Mariette in Ecstasy

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 last night I found within this wonderful and strange novel by Ron Hansen, a permanent Deacon in the Catholic Church, things I have longed to share since my retreat, but have been unable because -well- words failed me; not just words failed. Comprehension failed.

Or, not comprehension, not really. I know what I comprehended, but it was something of a such a different order. I keep trying to form an analogy of it, and I cannot. 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 with 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 since then has been different. But I, sadly, am still pretty much the same faulty, sinful, cranky, short-tempered, scoffing and cynical creature I have always been. Except 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 seek silence more than I already did. Prayer is both work and rest, but mostly rest. I do more around the house, because the silent contemplation that comes with housework -where busy hands free the mind- is more stimulating and instructive than the blaring headlines.

And increasingly, even when my kneejerk instinct to a headline or a piece of news is to snarl, or rage, or smirk, I remember:

“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.

So, you see, I’m a middling writer, but not sufficient to the task of relating my retreat.

Re-reading Mariette in Ecstasy,though, I found passages within Hansen’s gorgeous prose that gave 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…”

And, to indulge the mystic a bit:

Oh, what a blissful abandonment it is! Everything in my being tells me to stay there. Every thought I have is of his infinite perfection. Every feeling I have is of his kindness and heavenly love. Every dream I have had is realized in him. Hours may pass, but I have no sense of tiredness or pain or needs of any kind. Exquisite contentment enthralls me. I have no use for speech except to praise him. I have no desires except to be held there by him forever. I have a vision of him but I cannot see his face or his form, only infinite light and goodness. I hear his voice in an interior way; he words have sweetness and charm by no sound, and yet they are more felt and permanent in my soul than if I heard Jesus pronounce them.

It’s all 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.

You see why I have refrained from trying to write it.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Gayle Miller

    I think experiencing that love would be like a couple of experiences I had when I was figure skating. I was an ice dancer and there were a few – very few – occasions when I was “on”, the music was totally there, my partner was equally “on” and everything just worked. It created in me such a feeling of euphoria that I cannot describe but it was a high no drug can ever impart, that’s for sure. So very rare that feeling and so very difficult to describe.

  • Margaret Evans

    Anchoress, I beg to differ. I know that words are inadequate to describe your experience, but I think you’ve done a beautiful job trying. I’m actually more moved by your account than I am by the excerpt from “Marietta.” Thank you for baring your heart, as you always do. Your writing is a gift to the world.

  • anniebird

    A, what you try to describe and what is described in the passage you’ve chosen absolutely and utterly terrifies me. Did you ever have this experience earlier in your spiritual journey?

    [Aw, I can't tell you that until you tell me what you find so scary! :-) -admin]

  • Barbara Gamper

    Ditto What Margaret Evans wrote. Had chills when I read “dash all… against the Cross” Beautiful. Thank you.

  • Sr Michael

    I loved this book when I read it, although I was sad at the ending. But later I understood it so much better and wasn’t sad. You did a good job of describing your feelings and the quotes are wonderful. I think the writer captured the mystical experience so well.

  • saveliberty

    You’ve described a wonderful breakthrough that is accompanied by your own eagerness and frustration to keep the pace going. This is a wonderful thing and you’ve written it well.

    I am also a flawed creature, but I think that God wants us to try our best and at the same time, find joy and share it. I think that you are much too hard on yourself.

    God bless you and thank you.

  • Dan LaHood

    It’s very reassuring to know St. John of the Cross has been there before and provided us with a perfect descriptions of these experiences of God. The “Touch” would seem to apply here. God Blessed You, the Gift.

  • James Martin, SJ

    Thank you for inspiring readers to pick up what is perhaps my favorite spiritual novel. I know a woman who keeps three copies of Mariette at all times: one on her nighttable; one in her purse; and an extra one to give to a friend. It’s a luminous book.

