Home > Called Out of Darkness(17)

Called Out of Darkness(17)
Author: Anne Rice

I don't belong anywhere. I don't come from any particular milieu. No group embraced my eccentric family. My mother's dreams of raising four perfectly healthy children and four geniuses probably died with her. Her death was a catastrophe. She was forty-eight and beautiful. She was brilliant, perhaps the most brilliant person I've ever known. She died of the drink. We didn't save her.

By the time I came home to buy a mansion in the Garden District, indeed to buy the very house in which she had been living when she died, well, she had been gone for over thirty years.

But I get ahead of my story.

Let me drop back.

Geography is important.

At the beginning of my career as a novelist, I began to seek God in geography rather consciously though with no expressed hope of ever finding Him in the journeys and pilgrimages I made.

As soon as the money flowed in from Interview with the Vampire, Stan and I went to Europe. What interested me above all were churches. The Cathedral of Chartres and Notre Dame de Paris were what I wanted to see in France.

The Louvre, the Jeu de Paume, those were extra experiences, wonderful though they were.

In Rome, it was St. Peter's that drew me, and then all the other magnificent churches of the Eternal City, as well as the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel.

Within a year of that first trip to Europe, I went back to Italy with my father and stepmother and younger sister. We journeyed to Rome, Florence, and Venice. And we also went to Assisi, where I stood in a long line of pilgrims, waiting for a few moments to press my hands to the tomb of St. Francis, whom I'd loved so much as a child.

Again, I found myself wandering through St. Peter's Basilica, gazing on the crypts of popes, and on the wondrously colored marble work, and staring at the varied monuments of my ancient Catholic faith.

In the town of Siena, it was the cathedral that drew me. In Venice, I sat in San Marco staring at the walls of tessellated gold.

Art, yes, art, that's what I was seeking, but what else was I looking for as I wandered silent - refusing to pray, refusing to believe in God - through all those houses of worship? I told myself I was grieving for St. Francis, grieving for the church, grieving for belief which was inaccessible and unrecoverable.

The journey went on.

As mentioned above, I had returned to New Orleans with Stan and with our son, Christopher (note the name), in 1988, and I moved right back into the Redemptorist parish in which I'd been brought up. I moved onto the very block where my Murphy cousins, the Catholic exemplars of our childhood, still maintained their family home.

As already mentioned, I soon purchased the dream houses of my childhood, the huge pre - Civil War Greek Revival "mansions" that had been completely beyond my family's wildest dreams.

Okay. This was a key part of my search for home, for mother, for lost faith.

Other geography underlies the journey as well.

In the mid-1990s I decided, against the advice and inclinations of everyone else, to go to Israel. I wanted to see the Holy Land. I told myself no faith in God was driving me there. I wanted only to see the geography which had meant so much to other people's faith. I was secretly obsessed with Jesus Christ, but I didn't tell anyone, and I didn't tell myself.

Stan went with me along with two devoted assistants, and for a little over a week, we wandered all over Jerusalem, through its most famous and wonderful churches, we visited Nazareth and we visited Bethlehem, and we stood before ancient altars, and in ancient crypts, and wandered ancient terrain.

What was I looking for? Why did I insist that we remain in the church at the Garden of Gethsemane, as three priests said the Mass in three different languages all at the same time? What did it mean to me to be staring at the Garden of Olives where just possibly Our Lord and Savior experienced His agony before Judas and the soldiers came to make the arrest that changed the history of the world?

During those years, I began to collect books on Jesus, and there were a great many being published. The "historical Jesus" was a hot topic in the 1990s. I picked up books wher-ever I saw them, and simply put them on my shelves to read at some later time. My publisher sent me Paula Fredriksen's Jesus of Nazareth. I took the time to read it and was fascinated by it.

I continued to deny faith in God. I truly didn't think faith was possible again for me. Atheism was reality, and one could not turn away from that reality into a cowardly embrace of religion which one knew to be false. I was just "interested in Jesus," because Jesus was an extremely interesting man.

