• That Which Calls Us: On Writing About God’s Word

    Z.L. Nickels Considers the Work of Eliot Weinberger, Claire Luchette, Lauren Groff, and Kirstin Valdez Quade

    “For many years he was the revered abbot of the monastery of Suppentonia, built in the mountains under a giant rock and above a steep cliff. One day, he heard the voice of an angel calling him by name and summoning him. Then the angel called the names of eight other monks, each in turn. Anastasius died the next day, and the other monks, one by one, on the following eight days. A monk whose name was not called had begged him on his deathbed to be included, and he too died.

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    Another inhabitant of Suppentonia, who died some years before the others, was Nonnosus, also a saint. Some miracles are attributed to him: He instantly restored a glass lamp that had fallen and shattered on the floor. And when he wanted to grow cabbages on a certain piece of land taken up by a huge boulder, the boulder moved. Otherwise, it has been written that ‘he is not especially interesting in himself.’”

    –Eliot Weinberger, “Anastasius of Suppentonia”
    *

    Let us begin by taking up a cry of sorts: that literature cannot exist without a calling. It is no coincidence that we embrace this stance in the form of a book review. In the critical essay, just as in the whole of literature, we discover a printed gathering—that is, a calling forth—which arises in response to a calling that each of us bears.

    But what is in a calling?

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    The word call carries an ambivalent etymology. Its cognates indicate that its deepest roots lie with the cry or the shout, occasionally the summoning. The word calling is similarly ambivalent. The gerund attaches to the stem, creating a noun that can stand for a vocation or an invitation to office. It can also signify supplicating (to call upon), gathering (to call together or call forth), arriving (to call on), or telephoning.

    This panoply of meaning is observed in the context of God’s calling for us. God’s call: the power of him who is at once Father and Beloved, the progenitor of all things, and the object of our desire. But what about our calling for God? Can God be called?

    That is, does God himself have a calling or a role he must first fill before his Word can call us in from the dangerous outside?

    Four recent works—three novels and one uncategorizable compendium—are caught in this chain of signification. Each is rooted in the Christian faith: a faith instantiated when God’s Word was made flesh, when his call to creation was made manifest in the very form of his creation. It was a flesh so longed for that even now we await its return. In the interim, we return to the Word, which says we are called to serve the Father as his children.

    However, the ambivalence of calling extends to God, divides his children. Those of us who do not hear God’s calling may question the presence of his Word. Perhaps we follow theologian John Caputo’s cry: that God does not exist but rather insists. That the name of God is an insistence, a call visited upon us, which demands our response to bring this call into existence.

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    For those who hear God’s calling, however, the matter is settled: God exists. This resolution is bound by the strong theology of presence, a theology that has persisted since the Word was made flesh. A theology that is premised upon God’s insistence as immanence. It is a theology we will not contest here, save to acknowledge Caputo’s perhaps.

    To bind the Word, the children of the Father created a holy book containing chapters written by mortal authors, each of them bearing their own calling. In the Christian tradition, therefore, one must consider the acts of reading and writing—the very act of literature—as a calling that must not be ignored.

    By examining the calls being answered in these four books, tracing the multiplicity of their modes and impressions, we honor our own calling. By this essay’s end, we hope to achieve some understanding of what has called us forth—the event that has brought us here. For every time we read and write, we are brought further into the center of our Father. Perhaps.

    *

    “What are you doing,
    what are you doing?
    Why are you distracted by this and that?
    Why do you seek so many things?

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    How can there be delight in this place of terror and desolation?
    How can you find knowledge in this land of the shadow of the death?”

    –Eliot Weinberger, “Aelred of Rievaulx”
    *

    To categorize Eliot Weinberger, one might call him (look: already the word impresses itself upon us) an essayist, though this is hardly correct. He began his career as a poet; that is, he answered the call of poetry—and everything since has been a consequence of that calling. How else can one characterize the sweetness of a Weinberger essay? His is an unimaginable process of composition. In an interview in Bomb with poet Forrest Gander, he describes it this way:

    I just took all this stuff I learned about poetry and applied it to writing essays. The essay strikes me as completely unexplored territory in English. Almost nobody is writing them, outside the usual genres—which is bizarre, considering the overdevelopment, the sprawl, in all the other art forms. I start with one rule: all the information is verifiable, nothing is made up. Then I see where it goes—sometimes toward narrative, sometimes into a kind of prose poetry.

    In Angels & Saints, Weinberger’s latest work, he follows this rule as far as it will carry him. Fundamentally, this text is a compilation of historical and religious accounts of two types of beings. Assembling as many disparate (and occasionally contradicting) sources as he can, Weinberger then places the two compendia side by side. As we move from the first, on angels, to the second, on saints, we begin to realize how intimately linked these beings are. Angels are the least of all the heavenly creatures, the ones who most closely resemble humankind. Saints, on the other hand, are the closest thing to divinity here on earth. The human divine or the divine human: whose calling would you rather bear?

