This Friday one of Australia’s best known novelists joins Guardian Australia features editor Lucy Clark – and you – to discuss her new book, The Luminous Solution
One of my earliest memories is not a memory at all but a sensation, perhaps a kind of hunger: it is the taste of the wooden pew in the small church in which I spent every Sunday morning of my life from birth until high school. The ledge of the pew, where prayer books and hymnals and rosary beads rested, was just about shoulder height for a toddler wobbling to stand – so it was only natural to reach out and grasp hold of the ledge, put my mouth to its sweet, vinegary, golden wood, and suck.
Some experiences in life are so fundamental, wrote Norman Mailer in The Spooky Art, that he would characterise them as “crystals”. Provided you never write directly about these experiences that carry deep and potent meaning, he claimed, by “send[ing] a ray of your imagination through the latticework in one direction or another”, the crystals might remain a permanent, precious, inexhaustible source for your art. It’s impossible to refer to Mailer’s book, of course, without acknowledging its passages of cringeworthy misogynistic posturing. But one of the things growing up Catholic taught me is that I can hold two opposing views in my head at once – and he’s on to something with his crystals. I think they might be related to what Uta Hagen, the famed American acting teacher, called one’s “inner objects”. These are “intangible … essences”, she wrote, “highly personal” and not to be brought out into the open, but which as long as they remain unspoken, can be useful sources of and stimuli for the actor’s craft.
A constantly repeated question for every writer trying to make a work of art is: what else? And then, what else? What more is there beyond this moment of existence in the solid, material world, to be discovered, and then revealed? Another question might be about where that “else”, the longed-for missing knowledge, springs from in an artist’s consciousness. I wonder if the original yearning – to name and articulate what cannot yet be said – is born in our wordless infancy, the pre-verbal space in a writer’s experience, which in my case was so defined by those weekly hours in a country town church.
I’ve written a number of novels, each of which has drawn in hundreds of ways large and small on my life’s sense memories. But I’ve never considered that my religious upbringing might be a wellspring for my work. I don’t know why it’s not occurred to me before, but it now seems obvious you can’t spend every Sunday morning of your life for 18 years in the strange dusky space of a Catholic church without some of it rubbing off and going in – deep. If Catholicism formed my writing as definitively as it formed me, if it is one of my potent inner objects, my crystals, what might be the refractive glints coming off it?
Whatever they are, they were certainly undreamed of by Sister Fabian with her cane, swathed in her vast habit of winter black or summer white. Or by Father Coffey spluttering Irishly from the pulpit (as small children we stared intently as he spoke – not listening, as he might have thought from our avid faces, but rather waiting for a thrilling glimpse of the hand on which he had half a finger missing).
The first and most obvious gift the weekly church service gave me was boredom – and its child, imagination. Compelled into motionless silence for a full hour every week while the language and imagery of the mass washed over us, we children were forced to draw upon our own minds for amusement. The effect on me, I’m convinced, was to bring into being an expansive and sovereign inner world. There was also something about the stillness and the absence of the parental gaze – ostensibly fixed on events at the altar – which allowed a feeling of supreme privacy. That small pocket of space between my seat, the kneeler and the back of the pew in front of me seemed an inviolately secluded world. When I recall the church, it’s not the altar and the priest I think of but the floorboards, the yellow woodgrain of the pews, the green baize carpet and the musty shadows beneath the seats, the lozenges of stained-glass light falling across my knuckles clasped in “prayer”. Of course everything about me was clearly visible to my parents or any other nearby adult the whole time, but it didn’t feel that way: I felt luxuriously invisible.
Paradoxically then, it was this stern constraint of time and space each week in church that allowed the blossoming of an inner freedom.
The Bible itself offered other contradictory gifts to the unformed creative mind – especially if you were a girl. From where I sat half-listening, half daydreaming, the Bible was filled with angry fathers and their favoured or exiled sons. Sons and brothers were endlessly loved, sacrificed, envied, murdered, welcomed home, cast out; they were slavish or indolent, saviours or sinners. Family dramas were constant, violent, entirely male. There were no stories of sisters fighting or being saved. No baby girls were laid in baskets in the rushes. No daughters grew up to interpret pharaohs’ dreams. Girl children appeared not to exist in ancient times. Women sometimes did, but only when they were wrong, and the cause of catastrophe. There was Eve, obviously. Lot’s wife disobediently “looked behind her” and turned into a pillar of salt (I could never get over this: just for looking? And what was a pillar of salt?). Other names became midday movie emblems of sexy evil-doing: Delilah, Salome. Other, nameless women were always being stoned to death for adultery, or somehow punished for not having the right number of children (well: sons). The only women with any clear identity at all seemed to be the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, but they were both infatuated with Jesus, and spent their lives doing exactly as he told them.
