Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Wild Writing: Holy Stigmata and the Aesthetics of "Sacred Pain" in Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Wild Writing: Holy Stigmata and the Aesthetics of "Sacred Pain" in Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy

Article excerpt

Imagine, if you will, a photographic representation of the twentieth-century stigmatic Therese Neumann. Cataracts of blood gush from her eyes, carving dark trails of viscous liquid down her cheeks. Her white nun's habit is bespattered with unseemly splotches of blood, like misshapen cells randomly replicated across her body. Her stiff, outstretched arms protrude woodenly, as she raises them to reveal a small circular cavity in either hand, oozing a substance more akin to tar than blood. It is a grotesque picture. Indeed, it is a picture of pain. (1)

Few things may be more perplexing to modern students of spirituality than the pursuit of pain in the service of God. In a world dominated by modern medicine, pain is regarded as an enemy, something to be vanquished from human experience, whether in the fierce pangs of labor when a child is born or in the hospice wards of cancer patients and others who suffer slow, agonizing deaths. Easing or ending pain has become an obvious ethical good--a medical, religious, and even human duty. What sense, then, can we make of those spiritual outsiders who seek out pain and or at least prize its presence in their lives?

This question about the spiritual meaning of pain is at the heart of Ron Hansen's 1991 novel, Mariette in Ecstasy. Hansen's novel focuses on a fictional stigmatic named Mariette, who dedicates herself to life as a nun in the upstate New York convent where her older sister, Mother Celine, is prioress. The novel's conflict emerges from two parallel patterns of painful events: first, Mariette's sister Ce1ine suffers and dies from cancer, and then Mariette herself experiences a series of trances and ecstatic visions that culminate in manifestations of the stigmata--the wounds of Christ. Mariette's painful wounds earn the reverence of some of her sisters and the suspicion of others, raising a bevy of disturbing questions. As the New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani asks:

   Are these wounds real stigmata, miraculous physical symbols of
   Christ's passion on the cross? Or are they self-induced lacerations,
   created by Mariette to call attention to herself? Has Mariette
   really talked to Christ, or is she suffering from delusions, induced
   by grief over her sister's death and months of self-abnegation? Is
   Mariette a modern-day saint, doubted by those who are jealous of her
   calling, or is she a clever con woman, manipulating people's need to
   believe in the miraculous? (17)

The interrogations Mariette undergoes by the convent's authorities, Pere Marriott and Mother Saint-Raphael, ultimately tend toward the suspicious, resulting in Mariette's dismissal from the monastery because of the "disturbance" she has created. Hansen himself, however, does little to undermine the reader's trust in Mariette's experience; as another reviewer remarks, "the reader never doubts the authenticity of Mariette's experience, the only suspense element is the priory's response to it" (Kirkus Review 1032).

I suggest, however, that there is a more important element of suspense in the novel: not about the authenticity of Mariette's experience or even the priory's response to it, but rather regarding the meaning of her "sacred pain"(2)--the spiritual conundrum created by her pleasurable bleeding for God. Given the reality of Mariette's experience, what sense is a modern reader to make of the pain she experiences and her subsequent sanctification of it? How does Hansen interpret her painful wounds within his novel? How do his novel's style, structure, and theme affect our theological reception of her experience? And finally, what does her sacred pain illuminate about the spiritual and aesthetic significance of pain in human experience?

In the article to follow, I shall explore these questions about bodily pain, aesthetics, and theology in relation to Mariette's story. Unlike the modern photograph of Therese Neumann described in my introduction, Hansen's portrayal of Mariette is notable for the beauty he evokes in his depiction of her painful wounds. …

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