Nebraska Center for Writers

by Ron Hansen

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 that."
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

a 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

by Ron Hansen

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

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 ours now."
"And Christ's."
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 Lord." 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 made flesh."
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 antiphon, "That 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

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