Home > Called Out of Darkness(11)

Called Out of Darkness(11)
Author: Anne Rice

Much later, during my first year of college, and my first year as an atheist, I missed the May Crowning so much that one evening I bought a huge bouquet of flowers and I went out alone on a grassy slope beside the dormitory and sang these hymns to the Virgin, and, lying on the grass, amongst the flowers, I cried and cried.

In the month of July, our parish had what it called the Bazaar. This lasted for several nights in the school yard, and there were many booths set up with games of chance.

One put one's money on a number on the long counter of the booth, and then the wheel was spun. I was considered lucky and won chocolate cakes for a nickel more than once. An automobile was raffled off, and for days before-hand we sold raffle tickets to raise money for the school.

There was a bar at the Bazaar where men sat drinking beer and talking, and it was great fun to go. There must have been more things to do. I don't remember them. I remember the strings of lights over the school yard, the brightness, the sense of festivity, and also the sense that I didn't really know many people in my parish - as I came from St. Charles and Philip, a world away - but that the people knew each other.

When I'd gone to birthday parties in the Irish Channel, I'd received the same impression. I really didn't know these people, but they all knew each other. They were part of something. I wasn't part of it. And I think this was a fairly accurate appraisal.

My parents were what I would call First Generation Intellectuals. They loved literature and classical music. They wanted to some extent to separate themselves from the "old neighborhood" of the Irish Channel, and they did.

They spoke proper English, and had great dreams for their children. And we were set apart due to the way that we spoke - with no discernible neighborhood accent - and by our constant exposure to opera and classical music, and to books and to art.

We didn't feel at home with children who made fun of us and called us "brains," as in "You're a brain!" But my intent here is to discuss the great religious world in which I was brought up. And that did not necessarily involve my particular psychological trials.

We all felt very much a part of the Catholic Church, a part of our parish churches, and part of the church throughout the world. We knew that New Orleans was a distinctly Catholic city. And the name of our archbishop of the time was mentioned as frequently as the name of the mayor.

We saw our archbishop at Confirmation when he sealed each individual child's forehead with holy oil.

But we heard about him all the time.

Now and then he would tell us that it was a mortal sin to go to see a particular film. I recall this happening with the film Baby Doll.

This was not particularly upsetting because in general we followed the advice of the Legion of Decency on all films and there were always films being condemned.

We knew the Legion of Decency was national. It was our guide as to what was appropriate and what was not. We went through life ignoring such films as Salome: The Dance of the Seven Veils starring Rita Hayworth or And God Created Woman with Brigitte Bardot. But there were many interesting films that we could see.

Our entire school went to see Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments and this was a marvelous experience for us all. I went back to see the film on my own. The sheer energy and faith of the film were overwhelming and uplifting. I've seen the film countless times since, including recently, and I am still in awe of what it accomplished for a mass audience.

There is no one in the world of 2008 making films like Cecil B. DeMille.

If I could be something other than what I am today, I would like to be a movie producer, like Cecil B. DeMille, making religious films. I would love to have a studio which did nothing but make giant religious spectacles with the finest actors, directors, and cinematographers available. I would love to remake Quo Vadis, and The Robe, and maybe even Ben-Hur. I would love to bring a whole new generation of biblical epics to the screen. I dream of this. I dream of somebody doing it! After all, it doesn't really have to be me.

On another occasion, the whole school went to the theater to see a foreign film about Our Lady of Fatima, and her appearances to three Portuguese children. We were deeply and suitably impressed. It seems we all went to see a film called Sally and Saint Anne with Ann Blyth, but my memory of that is less clear.

Film was part of my family life. And film was, in the main, wholesome and agreeable, and enjoyed by just about everybody.

I remember seeing On the Waterfront with my father, and noting that the film interested him very much. There was a priest in the film played by Karl Malden, who actually punches a guy, and then drinks a beer. This priest also smoked cigarettes. He was a virile, regular guy type of priest - that was the whole point of the cigarettes and the beer - and a hero on the side of the workingmen in the film who were struggling against the corrupt bosses of the union.

This priest was true to the priests that we knew in real life.

They didn't punch people in the nose or drink beer, but they were big beefy workingmen and they worked hard day in and day out with the people of the parish, as I've mentioned above.

In the Redemptorist Rectory, where they lived, no layper-son could go beyond the private doors. The rectory contained the office behind a barred window where one could go to get a copy of a baptismal certificate or ask to see a particular priest. I don't recall ever going into the rectory for anything without seeing priests in the conference rooms on both sides of the little hallway, talking to adults. I had a sense of priests working with couples young and old on family matters, and there were always men around the rectory or the church as well as women. In fact, there might have been more men than women.

Every year our church celebrated a special novena to a particular Redemptorist saint. This was St. Gerard Majella, who had been a Redemptorist in life. There were statues of him in our churches, and there were boys all over the parish named after him, and perhaps there were girls named Geraldine.

The novena ran nine nights (as a string of nine services or observances is what defines a formal novena), and the church on those nights was packed with men and women, with people standing outside on the steps and in the street.

We sang a passionate hymn to St. Gerard that ran something like:

O sainted Gerard, e'er protect us While through this vale of tears we roam.

In doubts and trials e'er direct us, And lead us to our heavenly home.

All of the hymns I've described were songs to us as children that we sang when walking in the evening, or riding in the car. We sang hymns like "O Lord, I Am Not Worthy" right after singing "I've Been Working on the Railroad" or

"My Darling Clementine."

Up in the austere but magnificent church of the Holy Name of Jesus we sang a hymn that fitted the grandeur: Holy God, we praise Thy name,

Lord of all, we bow before Thee!

All on earth Thy rule acclaim,

All in heav'n above adore Thee;

Infinite Thy vast domain,

Everlasting is Thy reign.

