Published in 1991, Mariette In Ecstasy
is a historical fiction novel by American novelist and essayist Ron Hansen. Set in New York in the early 1900s, the book follows a young woman's religious experiences as she joins a convent and begins exhibiting signs of the stigmata. Narrated in the third person, the omniscient
point of views aims to objectively capture Mariette Baptiste's life in a religious order. The author of several novels, short stories, and poems, Hansen works as a professor in the Department of Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University. In 2007, he was ordained as a permanent deacon of the Catholic Church. A film adaptation of Mariette In Ecstasy
was released in 1996.
Seventeen-year-old Mariette Baptiste stands naked in front of the mirror in her room at the family's country house. Her name is not pronounced “Mare-i-ette, like a horse" but rather "Mar-iette, like a flaw.” The second daughter of a wealthy but cold-hearted doctor, today is the day she will join her older sister, Annie, at the Sisters of the Crucifixion convent. Since she was thirteen, she has prayed to know Christ's passion, and this morning, she prays again as she examines herself in the mirror, saying, "Even this I give you."
Meanwhile in the convent, the nuns are awakened by the knocking of castanets. Sister Hermance calls to them, "In Jesus Christ, my sisters, let us rise." The nuns' days pass according to strict schedules of work, eating, prayer, silence, recitation, and meditation, so a new arrival to their group elicits restrained excitement. What would drive a rich, beautiful teenager to forfeit all that those things could bring to join them? Mariette's father has sent ahead warnings to the convent that she experiences hallucinations and "great extremes of temperament." Rumors swirl among the nuns.
In Mariette's entrance ceremony, she wears her mother's wedding dress. Observed by friends and family, she walks down a white runner to the prie-dieu and accepts the rite. The resident nuns appraise her with different reactions. Sister Philomene is struck by Mariette's grace and prays to be like her. Mother Saint-Raphael thinks Mariette is too pretty to be nun. Sister Honore's mind wanders to another nun who was expelled for tattooing a Sacred Heart on her chest.
Annie is older than Mariette by 20 years. Now she is Reverend Mother Céline, the leader of the Sisters of the Crucifixion convent. As Mother Céline greets her, she tells Mariette that she has missed her and is pleased she has joined the convent. However, she warns, "I’ll seem subdued and distant. We’ll hardly ever talk. You’ll think I don’t love you because I won’t show it." She says that she now has many sisters besides Mariette to care for.
Mariette's presence in the convent is immediately noticeable. She exhibits a complete and joyous devotion to Christ and says that Jesus appears to her. She often lapses into "ecstasy" during prayer in a way that inspires simultaneous awe and jealousy in the other nuns. The sisters have given up the pleasures of worldly life by dedicating their lives to the convent, so they wonder why Mariette is so special as to be His chosen one.
Some of the nuns do make an effort to reach out to Mariette and include her in their society. They invite her to their hiding place in the campanile where they sit and talk—sometimes about God, sometimes about their lives before, and sometimes, when they're "being bad," about old boyfriends and things they miss from outside the convent, such as dancing. Gradually, Mariette begins to feel accepted in her new home, yet her unmatched devotion to Christ continues to set her apart. One day a nun enters Mariette's room to find her naked, in another trace, offering her palms up as if she is being crucified.
On Christmas Day, in yet another trance, Mariette receives the five marks of the stigmata (holes in her wrists, her feet, and one in her side). The convent and the surrounding village are thrown into an uproar. The villagers flock to the convent with gifts, wanting to see the drama of a religious miracle, but Mariette only prays quietly, and they leave disappointed.
Among the nuns, some revere Mariette and believe they will grow closer to God by being near her. One sister even sneaks into her room at night to secretly lick the blood from her stigmata wounds. Other sisters believe she is possessed by the devil. Still others believe she is nothing but a fraud to be exposed. Months pass, and Mariette's stigmata continue to manifest, each time healing far faster than would be humanly possible. When she has the stigmata, she leaves red footprints everywhere she walks. With a crazed delight, she shows her bloody palms and exclaims, "Oh, look at what Jesus has done to me!"
Meanwhile, Mother Céline is dying. Mariette visits her one day, and Mother Céline remarks that her younger sister may be a saint. "You’re my sister, but I don’t understand you,” Céline says to her. “You may be a saint. Saints are like that, I think. Elusive. Other. Upsetting."
When news of Mariette's stigmata spreads, an examination is arranged with Mariette's dogmatic father, a well-known local doctor, to determine the authenticity of the wounds. Afterwards, he proclaims, "You have all been duped." Mariette is banished from the convent back into the secular world, and Mariette never recovers from the judgment of her father.
Michiko Kakutani, literary critic of The New York Times
, revered 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."