Revisiting Ron Hansen’s outré, erotic Catholic novel, twenty-five years later.
In 1906, Mariette Baptiste, a seventeen-year-old postulant, is the talk of the Sisters of the Crucifixion convent. Although their days are scheduled down to the minute—silence, recitation, meditation, prayer, work, meals—the sisters can’t help but talk about the new, rich teenager in their midst. Why did she join them? What’s her secret?
Mariette in Ecstasy, Ron Hansen’s prose-poetic novel, was published twenty-five years ago, and its strangeness hasn’t withered. The rare book lauded by both The Village Voice and diocesan newspapers, Hansen’s novel is written in gorgeous sentences that combine meticulous material specificity with ambiguous emotion. (Mariette’s room in the convent is described as a “cell” where a “holy water stoup is next to the doorjamb, and just a few feet above Mariette’s pillow is a hideous Spanish cross and a painted Christ that is all red meat and agony.”) A quarter-century after its publication, no other novel has quite captured its marriage of the sacred and the sexual, the pious and the secular.
Hansen’s earlier novels, Desperadoes and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, were literary Westerns. Nebraska, his story collection, contains mostly realistic tales of his home state, save for the strange lead story, “Wickedness,” a re-telling of the blizzard of 1888: “Sparrows and crows whumped hard against the windowpanes, their jerking eyes seeking out an escape, their wings fanned out and flattened as though pinned up in an ornithologist’s display”—sentences that predict Mariette in Ecstasy’s odd yet precise notes. Hansen introduces us to these idiosyncratic, devoted sisters, who consider it their “sweet obligation to pray.” Many sisters are skeptical of Mariette, but some embrace her, inviting her to their hiding place in the campanile, where one sister says “we’re being bad.” They talk of old boyfriends, “about what we miss. Whiskers. Dancing. Everything.” They talk of God, who sustains them—and Mariette begins to feel at home. Her peace does not last long.
A deeply devout book colored by sex and suspense, Mariette in Ecstasy was praised in all corners. Entertainment Weekly gave it an “A+,” calling it “an astonishing novel, maybe even a great one,” a book that is “slender, meditative, exquisitely crafted.” At The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani praised the book as a “luminous novel that burns a laser-bright picture into the reader’s imagination, forcing one to reassess the relationship between madness and divine possession, gullibility and faith, sexual rapture and religious ecstasy,” concluding that one need not be Catholic “to be moved and amazed by this fable.”
William Gass might have written a book like Mariette in Ecstasy. Imagine On Being Blue—with its lyric, encyclopedic compendium of the linguistic possibilities evolving from a single word, color, and mood—being about God. Gass smirked at belief, but liked what it could do for fiction. He admired the gossipy yet theologically grand short stories of his fellow Midwestern writer J. F. Powers, saying one of the writer’s main questions was “can a mind manipulate its body without becoming its body first?”
Good Catholic storytelling has always been corporal: messy, strange, steeped in the sins of real people. I’m not talking about church thrift-store fare, devotional tales with covers of sunrises over mountains. Consider the profane piety of the whiskey priest in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. The lust of Obadiah Elihue Parker in Flannery O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back.” The scarred and scorned bodies searching for grace in the novels of Toni Morrison. Catholics go for crucifixes over crosses. They want their Mass wine in a chalice, not Solo cups. The Eucharist is not a symbol; it is substance.
That’s a theology a fiction writer can appreciate—including an atheist like Gass. Mariette in Ecstasy was made for disbelievers with a postmodern palate. Either God is real—and therefore the strangest story ever told—or his unreality makes for absurd performance. Whatever the truth, earnest faith makes for fascinating entertainment. Hansen’s story arrives in truncated yet lyric sentences. Section breaks slice the narrative into vignettes. Ambiguity is not only its theme; it is the book’s operating principle.
“Don’t try to be exceptional,” the nuns warn Mariette. Simply be a good nun.” Easier prayed than done. Before Mariette left her father’s house for the convent, she stood in her bedroom, dropped her nightgown to the floor, and said, Even this I give you. She tells one sister that she has “been praying to be a great saint … I’ll try to be irresistible.” When sisters tell a story about watching a couple kiss in a nearby field, Mariette “smiles tauntingly” and says, “You don’t suppose it was me, do you?” Mariette tries to be pious and quiet, but she attracts rumors and concerns. In the eyes of the judgmental sisters, her venial sins include her appearance and her youth; her mortal sin is the stigmata that tattoos her palms and feet.
