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ST. GERTRUDE Bonnie Marranca ForRobert Wilson cc 11hrough a window with a grate covered by a veil, I spoke with those who came to visit me," St. Therese of Avila described convent life in her Book ofFoundations.The sense ofa framed life would appeal to Gertrude Stein who brought together the painterly and the literary, changing nouns to verbs. In her FourSaints in ThreeActs, in which St. Therese has more than three-dozen companions, St. Ignatius is always worrying about who is "to be windowed." Nuns should observe enclosure he had decreed in sixteenth-century Spain. "How many windows and doors and floors are there in it," asks St. Therese herself in the middle of the opera. She wants to know what kind of space will frame her. Stein took great pleasure in the transcendent moments of human existence which St. Therese, her literary sister, had called "spiritual delights." Inspired by her favorite saints-Therese, Ignatius and Francis-Stein, a Jew, participated in the secularization of the spiritual, the long-lasting project ofmodernism, by aligning spiritual energy and creative power as acts of faith. It is not a concidence that she carried out her plan in Catholic France, her home from 1905. Numerous books printed in France (and in England) from the turn-of-thecentury into the twenties offered studies of sainthood, mysticism, and the religious life, with St. Therese or St. Ignatius accounting for most ofthem. It was then that Stein's mentor at Radcliffe, William James, published his great work, Varieties ofReligious Experience, though in it he criticized St. Therese as a bit of a flirt in her solicitation of God. Before World War I, in painting and the drama, the spiritual dimensions of human thought and feeling had inspired the vision of abstraction which moves toward the same goal as religious feeling: the contemplation of an object of absolute perfection in an instant of pure presence. In French letters Mallarmd had already conceived of The Book as a "spiritual instrument," and the Belgian Maeterlinck imagined a new conception of dramaturgy in the religiosity of symbolist aesthetics. Moreover, numerous 0 107 French composers created works on religious themes or liturgical forms, including Debussy, Poulenc, Satie, Massenet, and Messiaen, from the turn-of-the-century to the period between the wars. Saints, in particular, have long preoccupied artists, particularly St. Francis, St. Joan, St. Anthony, St. Paul, and St. Sebastian. There are many examples ofworks in the modern period which treat their lives: in painting, poetry, opera, drama, film. Even the avant-garde manifestoes of the era, mainly from the Catholic countries of France and Italy, have a sense of the church litany in them, for repetition is as much a formal quality of avant-garde rhetoric as that of church doctrine. The exemplary writings of Artaud, to be fully understood, should be read alongside of saints' writings. Closer to our own time, Genet made of dramaturgy a liturgy, then Sartre turned him into a saint, and Barthes wrote a long essay on the language of St. Ignatius. Stein's great friend and astute admirer Thornton Wilder, who himself had written plays with a fair share of angels and saints, understood that on one level her work could be read as a series of "spiritual exercises." Her Latinate writings were full of exhortations, codes of self-discipline, study of mental states, acts of contemplation, the cataloguing of the senses. Stein offers a manual for the writing life as rigorous as Ignatius's guide to the spiritual life. As with the lives of saints her inner world leaned toward the ascetic, and like saints' writings her own are full of repetition, for going forward always meant going backward, beginning again. If her guide wasn't quite the sort Ignatius had planned in his classic work, Stein's spiritual journey was nevertheless toward the perfect state of mind, her stanzas in meditation more joyful and wondrous in celebrating nature and being and creating. Ecstasy was always her subject. For Stein, sainthood, like its secular counterpart, genius, celebrates the fullness of presence: aura. "Saints shouldn't do anything. The fact that a saint is there is enough for anybody." She said. A...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1537-9477
Print ISSN
1520-281X
Pages
pp. 107-112
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Open Access
No
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