Graced Occasions: Sacramental Realism in Ron Hansen

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"Grace can and does have a history."
"Grace is everywhere as an active orientation of all created reality toward God"
--Karl Rahner

"Writing is a sacrament insofar as it provides graced occasions of encounter between humanity and God"
--Ron Hansen, "Writing as Sacrament"

One can observe in Hansen’s novels a continuum of the means of grace from the most implicit to the most explicit: grace is expressed:

  • in the inscape of the natural world,

  • in its defamiliarization of the reader’s expectations,

  • in the overlay of sacramental patterns,

  • in the haunting testimony of the church,

  • in the radical fusing of two worlds, the spiritual and the natural. 

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Hansen on Fiction

Hansen begins with the assumption that the world truly represented will reveal, at least at some level, its divine origins. He holds that one of fiction’s great purposes is to highlight the significance of human existence: "Great Art teaches us what Christ taught; there is something going on here that matters" (qtd Nelson 14). This importance, which is ultimately God-originated, can only be understood in a hermeneutical encounter between reader (or author) and the truth of what is there. He stresses that "in the hard exercise of interpretation we must imitate and make present again the graced interaction between the human and the divine" (‘Writing as Sacrament" 24). To make something present implies that fiction can serve as a kind of space where the human person can meet grace.

  • It holds that the encounter is both mimetic: one fictionally portrays characters who encounter grace; and also responsive: readers themselves may meet the divine. And to do so, both writers and readers must, so to speak, get the world right.

In ‘Writing as Sacrament," Hansen quotes Joseph Conrad and John Gardner approvingly: Conrad because writing’s goal is "to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe" (qtd 4) and Gardner because, writing offers "trustworthy but inexpressible models" (qtd 6). Both suggest a real responsibility on the part of the fiction writer.

  • Hansen believes that a "graced interaction" can be found in moral models and well-crafted descriptions, both of which promise a fidelity to the world.

In an earlier interview, he likewise stresses his agreement with the basic thesis of Gardner: "[A]ll great fiction pretends that human beings have the will power to do good or evil, that ideas have consequences and that existence matters" (Verde 122).

  • The fictional world is one where moral choices take on actual meaning; they exist in a world that does not discount the possibility of virtue and vice, that does not render those choices nonsense.

Hansen, thus, assumes readers who make judgments, who practice a kind of self-examination, because readers not only look at something from another’s perspective, but also self-reflexively compare themselves to a character. Writing offers a kind of Ignatian exercise for readers, "another way of God speaking to your own life circumstance" (Abood 20-21).

  • Fictional and non-fictional models can have moral outcomes in the right kind of readers because Hansen’s model is interactive; the reader is an active, engaged respondent, one who may learn from, even imitate characters’ virtues. As such, we read to see who we are, to know what our state is.

He implies the same about his use of well-crafted descriptions. If something "matters," we lavish time, attention, and art on it. Hansen argues that fiction has significance because writers take the time to make language lovely, and thus, reflect the beauty of the created order. Early on in a 1988 interview, Hansen described his style as "a painterly one," with emphasis on color, comparison, and metaphor; one that must use "words that will somehow convince me of the reality of the scene I’m trying to render" (Verde 113).

  • This suggests Conrad’s "highest kind of justice," a type of mimetic responsibility and valuing; as such, it implies the need to effectively make a scene and place present to author and reader. We need beauty to truly picture reality.

But to simply recognize that fiction treats the world as important, even valuable, because it crafts its descriptions and posits moral actions is not necessarily a sacramental model. After all, both at first glance are matters existing in a purely natural conception of the universe. One does not have to believe in grace to be moral and be moved by beautiful description. What makes this fictional encounter sacramental is that Hansen assumes, like Rahner, that "grace is everywhere," and as Rahner notes, "it is experienced, though usually not under that name" (285).

  • Description and character and plot are reflective of who makes that grace possible – the order of Christ the Logos.

Hansen, for instance, compares writing to prayer because both meditate on and practice "a peacefulness and joy in Creation" (Abood 12). Writing learns to recognize the inscape of the world, which includes its presence in human life, even human folly. Likewise, Hansen stresses the outdoors because the divine is present: "By paying attention to what is going on all around, you develop a sense of God walking among us"` (Sawyer 82). Divine grace is present even in the descriptions of setting.

  • Hansen’s fiction, then, is founded at least in theory on a strongly Christian (and perhaps more specifically Thomist) notion that grace infuses nature, sometimes more subtly than others.