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    By examining the calls being answered in these four books, tracing the multiplicity of their modes and impressions, we honor our own calling.

    Here are some things we know about angels. A heavenly legion has 6,666 angels, unless they are innumerable or there are 301,655,722 of them (provided, of course, that incorporeal beings can be counted at all). They speak to one another by way of interior speech, unless they are making music. They cannot occupy space, though they are capable of moving instantly from place to place. Due to their proximity to the Father, they exist in a state of eternal joy; however, they wept at the crucifixion and still grieve the sins of man. They told humans everything we know about the cosmos, but they failed in their God-given task and so were replaced in the divine cosmology.

    And then there is this: sometimes angels will assume the form of saints. Which leads one to suspect they might wish to be saints.

    Like angels, we are called to emulate Weinberger’s saints. (It seems right to call them his as no one else seems to be looking after these otherwise obscure figures.)

    The accounts are presented chronologically and range from a single sentence to several pages long. His compendium on saints does not include writing about saints in their totality (unlike the compendium on angels) but does present writing from their hagiographies when appropriate. In this way, Weinberger’s writing mirrors its subjects: we cannot know anything definitive about angels, but we can avail ourselves of the records of human lives.

    Weinberger’s choice to eschew supplementary context defies our modern fascination with those who have chosen monastic life. Saints are humans who have embraced God’s calling. They are at once God’s children and lovers. They fascinate us because we wish we could also hear that same call and devote ourselves to the Father. Perhaps what we experience is envy. Weinberger does not attempt to explain our attraction, but his choice of saints—as well as the enchantment and horror of their stories—does nourish it.

    Angels & Saints is not a compendium for the faint of heart. It is in many ways a shocking work—and one that surprisingly resonates with other contemporary literature. It is astounding how closely the callings of Weinberger’s saints align with the characters we will consider next.

    *

    “I saw a queen, wearing a gold dress, and her dress was full of eyes, and all the eyes were transparent, like fiery flames and yet like crystals. The crown she wore on her head had as many crowns, one above the other, as there were eyes in her dress.

    She approached me dreadfully fast and put her foot on my neck, and cried out in a terrible voice: ‘Do you know who I am?’ And I said: ‘Yes! Long have you caused me pain and woe. You are my soul’s faculty of reason.’”

    –Eliot Weinberger, “Hadewijch”
    *

    To hear Lauren Groff tell it, Marie de France did not hear God’s calling.

    This does not mean that Groff’s twelfth-century abbess harbors doubts about God the Father. Quite the contrary: she is entirely certain he does not exist. In the world of Groff’s fourth novel, Matrix, fathers do not exist; men do not exist. In their place is a mother: Virgin Mary, Mother of God. Silencing the Father, Marie lets in the Mother’s call.

    As the novel opens, seventeen-year-old Marie is suddenly cast out of the royal court and installed as prioress of a dying abbey; by the novel’s close she is seventy-two and an abbess, creator of an abundant paradise for her cloistered community of women—a second Eden. Guided by an absolute belief in her own abilities, Marie mothers her nuns with a conviction cemented in her first year at the abbey: “Women in this world are vulnerable; only reputation can keep them from being crushed.” And so she works to secure as fearsome a reputation as she is able.

    A National Book Award finalist, Matrix is an exploration of community’s promise—what can be opened in the world if we answer the divine call in unorthodox ways. But at the book’s center is an earthly force: a woman who, despite her spiritual visions, recognizes only political strength. In fact, the only power Marie acknowledges as greater than her own is the queen’s; by the end of the novel, not even the church is capable of exercising control over Marie or the religious order she has closed off to the rest of the world. Her abbey is so tightly sealed that not even God’s call can penetrate it: in this text, there is nothing above Marie.

    To hear Groff tell it, she was called as a novelist to the matrix.

    The word “matrix” comes from the Latin for “mother.” An abbess is obviously the mother of a community. Even if she doesn’t give birth out of her own body, she’s still the interlocutor between her nuns and God…. A matrix holds the pattern, the original pattern, for a great number of things. It was such a beautifully expressive word to talk about a potential model that might have been lost or that was lost through time, the way that many voices of very powerful women have been lost through time.

    The historical Marie de France is a fascinating subject, if only because hardly any record of her remains. The author of The Lais of Marie de France was possibly an abbess, possibly the illegitimate sister of King Henry II. What we know for certain is that the work of the first woman published in the French language was beautiful, erotic, inventive. Often its subject is women who have been imprisoned by men. The poet Marie allows these women to heed their own calls, leading them away from the authority of the church, just as Groff’s Marie does for the women of her abbey. Given all Groff has said about the matrix, one cannot help but wonder whether these historical lais were the matrix for her text.

