“There is a mysterious attraction between us and heaven. God wants us, and we want God. I don’t know what bird this is that keeps flying about my head. I hear it almost without seeing it; it is dark.”
-from the Journal of Eugénie de Guérin
If you had a Tumblr any time before 2010 and subsequently never left, it’s possible that you’ve come across the odd colorful quote posted by a doubt-riddled Catholic or God-haunted atheist.
As with most things on Tumblr, these quotes are often taken out of context, cherry-picked for their languid, easy-to-grasp beauty, perhaps tagged with an effusive, overly revealing description of that person’s relationship to religion or faith. Or the tag says something simpler, more along the lines of “yeah.”
Tumblr has had a large part to play in my renewed interest in religion, spurred on by the searching posts of an anonymous and robust community of Millennial peers who have asked all the same questions as me. That institution, the Church, troubles us, though it’s also where so much of our understanding and way of thinking about religion comes from. We remember going to mass on Sundays (or if we went to Catholic school, every weekday plus Sunday). During quarantine, we romanticize going back, if only to see what’s changed.
But for the most part, in our time away from devout belief, we’ve assimilated a number of contradictory ideas as to what it means to practice faith correctly. A lot of us have cobbled together a deeply flawed, personally attuned, and ever-shifting way of going about it. Rather than strictly adhering to doctrine, we see which sacraments and practices resonate most. We craft our own micro-religions, which are still, for the most part, recognizably Catholic. In doing so, we are participating in something profane, reshaping belief to suit our respective visions of the world. We are part of a large group of people who do this on a daily basis without admitting it to themselves. This is not an inherently Catholic thing. From what I understand, it’s merely the way people are. And when it comes to the divine, who is to say what should happen between you and God?
In interviews about Saint Maud, writer and director Rose Glass namechecks various female Christian mystics. These were followers of uncommon devotion, historically branded as heretics or degenerates for their blasphemous claims to direct communication with God, for their elaborate and seemingly invented visions of angels and recollections of lives past, for their unexplainable physical demonstrations of faith, for their radical reinterpretations of Scripture. Maud is one of the more truthful cinematic interpretations of their kind.
A young single woman who works as a caregiver, Maud is a recent but fervent convert to Christianity, but the Christianity she practices, nominally Catholic in language and performance, is very much of her own creation. Maud is part of no extant religious community. She doesn’t go to church and so doesn’t go to confession. Her prayers to God are her confessions, as well as her desires, and they narrate the film. What few daily religious rituals Maud does have seep into her professional life.
When she begins to care for Amanda, a former dancer with a degenerative illness, Maud at first openly prays before meals then begins blessing the walls of Amanda’s home with holy water. The physical proximity of these women, along with the necessary therapeutic exercises Maud performs on Amanda, gives way to a tentative openness. Amanda lives her life with the nearness of death in full view, and so is often seen moving quickly, deciding impulsively, hoping for diverting experience rather than morose contemplation.
Maud, by contrast, is measured, tentative. At first, she hides her religion but when Amanda seems to show interest, reveals her devotion and the sensuous ways that God makes His presence known in her life. When He’s pleased, there is an overwhelming feeling of ecstasy. In the moment when she demonstrates this to Amanda, it seems as if Amanda too is being touched by God. Before long, Maud feels a connection between her work and her faith, a sacred calling. She believes that she has been chosen to save Amanda’s soul.
Mystics like Margery Kempe, Teresa of Ávila, Catherine of Siena, and Julian of Norwich are inspirations for Saint Maud. Some of these women, most notably Joan of Arc, have become feminist icons, all while their spiritual and psychological experiences have largely been ignored. Some cases are more extreme than others: Teresa’s incessant levitation throughout her ministry, Margery’s often publicly disruptive weeping, Catherine’s mystical betrothal to Jesus. God moved through them in ways that flew in the face of societal norms. As Elizabeth Vasko writes in Suffering and the Search for Wholeness: Beauty and the Cross in Hans Urs Von Balthasar and Contemporary Feminist Theologies, “God becomes a Word that is addressed to us in a way that we simply cannot avoid hearing.”
It’s not a leap to suggest that if we were to truly reckon with the experiences of such saints in a modern context, these women would be institutionalized. This is a typical line of thought for dismissive non-believers: that rhapsodic faith is akin to lunacy.
