31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 14: “Magnificat” by K.D. Miller

May 14, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

From All Saints

All_Saints_KD_Miller“Writing is the way I pray,” K.D. Miller told fellow CanLit author Lori McNulty in the National Post. “I frequently have doubts about my relationship with my religion and my church. But writing? Never.” Miller’s substitution of an artistic impulse for the act of religious devotion is appropriate for an age in which believers and non-believers seem increasingly polarized. Mainstream or moderate adherents to any organized religion are often treated with suspicion from both sides – atheists on the one hand and fanatics on the other. Religious leaders are frequently exposed as hypocrites and charlatans, and science has provided convincing solutions for many of the existential mysteries that humans once turned to the church to explain. Doubt in sacred matters seems practically inevitable, as does the desire to find something capable of filling the spiritual void left by institutional religion’s demotion in our postmodern world.

Literature, of course, has always maintained a relationship to the divine: from the Medieval mystery plays and Dante to Bunyon and Blake, Flannery O’Connor and William Peter Blatty. The Western canon is replete with writers honouring and grappling with notions of salvation, sin, and institutionalized faith. In All Saints, her collection of linked stories circling around the titular Anglican church, Miller simultaneously extends this tradition and subverts it, writing not out of a position of blind adherence to a set of dogmatic beliefs, but from a deeply humanist perspective that attempts to examine and comprehend human nature’s essential conflicts and drives.

There are two women at the centre of “Magnificat” – one old, one younger – each of whom is grasping for something ineffable in her life. Julia is an aging spinster who has reached the twilight of her years with only the church as a steady companion. Cathy has had no shortage of male suitors, though many of them resemble Owen, the gormless poet who lives in her apartment building and whom she expends an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to avoid. At the outset, these two women appear separately, in alternating sections, but their paths intersect as the story progresses, leading to a climactic scene in a park that lays bare the malaise at the core of each character.

Thematically, Miller’s story addresses the nexus of the sacred and the profane. Julia is a devout believer, who attends All Saints regularly – as a balm, we come to understand, for the lack of companionship and emptiness she suffers in the rest of her life. She is afflicted by “an old melancholy” born of a realization that youth and experience have passed her by. “I did not take unto me a husband” is the motto she adopts for herself: “She liked to think the phrase take unto me gave her an ironic edge, and did not made her solitary state look like a choice.”

There are strong indications that Julia has remained a virgin; she is certainly censorious when it comes to matters of the flesh, and has been “disturbed by mention of sex and the Internet creeping into church services.” She is a staunch traditionalist, who prefers the evensong service “largely because modern liturgists have yet to tamper with it.” For Julia, religion should be “distant and monumental,” so as not to risk sullying itself in carnality and thereby reminding her of all that she has missed out on in her life. The church is a means of dealing with her loneliness, but only so long as it remains above and beyond the messy physical realm of human congress.

Of course, this is precisely the realm Julia is forced to confront by the end of the story. The instrument of this confrontation is Cathy, who is every bit as devoted to matters of the flesh as Julia is to matters of faith. Cathy is embroiled in an unhealthy relationship with Gabe, a drifter who fills her need for a dominant sexual partner while neglecting her in every other aspect of their relationship.

Cathy, we learn, is a masochist who first noticed her proclivities as a schoolgirl, when she experienced a sexual response to being administered the strap as punishment for a transgression. In Gabe she discovers someone who will fulfill her need for abjection without hesitation or pity; his pick-up line on first encountering her – “Time you got what’s coming to you” – provokes a reaction by its resemblance to that long-ago school punishment.

Gabe is aware of Cathy’s sexual kink because she has confessed it – along with its origins – to him. Gabe “knows everything” about Cathy, while she remains ignorant about the details of his life and history. As a “professional house-sitter,” he has no fixed address; she doesn’t even know where to locate him on a consistent basis. This unequal power dynamic puts Gabe entirely in control, while Cathy worries constantly that he won’t call, or that he will:

He never says hello when she snatches up the phone, or even It’s Gabe – just dictates his latest address and hangs up. And that makes her afraid all over again – that she’ll find out the address doesn’t exist. Or that it does, but Gabe isn’t there. Or that he is there, but won’t fuck her, even when she begs. Or that he’ll have another woman with him. Or another man. Or that he’ll want to do more and more things that hurt. And that she’ll let him. Because it’s time she got what was coming to her.

Cathy’s neediness is a carnal mirror of Julia’s loneliness; the older woman follows the couple into a local park without being able to explain her motivation, finally stumbling upon them having sex in the dirt.

Here the symbolism in the story is actualized: Cathy’s earthiness is given a literal manifestation as the grass chafes at her knees and her “fingers dig into the dirt.” Julia, who is pictured crouching and (not incidentally) “clutching at herself,” appears to Cathy “in a blue robe and a kind of white headdress, like a nun’s.” The association here is with the Virgin Mary, a figure Julia has been explicitly linked with in the previous scene.

This association is extended by the Magnificat hymn that Julia sings to herself having witnessed the act of copulation. The hymn is one of humility before God, taken from a passage in Luke’s Gospel following the angel’s revelation to Mary that she is to carry the Christ child in her womb. She visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant (with a child who will grow into John the Baptist), where she declaims the words of the hymn. Here, Miller combines imagery of motherhood and devotion, while also engaging in comic debasement by having Julia appear barefoot, with her shoes over her hands.

Julia has removed her shoes because of a blister that has broken on her foot; the wound is a physical representation of her inner pain, as Cathy’s abjection is actualized by her tearing at the ground, though the younger woman also pictures herself “surrounded by angels.” In this moment, the sacred and the profane – which otherwise remain poles apart in Miller’s story – are united, and there is at least an implied transference between the two women. Each possesses aspects of character coveted by the other; their encounter brings them together in a fleeting, if ultimately unacknowledged, reconciliation.

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  1. […] got to ‘Magnificat’ from K.D. Miller’s gorgeous collection All Saints. It’s been a while since I read it but […]