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Contemplation's Purpose

Hansen is deeply influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins' aesthetic and contemplative theory.  Below is a summation of Hopkins' views.

inscape: "the 'individually distinctive' inner structure or nature of a thing; hence, the essence of a natural object, which, being perceived through the moment of illumination--an epiphany--reveals the unity of all creation" (Harmon and Holman, 5th edition).  Every object has an essence that can be perceived; this essence points to God's design of it and the unified design of the creation.

instress: "the force, ultimately divine, that creates the inscape of an object or an event and impresses that distinctive inner structure of the object on the mind of the beholder, who can perceive it and embody it in a work of art" (Harmon and Holman, 5th edition). God's instress reveals the inscape of an object not only so that it may praise him, but also so that it may be embodied in works of art, which are also acts of praise to God.  In Hopkins' thinking, we do not create the inscape of an object; God allows us to discover it via instress.

Hopkins, in his "The Principle or Foundation," discusses the spiritual practice of meditation and contemplation.  He stressed the purpose and role of creation: "He [God] meant the world to give him praise, reverence, and service; to give him glory. [. . .] With praise, reverence, and service it should shew him his own glory. [. . .] It is an altar and a victim on it lying in his sight: why is it offered? To his praise, honour, and service: it is a sacrifice to his glory" (228-229).  These three words are important to Hopkins because they show how we are in interact with God's expression of himself in the world:

  • Praise, according to Hopkins, is an act of the mind by which we understand the importance of what we apprehend.  We recognize God's glory for what it is.
  • Reverence is an act of intuition and emotion, but more important, it is a certain stance toward the world.  We pay close and long attention to the world in order to see what God has done there.
  • Service implies an act of the will: we are called to respond according to what we have seen--to teach others, to act differently, or to create works of art that embody the inscape of God's world.

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A Hansen Bibliography

The information above is a few years out of date.   Several of the sources I quoted from the original can now be found in Hansen's A Stay Against Confusion.

Abood, Maureen. "God between the lines." U.S. Catholic. 63 (June 1998): 78 pars. Online. WilsonSelect. 24 Oct. 1999.

Hansen, Ron. A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction. NY: HarperCollins, 2001.

_____. Atticus. NY: HarperCollins, 1996.

_____. "Hearing the Cry of the Poor." Martyrs: Contemporary Writers on Modern Lives of Faith. Ed. Susan Bergman. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996. 33-55.

_____. Hitler's Niece. NY: HarperCollins, 1999.

_____. Isn't It Romantic? An Entertainment.. NY: HarperCollins, 2003.

_____. Nebraska. NY: Atlantic Monthly P, 1989.

_____. Mariette in Ecstasy. NY: HarperCollins, 1991.

_____. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.

_____. "Ron Hansen Responds" in Robert Detweiller. Uncivil Rites: American Fiction, Religion, and the Public Sphere. U of Illnois P: Urbana, 1996. 215-216.

_____. "The Pilgrim." A Tremor of Bliss: Contemporary Writers on the Saints. Ed. Paul Elie. NY: HBC, 1994. 111-146.

_____. "Stigmata." Image 21 (1998): 60-66.

_____. "Writing as Sacrament." Image 5 (1994): 26 pars. 24 Oct. 1999.<http:// www.>

_____. Preface. You don't know what Love is: Contemporary American Stories. Comp. Ron Hansen. Ontario: Ontario Review P, 1987. ix.-xi.

_____. Introduction. "Master and Man" By Leo Tolstoy. You've Got to Read This:Contemporary American Writers Introduce Stories that Held them in Awe. Ed. Ron Hansen and Jim Shepherd. NY: HarperCollins, 1994. 514-516.

_____. "How can I find God? Another look." America 177 (Aug 30-Sept 6, 1997): 50 pars. Online. WilsonSelect. 22 October 1999.

Nelson, Shirley. "Stewards of the imagination: Ron Hansen, Larry Woiwode, and Sue Miller." The Christian Century 112 (Jan 25, 1995): 42 pars. Online. WilsonSelect. 22 October 1999.

Rahner, Karl. Karl Rahner: Theologian of the Grand Search for Meaning. Ed. Geoffrey B. Kelly. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992.

Sawyer, Scott. "Puzzling Out the Graced Occasions: An Interview with Ron Hansen." Mars Hill Review 6 (1996): 132 pars. 3 Sept. 1999. <>

Verde, Allan. Face to Face: Interviews with Contemporary Novelists. Houston: Rice UP, 1993.

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding