergius learns ... that true holiness, which never fits a pattern, grows out of the particular situations of daily life. Saints are prosaic and never recognizable as saints" (522). The ending of Hansen's novel supports a similarly prosaic ethic, but not at the expense of the unlikely reality of wild or supernatural events. Although at the end of the novel, Hansen shows Mariette humble enough to live in the ordinary world and be touched by God therein, his novel evinces a special sympathy for the wild, the extraordinary, and the unexpected. Indeed, the novel's final phrase is Mariette's whispered message from Christ: "Surprise me" (MiE 179).
(4) Thomas Wendorf is especially sympathetic to Mother Saint-Raphael, calling her "a woman of considerable discernment" (55). He notes that she wisely puts the "community's welfare" over "the individual's," the "common good" ahead of individual mystical experience (55). Though Wendorf may be right that her final decision to dismiss Mariette is necessary to restore order in the convent, Hansen nevertheless raises subtle questions about Mother Saint-Raphael's rigid adherence to order as well as about the incongruity between what she tells Mariette privately (that she believes the authenticity of Mariette's revelations) and what she tells the convent publicly for "political" reasons (that Mariette has been "disappointing") (MiE 174).
(5) In these respects, Hansen's representation of nature differs significantly from the sweet, sentimentalized view of nature presented in Therese of Lisieux's Story of a Soul, one of the religious texts that inspired his own novel.
(6) Here one might contrast the nuns in Hansen's novel with those in Marele Day's 1998 novel Lambs of God, wherein the nuns passionately tend the surrounding natural world, sometimes to the neglect of the civilized rules of conduct their priestly guest, Ignatius, expects them to revere.
(7) In her study of the medieval stigmatic Elisabeth of Spalbeek, Sandra ZimdarsSwartz points out how common it was for a female stigmatic's spiritual experiences to emerge "in the context of severe illness" (29). Although Mariette had not been physically ill prior to her experience of the stigmata, I would suggest that her sister's illness and her own psychological response to it provided a context of illness analogous to that experienced by Elisabeth and other medieval stigmatics.
(8) In Patricia Hampl's view, it is the passionate nature of Mariette's love for Christ that especially threatens the other nuns. As she puts it, "Mariette's progress in the devout life is as unsettling to the community, as fundamentally dangerous, as any desperate love affair is to an outsider" (Hampl 11).
(9) This perception of illness or pain as potentially beautiful is also consistent with medieval eschatological views of the body, wherein "even the ugliness of disease and suffering can be not only lifted up into the curative pangs of purgatory, but also transmuted, through Christ's wondrous yet fully human body, into the beauty of heaven" (Bynum 231).
(10) This connection between suffering and writing is adumbrated by Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris. In that letter on the meaning of human suffering, Pope John Paul II notes that the first great "chapter of the Gospel of suffering" has already been written, but "another great chapter of this Gospel unfolds through the course of history. This chapter is written by all those who suffer together with Christ, uniting their human sufferings to his salvific suffering. ... [I]n those people there is fulfilled the Gospel of suffering, and at the same time, each of them continues in a certain sense to write it: they write it and proclaim it to the world, they announce it to the world in which they live and to the people of their time" Clearly, Hansen's interpretation of the stigmata as Gospel "writing" echoes these theological ideas about the ongoing creative potential of suffering.
(11) Here Glucklich distinguishes between pain, which he defines as "a type of sensation usually--though not necessarily--associated with tissue damage" and suffering, which he describes as "an emotional and evaluative reaction to any number of causes, some entirely painless" (11). I follow that distinction in my analysis here.
(12) This theological conflict between Mariette and Marriott may explain why her name reads as a subtle inversion of his.
(13) The theological perspective that Mariette's experience dramatizes is wholly consistent with what we know of medieval female spirituality in the high Middle Ages. During that period, according to Bynum, the bodily senses were quite naturally regarded as vehicles for the divine. As Bynum explains, "Because preachers, confessors and spiritual directors assumed the person to be a psychosomatic unity, they not only read unusual bodily events as expressions of soul but also expected body itself to offer a means of access to the divine" (235). Curiously, Hansen's brief discussion of medieval theology in an essay on Ignatius of Loyola suggests that he intellectually distances himself from the Middle Ages, believing that "[t]here was little integration of flesh and spirit then, only rivalry and argument. We have not completely shaken those notions to this day (ASAC 88). Despite that generalized perception of the Middle Ages, Hansen's novel in fact renovates a medieval theology of the senses common to religious women of the high Middle Ages.
Carla A. Arnell
Lake Forest College
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|Author:||Arnell, Carla A.|
|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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