Home > Called Out of Darkness(2)

Called Out of Darkness(2)
Author: Anne Rice

The concepts were not puzzling and they were part of life.

Jesus was God. Jesus was part of the Holy Trinity along with God the Father, and the Holy Spirit. God made the world, which meant that Jesus made the world. The Little Flower's statue wasn't The Little Flower. St. Anthony's statue was not St. Anthony. All these beings were in Heaven, but there was no definite boundary separating them from us.

Anybody in Heaven could listen to your prayers and help you, if you asked for help. The Virgin Mary and the saints were close to God and they could "intercede" for you. There came with these concepts a whole slew of interesting words, and those interesting words were part of the songs and prayers of the faith that I heard from the time I was born.

My talking to Jesus was intimate. Though we knew the Our Father, and we knew the Hail Mary, we spoke to God in our own words. In fact, in those earliest memories, I don't recall rote prayers.

The reason I've taken so long to describe this world in detail is because it is the world I knew before I was taught to read.

The knowledge of God, His Divine Son, and His saints was entirely iconic. And as scientists tell us, what we learn through pictures or icons is strikingly different from what we learn through the written word. The brain receives this information in a unique way. Learning from books is something else altogether.

My faith in God was strong before I ever saw a page of catechism, and certainly before I ever saw a page of the Bible.

It wasn't as yet connected with stories from the Bible.

But no document I later read, including the Bible, really changed my concept of God, or my trust in Him, or how much I liked to think about Him. And trust in God was probably the first real relationship to Him that I had. True love of Him was my intention. That was expected. But trust was what the little child in me knew. We lived and breathed as God's children in God's glorious world.

Intermingled with my religious experiences at this time were preliterate aesthetic experiences which left a lasting mark.

For example, I remember having an internal gallery of pictorial images for words before I knew how to spell. Now only one shines bright in memory, the image for the word

"Anna Mae" which was the name of my aunt. Actually her full name was Sister Mary Immaculate and she was a Sister of Mercy, a nurse, working at old Mercy Hospital on the river.

But we called her Aunt Anna Mae, and every time I heard her name I saw a particular basket of flowers. I still see a basket of flowers when I say her name. Unfortunately, all the other mental images I had are gone now, replaced by the alphabetic letters I learned for these words and names when I learned to read. Only the memory of the richness remains - that words had distinct and fascinating shapes, shapes I liked to see when I said the words.

I also remember responding in highly specific ways to automobiles that passed on St. Charles Avenue. This was the 1940s. Some cars looked like long beetles; others were hump-backed. Others were snub-nosed; all had visual personality.

This characterizing of things in terms of personality also left me when I learned to read. But at this early point, when faith in God was planted in me, fascination with shape and texture consumed me. Everywhere I turned I saw things that begged for tributes or descriptions which I couldn't articulate at the time.

Let me describe a few of these experiences because they are so completely interwoven with faith.

One time my mother took us to a convent. I don't remember which convent or why we went or what we did.

But when we left it, we walked down a long dark brick sidewalk, banked by a row of tall flowering trees. The blossoms on the trees were pink and a shower of pink blossoms had descended on the bricks so that this was a path of petals on which we walked. I remember thinking, tiny child that I was, that this was so incredibly beautiful that it hurt me. I wanted never to lose this beauty, and I must think about that sidewalk about once a month. The bricks were reddish brown, of course, and the petals made up a carpet of soft, fragile flutter-ing color. I vaguely recall looking back at this over my shoulder, not wanting to leave it. The trees might have been crape myrtle trees.

Here's another experience. One afternoon, I knelt on a chair, looking out the screened window of the "middle bedroom" of our house.

The middle bedroom was my favorite bedroom, not only because it had a black fireplace and a black mantelpiece, and three doors, making it somewhat of a passageway, but because it had the view from this window to which I'd brought a chair. Kneeling on the chair, with my elbows on the window, I could gaze for long periods at the house across Philip Street.

