Holy Time: “Mariette In Ecstasy”

Ron Hansen‘s 1991 novel, Mariette In Ecstasy, deals with Catholic girl Mariette Baptiste, who aspires to be a nun in the Sisters of the Crucifixion order in 1906. A devoted, clearly spiritual 17-year-old, she is perceived to be rather peculiar but is not unwelcome as a postulant. It is the emergence of strictly supernatural events concerning Mariette which causes the sisters to doubt and sometimes dislike her, even as the elderly priest, Father Marriott, attempts to champion her. To be precise, he champions her as one who has been given the stigmata. An investigation is inevitable.

A question springs up: Just how much grace exists in some Christians’ lives? To Hansen, Mariette’s being a stigmatic is true, even though the girl is the daughter of a wealthy doctor and may not be a virgin. (Is the stigmata a grace? One would think so.) What becomes certain, I believe, is that Mariette could use not a legalistic system of spiritual living but rather a way of life in which things both natural and manmade—for if they are positive, they are God’s gifts—can be appreciated and, for good measure, both virginity and ordinary sexual feelings are accounted for. Hence it is no mystery why Hansen describes these natural and manmade wonders in his poetic prose. Not always are these descriptions good, but generally they are: “Timbers, sawhorses, and hovering dust in a milky chute of sunlight.”

At length the heroine here would never renounce obedience to Christ, but she learns she need never renounce the apt freedom she has in Christ either. We find out what this freedom means to Hansen in the last sentence of this splendid novel.

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