    In Matrix, however, we do not see much of Marie the writer, save a brief glimpse of her lais and the record she keeps of her spiritual visions—by far most intriguing and viscerally compelling moments of this work. The first vision comes after her election as abbess:

    Lightning sparks at the tips of her fingers. Swifter than breath it moves through her hands, the flesh of her arms, her inner organs, her sex, her skin, and it settles jagged and blazing in her throat  Marie sees a woman made of the greatness of all the cities in the world together, a woman clothed in radiance. And upon the woman’s head she wears a crown of stars; and this is how Marie knows her to be the Virgin Mary, whose face is hidden by the blaze of twelve suns.

    In Marie’s abbey, nuns are their mother’s children, and the Father is nowhere to be found. In the end, however, Marie’s formidable reputation and earthly force are not enough to keep her from an earthly death. But we knew this already. From the moment we are born, we all face the prospect of death’s calling. And no amount of political power can stop us from answering.

    *

    “She was born blind, a hunchback, a dwarf who could barely walk. Her aristocratic parents had hoped for a son; ashamed, they kept her hidden in a locked room. At sixteen, she was secretly taken to a church in another town where miracles had occurred. There was no miracle, and her parents left her on the steps. A poor family found her and took her in. She was kind and wise and helped the local children. She joined a convent, but the nuns were cruel to her and she returned to the poor. Another convent invited her and she remained. At her death at thirty-three, they dissected her heart and found three pearls.”

    –Eliot Weinberger, “Margaret of Città di Castello”
    *

    As we turn from the life of Lauren Groff’s mighty abbess to that of a taciturn nun teaching high school geometry, one constant remains: for Agatha of Little Neon, as for Marie de France, there is no calling.

    There is no calling, and yet Claire Luchette’s debut novel begins with a summons. Agatha and three other young nuns (Frances, Mary Lucille, Therese) are called away from their convent in Lackawanna, New York, to run a halfway house in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Their former diocese has gone broke, their daycare center closed. Their mother superior is exiled to a home for elderly sisters. “God is calling me there,” she reckons.

    As we have observed, calling is fertile ground: it not only originates our relationship with the Father (or Virgin Mother) but also gathers community. Without the Father, we are orphaned children—we have no family to speak of, no brothers or sisters with whom to relate. In the physical absence of God as Father, the church offers a supplement—albeit a dangerous one. The rule of man is rule by fiat. From Agatha of Little Neon’s outset, Luchette makes clear that the church has failed Agatha and her sisters, just as it has countless others. Set in 2005, against the backdrop of the church’s many abuses and cover ups, the novel supplies constant reminders of the horror this fiat has wrought.

    Lacking Marie de France’s earthly power, Agatha is unable to excise men from her life. Conditioned by aphorisms such as “Many times, the greatest mercy you can grant a man is the chance to believe himself the hero,” she instead must suffer these poor substitutes for the Father. Nevertheless, Agatha and Marie do share one important belief: that all they have is themselves.

    I told her looking for the point ruins the fun. “Cultivate your ability to forget about the point,” I said. “We stare at the point, and the point stares back.” I tried to explain that work could keep a woman upright, so long as she didn’t look for the point. The slow unfolding of progress—this was enough. Work begetting more work.

    This mentality is not unlike that of Marie’s nuns prior to her elevation to abbess and the abbey’s subsequent isolation. Agatha and her sisters, however, are not cloistered: they are called to serve recovering addicts—and in Agatha’s case, to teach. Her exposure to the world allows Agatha an internality that Groff’s nuns are never granted, though it is an internality only Agatha seems to possess. We know very little about her sisters; too little, in fact. What we learn about their inner lives comes solely through letters they write to the pope: Therese describes her rapture when observing nuns in her childhood; Mary Lucille depicts her spiritual journey from love of her boyfriend to love of the Father; Frances confesses the debt she owes to God. But Agatha has no such story to share, no such calling to speak of. The novel’s outcome was ordained at its beginning.

    I have learned that people like to hear about callings. Vocations are half magic, half luck, reserved for the chosen few. But the truth is that I do not remember a call, not the way it happens in scripture  I do believe there are women who hear their names and wake with a start, but not me. There was no invitation.

    As we have seen, God’s call can beckon us in from out of the cold, bring us into relationship with the Father, create a community where there otherwise is none. But one cannot accept an invitation that never comes. For Agatha of Little Neon, the absence of this divine relationship is mirrored by an absence on earth.

    Toward the end of the novel, we learn that Agatha’s mother died due to pregnancy complications after her parish priest’s edict against contraception. When her mother left the world, Agatha left her family for the convent. This is the last difference between Agatha of Little Neon and Marie de France: whereas Marie was forced into the convent, Agatha chose to join the institution that failed her community. In time, she comes to realize the ways it has failed her too.