Hansen doesn’t play cheap here. He asks readers to follow belief toward its logical conclusion. If the sisters of the convent seek Christ, they must be ready to receive him in their midst. They are not. They are petty. They want a God for the mind but not the body. That, it seems, would eliminate the mystery and neuter their theology.
Of all the vessels to choose, the sisters wonder, why would God select Mariette? The novel answers that her body, and likely her soul, is ready to receive the ecstasy. Since she was thirteen, Mariette prayed to know Christ’s passion. She is now given her chance. A sister finds Mariette kneeling on the floor of her room, “unclothed and seemingly unconscious as she yields up one hand and then the other just as if she were being nailed like Christ to a tree.” Later, her “wet blue eyes are overawed as she stares ahead at a wall and she seems to be listening to something just above her, as a girl might listen to the cooing of pigeons.”
The novel is part horror, part suspense story. Mariette’s actual sister, the convent’s Vassar-educated Mother Céline, is dying. “You’re my sister, but I don’t understand you,” Céline says to Mariette. “You may be a saint. Saints are like that, I think. Elusive. Other. Upsetting.” Mariette is an objection of devotion and envy. Sister Emmanuelle, an older nun, watches Mariette during Compline so that she may “discreetly 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.” While Mariette sleeps, a different sister comes to her bed and kisses Mariette’s palm before licking the blood inside the wound. “I have tasted you. See?”
There is no sex in Mariette in Ecstasy, but the novel’s sexuality—and I do mean sexuality, not merely sensuality—is tied to its sacredness. Mariette’s Catholicism is not conjecture; it is lived and livid. Her faith is her skin, her mouth, her desire. Her faith is charged with the closeness of her sin. Mariette has offered her body to God. Someone, or something, has chosen to make that body into a canvas: “Blood scribbles down her wrists and ankles and scrawls like red handwriting on the floor.” She becomes a scandal. She leaves red footprints on the floor. She “holds out her blood-painted hands like a present and she smiles crazily” while saying “Oh, look at what Jesus has done to me!” Hundreds of lay people flock to Mass with gifts, including “hothouse flowers, a box of parboiled rabbits, green ferns in a Wardian case” and “Ottawa root beer.” They long for a show, but she merely kneels before the priest to receive the Eucharist as “tears of shame and penance shiver like hot mercury in her eyes.” Disappointed, the masses leave to long for other miracles—but first one woman “squats to reach through the railing and take back her jar of quince marmalade.”
Elusive, other, upsetting. Mariette might be a saint. Her body, though, is not her own. After her stigmata becomes news, a physical examination is scheduled—with her father, a well-known local doctor. He is the most dogmatic character in the book, more severe than the old-fashioned sisters. Mariette thinks back to her cold years at home, when her father would drone about “human biology as the dinner plates were cleared.” She remembers “how his hard white shirt cuffs would often be brownly spotted with some patient’s blood.” Mariette has been denied, disbelieved, and even assaulted within this book, but her father’s censure stings the most: “You have all been duped,” he says. She never recovers from her father’s judgment.
Mariette in Ecstasy is a book to be rediscovered in the age of Pope Francis, a man of modernity and tradition, a charismatic bundle of contradictions. Both Hansen’s novel and Francis suggest that paradoxes and surprises are endemic to Catholicism. In the twenty-five years since its publication, no other work of Catholic fiction has come close, often because Catholic writers have forgotten the wild strangeness at the center of the faith.
Hansen became a deacon in the Catholic Church in 2007. His parish is St. Joseph of Cupertino in California. He leads a Bible study group on the Gospel and a Christian film discussion group. He teaches at Santa Clara and continues to write historical fiction, including A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, the true crime story of an affair that leads to murder, which then leads to execution by electric chair. His newest book, The Kid, was recently published. For a writer drawn to legend, Billy the Kid is a good subject. Yet his strangest, most fascinating book has never received its due praise. Mariette in Ecstasy is the prototype of what a new Catholic fiction might look like, a fiction where the oddities of piety permeate down to a story’s syntax and soul.
Nick Ripatrazone is a staff writer for The Millions. He has written for Rolling Stone, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and The Kenyon Review. His newest book is Ember Days, a collection of stories.