Jesus’ Wife Speaks: Sue Monk Kidd on Laws, Longing, and the Incantation of Voice

“A man’s holy of holies contains God’s laws but inside a woman’s there are only longings.”

In that single sentence, one of many searing, familiar statements in Sue Monk Kidd’s latest novel, The Book of Longings, our protagonist, Ana, both spits truth and positions herself to hold her own throughout the entire novel. The reader never loses sight of whose story this is, even as Ana’s narrative is played out beside some stiff male competition: our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Notably, Mr. Christ is married to Ana.

Somehow, Kidd is able to deftly deliver a story where, early on, Ana knows her deepest longing is to have a voice, and to be a voice for the voiceless women, both in her life and in the stories she has been told. She is a writer, having been allowed by her father, an influential employee for Herod Antipas, to learn to read and write, providing her material and tutors despite his embarrassment at her aspirations.
Incantation bowl with an Aramaic inscription around a demon. From Nippur, Mesopotamia 6th-7th ce. Photographer Marie-Lan Nguyen

Early in the story, Ana writes her most earnest prayer in an incantation bowl. This act of defiance—against tradition, against her family, against the God of her understanding—is what she is most sure of, even at the risk of being exposed or punished.

Lord our God, hear my prayer, the prayer of my heart. 
Bless the largeness inside me, no matter how I fear it. 
Bless my reed pens and my inks. 
Bless the words I write. 
May they be beautiful in your sight. 
May they be visible to eyes not yet born. 
When I am dust, sing these words over my bones: she was a voice.

Throughout the story, Ana risks everything to keep the largeness in her. Even when she meets Jesus—especially then—Ana does not abandon the bigness inside her. In fact, the bigness in her meets and matches the bigness in Jesus, allowing each one to hang on to a calling specific to each of them.
“We had our togetherness,” she mused of she and her beloved. “Why should we not have our separateness?”

Separateness from one’s beloved is a tall order for most of us raised in a church culture where becoming one is taught and expected from an early age. As early as preschool, the question comes at girls as though a normal and reasonable inquiry, reinforcing the message that follows us through every life stage: “Do you have a boyfriend?” Our ears and souls interpret these cultural norms with the real subtext: “You need a man to complete you.”

Reminiscent of Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, the epic story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob, and life with her four mothers—Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah—The Book of Longings places women at the center of Ana’s life. Her codices, what she has given much of her life to, are tales of women: disenfranchised, manipulated, unseen, unheard. She tells their stories. And Ana is not alone in the telling. The women in her life, especially her beloved Aunt Yaltha, go to great lengths to preserve Ana’s stories and Ana herself.

It is unsurprising that Kidd would place female relationships at the center of the story. Her previous novels have given us a number of strong female characters that nurture and support each other in exhilarating ways. The Secret Life of Bees takes us on a spiritual journey with Lily Owens to worship at the feet of the Black Madonna, her strong, divine arms holding and sharing the delight of female power. In The Invention of Wings, she gives us a tale of two women, one a slave, the other the daughter of a slave owner, both limited and constrained by their places in a man’s world.

For a church girl, boy-crazy in my teens and steeped in traditional Christian teaching for most of my life, this story about the wife of Jesus was a thrilling detour from conventional tales of Jesus as a single man. I liked watching the ministry of Jesus unfold in the periphery of the story, and not the central narrative. We do, however, get to see Jesus as fully human. We see his rough hewn carpenter demeanor, his teasing flirtations with his wife, and the lifelong question of who his father is. All of this results in the compassion and loving kindness we imagine to be the qualities of this messiah cruising around the Galilean landscape.

His indifference to the status quo, the rules of the day, was where Ana knew she had met someone with whom she could remain herself and keep her longings. She said of Jesus, “I knew of no one who put compassion above holiness.” She speaks of his laugh—its rise and fall—and how that is how she knew she could love him. He called her Little Thunder.

Her marriage was dynamic. Her writing, though, was fundamental. Telling the stories of women was her calling. Her husband was the Messiah, but she had things to do, too. “The act itself of writing evoked powers, often divine, but sometimes unstable, that entered the letters and sent a mysterious animating force ribbing through the ink,” Ana said. “Grief and anger streamed from my fingers. The anger made me brave and the grief made me sure.”

We see ourselves in Ana; we are her. We know her truth. We dwell in a culture where, centuries after eschewing the betrothal plans her father arranged and marrying Jesus instead, a woman still isn’t always trusted suffer to choose what is best for her. We know what she means when she says, “We women harbor intimacies in locked places in our bodies. They are ours to relinquish when we choose.” Us, too, Ana. Us, too.

Ana is struck when she enters the immense library in Alexandria to observe half a million volumes and “all but a handful were by men. They had written the known world.”

But as women do, and as we have done, Ana finds a way for her stories to be preserved. The women who lock-step with her along the way, who let her be wild, who let her be feral and creative and self-possessed, assist her in securing her legacy. They understood that, “to be ignored, to be forgotten, this was the worst sadness of all.”

Even if you are married to Jesus, longings are how we know ourselves. Like Ana (and Sojourner and Maya and Joan and Rosa and Eleanor and Marie and Deborah and Frieda and Ada and Florence and Susan and Jane and Hillary and George and Dinah and Ruth and so many more), we understand her reality:

“All my life longings have lived inside me, rising up like nocturnes, to wail and sing through the night.”
- Kristi Stephens Walker

Kristi Stephens Walker is a writer and editor whose work has most recently appeared in East of the City magazine in Nashville, TN, and in Women Speak, an anthology of of the Women of Appalachia Project. She lives with her husband and three children in Nashville. She recently completed her first novel.