WHEN SAINT JEROME TRANSLATED THE BIBLE
into the Latin Vulgate, he chose the Latin sacramentum, sacrament, for the Greek
mysterion, mystery. We understand those words to be quite
different, but their difference is an efficient way of getting at
my argument that good writing can be a religious act.
In the synoptic Gospels mysterion generally referred to
the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, and, in Saint Paul's Epistles,
to Christ himself as the perfect revelation of God's win. Tertullian
introduced the term sacramentum as we know it when he talked about
the rite of Christian initiation, understanding the word to mean a
sacred action, object, or means. And Saint Augustine further clarified
the term by defining sacraments as "signs pertaining to things divine,
or visible forms of an invisible grace."
Eventually more and more events were seen as sacraments until the
sixteenth century, when the Protestant Reformation confined the term
to baptism and eucharist, the two Gospel sacraments, and the Roman
Catholic Council of Trent decreed that signs become sacraments only
if they become channels for grace. Twentieth-century theology has
used the term in a far more inclusive way, however. The Oxford
Companion to the Bible describes sacraments "as occasions of
encounter between God and the believer, where the reality of God's
gracious actions needs to be accepted in faith."
Writing, then, can be viewed as a sacrament insofar as it
provides graced occasions of encounter between humanity and God.
As Flannery O'Connor noted in Mystery and Manners, "the
real novelist, the one with an instinct for what he is about,
knows that he cannot approach the infinite directly, that he must
penetrate the natural human world as it is. The more sacramental
his theology, the more encouragement he will get from it to do just
Even secular interpretations point to the fiction writer's duty
to express the Mystery at the heart of metaphysics. In the famous
preface to his novel The Nigger of the "Narcissus," Joseph
Conrad defined a fictional work of art as
single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to
the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and
one, underlying its every aspect. It is an attempt to find in its
forms, in its colours, in its light, in its shadows, in the aspects
of matter, and in the facts of life what of each is fundamental,
what is enduring and essential their one illuminating and
convincing quality the very truth of their existence.
The highest kind of justice to the visible universe often leads to
the highest kind of humility about ourselves. Writing about craft
in The Art of Fiction, John Gardner held that "the value
of great fiction ... is not just that it entertains us or distracts
us from our troubles, not just that it broadens our knowledge of
people and places, but also that it helps us to know what we
believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in us,
leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations."
Writers seeking to express a religious vision often help their
readers by simply providing, as Gardner put it,
trustworthy but inexpressible models. We ingest
metaphors of good, wordlessly learning to behave more like
Levin than like Anna (in Anna Karenina), more like the
transformed Emma (in Jane Austen's novel) than like the Emma we
first meet in the book. This subtle, for the most part wordless
knowledge is the "truth" great fiction seeks out.
But I have identified in my own experience and that of many other
Christian and Jewish writers that there comes a time when we find
the need and the confidence to face the great issues of God and
faith and right conduct more directly.
Reprinted with permission
A Stay Against Confusion
by Ron Hansen. © 2001
SHE WAS BORN IN LINZ, AUSTRIA,
on June 4, 1908, when Hitler was nineteen and floundering in Wien, a failure at many things, and
famished for food and attention. Within the month she was christened as Angelika
("Ahn-GAY-leek-ah") Maria Raubal, in honor of her mother, Angela, Hitler's half-sister, but the
family was soon calling the baby Geli ("Gaily"), as she was to be known all her life.
Hitler first saw his niece at a Sunday-afternoon party after the June baptism in the Alter Dom
cathedral in Linz. Angela heard four hard knocks on the front screen door and found Adolf
on Bürgergasse in front of the Raubal house, looking skeletal and pale in a high, starched
collar and red silk bow tie and the ill-fitting, soot-black suit he'd worn at his mother's funeral in
December; his wide, thin mustache so faint it seemed penciled on, his hair as chestnut brown as
her own and as short as a five-day beard. With unquestioning love, Angela invited him in and
hugged him, but it was like holding wood. And then she saw that hurrying up Bürgergasse
from the railway station was his only friend, August Kubizek, whose father owned an upholstery
shop in Linz. Angela hugged him, too, saying, "We've missed you, Gustl."
"And I, you."
She called to the kitchen, "Leo! Paula! Look who's here!"And then she noticed that her
half-brother held a silk top hat in his hand and was absurdly twirling a black, ivory-handled cane,
as if he were a gentleman of plenty. "Aunt Johanna's here, too,"she said. "And the Monsignor."
"Oh, Lord,"Hitler said.
Swerving out of the kitchen with a tankard of beer was Leo Raubal, Angela's husband, a flinty,
twenty-nine-year-old junior tax inspector in Linz whose jacket and tie were now off. Everything Hitler
loathed about his dead father, Leo Raubal professed to admire, and he seemed to be imitating the late
Alois Hitler as he said, "Why, it's Lazy himself! The bohemian! Rembrandt's only rival! Aren't we
honored to finally have you here!"
"Leo, be nice,"Angela said.
"Who's nicer than I? I'm Saint Nicholas! I'm a one-man charity!"
Hitler's twelve-year-old sister, Paula, who suffered frequent trials with mental illness and
would be nicknamed "The Straggler,"hung back in the kitchen, winding string around a fist and
flirting a stare at Kubizek, whom she was fond of, until Hitler held out a present to her. "I have a
gift for you, Paula!"