    *

    “A poor Palestinian, he left his village as a boy and wandered begging. A monastery outside of Alexandria took him in and put him to work in the kitchen. He was illiterate, seemingly unintelligent; the monks treated him badly. He often stood at the back of the church as they chanted, not understanding a word, gazing at the icons.

    An elderly priest came to live at the monastery after his retirement. One night he dreamed he was in Paradise. A figure appeared: it was Euphrosynus the cook. The priest asked the cook if he could take something from that beautiful garden and the cook picked three apples and wrapped them in a kerchief.

    When he woke, the priest wondered at his dream and thought it only a dream. Then he saw the three apples by his bed. He went to Euphrosynus and asked him where he had been last night. The cook replied: ‘The same place as you.’

    The priest gathered the monks to tell them the story. They went to the kitchen to honor Euphrosynus, but he was gone.”

    –Eliot Weinberger, “Euphrosynus the Cook”
    *

    Having nearly reached the source of what has called us forth, we are presented with a different relationship to divinity. The characters in Kirstin Valdez Quade’s The Five Wounds have no special accord with the divine; rather, they are the distant echoes of the divine story from which theirs is derived—the story of a story of a story.

    Here is the first story: when the son of the Father was crucified, he suffered five wounds. Two to his palms, two to his feet, and one to his ribs where the lance of Longinus pierced his side to confirm his death. When the son appeared again, these wounds were offered as proof: a sign of what had been sacrificed.

    God’s call can beckon us in from out of the cold, bring us into relationship with the Father, create a community where there otherwise is none. But one cannot accept an invitation that never comes.

    This first story has been endlessly portrayed since its biblical inception, but perhaps never quite as staggeringly as in the second story. “The Five Wounds,” published in The New Yorker in 2009, narrates the Holy Week of Amadeo, a man selected to star in his town’s re-creation of the crucifixion. As the Christ of this story, Amadeo receives his wounds at the marred hands of the town’s last great Christ: Manuel García, the one who begged for nails. This story’s true sacrifice does not lie with Amadeo but with his pregnant teenage daughter, Angel, who offers herself up so that Amadeo may have the chance to prove his worth.

    The second story, therefore, is a sort of parable: the sinner who heard God’s calling and sacrificed his own child in response. As the second story closes, a third opens. Just as the Father had further plans for the Son, Kirstin Valdez Quade also had more in store for Amadeo. Hearing the call of her characters, she returned to the site of the crucifixion and expanded this Holy Week into a year touched by the divine. The result is our third story: The Five Wounds. In this novel, each member of Amadeo’s family suffers as Christ did. To achieve redemption, Amadeo must learn that none of us alone is called to be Christ—that to feel what Christ felt on the cross is not to experience his pain but rather his love.

    He tries to formulate the words to explain to Angel that the point is to hurt, to see what Christ went through for us  Here it is: his chance to prove to them all—and not just them—God, too—everything he’s capable of.

    A version of these lines is present in the second story, but its meaning is radically transformed in the third. Quade’s novel broadens Amadeo’s world, introducing us to the full lives of characters whose perspective we lack in the short story: Angel as well as her grandmother (Amadeo’s mother) Yolanda. It is a transformation that invites comparison to Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine. Like Erdrich’s work, this novel shifts from one family member and set of relations to the next, revealing a web of personality, tragedy, and loss—not to mention love. Over the first year of Angel’s newborn’s life, Amadeo and his family navigate their own callings: calls that bring them to motherhood, to decency, to death.

    The novel’s year begins and ends with a celebration of the Father. Why does he go missing in the middle? His poor children are absent fathers, have absent fathers, or are fathers without sons. They require community; it takes them the full year to realize they have always had it. But the Father is patient—so too is Quade. Nothing is rushed or forgotten. And so, although Amadeo ended the second story forsaking his daughter, he ends the third story by her side, content to watch others seek their own salvation.

    Looking back on his own crucifixion the year before, Amadeo remembers a pureness of feeling that he can’t recapture  What Christ felt was love. Amadeo doesn’t know how he lost track of this. Love: both gift and challenge.

    The Father calls; his children answer. Perhaps. There are times when we are unable to hear our Father; there are times when we choose not to come inside. The glory of the Father, no matter whether he exists or insists, is that with him we are never out of time. He is forever welcoming our response. In the meantime, we must turn to our own calling, our own stories, our own lives. In this way, we become better children of the Father, for the Father. In this way, we become better lovers of ourselves.

    ____________________________________________________

    This essay was originally published in Issue 115 of Image.

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    Z.L. Nickels
    Z.L. Nickels’s writing has previously appeared in Hopkins Review, Colorado Review, Spin, and elsewhere. He is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, working on his first novel, about the death of the great god Pan.





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