It wasn’t just inside the Bible that girls were invisible or boring. Stories of the saints, too, relied upon female self-denial and martyrdom. Girl saints especially were rewarded for meekness, piety and submission. To this day I wonder what was going through Sister Fabian’s mind when she waxed lyrical to a classroom full of 11-year-old girls about Saint Maria Goretti, stabbed to death – aged 11 – for “refusing to sin”. Sister Fabian declined to name the sin, so we knew it meant something shadowy and shameful: sex. Maria was canonised, however, not just for resisting rape and violent death, but most importantly for forgiving her murderer as she died.
The nuns I observed at school were all-powerful – until a priest arrived to visit. Then, even the rage-filled ones seemed both flattered by, and in awe of, the priestly male presence, transforming themselves into his ready servants. I don’t know how old I was when I absorbed the knowledge of a nun’s vows – poverty, chastity, obedience; defined by everything they couldn’t have and nothing they could – but unlike other Catholic girls I knew, never for one second did I dread the tap on the shoulder from God that would constitute the “calling” to join up. Something resolute in me absolutely knew I would never give up so much for God.
In my late teens, I heard a priest claim from the pulpit that feminism was “evil”. He actually used the word. How many other girls in the congregation that day flicked the last vestiges of belief from themselves with the droplets of holy water from their fingers?
I’d been absorbing the message from birth, really: if I didn’t hate myself for being a girl, God had no interest in me. As I grew older the occasional sad groovy priest or teacher would try out some feeble linguistic contortion about “special” roles for women, not equal but “chosen”, “valued”, blah blah blah. All I felt for these people was embarrassment.
So. After all this, stupefied by boredom and increasingly outraged by double standards and hypocrisy, how can it be that at the same time, on some other plane, I was also nourished and secretly enthralled by the Bible, the mass, the stories of the saints? I loved the lushness, the supernatural weirdness of the visions and miracles. I loved the dreamworld reality in which a man could walk on water, where bushes could burst into flame but not incinerate, where oceans could part, bread fall from heaven. I loved the visceral, righteous dramas of betrayal and punishment and secrets, of lonely vigils in midnight gardens, of blood-money paid in silver, the appearance and disappearance of foretelling angels, resurrections from the dead. I even loved the violence – the arrows and stones and knives and gore, the robes soaked in blood and vinegar, iron nails driven into flesh, and thorns into scalp.
The ritual of the mass itself was an almost bodily lesson in narrative, structured in tension and release: the long stretches of monotony punctuated with bursts of movement where we, the slumped observers, were roused into action: the passing of the collection plate, the “peace-be-with-yous”, when you turned in your seat from the authority of the priest to focus on each other, where you might be called upon to speak to a stranger, where a bolder congregant might even extend a hand. And then – for long years the only point of interest – there was the opportunity for curious, detailed inspection of your fellow parishioners (and their fashion choices) as they stood in line for communion.
Inside the church itself, of course, there was the irresistible spectacle of excess: the brocade in gold and purple and forest green, the white marble, red carpet; the golden chalices and cups and little bowls, the candlelight and glowing flowers. I loved the transformation of annoying or faceless boys from school into languid holy creatures in flowing red robes and white ruffs, lying in dreamy reverie across the shallow stairs to the altar, occasionally ringing a bell or two. There was also a delicious, soaking cadence to the language of the Bible with its repetitions and rhythms, its rocking two-by-twos and 40-days-and-40 nights, its seven years of good luck and seven of bad, and there was a mystical potency in the symbols of apple and serpent and loaves and fishes, every mundane object rich with the possibility of another life, carrying layers of hidden meaning simply by existing.
Once when quite young, I somehow accompanied the child of another family to her Protestant Sunday school and found myself appalled. We sat on plastic chairs in a small meeting room bare of any sacred bling, and from a flimsy pamphlet were offered a dull, sweet children’s story about lambs and being good. The adults in charge were creepily ingratiating, commanded no authority whatsoever. There was no gold, no robes, no violence or mystery. Absolutely no otherworldliness or grandeur. There might have been biscuits, from a packet. I never went back.
I “left” the Church around the time I finished school, by which I mean I stopped going to mass. I don’t know if I’d ever actually believed in God, even in my most “spiritual” moments, but for me that question was now settled: I was an atheist.
But in another way, nothing was settled. I could reject it all I liked, but it was too late to matter: I was awake to what was unseen, to the ghostly, the imaginative spirit. To sacrifice, to injustice. Catholicism had got into my bones as surely as the cold Monaro air filled my lungs, and despite almost never setting foot in a church again, I couldn’t just will it away.
Artists have often found creative enrichment from a religious sensibility. Some atheist writer friends of mine are compelled by the complexity of theology, or irresistibly drawn to the machinations of church power, or fascinated by the high camp of Catholic spectacle. But few writers are publicly candid about their faith in any kind of God – and those few must surely know it makes people suspicious. The courage it takes a writer to openly admit to spiritual belief shouldn’t be underestimated. I once ran a writing retreat where on the first evening, one of the participants broke into tears of genuine terror. She had something to confess, she said: she was a Christian. Her visceral fear of her fellow writers’ judgment was awful to behold. I hope it was swiftly resolved that night – nobody appeared to care, whatever their private views may have been – but she was right to be afraid. In another group she might have been patronised, quietly frozen out, openly challenged or ridiculed.