Infinite Thy vast domain,

Everlasting is Thy reign.

That too was a family favorite.

As I grew up in this world, I felt completely safe and secure in my Catholic identity, and I never sensed any conflict between my world as a Catholic and the world around me. I've learned since that this was a strong period for Catholics in America, when parish life all over the nation was vigorous, and when convents and monasteries were full. Lots of men were still entering the seminaries to become priests.

And girls wanted to become nuns.

This was a time when the Catholic Church was deeply respected in America. It was a cultural force. Priests all over America were associated with social justice, with the work-ingman and his rights. Our influence in Hollywood with the Legion of Decency was respected influence. And the name of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen was a household word.

We'd grown up listening to Monsignor Sheen on the radio. And after that, he became a television star.

I had no way of knowing that this was a world that would soon change dramatically and entirely for a variety of complex reasons.

It fell apart for me before any great change happened in it - simply because I was growing up; I was becoming extremely curious and conflicted about sex; and I was also becoming curious about "the modern world." I was making interesting friends; I had heard talk of the Beat Generation.

In a friend's house I'd found an informative stack of Time magazines. This provided a treasure trove of information about life outside New Orleans. But the Beats, in particular, were my focus. I had no conception that anyone might think these bohemians of New York and San Francisco were immoral. They were artists; they wrote poetry. For me, they held spiritual values. They did great things.

In the summer after my freshman year of high school, my mother finally died of the drink. Even now I remember the day with a palpable sense of horror. Her final drinking spell had been, perhaps, the longest ever, and when my younger sister came down with appendicitis, my father felt that we were needed at the hospital, and that my mother couldn't be left at home alone. My mother had sometimes fallen when she was drunk; and more than once she had dropped a cigarette and set a mattress on fire. My father called her closest cousins to come get her, and take care of her; and the last time I saw my mother, she was being led down the garden path to the gate, begging my father not to do this, not to give her over to this cousin; she didn't want her cousins to see her as she was.

Within a matter of hours the call came: she wasn't moving or speaking. The priest came rushing up our back steps, in his black cassock, beads rattling, and I had to head him off and send him to the car that was ready to take him to the cousin's house uptown. My mother was dead before he got there. Nevertheless he anointed her, gave her the Last Sacraments, as we called them, and assured everyone that no one knows precisely when the soul leaves the body. Perhaps she had been reached by the Saving Grace in time.

When the word reached me, I went to church. I remember going to the shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help and trying to talk to her. But I was numb. I was unable to form coherent words. I was relieved that my mother's long struggle was over. I was relieved that our long struggle was over. I was elated and yet speechless with a kind of terror. I knew that our lives would not be the same.

The ghastly moment at the funeral came when they closed the coffin. I began to cry uncontrollably. And I still remember standing over her grave in St. Joseph's Cemetery, surrounded by mourners, and thinking that all the world was gray, and that the daily light I'd once taken for granted would never return.

Two years later, in 1957, my family moved from New Orleans, and we might as well have been entering America for the first time when we arrived in Dallas, Texas.

My father's new wife was a Baptist who struggled to be Catholic for my father's sake, even though to marry her - a divorced woman - he had made a tragic break with his own church.

My faith was unchanged. Even a year in an extremely old-fashioned boarding school had not really tested it. And it proved as strong in a makeshift cafeteria church in Richardson, Texas, as it had been all along.

After all, the Catholic Church was supposed to be the same everywhere, and always and for everyone. And it seemed to me that it was. Even in a suburban school cafeteria, the Mass was in Latin, and at the moment of the Consecration, Christ was beneath our roof, and the sermons were very much the same. We had to remain the same.

I didn't know then that the Catholics of the early twentieth century were decidedly and deliberately and consciously anti-modern, that they had been told to be against the modern world by the pope.

I knew nothing of recent church history at all. As I mentioned earlier, I had a better sense of what the Middle Ages had been like, and what the great heresies of the early centuries might have been, than of any recent developments in the Catholic Church.

For all I knew there were no recent developments in the Catholic Church. That was certainly the illusion we were supposed to believe and support. The Catholic Church survived all attacks and all crises, all persecutions and all assaults.

The Protestant Reformation had not stopped it. Nothing ever would or could stop the church.

As Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen said in one of his Sunday evening broadcasts, "The church is a rock pitched into space." My entire universe was steeped in styles of church art that were rococo, baroque, and Romantic, and these styles seemed to flow from the Greek classical styles I so much admired. This included not only the statues and pictures in church, but the poetry we read and the prayers we recited with their elegant use of "thee" and "thou." There was a great continuity to our beliefs, to our life, our life within our Catholic city of New Orleans - and our life beyond it - a continuity to our art, our poetry, and our liturgy and our devotions and our prayers. It was a universe, this world in which I grew up Catholic. And the experiences of art and literature and music that penetrated it were interwoven with its values. It was a realm unto itself.

Pope Pius XII was the head of the Roman Catholic Church. And Pope Pius XII, as far as I knew, had been pope all my life.

There was criticism in our realm of the world beyond, but this seemed logical and inevitable. The priests railed against divorce and remarriage from the pulpit. They declared in so many terms that we would "not come down off the cross" on this issue no matter what other religions did.

We also prayed for the death of Stalin. We prayed, I think, for an end to Soviet Communism and Soviet Russia which constituted a threat to the whole world.

In New Orleans, there had been criticism of television when it was first invented, dire warnings of how it would ruin the imagination of children who watched it, or how soap commercial jingles would replace revered family songs.

Our family held out against television for years. In our chaotic old house, furnished haphazardly with old bits and pieces of furniture, a materialistic and profane thing like television was regarded with deep suspicion.

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