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Ron Hansen on the Eucharist

Can storytelling become a sacramental encounter?

Ron Hansen (1947-), an American novelist, essayist, and university professor, was born in Omaha, Nebraska, earned a B.A. in English at Creighton University (1970), an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (1974), and an M.A. in Spirituality from Santa Clara University (1995), where he presently teaches fiction and screenwriting as the Gerard Manly Hopkins, S.J. Professor in the Arts and Humanities. Early in his career he also held a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship at Stanford University. The recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, his works include Desperadoes: A Novel (1979), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford: A Novel (1983), The Shadowmaker, children’s book (1987), Nebraska: Stories (1989), Mariette in Ecstasy: A Novel (1991), Atticus: A Novel, a finalist for the National Book Award (1996), Hitler’s Niece: A Novel (1999), A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction (2001), Isn’t It Romantic?: An Entertainment (2003), and Exiles (2008). Several of these works have been adapted for movies and theater. A devout Catholic, he was ordained to the permanent diaconate in 2007 and continues to write on a wide variety of secular and religious themes.[1]

Hansen’s Spiritual Outlook

Hansen has written extensively on the impact his Catholic faith had on his vocation as a writer. In his Preface to A Stay Against Confusion, he observes: “Looking back on my childhood now, I find that church-going and religion were in good part the origin of my vocation as a writer, for along with Catholicism’s feast for the senses, its ethical concerns, its insistence on seeing God in all things, and the high status it gave to scripture, drama, and art, there was a connotation in Catholicism’s liturgies that storytelling mattered.”[2] “Each Mass,” he continues, “was a narrative steeped in meaning and metaphor, helping the faithful to not only remember the past but to make it present here and now, and to bind ourselves into a sharing group that, ideally, we could continue the public ministry of Jesus in the world.”[3] It should be of no surprise to us that his love of the Mass would eventually lead him to become a permanent deacon in the Church with the liturgical responsibilities and those pertaining to service in the community.

Hansen states that another important influence in his vocation as a writer was his desire to live out in his imagination “other lives and possibilities.”[4] Using a broad description from The Oxford Companion to the Bible of sacraments as “occasions of encounter between God and the believer, where the reality of God’s gracious actions needs to be accepted,”[5] he speaks of the sacramental nature of writing insofar as it “provides occasions of encounter between humanity and God.”[6] Writing, for him, is a way the author can mediate for his or her readers an encounter with the divine. The imagination is an important vehicle that brings this about, since it encourages both author and reader to look for the extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary. In doing so, it immerses them in a world that leads to the threshold of the sacred, where humanity brushes shoulders with the divine, and where the divine reveals itself in the most unexpected of places.

Hansen agrees with G. K. Chesterton that “[a] small artist is content with art; a great artist is content with nothing except everything.”[7] Everything, for him, is “the mystery of the Holy Being as it was, and is, incarnated in human life.”[8] In trying to capture the presence of the divine in human affairs, he tries to avoid the smug moralizing and rigid ethical conformity that characterized so many Catholic authors of the forties and fifties.[9] Following the example of Jesus, whose allusive parables pushed the boundaries of the commonly held perceptions of his hearers, he seeks in his writing to convey an experience of the human that invites an even deeper experience of the sacred. He embraces Nathan Mitchell’s idea that “[s]ymbols are places to live, breathing spaces that help us discover what possibilities life offers.”[10] “The job of fiction writers,” Hansen maintains, “is to fashion those symbols and give their readers the feeling that life has great significance, that something is going on here that matters.”[11] When seen in this light, the sacramental nature of writing shines through most clearly when it plumbs the depths of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s formula for happiness: to be, to love, and to worship.[12] As one can well imagine, to speak of worship, from a Catholic writer’s perspective, must in some way point to Eucharist.

Hansen on the Eucharist

Hansen ends, A Stay Against Confusion, with a chapter entitled, “Eucharist.” In this chapter, he reflects back on his childhood experience of receiving his First Holy Communion in 1955 at Immaculate Conception Church in Omaha, Nebraska. He contrasts what that experience was like in his childhood with the nineteen sixties and seventies when society itself was in a rebellious mode. At that time, he was going through a period of insubordination, would miss Mass on occasion, and eventually came to a stark realization:

I discovered that when I did not go to Mass I missed it. I felt serenity there, even joy, it seemed to make things good and right; and as my attendance at Mass increased in frequency, my sense of rhythm, history, and logic of the liturgy also grew. Weather, busyness, and the doldrums could still hold me at bay but for the most part I was hooked. A daily.[13]

At the end of the chapter, he reflects on his experience of being a eucharistic minister: “It is a gift to me, that giving: it’s the glorious feeling I have when I am writing as well as I can, when I feel I am, in ways I have no control of, an instrument of the Holy Being; for I have just an inkling of what Jesus felt when he looked on his friends in mercy and aching love, and I have a sense of why, just before he died, he established this gracious sacrament of himself.”[14]

