Home > Called Out of Darkness(16)

Called Out of Darkness(16)
Author: Anne Rice

The cantor had a black beard and he wore a yarmulke, and his singing had an unearthly beauty to it that I loved.

It was a tragedy to me when this family moved away.

My last night at their house was spent sitting in the doorway guarding it, as they were in the process of moving, and I spent this evening in conversation with a young man who knew the family, an immensely attractive and mysterious person who always wore a hat. I recall speaking of spiritual things with him, of my desire to be a nun. He expressed admiration for women who gave their lives to their religion. I explained that we weren't giving our lives to our religion, we were giving them to God. He showed a respect for this.

Indeed his entire manner was serious and agreeable. He explained to me why the family I so loved was moving to New York. "There are not many people like them here," he said, "but there are a lot of people like them in New York." I was happy for them, but I missed them. I never forgot them.

I wonder today what became of Clara and Benjamin, and the baby in the crib whose name I don't recall.

Let's come back to 1998. I'm in New Orleans. I'm a successful writer. I'm thinking all the time about the Jews, about how much in common that family had with the Jews of history, the Jews emerging from the pages of the history books I'm reading about ancient times.

Of course by this time I'd had innumerable Jewish friends, and of all my close friends, they had been the most spiritual and the most intellectually passionate. Though secular people in the main, they retained a theological way of looking at life, a deep moral pressure to do "what was right." They were highly artistic, and artistic principles were mixed in with their fervent attitude towards life. They seemed to have a vision of life that was religious, and at times even mystical, in that they believed in a value to art and good behavior which could not necessarily be justified by social custom.

What had my experience with Catholicism been up to this time? Just about nil.

For just about thirty years, I'd suffered such an aversion to Catholicism that I avoided any mention of it anywhere, including any sustained contact with anyone who was Catholic. I'd heard rumblings of big changes in the Catholic Church, horror stories of the loss of the Latin liturgy, of an English Mass. I'd heard that the great church council Vatican II was responsible for this artistic disaster. I'd heard that thousands of priests and nuns had left the church.

But I didn't really know what was happening in contemporary Catholicism any more than I'd known the latest church history in 1960.

In fact, during all these years away from the church, there had been only one film about Catholicism that I had watched over and over again.

This was a film that I deeply and painfully loved. It was called The Nun's Story and it was made in 1959. It starred Audrey Hepburn in an exceptional and subdued performance as a Catholic woman in Belgium who enters a semi-cloistered order of nuns in the hopes of becoming a missionary in the Belgian Congo. It is an austere and pure film to an exceptional degree.

It is entirely about the inner spiritual struggle of this one person, and her failure to become the religious she had hoped to become. It is devoid of cheap romance, or distracting subplots that might have appealed to a commercial audience.

In fact, it is such a pure film that it is almost impossible to understand how it ever got made. But it did get made, and time and again, I watched it, sometimes crying, grieving for my lost Catholic faith.

I felt I understood the struggle of Sister Luke in this film completely.

She was guilty of the sin we had imputed to Martin Luther. Because she could not be perfect according to the system, she left the system. In Luther's case it had been the church. In Sister Luke's case, it was the convent. Her tragedy was entirely a spiritual tragedy, and I never watched this film without realizing that it could have been my own story, and that perhaps it should have been my own story, that I should have tried to be a nun as I had once dreamed of doing. I loved everything about this film. I loved the shots of the convent with its broad corridors and high doors. I loved the soft, dig-nified grace of Sister Luke as she accepted the penance of wearing the ornate habit of her order. I loved that she cared above all about being a good person with her entire heart. I loved even perhaps that she failed, failed as I had failed. She'd left the convent. I'd left God.

I should point out that this film is genderless. The story could easily have been about a monk. In being about a religious person, it transcends gender obsessions and concerns completely, and that is no doubt the reason that it spoke so purely to me about faith, about the love of God, and about the kind of life that is possible when one offers everything to God.

In 1974, I actually read the book on which the film was based. I found that the film had been true to the book. And Sister Luke's story was my way of visiting my old church, my magnificent and timeless church, and being there, in sorrow, for a little while. The story was set in World War II. That was long before the great church council of Vatican II which supposedly changed my church, and so I felt a special refuge in the film. It was the way things had been, and perhaps were not, for anyone, anymore.

In 1998, I actually didn't know how things were in the Catholic Church. I had no idea at all.

Now for ten years, I'd been living in New Orleans. Stan and Christopher and I had come there to live in 1988. And one most significant development in those years had been the complete acceptance of us by our huge extended Catholic family, including the revered Murphy cousins whom I mentioned early in this book.

In 1988, my father had been still living, and he'd come to join me in New Orleans, and there amid huge family parties he had connected me with his surviving brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles, and all the cousins he so cherished and loved. This was my father's last great gift to me - that he brought me into contact with this "lost" family. And my father's happiness at this time was also a gift.

To my amazement, these churchgoing people completely embraced Stan and Christopher and me. They didn't question my disconnection from Catholicism. They said nothing about the transgressive books I'd written. They simply welcomed us into their homes and into their arms.

This was as shocking as it was wonderful. The Catholics of my time had been bound to shun people who left the faith. Indeed one reason I stayed clear of all Catholics for three decades was that I expected to be rejected and shunned.

In my childhood, one couldn't enter a non-Catholic church. If a cousin married "out of the church," not only must one shun the ceremony, one had to shun the cousin forever after. An entire branch of our family had been lost to us in the 1950s because they became Protestants. So, returning to New Orleans, I more or less expected to be shunned.

But the world of my Catholic cousins in New Orleans was a loving world. And these were indeed people who went to Mass and Communion on Sunday, who participated in their church, who visibly and actively supported it. These were the ones who had stayed.