But Glass’ depiction is tied solely to Maud’s experience and thus denies the viewer any opportunity for an unbiased view of her behavior. Saint Maud takes her experience seriously. To reckon with fervent belief is to bear witness to a phenomenon that is almost deliberately abstruse. Communication with the unseen, adherence to physical and sensory restrictions that serve no practical purpose, acceptance of an omniscient observer’s constant surveillance. That Glass chose horror as the genre with which to tell her story is no mistake either. The extreme measures taken by believers who enact their devotion to a deity through violence can be disturbing to say the least.
As a concept, religious faith (as opposed to metaphorical hope, luck, fate, etc.) has a fraught connotation when so much is litigated based on fact and objective reality and when larger religious institutions are so openly distrusted. Presented baldly and outside a specific context, physical manifestations of belief like speaking in tongues, seizures, visions, or stigmata simply read as mania. Indeed, historians and scientists have come up with a number of hypotheses regarding the mental health of prominent saints (personality disorders, epilepsy, brain lesions). Not only does this help to disregard aberrant behavior, it reifies an evermore popular worldview: that people from the past were merely uneducated and easily fooled. Their beliefs were dwarfed by the outlandishness of their actions.
I’ve learned that there are no fixed ways to do religion, even within the most restrictive structures. The human impulse towards the divine, such as it is, is idiosyncratic at best and many people are content to say their prayers and go to church on Sundays the same way they learned their times tables: by rote. A personal relationship and means of reaching out to the unknown? That’s something else. It doesn’t look like you’d expect, which is why, for all the heretical things she says, Maud’s version of Christianity is still real.
With this interminable period of waiting, when we were all hoping for the deadly, ephemeral pandemic to pass, when we were safest locked away from each other in our homes, prayer felt easier to reach for. As a means of releasing all that I feel can’t or shouldn’t be said, as a way of allowing myself to be sentimental about people who are no longer in my life or never were. The tone these solemn invocations take varies. It’s common during a widespread crisis to excoriate God for all that He is seemingly not doing. As the world stumbles wounded through history and there seems to be less time to consider our circumstances and each other because those circumstances are dire and only getting worse, anything other than an explicit, obvious sign that we are being heard is tantamount to death.
For some, that death is literal. For people like Maud, it’s a spiritual death that gives way to existential catastrophe. After Amanda fires her for an outburst during a party, Maud experiences a shocking regression back to her pre-conversion self. She endeavors to combat numbness with pain by drinking, having unfulfilling sex, picking at a festering wound on her hand, and withdrawing from society. God has ceased to speak to her, His presence seemingly arbitrarily withheld as part of some test that Maud cannot fathom. It frightens her. It angers her. It makes her vindictive. “I can’t help but feel an act of spite has occurred,” she says. “If this is how you treat your most loyal subjects, I shudder to think what awaits those who shun you.”
Prayer is a soliloquy. To listen for God’s reply is to clutch meaning in one’s hand and be cautious not to graft that meaning too readily onto what may seem like a “sign.”
When I’ve prayed, it has always been with the subconscious assumption that I will not receive an auditory response. “The Lord works in mysterious ways” of course, and often such a phrase is deployed to couch any expectation of earthly intervention. But I wonder what any of us who have prayed would do if, at the end of our intercession, we heard more than the heavy air of God’s silence. Not a soft wisp or an echo passed off as distant noise, but the irrevocable timbre of a voice where previously there was only our own.
Maud’s devotion is conditional upon the continued gift of God’s ecstasy. The ensuing rapture comes on slow and builds. Maud looks torn between agony and orgasm, as has been the common illustration of spiritual possession for hundreds of years. When these episodes stop and her campaign to save Amanda’s soul fails, Maud’s faith is exposed for what it always was, shallow and impetuous. “The temptation,” Christian Wiman writes in My Bright Abyss, “is to make an idol of our own experience, to assume our pain is more singular than it is.”
The divine may choose to speak and those brave enough to answer may choose to reorient their lives according to what they hear. Good deeds may follow and with it the flowering of love, kindness, solidarity with the most exploited and downtrodden. But other things may happen too. Confusion. Fury at all the quiet that came before, self-righteousness at the idea of being chosen. Cynicism. Delusion. The mistake Maud makes, that many of us make, is to believe that our restlessness and impatience will yield some sort of sign that God is listening.
In the Book of Margery Kempe, Margery writes, “He that is forever doubting is like the wave of the sea which is moved and borne about with the wind, and that man is not likely to receive the gifts of God.” It’s usually when we completely let go of a search that the thing we hope for finds us. Maud sinks low. And at the bottom, she finally receives a response.