I determined to go to Brazil. At some time in my childhood I'd seen in a film the harbor of Rio de Janeiro; and what I most vividly associated with the harbor was the great statue of Jesus Christ with His arms outstretched that rises from the summit of the mountain in the middle of the city. I'd always wanted to go to that spot.

Again, I told myself I believed in nothing. I was fulfilling childhood fantasies. I was looking for adventure. I was, as a writer and a traveler, living the life I'd dreamed of as a child.

But the compulsion to go to Rio was overwhelming, and we soon made the climb up Corcovado to the foot of the statue of Our Lord.

We took the tram up the steep mountain, which is some 710 meters in height. Then we made the final ascent on foot with hundreds of other tourists, stage by stage, until we reached the statue's base.

The statue is concrete and is 38 meters tall. That means it's about one hundred feet high. It weighs 1,145 tons. As we approached the base of it, the soaring figure was covered completely in clouds.

Imagine, if you can, how enormous this statue was, how inherently impressive, and what it was like to stand at the foot of it, with all of Rio spreading out beyond the stone balustrades of the cliff. Clouds formed and fragmented and came together again over the city of Rio.

I had the feeling we were at the top of the world.

Suddenly the clouds broke, revealing the giant figure of Jesus Christ above us, with His outstretched arms.

The moment was beyond any rational description. It didn't matter to me what anyone else felt or wanted from this journey. I had come thousands of miles to stand here. And here was the Lord.

The clouds quickly closed over the statue; then broke and revealed the statue again. How many times this happened I don't remember. I do remember a kind of delirium, a kind of joy. I'd made it to Rio, I'd made it to the statue of legend, and the physical world contrived to render the moment infinitely more beautiful than I'd imagined it would be.

I didn't acknowledge faith in these moments at the foot of the statue. But something greater than a creedal formulation took hold of me, a sense that this Lord of Lords belonged to me in all His beauty and grandeur. He belonged to me in the grandeur of this symbol if He did not belong to me in any other way.

There was a sadness to this happiness, an undercurrent of acceptance: you can't have faith but you have this. The Lord doesn't disappear when you turn away from Him; He remains, acknowledged in myriad forms, and even in the miracle of the ever shifting clouds themselves. The Lord is with you; no, He's not real. No, He's just a symbol. But this is such a potent symbol that your whole life is suddenly pervaded with Him. You belong to Him in the guise of art, and sensing something greater beyond it, though you haven't the courage or the ability yet to reach for what that is.

Lord, surely what I felt in that moment was love.

Faith, no. But love? Yes, love.

After visiting many gorgeous colonial churches in Rio, and viewing some of the most magnificent scenery in the world, we decided to wander around Brazil. For no particularly good reason we ended in Salvador da Bahia, a city that had been described to us by our friends in Rio.

And there we found two of the most intricate colonial churches that we were ever to see.

But to describe the impact of one of the the last churches I visited - to describe the way this pilgrimage to Brazil ended - I have to flash back to an afternoon in San Francisco many years before.

At the time, Stan and I were shopping in a store on Mission Street - the Mission Gift Shop - that sold religious statues, along with little white Communion dresses, and jewelry, largely for the Latin American families of the city. Mission Street was their world. I was looking for religious collectibles.

I wanted to have them around me. I wasn't sure why.

In this shop, I discovered an outrageous statue which at once riveted me; and I bought it, not even noticing what it cost.

The statue is about two feet high. It is a double statue, actually, because it includes Christ nailed to His cross, and beside Him the figure of St. Francis of Assisi, reaching up to embrace the Crucified Lord. But what makes the statue unique is that Our Lord is also reaching down from the cross to embrace Francis. Our Lord's left arm is freed from the cross and with this left arm, He tenderly holds the devoted saint.

This statue was made in Spain. It is hyperrealistic. Blood flows from Our Lord's wounds. His face is gaunt, stained with blood from His crown of thorns, and the blood from the crown flows down his shoulders onto His chest. He is looking down intently at the head of Francis who appears to be staring at the bloody wound in Our Lord's side.

Francis bears the wounds of the Stigmata in this statue.

