Did you ever see the movie Agnes of God, starring Jane Fonda? I saw it in the theater when it came out. Imdb swears it was released in 1985 but I’m sure I was worldly enough by then to not completely freak out. And freak out I did. Nun, baby, death, stigmata, voices, spirits. The mother of girls I was friends with through our church took us to see the movie, figuring it was a spiritual flick and, hey, what could be bad about that? Although I saw that film over 20 years ago, it still formed the core of what I knew or imagined went on inside convents. And it was crreeeepppy.
I just finished reading Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy, which shares a locale with Agnes–a French convent in upstate New York–but, thankfully, not a protagonist. Whereas Agnes, one is led to believe, is a wee bit touched in the head, Mariette is perfectly sane. She comes to the convent against her father’s wishes (her older sister is already there and Dad, one presumes, wonders where on earth he’s supposed to get grandchildren) and feels perfectly at home in the austere environment of the convent, where every daily action, whether prayer and contemplation, mass, or chores in the garden, is done as service to the Lord. Everyone at the convent loves her and she loves Jesus.
When Mariette becomes a stigmatic, however, things begin to change. The wounds of Christ in her hands, feet, and side set her apart from her sisters, make her appear special in the eyes of the Lord. Some of the sisters think she is a saint. Others think she is an attention-grabbing schemer. Either way, however, Mariette’s status as special, or chosen of God, disturbs the order of the convent. How can the sisters be equal and equally humble before God if they have a budding saint in their midst? Eventually, Mariette is asked to go. She was prepared for this. Jesus speaks to her and he had told her she would suffer for his sake, and so she handles her expulsion with grace and kindness. She returns to her father’s house and keeps her vows privately. Many years later she writes in a letter to the current prioress of the convent, “Christ still sends me roses,” indicating that she remains a stigmatic and shares a special relationship with Christ.
Mariette also experiences periods of ecstasy at the convent. Specifically, she experiences this altered state of awareness when contemplating Christ’s wounds and his suffering, as in, for example, looking closely at a crucifix. Mariette, then, experiences a periodic and temporary erasure of her own body and its awareness (ecstasy), as well as temporary and periodic manifestations of Christ’s body on her own (stigmata). The prioress points out in a conversation with Mariette that the history of stigmatics (both in and out of the Church) shows a disproportionate number of women. This is always the fact that sticks in my head when I read of spiritual ecstasy or stigmata. There is something about the juxtaposition of women’s bodies as the fount of sin and temptation, as the vessel of childbirth (through which they gain holiness), and as potential vehicles for an earthly enactment of Christ’s passion that is so very compelling in its complexity.
And, on the heels of Mariette, I pick up my most recent issue of Bust (click on image of current issue to see the articles) and find an article about young women joining convents in larger numbers. These college-educated young women are discovering convents to be women-centered places where they can do good in the world (through charity, teaching, etc.), while at the same time committing themselves to their spiritual development in the company of like-minded women. Not a mention of spiritual ecstasy or rapture anywhere to be found. Kind of a bummer, really.