“Dear God: Can you forgive someone for an act they cannot repent of?” (26) So goes Maggie’s prayer journal in the aftermath of an affair in Jamie Quatro’s new novel, Fire Sermon. Maggie has committed to move on. Has cut off communication with the poet she spent one night with in Chicago. In one light, she sees the ways the relationship has led her away from God, her husband, her children. But she’s captivated by what it has meant and isn’t ready to let go of it.
That’s the interesting thing about sin: Major disrupting force in the universe. The thing God says ‘no’ to. The chasm that separates us from God and the wholeness God intends. The power which estranges us from our essential self and enslaves us. And yet what an illuminating light it shines! “I do not think you should get rid of your sin until you have learned what it has to teach you,” Richard Rohr says in his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.
Of course, some will say that Maggie is luxuriating in it. She soon leaves off talking to God and begins to write to James, the lost lover, in entries she never sends to him. She converses with a voice that sounds like a therapist (but who actually may be God) who tries to help her put the experience in a larger frame but she resists any effort to diminish the memory of the affair.
She narrates the difficult relationship with Thomas, her husband of twenty-five years and father of her two beautiful children. “Thomas is, in fact, a good husband,” she says. (20) But her ambivalence shows through in describing his awkward and demanding sexual approaches to her, both before and during their marriage. He has only a grudging interest in her faith, despite the fact that her life with God is the fire that burns through everything. He will sit in the pew with her on occasion. He will nurture her and the children. But she will still long for theology and poetry and someone with whom to share it.
Whether you, dear reader, will see this longing as holy discontent or ludicrous self-justification is an open question. I suspect readers will be divided. My own appreciation for the yearnings of mystics and the revelatory power of misguided desires made me a fan from the first page. Julian of Norwich is etched into Maggie’s plight (and quoted). The English priest and poet John Donne haunts Maggie’s confessions: “Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun/A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?”
Maggie takes a scandalous interest in her own pleasures and pains. She is raw and honest, naked on the page. The book’s narration fragments in time without ever losing sight of the struggle of her soul. We bounce between prayers and poems, memories and text messages—the scattered evidence of this signal season in Maggie’s life.
It ends with Maggie’s ultimate revelation of the affair to Thomas, something she had never hidden very well from him anyway it seems. The narrative rattles off the possible futures for the couple, but not before Maggie rouses herself to a summation—a “fire sermon” that she calls “a litany, a confession, a proposal.” (184)
She does it on a dare from the inner therapist voice to articulate her thoughts, to preach them to herself. “It would sound like blasphemy,” Maggie protests.
I would say possibly heretical things about the nature of erotic desire. I might not believe the things I say. I would say them anyhow. To see what I say, in order to know what I think, in order to observe. Maybe even detach.
So say them.
I’m afraid I’ll leave a giant ink stain on the history of Christendom if I do.
How do you know unless you try? (183)
So she says them. And you might roll your eyes. You might call her a heretic. But you may hear a strange and wonderful affirmation of the marriage covenant and the virtue of acknowledging and renouncing the ways our hearts are “prone to wander, Lord, I feel it!” You may find “intimations of immortality…reminders of the glory whence we came.” (190-1)
If it’s the affirmation you hear, you read the book that I did—a glowing furnace of a novel. The testimony of an ecstatic soul. The cry of the blissful, tortured pilgrim this side of eternity. An appeal to God to “let me burn.” (191)