By Martha Williams
In a conversation spanning ritual, desire, mysticism, and ghosts, fiction writers Lauren Groff and Jamie Quatro invited us yesterday into an intimate exchange on the body and the spirit–the continuum between the two and their inevitable intersection.
They began their conversation discussing their own religious upbringings, setting the stage for listeners to understand their questions, quandaries, and obsessions.
Quatro was raised in the Church of Christ, and Groff by parents who’d come from the Amish and Mennonite traditions. As they came of age, both writers loved the stories of the Bible. While religious rules often imposed a separation of the carnal and the spiritual, the stories of some sacred texts–the Song of Solomon, in particular–inextricably tied the two together and even insisted on their union.
Both writers ultimately left their inherited religions (and have since circled around to exploring other faiths), but carried away deeply embedded customs. Rituals and rites were implanted in secular life through the act of writing. Liturgy became the words of other writers who guided them, such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Joy Williams, and Jack Gilbert.
Both also continued to ruminate on what Quatro identified as a cognitive dissonance between the body and the spirit in modern Christianity–a conflict that wasn’t as apparent in the early church.
Quatro noted that female mystics, particularly of the medieval era where Groff’s newest novel is set, understood sexual yearning as integral to spiritual development. Hildegard von Bingen, a twelfth-century German Benedictine abbess, poet, and composer (and now a patron saint of writers) is a major figure for both Groff and Quatro, one whose works invited new understandings of the confluence of the erotic and the divine.
“You have to go through the body to get to religious ecstasy,” Quatro said, channeling von Bingen and challenging negative conceptions of the body and its desires. “We need it to access the spirit.”
Groff’s newest novel, Matrix, explores this intersection of the carnal and spiritual as it draws on real stories of twelfth-century nuns and their religious and physical ecstasies amidst the seeming severity of daily monastic life. Quatro’s 2018 novel Fire Sermon, meanwhile, explores a modern extra-marital affair that evolves from the spiritual to the sensual, challenging modern constructs of morality.
In this and in other writing, Quatro also has a deep fascination with “almost sex.” “The eroticism is in the almost,” she said, echoing discussions earlier in the day on desire and fulfillment. Quatro’s contemporary characters, though, she said, often feel guilty because of their religious upbringings or beliefs, so ingrained are the rigid strictures on the body and its desires.
Despite is shortcomings, religion–like literature and all art–seeks to connect us to something larger in a way that is accessible, non-binary, carnal, and divine. The written word takes us there, and like Friday afternoon’s wonderful conversation, invites us to meet it by pouring ourselves in–flesh and all.
Martha Williams is a writer and the programs and education director at The Community Library, a privately funded public library in Ketchum, Idaho, where she oversees lifelong learning and enrichment, an annual seminar on Ernest Hemingway, and a writer-in-residence program at the historic Ernest and Mary Hemingway House and Preserve.