This was a magnificent Greek Revival house with upper and lower porches, and a long flank that ran back the block.

What made it beautiful to me, however, was a giant pecan tree that sheltered this entire stretch of street, and the purple wisteria vine that bloomed along the brick wall of the garden of this house. I remember wanting desperately to possess the beauty of the wisteria, the clusters of fragile purple blossoms that shivered in the wind, but nevertheless looked like bunches of purple grapes.

When the breezes blew, this huge pecan tree danced in the breeze, and the soft air came through the screen window into the house. I stared at that wisteria vine, loving it, wanting to have it forever. And like the petal-strewn walk, I think of it all the time. It lives and breathes in me, that vine and that wall, and beyond it the high walls of the old beige-colored house.

The house was rich and expensive. A mysterious family lived there, people about whom I knew nothing except that they were named the Rosenthals. After the Rosenthals came the Episcopal bishop, and after that I do not know.

It was the stuff of dreams that I might one day live in such an august house. The fact is I did, decades later, come to live in such a house on a different corner only a few blocks away.

And one of the things I did then was to have built for the back of the property a long and beautiful and old-fashioned brick wall. A wonderful craftsman named Rob Newman built the wall, and I suspect no one today knows that the wall is not one hundred years old.

In those early years, all around me I saw things that shaped my perceptions and my longings. I'd stop to look at the Greek columns of the houses against the passing clouds.

All up and down St. Charles Avenue there were houses of impressive detail and overwhelming size.

In the evenings, when we would walk along the avenue and we did this all the time - I loved to look at the cut-glass doors of these houses, and the way the light sparkled in the cut glass. I called them "crystal doors." They were burning and shining in the night. And they had about them an air of mystery because I imagined the interior rooms beyond them were as magnificent as these doors.

On Hallowe'en we went trick-or-treating in the depths of the Garden District. One such door opened, and a tall man stood in a high-ceilinged hallway, on a shining floor, offering us candies in a huge silver bowl. I was hungry to see the secrets of the house in which he lived. I think he was a butler, but I wasn't sure.

These things sound too ordinary as I describe them. They had an air of enchantment. So did the many churches we visited in those days, including the vast Holy Name of Jesus Church at Loyola University with its forest of soaring columns and white marble statues; and the Jesuit Church downtown with its golden onion domes on the altar and the rich ironwork of its pews.

There was a grotto in those days adjacent to the Jesuit Church, a long stone chamber filled with high thin tapers burning away.

Everywhere I turned, I was assaulted by the sensuous and the atmospheric, and the beautiful. I don't recall ugliness or shabbiness, and I don't recall anything dark or unpleasant.

The fabric is unbroken.

Our walks along the avenue to Audubon Park, our trips downtown to the museum called the Cabildo, our rides on the St. Charles streetcar with the windows open to the breeze, even playing in the yard amid the ivy and the wild rosebushes, or venturing up the block past many different types of houses, all this seems part of the same tapestry.

For example, at the end of our block, a Rose of Montana vine had gone wild over the telephone pole and the telephone wires and I loved to look at the arching pink flowers of that lively vine. I loved the green strips of grass that bordered every sidewalk. I never stopped falling in love with particular trees.

On the way to the butcher shop on Baronne Street, two blocks behind our house, we had to pass a long open drainage ditch lined with willow trees, and this seemed to me to be the loveliest of streams.

If there was any ugliness or shabbiness it was perhaps connected with the smaller more crowded houses on Carondelet Street around the block from our house, and I think what I disliked about this stretch was the complete absence of trees.

I'm not sure.

Ceremonies of the church were also part of this tapestry, and those I most distinctly remember took place in the chapel I've described. Daily Mass was extremely interesting because the priest wore vestments of watered taffeta with thick embroidery, and even the altar boy wore a lovely white lace-trimmed surplice over his black robe.

The priest said the Mass in Latin, facing away from us, and moved back and forth across the altar as he consulted an enormous book.

