Thursday, July 17, 2008


Exiles by Ron Hansen is a novel which examines the mystical ties between the challenges experienced by poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins and the deaths of five German nuns in sea disaster. Hopkins' poem "The Wreck of the Deutschland" is woven into the narrative. The first chapters of the book I found riveting for the realistic descriptions of Hopkins' life with the Jesuit scholastics; it was so beautifully written that every line needed to be savored. However, as the book progressed, other than the harrowing scenes of the sinking ship, it became more like a biography of Hopkins and less like historical fiction. Perhaps the author was trying to convey the sense of dryness and desolation of Hopkins' soul, I do not know.

The nuns are introduced in what resembled colorful Wikipedia entries so that the five women sort of ran together for me. The sisters are endearing, nevertheless; they are taken away from us just as we are really getting acquainted with them. They reminded me of nuns whom I have known in my own life. However, my dear nun friends would not quite approve of a sister looking at herself naked in the mirror, as Sister Henrica does in one rather odd scene. Not that the body is bad or shameful, but nuns are not supposed to be preoccupied with themselves, and looking at oneself naked in the mirror conjures up all kinds of thoughts, "I'm too fat, I'm too thin, I'm ugly, I'm beautiful" and most of the old-fashioned nuns were striving to be beyond all that.
Perhaps European nuns in the nineteenth century had a different view of things, but I doubt it.

It is also out of place in Catholic art or literature for a nun to be shown nude, simply out of respect for the vocation of the bride of Christ. Our Lady, female saints, and nuns are generally not depicted in their nakedness, with a some exceptions, such as Eve, of course. The description in Exiles was in no way lewd or erotic; maybe the author wanted to demonstrate the sister unknowingly preparing for her baptism of pain and death. It was just one short paragraph, but a strange one.

The novel delves into the heart of self-offering to God and the utter immolation that is the result. The sisters die a violent death; Hopkins' death is slower but, like the nuns' final end, is caused indirectly by his consecration of himself in the religious life. One wonders if in the mysterious spiritual order of things, the sacrifice of the nuns obtained for Fr. Hopkins the grace to persevere in his vocation, to endure the contradictions of community life, the rejection by his parents, and the misunderstandings of his peers. Hopkins the poet was moved by the news of the passing of five women whom he had never met, moved enough to write a poem about them. Surely from Heaven they prayed for their spiritual brother, so that like them he died giving after giving his all. Hopkins was solitary but not alone, his sisters mystically stood at his side, even as Our Lady and the holy women stood at the foot of the cross of Christ. In spite of its unevenness and quirks, Exiles conveys the reality of the Communion of Saints, a reality which lies hidden behind the storms and sorrows of this world.

InsideCatholic continues the in-depth discussion of Exiles. Share

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