The sacraments mediate the divine to the human, and the Eucharist, being the “sacrament of sacraments,” does this in a special way, since it brings the sacrifice and nourishing presence of Christ himself into our very midst. Since Hansen views writing from a sacramental standpoint, it should not be surprising that his attitudes toward the Eucharist would eventually make their way into his writing. Such is the case in his novel, Mariette in Ecstasy, which he describes as “a parable of a young woman’s quest for God.”[15] Mariette, a seventeen-year old postulant at Our Lady of Sorrows, the Church and Priory of the Sisters of the Crucifixion, has received the stigmata and has been the cause of rancor and division in the community. Some sisters think she is putting on a show; others, that she is mentally deranged, while still others believe she is a saint. At one point, Mother Saint-Raphael has this to say to the nuns of the priory:

Wondrous things do happen here, but they take place amidst great tranquility. We shall make it our duty to preserve that. We shall try to find a natural explanation of these phenomena if we can, and we shall deny they are holy gifts to Mariette until there is no other alternative. We know there are miracles in the Gospels, but we show them disrespect if we dispose ourselves to believe in the simply fabulous. And we must keep in mind that there are a good many more pages in holy scripture that show how little pleasure God takes in astounding us with His power.[16]

Hansen’s Catholic upbringing has played a large role in his writer’s vocation, because it reinforces the idea that storytelling matters in life and that writing itself can be seen as having a sacramental purpose in helping people find the extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary circumstances of daily life.

In a chapter of A Stay Against Confusion entitled, “Stigmata,” Hansen says that Mother Saint-Raphael is speaking for himself:

Wondrous things do happen in life, but generally in the ordinary ways of faith and healing and love. Then there are phenomena like the stigmata for which there is no natural explanation, and which seem so grossly old-fashioned, as misplaced in our modern times as witchcraft and sorcery. Mariette Baptiste was, for me, the real thing, a stigmatic; but I inserted an element of questionableness because in my research that seemed standard even in those instances in which the anomalies seemed authentic and all medical science could do was scratch its head in puzzlement.[17]

A close reading of the novel shows that the liturgy is an important backdrop against which Mariette’s drama unfolds. Each of its three major parts is subdivided according to the various feast days of Our Lord, Our Blessed Mother, and the saints, whom the sisters of the monastery celebrate in accordance with the liturgical calendar of the Church. Many of the scenes, moreover, have the sisters sharing their meals in common and are reminiscent of the many meals that the Lord himself shared with his disciples. What is more, the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle of the priory church provides a quiet still point around which all of the sisters, regardless of their attitude toward Mariette (and, indeed, Mariette herself) display deep love, reverence, and respect. Hansen’s descriptions of the rhythm of work the sisters do throughout the day displays the sense of peace and tranquility one would expect to find at a monastery dedicated to their Lord and Savior. Different as they are from one another, the sisters of Our Lady of Sorrows priory seek to live a strictly regimented religious life meant to unite them with the suffering and death of their Lord. Although Mariette bears in her body the visible signs of Jesus’ passion, her stigmata upsets that rhythm. Since there is reasonable doubt concerning the validity of her wounds (her own father tells the sisters they are being duped), she is sent home so that the tranquility of the community can be restored. One gets the sense in reading the closing pages of the novel, however, that once outside the convent Mariette’s suffering has moved from the merely physical to the spiritual. Although, as the years pass, the signs of the stigmata are long past, the reader gets a sense that Mariette has lived with a deep sadness over what might have been. Still, her relationship with the Lord is as strong as ever. The closing words of the novel emphasize the freedom he bestows upon those who seek Christ: “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.”[18]

Some Further Insights

Although these examples of Hansen’s views on the Eucharist do not exhaust his understanding of the sacrament or its impact on his vocation as a writer, they provide the general contours within which a fuller presentation can unfold. The remarks that follow seek to delve a bit more deeply into his attitude toward the Eucharist.

To begin with, Catholic rites and liturgical calendar are deeply embedded in the very structure of the novel, giving us a sense that its characters are immersed in a rhythm of the sacred. That rhythm is upset by Mariette’s stigmata and the ecstatic experiences that accompany it. The purpose of the strict daily horarium followed by the nuns is to sanctify the day (indeed, time itself) by taking time at various points of the day to render glory and praise to God. The Mass is the highlight of the day, when Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross enters the world of the convent in a very real and mysterious way and blesses the community with his glorified presence in the consecrated elements. Mariette participates in the worship of the community and encounters the mystery of Jesus’ passion and death very deeply and personally. The marks on her hands, feet, and side show that Jesus’ passion has touched her in a real and palpable way and given her a sense of peace and joy that sets her apart from the other members of the community. The different (and very human) reactions to her stigmata on the part of various members of the community say as much about them as they do about her, perhaps more. Although the Eucharist is a remedy for humanity’s weak and sinful tendencies, the healing process usually takes place during the course of a lifetime, and even beyond. Mariette’s intense experiences upset the community’s daily routine and divides it by drawing attention more to Mariette than to Christ.

Although the novel deeply embeds the Catholic rites and liturgical calendar into its very structure, its style at times appears to be very stunted and disjointed. Hansen uses this style to give us fleeting glimpses into the life of a community which spans the gamut of human emotion from jealously and pride, to loyalty and love, to accusation, gossip, and pity. The juxtaposition of this truncated and disjointed style over the deeply embedded liturgical calendar that gives the novel its underlying narrative structure creates a tension between sacred time (Kairos) and chronological time (Chronos) that is sustained throughout the novel. Although the purpose of life at the Church and Priory of the Sisters of the Crucifixion is to sanctify life by turning Chronos into Kairos, there is a clear tension in the life of the community that Mariette’s stigmata highlights all the more. Mariette, it appears, has been so taken up into sacred time that her presence in the community makes many of the sisters feel uncomfortable, as if they were inferior religious, unable to sustain the rigors of the vowed life and community living. Mariette is variously perceived as a saint, who challenges the community to higher things, a deranged and mentally-ill postulant with visions of grandeur unfit for humble convent life, or someone possessed by a demon playing a sophisticated trick on the community at its own expense. The fact that Mariette is able to maintain her sense of peace and joy in the Lord as a member of the laity for years after her expulsion from the convent says something about the authenticity of her experience and her ability to live within the tension between Kairos and Chronos.

Mariette comes to a unique insight at the novel’s end in a letter she addresses to Mother Philomène: “And Christ still sends me roses. We try to be formed and held 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.”[19] The Christian life is all about uniting one’s will with God’s. Such is the nature of holiness, the quest to receive God’s will as one’s own. Scriptural precedents abound. Mary, the mother of Jesus responds to the angel Gabriel, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).[20] Jesus himself prays in the garden of Gethsemane, “…not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22:42). In the Lord’s Prayer, he also teaches his disciples to say, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6:10). By the end of the novel, Mariette’s relationship with Christ has moved from the physical manifestation of the stigmata to the deep inner wisdom of knowing that, when one truly loves God, one’s will is completely united with Christ’s. Christ’s will becomes one’s own — and vice versa. Mariette’s words are reminiscent of St. Augustine when he says, “Love God and do as you will.” Such is the freedom of the sons and daughters of God. The freedom of which Mariette speaks is the freedom to do the good. If one truly loves God, one’s will is completely one with God’s, so much so that one would always act in a kind and loving manner. When such a person seeks God’s will, God responds by saying, “Surprise me. Let your will be done.”

It should be of no surprise to us that Hansen’s love of the Mass would eventually lead him to become a permanent deacon in the Church with the liturgical responsibilities and those pertaining to service in the community.

The order of the day listed at the beginning of the novel indicates that the life of the Sisters of the Crucifixion revolves around Mass and the recitation of the Divine Office. The close link between the Eucharist and the identity of the community is highlighted by the fact that both are linked with Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary: the former immerses the believing community into Jesus’ sacrificial offering on the cross in an unbloody manner, while the latter has taken “The Crucifixion” for its very name, that brutal form of punishment chosen by the Romans to intimidate the nations they conquered. What seems to be lacking in much of the novel is any emphasis on Christ’s resurrection. In some ways, this emphasis on Christ’s passion represents the typical spirituality of early twentieth-century Catholicism, the time period during which the novel unfolds. The spirituality of that time emphasized Christ’s passion and death as the key moment when Jesus redeemed the world. Such an emphasis, however, is only part of the picture, since the cross leads to the empty tomb and the proclamation that Christ has risen. When seen in this light, Mariette is the only character in the novel who embodies both. She is a Christ figure (and an enigmatic one, at that), someone who bears the marks of the crucifixion in her body, but who also bears in her soul the peace and joy of the Holy Spirit, one of the main fruits of Christ’s resurrection. It is interesting to note that, as the novel unfolds, her stigmata disappears entirely and that she is at peace with all that has happened, an indication that she has passed through her time for suffering and relishes in the knowledge “that he loves me more, now that I am despised, than when I was so richly admired in the past.”[21] Her thirty years outside of convent life has been a blessing to her, something she never would have imagined when she was asked to leave.

