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Mariette in Ecstasy: A spiritual wellspring of a novel


Elizabeth Scalia - published on 08/16/16

Just the thing to read in the languid days of summer, when we feel spent and dull and dry

And Christ still sends me roses. We try to be formed and held and kept by him, but instead he offers us freedom. And now when I try to know his will, his kindness floods me, his great love overwhelms me, and I hear him whisper, Surprise me.
–Mariette Baptiste, Mariette in Ecstasy

It has been a long time since I first read it, but not long ago I found within this wonderful and strange novel by Ron Hansen (a permanent Deacon in the Catholic Church) things I had forgotten. Deeply in need of both a vacation and a retreat, feeling worn out, picking up this book again had the same effect on me as taking a cool drink of water when the day is parch-dry.

Only one other book has that effect upon me, and that is Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, which I have read so well, and so often, that whole paragraphs and pages are at my recall.

Reading passages of Mariette, though — they seem new, and they bring me back to one spectacularly enriching monastic retreat, taken too long ago, where hours spent before the Blessed Sacrament left me feeling informed but not able to articulate it. I know what I comprehended, but it was something of a such a different order than the daily stuff. Imagine finding something — like a stone that is covered with strange writing — that you are instantly, in a flash, able to comprehend. But you cannot translate it for anyone else because, although you know the message, there are no languages on earth by which it may be conveyed.

You fall back on one word, “Love,” but that word is wholly insufficient – using it is like trying to describe a deluge when the only word at your disposal is “damp.”

Everything after that retreat seemed different to me, and to a measure that has lasted. I am less prone to cynicism and scoffing, more willing to listen — not quite the crank of yore, although I still have my moments. But I regret more; I have regret. Or, more correctly, I regret my faults more speedily; I see them more quickly and the sting of regret goes deeper. I require more silence than previously.

Increasingly, though, even when my kneejerk instinct to a headline or a piece of news is to snarl, or rage, or smirk, I remember something I wrote on that retreat — something that, for me, goes hand in hand with Mariette in Ecstasy:

“Everything” is about nothing.
Everything ended with the sacrifice of the Lamb.
All is consummated.
We are forever and always at the Last Supper, at the Crucifixion, at the Resurrection.
Time ended with the tearing of the veil and the rolling back of the stone.
The rest is illusion and catching up.
There is nothing to be afraid of.

And when I remember that
, I dash all of my fury, all of my love, all of my passion against the cross of Christ, and settle beneath their shards and fragments as they rain down upon me, and pass and bite and dissolve. And I pray, most particularly for the event or the person or the feeling that has roused my headstrong, foolish passion and lured me toward the illusion, and away from detachment, wherein is found humility and tranquility, wisdom and peace.

And because I am no saint, because I am so flawed, all of that only brings me up to the ground-level. My evolution is still in such a primitive stage that I am merely eyes in mud, staring into heaven, unable to do much to lift myself; altogether one with the muck.

Re-skimming Mariette in Ecstasy, though, raises me up. There are passages within Hansen’s gorgeous prose that give a glimpse into what I would write, if I could:

Sister Saint-Denis says, “…I have realized how much simpler it is to pray and keep united with God when I see Him as the source and sum of everything I do. When I walk, I owe it to God that I still can. When I sleep, it is with His permission. My breathing, my happiness, even my being a woman – all are His gifts to me. So it is my prime intention that whenever I do these practical things, they will be contemplative acts of praise and thanksgiving repeated over and over again. Even when it seems impossible to believe that some pain or misery is from God, I try to believe it and thank Him for it. You should try such a prayer…”

It’s all so beautifully described and inviting — and accurate in as much as a pinprick may adequately represent the thrust of a flaming sword.

But it’s a start. If you haven’t read Mariette in Ecstasy (or if it has been a while), these last days of summer may be a good time to do so.

When the first chills of Autumn come round, the bracing text of Brede will then be just the thing.

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