This acceptance puzzled me and interested me. How could they be Catholics and put their arms around a woman who wrote Interview with the Vampire? How could they come into my home so cheerfully when they knew Stan and I were not married "in the church"? Surely they knew Christopher was being brought up with no religious affiliation. True, he went to Trinity Episcopal School, but that was because Trinity was a fine school.

I never asked them these questions. I felt an overwhelming love for them, and my return to New Orleans became a return to their acceptance as much as a return to the church buildings and the venerable houses I so loved.

As I met more and more churchgoing friends, I was intrigued by the way they managed to live in the world as Catholics. Again, I asked no questions. I simply observed.

No harsh mental break had ever forced itself upon these people. They had found a way to live faithfully with absolutes, and above all they had found a way to continue day in and day out believing in God.

When my great-aunt, Sister Mary Liguori, died, my eleven-year-old son, Christopher, was a pallbearer at her funeral. We stood with all the other Catholic mourners, and from memory, I followed the prayers. Of course I believed that I could never really be one of these people again. I couldn't believe in God!

But the simple fact was: I did. The world of atheism was cracking apart for me, just as once the world of Catholic faith had cracked apart. I was losing my faith in the nonexistence of God.

I was, however, being doggedly and religiously faithful to an atheism in which I no longer believed. There was a fatal-ism to it. You can't go back to God! Why do you dream of this?

You know too much, you've seen too much, you just can't accept all the social things these people obviously believe. Besides, you know there is no God. The world's meaningless. People have to provide the meaning. You've been writing about this for thirty years!

At some point I began to contribute to the local church the parish church of my childhood - though I never set foot inside. Through that support I became friends with the local Redemptorist Fathers, one of whom was my cousin, though I wasn't a member of the faith.

As I've described, I have a deep devotion to the Redemptorist Fathers. I had never forgotten that my father's seminary education had set him apart from his sisters and brothers, and given him a love of literature and music as well as a spiritual intensity that few around him possessed.

I also became a great collector of religious artifacts, of the life-size statues of the saints that were falling into the hands of antique dealers as old inner-city churches closed across the United States.

I had a perfect place to put all this art. It was a building called St. Elizabeth's Orphanage which I had bought from the Daughters of Charity in the mid-1990s - a vast brick building built between the 1860s and the 1880s that bore a heartbreaking resemblance to the old home of the Little Sisters of the Poor in which I'd wanted so much to be a nun some forty years before.

What was I doing when I bought that building? I lovingly restored its chapel. I bought any plaster saint or virgin or angel anyone offered me. I even discovered, in a French Quarter antique shop, a whole set of the Stations of the Cross which had once hung in St. Alphonsus Church, my very church, and I bought them and ranged them up the main staircase. Yet another ornate set, offered by a country priest, was bought, restored, and ranged along the chapel walls.

In addition to the beautiful Garden District home I'd acquired soon after my arrival, I bought the very house on St. Charles Avenue where our family had lived for a short while before my mother's death. This house had once belonged to the Redemptorist church parish. We'd rented it from them for a short while. It had been before that a priest house, and before that the convent of the Mercy Sisters. It was adjacent to the mansion on Prytania Street that held the Our Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel where I'd first prayed to God. I bought that building too.

Think of it. Think of buying the building in which you first went to pray, the building that contained your mother's old high school classrooms, the building that contained the chapel in which your mother's Requiem Mass had been said.

From that chapel, my mother's remains had been taken to the graveyard.

I guess I would have bought the graveyard if it had been for sale, as well.

Bit by bit I was picking up the pieces of a Catholic childhood with these significant purchases. I was forming alliances with those still within the fold. I was keeping company with their loving kindness and their daily faith. Yet every step was marked with pessimism, sadness, and a grief on the edge of despair. Every step was marked by darkness - by a tragic certainty that belief in God Himself was quite beyond my conscience and my heart. There was no returning to any church without faith in God.

Beyond the matrix of gilded plaster, stone, and image, there loomed the threat - the ominous and dreadful threat -

of the love of Almighty God.

Still with unhurrying chase,

And unperturbed pace,

Deliberate speed, majestic instancy, Came on the following Feet,

And a Voice above their beat -

"Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me."

- Francis Thompson,

"The Hound of Heaven"

Chapter Seven

Before I move on to the actual moment that my faith came back to me, let me say a few words about pilgrimages, because by the 1990s, I was making them all the time.

Emotional lives have landscapes. Interior journeys have an exterior geography. The geography of my life has always been intense and dramatic. I knew this when I was growing up.

St. Charles Avenue was a great historic artery of New Orleans. On the far side of that street, the Garden District began, enclosing the finest and most significant antebellum houses in the city, outside of the French Quarter downtown.

That I had to walk from St. Charles Avenue, through that eerie and enchanting neighborhood, in order to get to the Irish Channel and its two enormous churches was significant. I passed from a world of wealth and charm into a world of work and economy, yet the journey ended in a vast Romanesque church, St. Alphonsus, which is even now a jaw-dropping wonder to those who visit it.

My later writing always sought to recapture the harmony, the lushness, and the timeless loveliness of the Garden District, whether I was writing literally about the neighborhood itself, or about Venice, or Vienna, or Haiti, or Rome.

And my novels always sought to express the intensity and the high-pitched allegory and symbol of the church.

The noisy and narrow streets of the Irish Channel were the map of the world that I feared - the world without art, the world without timeless beauty, the world of necessity and raw experience, and random suffering, into which anyone at any time might suddenly drop, the world in which someone by circumstance might be completely trapped.

I didn't grow up in the Garden District. I didn't grow up in the Irish Channel. I grew up on the margins of the world that included both.

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