As a species, writers are quick to show respect for Indigenous spiritual beliefs, for Islam or Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism, but Christianity is a no-go zone. We all know why: even if you limit yourself to the Catholic church’s contemporary crimes of attitude or action – the homophobia, the racism, the misogyny, the remorseless abuse and hypocrisy – once you start writing them down, it’s impossible to know where to stop.
Earlier I mentioned holding two opposing ideas at once. It’s a necessary capability, in order to accept that the practical Catholicism of my upbringing formed the sturdy basis of all I’ve learned about justice – protecting the vulnerable, standing up to oppression, sharing your wealth, telling the truth, owning your mistakes – while at the same time the same institution was responsible for the most reprehensible cruelty, violence and abuses, of children and of power. That some Catholic priests were sexually assaulting children without compunction at the very same time some Catholic nuns were the only people prepared to touch our first AIDS patients is a contradiction impossible to reconcile. That the church still employs elaborate financial and legal tactics to avoid compensating abuse victims while principled nuns like Patricia Fox and Veronica Openibo stand to call out dictators and abusers is a contradiction impossible to reconcile. These impossibilities, these contradictions, are endless. To a writer, they are interesting.
Not long ago I began a new novel, whose characters will include a little group of contemporary Catholic nuns.
When I realised I wanted to write about this, I began buying books about Catholicism and women religious, and stacking them into my research reading shelf. I set about bookmarking articles on theology and religion, and subscribing to progressive Catholic publications like CommonWeal and The Tablet. It dawned on me only slowly that my failure to read these with any enthusiasm meant something more than laziness: it turns out it’s not actually religion that interests me, creatively speaking. I realised I have little interest in theology, or even, I suppose, in God. The mark Catholicism left on me wasn’t intellectual but bodily, instinctual and spooky; not so much godly as ghostly. I came to understand that my fascination with women religious – nuns – might be less about their spirituality and more about the decision to separate themselves from the rest of us.
I’m interested in the contrast between the kind of nun who does practical, radical and political “good works” in the wider world – standing up to Trump or Duterte, or establishing climate solutions investment funds, or fighting for asylum seekers’ rights – and the kind for whom retreat from the world of politics and action is the point. For this sort of woman, I wondered, might not the Catholic patriarchy be a means to unhook herself from the capitalist one? Despite the church’s views on women it’s not difficult for me to recognise the appeal of such a choice; to seek freedom in restraint and stillness rather than what’s offered by the market economy with its own flourishing hatreds – not just of women, but of nature itself. This kind of woman might choose Catholicism over capitalism for her own ends, not anyone else’s, even God’s.
Some years ago I interviewed the art historian and writer Janine Burke, also raised Catholic. She articulated her own struggle with a church that had banished her from convent school for her sceptical questions and precocious reading: ‘The interesting thing about Catholicism is that it awakens you spiritually to mystical, ecstatic states – and then the system just crushes you, it’s brutal. So you end up … loathing the Catholic church, but having had these extraordinary spiritual experiences.’ For Burke, art filled the void.
I, too, turned to art, nourished by its yearning toward meaning, its unfazed acceptance of profound contradictions and connections that don’t “make sense”, or which abandon logic altogether. It’s the possibility of eventual transformation – transubstantiation? – of all this into some new clarity or revelation that’s exciting.
But maybe the most powerful gift my religious upbringing gave me was my ambivalence towards it, and the resulting ability to dwell in a place of tension and discomfort that will never be eased. The constant movement between states of certainty – between my desire for mystery and for knowledge, for communal duty and individual freedom, for belief and scepticism, the spiritual world and the material world, extravagance and humility, between political action and contemplative withdrawal – is the state of being an artist. This is what art does, this is where it lives: in the uncomfortable, often lonely space between one certainty and another.
It’s obvious that you don’t have to be Catholic, or any other religion, to understand all this. Part of me thinks all true artists have an apprehension of the holy, whether they call it that or not. By “holiness”, I mean living with the sense that redemptive meaning shimmers somewhere just beyond our reach, in a reality possible just outside our own. It’s gods or ghosts who are in possession of the mighty stuff of art, and we have to wrestle them for it. We only ever glimpse it, and we long for it nonetheless.
I think back to that child sitting in her dreamy private space between the church pews, the rhythms of ancient words about good and evil falling over her with the coloured, shadowy light, and I know that’s where I first felt the hunger, the “art instinct”: the understanding that something big was out there, that I would never touch it, but that reaching for it was the point of being alive.
This essay was written as part of a residency at the University of Notre Dame, funded by the Cultural Fund of the Copyright Agency. A version of it appears in The Luminous Solution, by Charlotte Wood