Modern artistic treatments of religious life tend to share a few assumptions: first, that there is something sinister in a life of vocation, and secondly, that those who choose such a life must have some degree of psychological or emotional disturbance motivating them. If these stories feature a nun, priest, or monk as a protagonist, that person is almost always portrayed as being younger and more open-minded than his or her fellows, and usually ends up in conflict with the doctrines or hierarchy of the Catholic Church, a shadowy and oppressive institution. At first glance, Ron Hansen’s 1991 novel Mariette in Ecstasy might seem like merely the next in this lineup. But the story differs from many other contemporary explorations of religious life through its startling complexity. Trying to reduce the characters to the usual “good progressives, bad conservatives” renders the story incoherent, and there is no side-swiping at Church tradition. Instead of slipping into these modernist grooves, the novel strains instead to grapple with a question of universal scope: the relationship of suffering and holiness within the Christian life and Christian communities.
The novel’s setting, a cloister in upstate New York in 1906, immediately generates a bit of culture shock for the American reader. The presence of Catholic religious communities in America, a predominantly Protestant nation, is itself slightly exotic, and the cloister’s close ties with religious communities in Europe gives the sensation of slipping between worlds as characters enter and exit the walls of the cloister. As the novel opens in media res, readers learn that the religious community has been rattled by a mysterious and disturbing series of events. Some say God is at work. Some say human frailty is on display. And others fear demonic oppression. Gradually, Hansen unfolds the back story: a young woman named Mariette has entered the cloister as a postulant. Like a stone dropped into a still pond, her presence casts long ripples and stirs up the dark, long-settled mud at the bottom. She is a Rorschach test for the other women, triggering emotional responses that seem vastly out of proportion to her actions, ranging from adoration to hatred and fear.
Things come to a head when it begins to look as if Mariette, still in the first days of her postulancy, is experiencing the stigmata. Is it real, or is she faking it? The ensuing investigation threatens to split the community apart, as some eagerly embrace the possibility of such a miracle in their midst and others see Mariette as manipulative or even imbalanced. As her suffering increases, the novel confronts serious questions about the difference between piety and obsession, religious passion and psychological instability, holiness and madness.
Hansen keeps readers on a knife-edge by using an almost cinematic narrative style; the novel consists of small sections of prose broken up by headers that function like scene breaks. He uses lush descriptive paragraphs to “set the stage,” then steps back as the human drama unfolds. Never does he invade his characters’ consciousness. Everything we know about them, we know from their words, actions, or appearances. We as readers have the feeling of sitting in an interrogation chamber, witnessing a forensic investigation. Occasionally Hansen supplies us with content from letters written by characters, which at first seem to lend insight into their intentions. But soon we have plenty of reasons to be suspicious of the letters’ reliability, and realize that they, like all the other interactions in the book, are heavily veiled behind the complex interplay of human action and intention, a veil only God can lift.
From the beginning, the novel opens itself up to criticism from all sides. It tells a provocative story about a vulnerable young woman and does not shy away from language and details that seem to play directly into the hands of readers reading the book through a Freudian lens. But, at the same time, the language and narrative are deeply embedded in the tradition of penitential mystics, strange and confusing people who spent their lives seeking out suffering and left a record of almost unbelievable inner light and joy. As the story probes the line between holiness and insanity, there is textual evidence to support a wide range of preconceived notions—and textual evidence to undermine many of these notions.
For Hansen, a devout Catholic, writing this novel must have been a profound act of courage. In order to tell the story truly, it had to run the grave risk of being totally misunderstood (not unlike the Gospels). Hansen’s willingness to be misunderstood in order to respect mystery is what elevates the book to an entirely different plane than most contemporary novels about religious life. It is not a screed against the Church; it is not a critique of tradition or an advocacy of some progressive notion. It is a story verging on the grotesque, and as such it dredges universal questions up from the dark recesses where they have been buried by modernism: Does God give us pain out of love? What function does suffering play in our salvation? Does living a good life mean doing what will help us feel fulfilled, or does goodness demand self-sacrifice—true, existential, gut-wrenching, bloody sacrifice? What does it mean to be holy?
Hansen’s novel does not propose to answer those questions. Instead, it pushes them back onto us, the readers, and through the disturbing nature of the story he ensures that we, like the characters, will not be able to avoid wrestling with them, for the good of our souls.
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