Finally, the novel describes a very specific model of religious life, one that might be described in H. Richard Niebhur’s terms as being “Christ against the World.”[22] The Sisters of the Crucifixion live largely apart from the world and are worried that, because of Mariette’s notoriety, worldly attitudes and values will infiltrate its cloister boundaries and cause it to compromise its high ideals. This attitude toward religious life was very common for the monastic setting of early twentieth-century religious life, and Hansen does an excellent job of capturing the spiritual (and also very human) dynamics involved in such a religious mindset. Because of her stigmata, Mariette becomes something of a celebrity in her small, isolated town in upstate New York. People flock to the Sunday Mass at the convent with the hope of seeing the person whom they revere as a saint. The fear within the convent is that the eyes of the faithful are being drawn to someone other than Christ. As Hansen himself suggests, also at work in the novel is the general suspicion many have of anyone who is the recipient of extraordinary graces such as the stigmata.[23] This is why Mariette has become a source of division within the community. Although some consider her a saint, others think she is deranged and still others believe she is possessed by the evil one. Mariette’s expulsion from the community and her capacity to maintain her peaceful, spiritual demeanor, despite the fact that she was now looked upon with suspicion and ridicule by the townspeople, says something about the authenticity of her spiritual journey. Expelled from the convent, she lives in obscurity for the rest of her life among the very people who were once so fascinated by her and who now treat her with quiet disdain. In the past (and sometimes even today) a stigma was often attached to those who entered religious life and then left it. Mariette, a victim of these same worldly attitudes, is able to bring the suffering, crucified, yet risen Christ into the world of Arcadia, New York, a town named after an ancient Greek city, whose mythological king taught his subjects, among other things, the art of baking bread. Like Christ, at the novel’s end Mariette can be seen as a leaven given to the world as an instrument of its quiet, gentle (and very hidden) transformation.

Conclusion

An accomplished American novelist and devout Roman Catholic, Ron Hansen has explored the role of faith in his work in a number of essays written over the years and collected in a single volume entitled, A Stay Against Confusion. The title comes from a line in the Preface to Robert Frost’s Collected Poems, where the poet says poetry brings clarity to life and gives us “a momentary stay against confusion.”[24] A professor of fiction and screenwriting at Santa Clara University, he has written several novels, a number of which take up themes specifically related to the deep spiritual themes of sin, faith, and redemption. In his novel, Mariette in Ecstasy, he explores such themes in a very open and explicit manner.

Hansen’s Catholic upbringing has played a large role in his writer’s vocation, because it reinforces the idea that storytelling matters in life and that writing itself can be seen as having a sacramental purpose in helping people find the extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary circumstances of daily life. Writing, for him, is a way in which an author mediates an experience of the holy to his or her reading audience. Through a focused use of the imagination as a primary vehicle for facilitating this divine-human encounter, the author delves beneath appearances, by an array of images and symbols to explore the depths of human experience and to uncover hitherto unseen purpose and significance in life.

Hansen writes of the serenity and joy he experiences when attending Mass and of his sense of being an instrument of Holy Being when serving as a Eucharistic minister. One would imagine that, as a permanent deacon, this sense of service (diakonia) and his appreciation of Jesus’ institution of the sacrament would be highlighted all the more. In Mariette in Ecstasy, the Mass, Tabernacle, and Catholic liturgical calendar provide the backdrop against which the drama within the Church and Priory of The Sisters of the Crucifixion unfolds. The community’s order of the day, which revolves around the Mass and the recitation of the Divine Office, is meant to provide a spiritual rhythm that sanctifies the day and brings a sense of peace and tranquility to the lives of the sisters. Although Mariette’s stigmata upsets that peace and is one of the reasons for her being expelled from the community, she remains faithful to her love for Christ for the rest of her life as a Catholic laywoman and demonstrates that, despite the stigma (and disgrace) associated with one who has left her convent, peace and holiness are still possible outside of the bounds of cloister life. To the reader, Mariette is a Christ figure, someone who, as the novel unfolds, has taught members of the faithful on both sides of the priory walls the spiritual art of baking bread.

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  1. See Santa Clara University, Department of English, “Ron Hansen,” https://www.scu.edu/english/faculty-staff/ron-hansen/ .
  2. Ron. Hansen, A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), xii.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., xiii.
  5. Ibid., 3.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., 6.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., 10.
  10. Ibid., 13.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid., 258.
  14. Ibid., 261.
  15. Ibid., 12.
  16. Ibid., 177.
  17. Ibid., 177-78.
  18. Ron Hansen, Mariette in Ecstasy: A Novel (New York: Harper Perennial, 1991), 179.
  19. Ibid.
  20. All Scripture quotations come from Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version with Apocrypha (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).
  21. Hansen, Mariette in Ecstasy, 179.
  22. H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1951), 45-82.
  23. Hansen, A Stay Against Confusion, 177-78, 190.
  24. Ibid., xvii.

 


About Dennis J. Billy, CSsR

Redemptorist Father Dennis J. Billy, a regular contributor to Emmanuel, has authored or edited more than 30 books and 300 articles in a number of scholarly and popular journals and taught in Rome and at the archdiocesan seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.