By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Ron Hansen, a Catholic deacon and novelist, has a painting of Shakespeare in his home office that he sees every time he goes to work. He regularly reviews the Bard’s plays “for phrases or words I can steal,” Hansen said. “I first encountered his plays in high school, where we read one per year and were happily forced to memorize passages, and then in college I took an English course in him and read all his sonnets and tragedies, and about half his histories, a few comedies. Even in my recent novel about Billy the Kid I found occasions to quote him.”
Shakespeare’s influence on Hansen’s writing (even on the topics he chooses) will be the subject of his talk “Shakespeare and Me” April 4 at St. Ambrose University in Davenport. Hansen is giving the university’s Chair of Catholic Studies lecture at 7 p.m. in the Rogalski Ballroom. All are welcome to attend the free event. “We chose Ron to show how the Catholic Intellectual Tradition has influenced literature,” said Father Chuck Adam, the university’s chaplain.
Hansen wrote his first novel while traveling as a textbook salesman for Random House. His writing led to speaking engagements that gradually turned toward spiritual themes. Ultimately, he recognized God’s subtle call to him to ordained ministry.
The Jesuits have also had an influence on Hansen’s ministry and writing. He’s a graduate of Creighton Jesuit Preparatory School and Creighton University in Omaha and now serves as the Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University. “The Jesuits taught me to listen to what God is saying in my prayer, my dreams, and my deepest desires. God has never been insistent to me, he only offers a mild “either/or” and lets me choose, and if I choose wrongly he gently woos me back,” Hansen said.
His first published novel, “Desperadoes” (1979) was a Western. Another of his Western novels, “Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (published in 1983) was adapted for the Hollywood screen in 2007. His highly acclaimed “Mariette in Ecstasy” (1991) tells the story of a young postulant’s claim to divine possession and religious ecstasy.
“Writing fiction offered me forums for speaking and those talks gradually turned toward spiritual themes as I enrolled in spirituality classes at Santa Clara University in order to research Mariette in Ecstasy. I earned a master’s degree in the field and was soon invited to serve as a spiritual director at college retreats. That gave me my first experience of delivering homilies. Each additional ministry I took on was equally nourishing and exciting to me so I recognized God’s subtle call,” Hansen said.
Ordained a permanent deacon for the Diocese of San Jose, Calif., in 2007, Hansen said his diaconal ministry hasn’t impacted his writing thus far. “That is, I haven’t written about my ministry, but I frequently deal with a variety of parishioners in their peak experiences of baptisms, weddings and funerals, and that probably creeps into my writing in somewhat unrecognized ways,” added Hansen, who serves St. Joseph of Cupertino Parish.
So how would he rate himself as a homilist? “I get the sense that most parishioners like them and a few have told me they’re thrilled when they see I’ll be preaching — which I prefer to call ‘teaching.’ In general I write out my homilies so they tend to be only about six minutes long with just a few points, but they’re probably a little professorial. A parishioner told me that when he sees me at the ambo he knows he’ll have to sit up and pay attention. But for the most part people just smile at me as they exit the church, which I presume means they didn’t dislike what I said. An old guy who’s hard of hearing always tells me, “I understood every word.”
Hansen’s talk is one of the Shakespeare-related events of St. Ambrose University’s yearlong celebration of the 400-year legacy of the Bard. Events include theater performances, concerts, lectures, film series and conferences to demonstrate the relevance of Shakespeare’s work across the disciplines and into people’s everyday lives.
Ron Hansen bio
Age: They tell me I’m 69.
Family: Wife Bo. Children: Kate is an Ob/Gyn M.D. in Oklahoma and Scotty is a musical theater composer and teacher in New York.
Cradle Catholic or convert: Both parents were converts but I’m a cradle Catholic.
Awards: A finalist for a PEN/Faulkner Award, a finalist for the 1997 National Book Award, received first prize in fiction from the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association and a Gold Medal for Excellence in Fiction from the Commonwealth Club of California.
Favorite book: Impossible to answer; there are so many. Perhaps Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Favorite hobby: Golf