  • anniebird

    A, I think what scares me is the sense that I will cease to exist. I know that we are to seek “oneness” with God, but somehow in my very primitive understanding this has meant that I would retain a sense of myself as a separate being. It occurs to me now that perhaps real communion with Him is a kind of benevolent “borg” – will I be “assimilated” so that my consciousness is gone?

    This is a silly concern that pops up and haunts me periodically; I hope I’m explaining it plainly enough. You have been a wonderful source of spiritual guideposts for me, and though I realize you are much further along on your journey to God, I just wondered if you had similar fears when you were “younger” (spiritually! :)

    [Annie, I am only beginning, just like you. But yeah, I guess I understand what you mean. The whole notion of being not just joined but subsumed by God. But to an extent, that's what the goal is, isn't it? To become not simply a worker bee, but the very buzz of the hive? -admin]

  • Louise

    I think it all comes from covering you head at Mass. :) I began again, and now, even during my evening prayer time, I can’t pray without putting it on.

    Thank you. I will look for that novel.

  • Jim Batley

    {{___ It’s all beautifully described and inviting, and accurate in as much as a pinprick may adequately represent the thrust of a flaming sword.}}

    You have reminded me of Traherne’s “Centuries”. C. S. Lewis pointed me to Traherne by stating “even if we could write prose like Thaherne” we could not write an archangelic equivalent to “Screwtape”. A favorite passage, at Century 1 (scroll down from for:), meditation 58-59:

    58 The Cross is the abyss of wonders, the centre of desires, the school of virtues, the house of wisdom, the throne of love, the theatre of joys, and the place of sorrows; It is the root of happiness, and the gate of Heaven.

    59 Of all the things in Heaven and Earth it is the most peculiar. It is the most exalted of all objects. It is an Ensign lifted up for all nations, to it shall the Gentiles seek, His rest shall be glorious: the dispersed of Judah shall be gathered together to it, from the four corners of the earth. If Love be the weight of the Soul, and its object the centre, all eyes and hearts may convert and turn unto this Object: cleave unto this centre, and by it enter into rest. There we might see all nations assembled with their eyes and hearts upon it. There we may see God’s goodness, wisdom and power: yea His mercy and anger displayed. There we may see man’s sin and infinite value. His hope and fear, his misery and happiness. There we might see the Rock of Ages, and the Joys of Heaven. There we may see a Man loving all the world, and a God dying for mankind. There we may see all types and ceremonies, figures and prophecies. And all kingdoms adoring a malefactor: An innocent malefactor, yet the greatest in the world. There we may see the most distant things in Eternity united: all mysteries at once couched together and explained. The only reason why this Glorious Object is so publicly admired by Churches and Kingdoms, and so little thought of by particular men, is because it is truly the most glorious: It is the Rock of Comforts and the Fountain of Joys. It is the only supreme and sovereign spectacle in all Worlds. It is a Well of Life beneath in which we may see the face of Heaven above: and the only mirror, wherein all things appear in their proper colours: that is, sprinkled in the blood of our Lord and Saviour.

    And I must add passage from Centuries that I have remembered (inaccurately it turns out) as: “I am infinitely obliged to every man that maketh himself happy.” How blessedly true that is. But the original is better, from Centuries 4-17:

    “a man obligeth me infinitely that maketh himself happy; and by making himself happy, giveth me himself and all his happiness.”

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  • Joseph Marshall

    And I also see why you should. You’ve made a good start.

  • Patricia

    Gayle – I can totally relate because I too was a figure skater. I can remember coming off the ice and not being able to remember my name! As you said, “It created in me such a feeling of euphoria that I cannot describe but it was a high no drug can ever impart, that’s for sure. So very rare that feeling and so very difficult to describe.”
    I’ve had a few rare spiritual experiences on par or maybe well above par! ;)
    I have heard about this book, but never read it. I will give it a try. Thanks for all the interesting comments and this post too.
    Thanks for the link Jim. Awesome!

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