It strikes her now that god must be most like the sun in the sky, which rises for the day and sleeps at night, endlessly renewing itself; and it is warm for it pours out its warmth and light, and yet at the same time it is coldly remote, for it continues on even as humans who equally fill the earth with life live and die, and it does not care either way, it does not alter its path, it does not listen to the noises on the earth beneath, it cannot stop to notice human life at all, it shakes off what absurd stories we try to pin to it and exists in calm as only itself, radiant and distant and meaningless.
It is up to saints and angels to intercede for those humans embroiled in the dirt of the earth beneath, filthy small creatures that must seem to them in their grandeur as little writhing insects crying out in words too muted to hear.
Yesterday on my lunch break I drove down to Provo to get some apples from a fruit stand. On my way back I passed an apartment complex near the university with a huge pink banner draped across several balconies that read “women for trump.” I had finished the novel Matrix by Lauren Groff just the day before, and I was still in a haze of idealized imaginings of what women might do if we bound together, but that pink sign drained it all away. Women, I know and believe and utterly am sure of, have every capacity to save the world, to change the world, to make it better in ways that men, simply by being men in a society that for millennia has favored their perspective, cannot imagine.
But it also seems that possibility is far from coming to fruition.
The novel tells the story of Marie de France, a woman who lived during the reign of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a bastard of royalty. Educated, opinionated, tall and strong, Marie comes to court after it is discovered that her mother had died and she (Marie) had been running the estate on her own, secretly. She doesn’t fit in at court, so Eleanor (influenced by another half-sister of Marie’s) sends her to an abbey, where she is to be the prioress. Eleanor resists and is unhappy and longs to return to the presence of Eleanor, but slowly accepts her new role—and then makes the choice to live. She turns the abbey, which held a few starving, ill nuns when she arrived, into a thriving place of worship, work, and innovation.
The “matrix” of the title refers to the connection between Eve and Mary, in that Eve’s choices made it possible for Mary to conceive Christ. As Marie explains it, “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.” This is the first matrix.
But it is also about the connection between women. Marie glimpses it over and over, in the women who become nuns and how they care for each other (even a bit of lesbian sex, which I’d never really thought about in terms of a nunnery but which does, really, make sense), how what they each bring to the community, their personalities, foibles, past experiences, families and learning and desires, influences everyone. She is able to see strengths and to alter paths to accommodate them. Near the end of her life, after the death of an old nun, she realizes that “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 even for the most unlovable of women.”
Or, more precisely, it is about the potential for women to be connected. The concepts in Marie’s visions are revolutionary, and they are still, a thousand years later, mostly a concept. Maybe I only feel that because even with my own extended family, we women are not united and it is a knife I continue to grapple with. But it’s also that pink sign, and Kristen Sinema, and pro-fetus women’s groups.
I loved this novel. It is one that I know not everyone will love, because the writing style is so beautiful it makes the plot slow down. But it really isn’t about plot anyway, or at least it is only about the plot of an entire life. At first I thought of it as an “espresso novel,” which are the kind of books you can only read in small amounts of time, little but complex and intense gulps. But I read the last quarter of it straight through, with tears. The complicated mesh of love, frustration, annoyance, affection, care, and suffering the women in the abbey create both gave me hope and filled me with despair because I know there is potential for such communities to exist—but yet, here we are, no more united than any other time in history.