Pontifex Minimus Blog: Presidential Reflections on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition

By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC

Many years ago now, when I was an academic dean at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario I received a call from an agent inquiring whether I would serve as a consultant for a film currently in production.  Because I had performed that role before with the 6-hour extravaganza,  Sir Peter Ustinov’s Inside the Vatican,  and because I had done numerous CBC radio documentaries, I figured I could handle this assignment.

Then she told me the title of the film—same title as the book—and I reeled: Mariette in Ecstasy.  I said I would get back to her and promptly sought our chief librarian and asked him to do a search for me on both the title and its author.  I couldn’t possibly be associated with the making of an erotic film as an administrator of a Catholic institution.  It would give the president a cardiac arrest and wouldn’t do much for my health either.

The librarian did his work and reported: “There is good news and bad news.  The good news: it is not X-rated erotica; the bad news: the novelist writes westerns.”

Well, as it turned out it was good news on several counts.  The author, Ron Hansen, is a very fine writer, I have read several of his novels, delighted in my largely peripheral work on the film set for Mariette, and have come to know him with periodic encounters and correspondence.

His latest work is Hotly in Pursuit of the Real: Notes Toward a Memoir, his second collection of essays (the first being a superior work, A Stay Against Confusion), and in this occasionally quirky miscellany we can find genuine nuggets of literary and spiritual insight.  I was surprised to discover that my apprehension around Mariette was shared by others, as Hansen discloses in “Fiction as Encounter: An Interview with Brennan O’Donnell”:

Sometimes Mariette in Ecstasy does end up in the erotic section of bookstores, which is amusing to me.  An exotic dancer who was into whips and things like that once wrote me to say that it was her favorite book.

To be fair, Hansen does employ a strong strain of the erotic in the novel as he explores the complex inter-relationship between the sacred and the mundane, between the spirit and the flesh, between the erotic and the mystic dimensions of our humanity.  Mariette is a nun who may have the gift or the curse of the stigmata, who may be either delusional or mystical, and whose behaviour, irrespective of the origin of the stigmata or its actuality, is a mighty disruption in the lives of those around her—the cloistered sisters and her family.  There is a lot of St. Thérèse de Lisieux in this novel—she could easily serve as the template—but there is also much that is very unlike her life of spiritual and emotional suffering.

But this is the kind of literary genre Hansen is most attracted to and most practised in: the biographical novel.  Steeped in relevant information as backdrop, sensitive to verisimilitude, not indifferent to facts and data, but driven by a different energy, channeling insights in a different way.

I think historians are interested in the consequences or doings of a character and novelists are interested in the being, the motivations. . . .Historians have a thesis or argument they buttress with established facts.  Novelists have similar opinions but they personify them and act them out.  It’s precisely how debate and drama differ.

Hansen is unabashed, indeed unafraid, to explore that drama in the lives of religious figures, like Gerard Manley Hopkins (Exiles), Geli Raubal and Rupert Mayer (Hitler’s Niece), and with outliers whose lives have been reduced to official narratives and are entitled to alternate readings (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Desperadoes (the Dalton Gang), and The Kid (William Bonney, Billy the Kid).

As the Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University, California, a permanent deacon, and a trained spiritual director in the Ignatian tradition, Hansen is first and foremost a fiction writer drawing liberally from the well of Catholic thought and art.


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