Augustine, Koheleth, and Mariette in Ecstasy

The quotidian cannot avoid being taken up into the sacramental. Here, Augustine interprets Ecclesiastes:

‘For when he says in another book, which is called Ecclesiastes, “There is no good for a man, except that he should eat and drink,” what can he be more credibly understood to say, than what belongs to the participation of this table which the Mediator of the New Testament Himself, the Priest after the order of Melchizedek, furnishes with His own body and blood?’ (civ. XVII.20)

The way Augustine reads Koheleth (the writer of Ecclesiastes), the Preacher’s original intent is effaced to reveal a deeper spiritual meaning. Koheleth probably really just meant eating and drinking, but Augustine sees the bread and wine of the Eucharist in this verse.

I have been wrestling with a different “figural reading” of the relationship between the quotidian and the sacramental as I finished reading Ron Hansen’s novel Mariette in Ecstasy.

A thorough synopsis of the plot of Mariette in Ecstasy could probably be written in less than ten sentences. It’s about a young woman who may or may not be experiencing religious ecstasy in a convent in 1906 rural New York. But while the plot only contains a handful of major events, the rest of the novel floods the reader with an overwhelming number of lush descriptions of mundane objects. The characters of the novel are almost crowded out by all of the descriptions of birds, livestock, furniture, frost, dust motes, cleaning supplies, the weather, the sky, the landscape. It is almost as if people, animals, and objects are all leveled to same starting and ending point — a quotidian existence equally distant from God, who is in fact closer to us than we are to ourselves. From the perspective of the more skeptical characters in the novel, Mariette’s experience of God is surely spurious. The reader, however, is confronted with so many descriptions of created reality nearly crackling with energy that the world seems the most obvious of receptacles for divine presence. Mariette’s religious experience is not an aberration to the natural order but the most consonant expression of a doxological harmony between God and creation that Hanson has been describing for the entire novel.

For Augustine, when Koheleth is talking about eating and drinking, he is only talking about the Eucharist. For Ron Hansen, all eating, all drinking, all of the quotidian has the potential to be taken up by the Spirit and made more than it is. To be fair, Augustine elsewhere broadens his definition of “sacramentalish” things (my word). But for me, Hansen has joined the ranks of those other Christians (Occam, Hopkins, von Balthasar) who are looking for a way to reconcile the this-ness of things with the revelation of God.


the pastoral love story and political violence

For the last couple decades scholars have argued as to what ways (if at all) Jane Austen’s novels have grappled with the political realities of her day. In particular, scholars have noted that at a time of international upheaval (including the brutal, violent, volatile French Revolution), Austen appears to write (at first glance) insular pastoral love stories that seem wholly unconcerned with the violent geopolitical realities of the outside world. The world around Jane Austen is changing rapidly, dangerously, and yet her novels seem to only deal with the often trite and petty social games of rural British aristocracy.

Perhaps this narrative technique is not without precedence, particularly in the Christian scriptural tradition in which Austen was steeped. I am reminded in particular of the book of Ruth. Like Austen’s novels, it too tells a [seemingly] simple pastoral love story, even as it is canonically bounded by unceasing political violence. It is preceded by the book of Judges, which ends in a bloodbath with genocidal intent and a mass sexual assault on the young women of the tribe of Benjamin. It is followed by the book of Samuel, in which the murky morality of political intrigue leaves no one unstained and the body count rises at an alarming rate. You could choose to read Ruth as just a nice little love story, but its canonical positioning forces us to read it as more than just a cute love story. Like Austen’s novels, it is a bold declaration of Christian love in the midst of a senselessly violent world.