She scuttled forward in once white stockings and took the package, irresolutely staring at a
festive wrapping of tissue paper that Hitler had hand-painted.
"You can tear it,"he said.
"But I don't want to."
"Oh, for God's sake, do it!"Leo Raubal said.
She tore off the paper and found underneath it a fat and difficult novel, Don Quixote.
"You say the title how?"she asked. Hitler told her. She opened the book, and inside, where she
hoped for a sentimental note from the older brother she worshiped, or even a "To My Dear Paula,"
she instead found Hitler's handwritten list of other books in history, biography, politics, and literature
that would possibly benefit her. Her face fractured with disappointment as she said, "Thank you,
Adolf,"and hurried to put Don Quixote away.
"What a treat,"Raubal told Hitler. "Girls really go for things like that."
"She's all right?"
Raubal touched his head. "She's all wrong up here."
Aunt Johanna Pölzl, the wealthy, hunchbacked, forty-five-year-old sister of Hitler's
late mother, walked down the hallway from a bedroom. She smiled. "I was taking a nap with Leo
Junior when I heard your voice, Adi."
"My favorite aunt!"he said. "My sweetest darling! Are you feeling well?"
"Oh, just tired,"Aunt Johanna said. "I'm used to it."She held out her left hand and he kissed it,
as did August Kubizek.
Angela got the baby from a bassinet and held the tiny girl up to Hitler's face so he could kiss
her on the forehead.
Jiggling Geli's left hand with his index finger, her uncle said, "Aren't you pretty?"She gripped
the finger in her fist. "Will the fräulein allow me the pleasure of introducing myself? My name
is Herr Adolfus Hitler."
"Your uncle, Angelika,"Angela said, and shook the baby, trying to get her to smile, but Geli only
stared at his hair. "See? She loves you."
"And why not?"he asked.
Leo Raubal called, "August Kubizek! Would you like some good beer?"
Walking into the kitchen, Kubizek said, "Clearly I have some catching up to do."
"Won't take but a pitcher,"Raubal said.
Hitler stayed in the front room as Angela gave Geli to Aunt Johanna and went into the kitchen
behind August in order to get out the potatoes in jackets. Canting back into the pantry with a full
stein of beer was a stout and white-haired monsignor in rimless glasses and a pitch-black soutane
with red buttons and piping. "Welcome, Herr Kubizek!"he too loudly said. "Are you liking the
Conservatory of Music?"
"Very much, Monsignor."
"The child's a miracle at music,"the old priest told Raubal, "You play, what, violin, viola,
piano.... What else?"
"Also trumpet and trombone."
"Amadeus Mozart,"the old priest said.
Angela got a braising pan out of the oven and put it on an iron trivet on the kitchen table.
"We have potatoes in jackets here. And herring rolls in the icebox."
Raubal handed Kubizek a stein of beer and a cold skillet of sliced kielbasa in ale, then
focused intently on his high forehead and his soft, feminine face. "And what does our Adolf
do in Wien while you study your music?"
"Oh, he works; very hard. Even to two or three in the morning."
Raubal was astonished. "At what?"
"Watercolors of churches, parliament, the Belvedere Palace. Reading in Nordic and Teutonic
mythology. Writing of all kinds. And city planning. Adolf strolls around the Ringstrasse in the
afternoons, carefully observing, then redesigns sections of it at night. Amazing . . .
Reprinted with permission
from Hitler's Niece
Copyright © 1999
by Ron Hansen
SHE OUGHT, TOO, TO TRY
to empty her head of possessions and the pronouns
me and mine. "Everything in this room is ours.
Even you, you are
She smiles at Mariette hesitantly just as the Angelus bell slowly
rings. Sister Hermance turns in
the general direction of the high altar and gets to her knees as she
prays, "The angel of the
Lord declared unto Mary."
"And she conceived of the Holy Ghost."
And then an Ave Maria is said.
Sister Virginie is kneeling with scissors and hyacinths in the garth
but she tenderly puts them on
the grass as she says to herself, "Behold the handmaid of the
Sister Marie-Madeleine holds on to a ripsaw and brushes wood shavings
and dust from her gray
habit as she privately gives the response, "Be it done unto me
according to Thy word."
In the kitchen the sisters stand by the hot stoves in rolled up
sleeves, their white aprons stained
with soups and juices, steam from saucepans wetting their chins. Sister
Saint-Leon's hands are
whitely gloved in flour as she prays for the rest, "And the Word was
Cook's helpers with her respond, "And dwelt amongst us."
The prioress stands at her desk, her palms held up to her face as
though she's in tears. She says,
"Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God." And then she replies in
we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ."
Sister Hermance smiles as Mariette recites from girlhood memory,
"Pour forth, we
beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts, that we to whom the
incarnation of Christ, Thy
son, was made known by the message of an angel, may be His passion and
cross be brought to the
glory of His resurrection. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen."
Sister Hermance holds on to the pine armoire as she wrestles up onto
her sandals and steps into
the hallway. Seeing that Mariette is not following, she turns and touches
her five joined fingertips
to her mouth in the handsign for eating.
Reprinted with permission
from Mariette In Ecstasy
Copyright © 1991
by Ron Hansen