The altar boy rang small golden bells at the moment of the Consecration when the priest spoke in Latin the words of Our Lord from the Last Supper, "This is my body. . . . This is my blood." This was a moment of spectacular importance and utter silence, but then the whole church was silent during the daily Mass. Nevertheless at the moment of the Consecration the miracle of Christ coming into the bread on the altar was being enacted or repeated, and we bowed our heads and said our most personal and emotional prayers.

"Jesus, you are here." It was that sort of intimate whisper.

"Lord, you are coming to us." "Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst come to me."

Our feelings were those of immense gratitude and wonder. We believed in this miracle as we believed that streetcars passed our house, or that rain fell in great soft glimmering sheets in the afternoons.

One key church service dominates all others except for the Mass. Every Tuesday night, in the chapel, as well as in the main churches of our parish, there was a novena service to Our Mother of Perpetual Help.

Strictly speaking, a novena is a series of nine services devoted to one cause. But most churches had weekly novena services, and how and when you went to nine in a row was your call.

We loved to go to this service. There was no air-conditioning anywhere in those days, except in certain drugstores, and on summer nights the floor-length windows of the chapel were open on all sides. The evening hummed with cicadas.

The chapel was filled with electric light. The priest and the altar boy presided. And usually there were some hundred people or so crowding the dark wooden pews.

I no longer remember the order of the service. I remember what took place.

Benediction was part of it, a ceremony in which the priest removed the white Host of the Blessed Sacrament from the tabernacle, put it into a round glass compartment in the center of a golden monstrance - a one-legged stand with golden rays emanating out from the glass compartment like rays of the sun. Incense was liberally used during this ceremony, with the priest taking the smoking incense holder from the altar boy, and swinging it gently on its chain back and forth to fill the church with the thick delicious perfume.

The priest was attired especially for this ceremony in a gorgeous robe and a small shawl, which was sometimes a bit crooked when the priest knelt before the monstrance - and the Blessed Sacrament - to lead us in prayer.

The hymns we sang before the Blessed Sacrament every Tuesday night have left perhaps the most indelible impression on me of any music I ever heard before or since. It's this way with many Catholics of my generation. There is a particular love of those two hymns.

Both were in Latin. The first was the most solemn in tone: O Salutaris Hostia,

Quae caeli pandis ostium,

Bella premunt hostilia,

Da robur, fer auxilium.

This was sung out with a tender tone of appeal, and again a sense of gratitude, a sense of trust. This was Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, this was a special moment of adoration, and one gave oneself to it with one's entire heart.

I don't recall caring much about the English meaning of this hymn. The meaning was in the tone and the sound.

The second hymn was sung with positive vigor. The chapel rocked.

Tantum ergo Sacramentum

Veneremur cernui:

Et antiquum documentum

Novo cedat ritui.

Praestet fides supplementum

Sensuum defectui

Genitori, Genitoque

Laus et jubilatio:

Salus, honor, virtus quoque

Sit et benedictio:

Procedenti ab utroque

Compar sit laudatio,

Amen.

The hymn was great fun to sing and it reached its highest emotional pitch and most swinging rhythm with the words Genitori, Genitoque!  - which happen to mean "To the Everlasting Father, and the Son who reigns on high" or so The Baltimore Book of Prayers tells me. But to repeat, the words didn't matter in those early days. The sentiment, the sense of the sacred, the sense of the splendid opportunity, were all embodied in the tones and the music.

There were some churches that sang the Tantum Ergo in a more solemn manner, but that wasn't for us in our church or chapel. We bore with it when we attended services in those parishes.

Today one can buy recordings of these ancient hymns, and if you give such a recording to a Catholic of my generation, you can move that person to tears. If you know an old-guard Catholic who's dying, a recording of these hymns may be one of the best gifts you can give that person.

But these recordings are made by large disciplined choirs.

They don't really express the enthusiasm, or the conviviality of the services of my time in which people stood or knelt belting out these Latin words in homage to the Divine.

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