That is, Francis, too, has the wounds of the nails in his hands and in his feet. Francis was the first mystic ever to be granted the gift of the Stigmata. I knew this from childhood devotion to Francis. So this image made sense to me. What was new was the depiction of Our Lord reaching down to embrace Francis in this tender way.

The figures are graceful and delicate and they have dark skin.

The Lord's face is filled with love.

Francis, in this double statue, is in a brown robe - the habit of his Franciscan Order - with a rope tied around his waist, and a wooden rosary hangs from this rope. Francis is barefoot. One wounded foot rests on a world globe without continents, a simple sphere of blue.

There are touching bits of ornamentation on these two figures - painted flowers on the loincloth of Our Lord, gold curlicues on the robe of Francis - an ornamentation that lifts them out of the bloody reality of the moment and renders them timeless and the property of all those who seek to possess the meaning of the union of Christ and the saint. An open book rests on the base of the statues, with words in Latin:

Qui-non Renuntiat Omnibus Que Possidet Non Fotes Meus Esse Disipulus

LMC XVII

Never had I seen a statue that so reflected the disparate elements of my earlier faith. Here was the sensuality and excess and the spirituality which I had so loved.

I kept the statue on my desk as I wrote my "atheistic novels" and I defended it now and then against people who were understandably shocked by it, by its lurid embodiment of the suffering of the two figures.

Once I was even photographed holding the statue, and this photograph appeared in the Village Voice.

A deeper attachment to the statue involved my unresolved memory of the Catholic schoolgirl who had once prayed to Francis and to the Lord, who had once read excitedly the life of Francis, and who had once asked the Lord if He would not grant her the Stigmata - the visible signs of His wounds. I had prayed for that, yes. I had prayed for a mystical union with Our Lord, knowing full well that there is nothing one can do to "obtain" a mystical union with the Lord. A mystical union must be offered by God. And what greater visible sign of it could there be other than the wounds of the Stigmata?

Flash forward now to Salvador da Bahia, and a group of us walking up the steep hillside street to see two sensational colonial churches.

We turn in to one of these, and enter the inevitable captivating gloom, replete with the flicker of candles, the familiar envelope of lingering incense, and sumptuous detail.

And there on the distant altar, giant sized, is this very double statue, in exactly the same configuration. Francis embracing the crucified Lord. The Lord embracing Francis with His left arm.

I felt a great shock.

I felt I had journeyed all this way to Brazil and into the interior of Brazil to find this potent double image of the love of God. It was as if someone were whispering to me: This is not some statue you bought in a shop, and put among your collectibles. This is a figure of the love of Jesus Christ that is waiting for you. This is the mystery of the Incarnation. This is the Lord bridging the gulf between God and humankind.

This is the Lord, in the midst of His atoning suffering, reaching out for . . . you.

I went back to the hotel, became sick with a blinding migraine, and did not go out again in Brazil.

In the next few years, if not before, I became convinced that I was being pursued by the Lord. I did not think literally "He is pursuing me." After all, He wasn't supposed to exist. He was supposed to be an idea. He was "located" in nostalgia. I thought something is pursuing me. Something is happening.

I went to Italy again in 1998, and as before I visited church after church, returning again to Assisi, and visiting an ancient monastery where there was a thirteenth-century crucifix that drew me by its simplicity and its purity. While I was there, the feeling of being pursued continued.

One morning we went to a church in Rome specifically to see Bernini's great statue of St. Teresa of Avila because my son, Christopher, had studied this in school and wanted to see it firsthand. I put out of my mind, uncomfortably, my old love for St. Teresa, and my own special feelings about her ecstasy as represented so famously in this statue. Did anyone need to know I had once dreamed of entering the Carmelite nuns because of this great saint, that I had once lugged her autobiography around with me, struggling to read a few pages?

What would I do in this church? Well, I would look at the statue, and ask if there were any religious articles for sale, and I would buy as many of them as I could possibly carry.

Suddenly, while we were there, the priest came out with the altar boy and started to say Mass. Why Mass was being said at that time - very late in the morning - I had no idea.

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