It’s no secret that prolonged isolation can bring about sudden changes in behavior. Habits formed out of boredom are easy to dismiss when the stimulation of novelty returns. Habits born from acute stress are more difficult to let go of. What then, when the holding pattern drags on and on? I have a hunch that spending lots of time in quarantine causes some to develop a previously unheard-of openness to the spiritual or supernatural. But maybe this is something people naturally reach for in times of severe distress.
We learn fairly quickly that it’s been fewer than two years since Maud was saved after God took the form of a cockroach and spoke to her in her native Welsh tongue. (Saint Maud’s only prominent use of doubling is also its most spiritually logical: Morfydd Clark plays Maud and also provides the voice of God.) And though we never learn the specifics of what cemented her transformation, we know from unsettling half-dreams/half-memories that something violent and deadly occurred. Not only that, but she has left a drastically more unstable life behind. In her present, she has made sure that all she has is her work and her relationship with God. For some saints, such a spare life was necessary to focus on becoming one with the divine.
But there is a difference between dedication and desperation. Maud cannot sustain her isolation. In Amanda, she sees something of a life well-lived and longs to be part of it. So much so that she soon longs to be all of it. Maud is very much like a leech; she fastens herself onto that which captures her attention. But when she looks around, there is nothing. Beyond the reliability of routine, Maud has only God. And even He doesn’t stick around for long.
Everyone who has ever died and gone to heaven is a saint. That’s the Catholic stance. The Church claims not to create saints, simply to honor them. One way, then, to think of canonization is the search for proof. Proof that their likeness to God was apparent beyond reproach, either in good deeds, in miracles, or in action. Proof that someone actually made it into heaven. Which makes for an unsettling thought where Maud is concerned. Then again, God is unknowable and to assume he always acts in recognizable ways is too simple.
Maud sprouts wings near the end of Saint Maud. She’s earned them after a holy battle with Amanda, who reveals herself to be a demon that must be vanquished rather a soul to be saved. With evil force, Amanda throws Maud across the room. With divine might, Maud strikes her down. Afterward, anointed in blood, Maud glides away into the night, her faith in God complete. From darkness, He has lifted her up, spoken words of assurance to her, and now gifts her with angelic instruments. The next morning, as Maud prepares for her final miracle, the wings simply appear, like two neon holograms fixed to her back. This is an encouraging sign. It suggests that Maud is ready to leave her mortal form behind.
It usually takes saints an entire lifetime to fulfill their holy works, but Maud envisions herself a martyr who must take death into her own hands. The trials of humanity have proven disgusting to her, faithlessness the symptom of a widespread disease that is far beyond the bounds of her empathy. Maud thought her mission was to rescue Amanda, but what God has revealed to her is more ominous: we cannot waste time on each other. We can only save ourselves.
So Maud chooses to burn for God because that is what she has always done: an all-consuming warmth when He smiled on her and an unbearable scorching when He looked away. And Maud was only saved during a moment of astounding awe. The only way to release her soul unto Him is to burn her body. This idea of holy fire, of immolation and smoldering, is everywhere in Catholic imagery. During the Pentecostal feast, the Holy Spirit takes the form of tongues of flame above the heads of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus is often painted with his heart exposed, wrapped in thorns and set aflame. St. Teresa of Ávila describes a vision where an angel fills her with a burning fire for the love of God. “It seemed to me that this angel plunged the dart several times into my heart and that it reached deep within me. When he drew it out, I thought he was carrying off with him the deepest part of me; and he left me all on fire with great love of God.”
It’s fitting then that the last shot of Saint Maud takes place on a beach where she’s doused herself in gasoline and sparked her lighter. Passersby stare at her dumbfounded then, when the flames ignite, fall to their knees, their hands raised in praise. Maud looks up to the heavens, beatified, fire surrounding her like a shroud. Finally, she ascends. And with this blaze comes the melting away of our subjective view. For the first and only time, we see things as they are outside Maud’s mind. Indeed, she burns, but instead of sublime peace, there is agony, screaming, and ash.
Whether or not the events of Saint Maud are “actually happening” doesn’t matter. There is no objective parallax applied to the film because what is happening to Maud can only be understood through the witnessing of it. Whether or not she’s crazy doesn’t matter either. Yes, we’re all a bit mad round here, but I’m finding it increasingly insane to believe in nothing.