Year Read: 2022
Why should she, who felt her greatness hot in her blood, be considered lesser because the first woman was molded from a rib and ate a fruit and thus lost lazy Eden?
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By this small stub of light with the eyes of rats shining green at her from the deeper dark, she writes. As she moves through the days she imagines her lines of the night. The life of the abbey is the dream. The set of poems she is writing is the world.
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They rose in the chill April night and went on foot to a pool of water in the woods, where the animals came down to drink in the darkness. There Marie and Ursule sat at the foot of the trees, letting their thoughts dissolve to make themselves more like the roots of the trees they sat upon and erase some of what was human in them.
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Those to whom god has given understanding and eloquence must not be silent or hide their gift, but must return the gift so that it flowers under the admiration of others.
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Marie marvels at the kind of people so magnificent they can create something to last a thousand years beyond their lives. Humanity must be disintegrating to dust, the people of today paltry in comparison with what they had been a millennium before. The Romans, the Greeks, such giants compared with the Normans, or far worse, the paltry brittle-boned English. In a thousand more years humans will be as thoughtless as the cud-chewing kine of the fields. She longs to be among the greats of the generations before. Marie might have discovered others like herself in that era. She would not have felt so alone.
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Slowly, she decides that instead of the abbess’s practice of assigning work according to what the nuns do least well, as a lesson in humility, Marie will assign work due to strength. No more sickly nuns coughing in the fields or weakly hanging up the wet washed sheets, no more Goda ministering to disputations, no more milking done by weeping terrified Sister Lucy, whose sister was killed by a heifer kick to the head. So many hours have been forever lost through feebleness and reluctance. There is nothing wrong, she thinks, in taking pride in the work of one’s body. She has never been convinced by any argument for abasement. Surely god, who has done all good work, wants work to be done well.
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When they are long out of earshot, Marie asks the abbess where she learned to exorcise fields. No book she knows holds such a ceremony in it. The abbess is exhausted and pale. She smiles and says, Oh of course I made it up. Ritual creates its own catharsis, Marie. Mystical acts create mystical beliefs.
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Nest’s kindness to the fleshly body has brought about an inner shifting. Nothing is all stark and clear any longer, nothing stands in opposition. Good and evil live together; dark and light. Contradictions can be true at once. The world holds a great and pulsing terror at its center. The world is ecstatic in its very deeps.
If only she had time to examine this feeling, Wulfhild thinks ruefully; but she does not have time, she never has time, her children call, the business of the abbey calls, the hungers and fatigues of her body call. She will come closer to god when she is old, in a garden among the flowers and the birds, she tells herself; yes, someday she will sit in silence until she knows god, she thinks, lying down in her bed to sleep. Just not now.
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And at last, one blustering afternoon, blind singing useless kind Abbess Emme takes to her deathbed, where she will linger, more music than body.
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Slide into English in Marie’s mind, French no good for the animal body, hand mouth tooth breast lip thigh skin cunt, words that hold the hot blood of feeling.
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By the time Marie was elected abbess, the heat of the end of her menses had withdrawn from her. Now she is no longer touched by the curse of Eve. When the blood stopped, the knives that had twisted in her since she was fourteen were at last removed from her womb. She is given instead a long, cold clarity. She can see for a great distance now. She can see for eons.
Visions are not complete until they have been set down and stepped away from, turned this way and that in the hand.
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For, I saw, it was from Eve’s taste of the forbidden fruit that knowledge came, and with knowledge the ability to understand the perfection of the fruit of Mary’s womb and the gift given to the world. And without the flaw of Eve there could be no purity of Mary. And without the womb of Eve, which is the House of Death, there could be no womb of Mary, which is the House of Life. Without the first matrix, there could be no salvatrix, the greatest matrix of all.
Among the nuns at the abbey only Marie practices silent reading, and every time she does, it makes Goda shiver and protest shrilly at her witchy magic. Yet if there is no inner reading, how can there be any inner life? Marie thinks and imagines the cold blowing desert that must stretch inside her subprioress.
She tries to touch her sorrow in words, but it is like grasping at a cloud.
But over these years Nest has come to understand that if you minister enough to any adult body, you will discover the frightened child hiding within it. The greater the protestations of power, the smaller the child.
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But later, through the beauty of the funeral, the voices of her nuns, she feels restored. To think: All the hatred so deep inside Marie when she was young has, through the pressure of time, somehow turned to love. For this community is precious, there is a place here even for the maddest, for the discarded, for the difficult, in this enclosure there is love enough here even for the most unlovable of women. How short and lonely Gytha’s life would have been, an isolate lost in the cruelty of the secular world. How much less beauty she would have brought into this flawed and difficult life if she had been forced to be without her sisters who loved her. It is good, Marie thinks, so very good, this quiet life of women and work. She is amazed she ever resisted it so angrily.
There was joy coursing through her, the ecstasy of living within a body that held such riches in it, within the astonishing material world so overfull with beauty.
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she wondered if in fact this had been the closest she had been to god—not in fact invisible parent, not sun warming the earth and coaxing the seeds from the soil—but the nothing at the center of the self. Not the Word, because speaking the Word limits the greatness of the infinite; but the silence beyond the Word in which there lives infinity.
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She understood then that it didn’t matter that the landscape inside her looked so different from that of her sisters, that they had been taught to crave their own subjection and she had not, that they believed things that she thought silently were foolish, unworthy of the dignity of woman. They were filled with goodness as a cup is filled with wine. Marie was not and could never be. Of course Marie did have a greatness in her, but greatness was not the same as goodness. And she saw at that moment how she could use this greatness for her sisters; she could give up the burn of singular love inside her and turn to a larger love, she could build around the other women an abbey of the spirit to protect them from cold and wet, from superiors waiting to gobble them up, she would build an invisible abbey made out of her own self, a larger church of her own soul, an edifice of self in which her sisters would grow as babes grow in the dark thrumming heat of the womb.