Retreat Day Rerun

From September 2009

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 (who Deacon Greg reminds us is 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.

A Note from my Retreat
Flowers Before His Majesty

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Francis Banecker


    I loved “Mariette in Ecstasy.” Have you ever read “Lying Awake” by Mark Salzman? It’s another fine novel of nun’s experience with mysticism.

    Keep up the good work! I don’t comment much, but I do read you almost daily.

  • Steve P in Sparta, Wis.

    Wonderful book! Frustratingly, a film version was apparently produced, but the production company went bankrupt before it could be distributed — so the completed film languishes, unseen, on the shelf somewhere. Which is a shame, as the novel has a cinematic quality that would lend itself well to film.

  • alexandrag

    Dear Anchoress, It is quite a challenge to express in words the magnitude and depth of what you perceive. Your example of the word “love” is an excellent one. I wanted to tell a friend once “God is love,” but decided it would sound so trite, because what I was trying to convey was something far deeper and more intense than our common use of the word love. But we need to keep at it, keep trying to convey it, keep trying to tell those around us what we know, and keep praying, especially for those who rouse our passions, as you say. The world desperately need our prayers.

  • Alice

    Such intense and beautiful spiritual experiences happen when we have transcended our personalities, our egos, so there is no language that can convey completely, only give hints.

    Your stunningly beautiful realization delivered in your poem gives hints, as does the passage from Mariette. At the level of language, we have to be satisfied with hints. Only in quiet contemplation of these hints or in prayer or meditation are we offered a path to understanding.

  • Eden

    This definitely looks like something I would like to read.

    I started a Christian blog of my own a few months back. I would love it if you would check it out and let me know what you think. In Him,


    Thorns and Myrtles

  • http://Miriam Miriam Dixon

    I have been reading your thoughts for several months now. I had to leave my church (Episcopal) over a year ago. I spent some time grieving that loss. I had hoped that in some way I could still be Anglican. I am now greiving that loss. I started attending the Catholic Church during Lent and am now in RICA classes.

    I appreciate so much your being so willing to discuss the glories and the heartache of being Catholic. I appreciate more your willingness to discuss the glories and the heartache of trying to live a truly Christian life in this time of confusion and trouble, for us as the Body of Christ, our country and our world.

    I have lost so much of what I thought was important, even imperative, in the last two years–church, friends, loved ones. It seems God has taken all from me, except Himself and sometimes I wonder if He is still there. The still, small voice says: “This is a blessing, an answer to your prayers of many years. Come away and just be with me.” I find myself less than willing to do that, and how superficial my love of God has been.

    You give me great encouragement especially in my awkward and not entirely enthusiastic steps into the Catholic Church. I am not sure that is where I want to be, but I am slowly beginning to accept that is where I should be. I probably would have run away weeks ago, except for your words–your honesty and your willingness to share your own struggles. I expect that a year from now I will wonder why I was so hesitant, but for now this is all very painful!

    In a whole lot of words, what I really want to say is thank you so much for being so open, so honest and for being willing to share your struggles with us. While I wish nothing for you but the peace that surpasses all understanding, it sure is a comfort to me that I am not alone in my struggles. Thank you and may God richly bless you in your ministry to me and so many like me.

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