Home > Called Out of Darkness(3)

Called Out of Darkness(3)
Author: Anne Rice

Let me stress again: a translation of the hymn wasn't necessary. In fact, we had the translation handy on cards that were given out in the church. What mattered was that through the singing itself we were connecting with the Divine.

The prayer said at this service was called the Divine Praises.

Blessed be God.

Blessed be His holy name.

Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and true man.

Blessed be the Name of Jesus.

Blessed be His most Sacred Heart.

Blessed be Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.

Blessed be the great Mother of God, Mary most holy.

Blessed be her holy and Immaculate Conception.

Blessed be the name of Mary, Virgin and Mother.

Blessed be St. Joseph, her most chaste Spouse.

Blessed be God in His Angels and in His Saints.

This was of course a chant, and as a chant it had a lulling effect on us as we heard it or repeated it. The litanies that were said to the Blessed Virgin had the same effect. They were in English, and the priest would address the Virgin title by title, after each of which we would say, "Pray for us." The titles were mysterious and intriguing: Virgin Most Faithful; Mirror of Justice; Seat of Wisdom; Cause of Our Joy; Spiritual Vessel; Vessel of Honor; Singular Vessel of Devotion; Mystical Rose; Tower of David; Tower of Ivory; House of Gold. There were about five times that many titles.

As we knelt participating in this litany we were indeed lulled into a trancelike quiet, meditating on what the words might mean, or merely addressing the Virgin Mary, talking to her, giving our hearts to her under all these many names, and praying for her to intercede with her Divine Son for us and help us.

The effect of almost all prayer, whether during Mass, or during a novena service or during a benediction service, was to lull us into a state of meditation, a state in which the mind was free of all worldly distractions, and was thinking about or of the Divine.

And it worked extremely well, it seemed to me.

We loved the entire exercise, and when the service ended, we left the chapel a little intoxicated by the experience and in an elevated mood.

I don't remember ever not wanting to go to a Mass or a service. I don't remember ever getting bored during one.

My mind wandered and my eyes wandered over the many images surrounding me, but the entire experience retained its unique quality, and sent me back out into the world refreshed.

There were other experiences interwoven in this tapestry of beauty and worship, and they also played a part in what faith meant to me.

From the earliest times, my mother read poems to me and my sisters. She had one book of poems which she liked above all, and there were perhaps seven or eight poems she especially loved to read. These weren't religious poems, but she was as regular with this reading as she was with churchgoing; and we learned these poems.

Again, this was a preliterate experience for me. In fact, it was more especially that for me than it was perhaps for others. Because I didn't learn to read from this, as I think perhaps my older sister did. Try as I might, I could never, in later years, read any poem in this book that was not one which my mother had read to me. The audible poem was the only poem that existed for me. I couldn't "hear" the others. And reading did not alter the influence or the feeling invoked in me by these poems. I'll talk more about this later.

Another important element of my childhood was radio. - This was a world that knew nothing of television, but there was a small radio in just about every room in the house, and throughout my childhood the radios were on all day.

I remember lying on the floor listening to the morning soap operas, Our Gall Sunday and The Guiding Light. Sometimes we listened to Arthur Godfrey in the morning though I can't remember anything he said. At noon we listened to Ma Perkins, and then came the parade of afternoon soaps which were a half hour instead of fifteen minutes and inherently much more dramatic. My favorites were Young Widow Brown and Stella Dallas, and Lorenzo Jones and His Wife Belle.

As evening came on, the children's programs began which my older sister loved. I suppose everyone else did too since everyone listened. Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy was maybe the first. Terry and the Pirates descended on us at some point, and then the king of all shows, The Lone Ranger, came on at six.

Nothing came between anyone in my family and The Lone Ranger. We moved on into the nighttime realm of the more dangerous shows, shows I call dangerous because they scared me out of my wits.

The Inner Sanctum so traumatized me that I couldn't listen to it after a certain age. But I was also caught unawares by episodes of Suspense, or The Lux Radio Theatre. And even The Big Story could pretty much drive me right out of my head.

What all these shows shared, of course, was that they were narratives being conveyed to us by voices - stories being enacted and told without visual images and certainly without any experience of printed words.

I entered into complete little worlds with these radio shows and emerged from them to enter into more worlds as the day and the night went on.

Weekends brought the big entertainment programs like Burns and Allen, or The Bob Hope Show, or The Jack Benny Program, and though these were amusing and everybody gathered for them, they didn't have the narrative pull of the

"story" shows, and the story shows shaped my idea of what a story was, and how important it was.

Either that happened or I simply responded to stories more than anything else.

There was certainly music pouring out of the radio, and it was invariably melodic and gentle. Songs like "Lavender Blue (Dilly Dilly)" or "You're Like a Plaintive Melody, That Never Lets Me Be" were being sung by substantial voices.

And I loved all this, but the stories were the key experience for me. When I could lock on to the events of a story, I was happy, or scared, depending on what those elements were.

During these years, we also went to the movies at a small neighborhood theater on Baronne Street two blocks away.

Other than the church, no other place is as vivid to me in retrospect as the Grenada Theater.

Yet the earliest films I recall, I saw downtown in spectacular movie palaces that were fantasies in themselves with great carpeted staircases, huge balconies, and even marble statues in the lobby and on the mezzanine floor.

The first film I recall seeing was Hamlet. We were in the balcony, my mother and my sister and I, and my mother was explaining to me what was happening as Hamlet's father was poisoned by his brother. The Ghost was talking. The film was in black-and-white and the images of the murder were fuzzy because it was something the Ghost was describing. The only other scene I recall from this movie was the scene of Ophelia floating away in her madness on a raft of flowers in a stream. It puzzled me very much that she didn't wake up when she fell into the water. I recall arguing about this. It seemed absurd that she simply slipped into the water, speaking soft words and gazing at the sky, and drowned.

Other early movies included Casablanca, of which I recall only the final scene between Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart as they talked beside the plane. I thought it was a dull film. I'd seen, though I don't remember it, a film about the Marx Brothers in Casablanca and I was disappointed that they weren't in this Casablanca film as well. The other notable scene I recall is from Caesar and Cleopatra, in which Cleopatra had herself smuggled on board Caesar's ship, wrapped in a rug. That was a fascinating scene to behold:

Vivien Leigh, the gorgeous Cleopatra with her long black hair and curling arm bracelets, coming out of that rug to the amazement of Claude Rains.

It's no accident that I remembered these scenes all my life.

It's no accident that I remember listening to the radio so vividly, that I can recall names and even bits of stories from the radio.

Again, all of this was knowledge coming to me audibly and not shaped by printed words. The motion pictures were immense and vital like the church and did not involve the printed word.

And in this preliterate world in which my interests and tendencies and faith were formed, there was a profound connection between narrative, art, music, and faith.

It never occurred to me or anyone I knew that the radio shows were profane, for example, and the church was sacred.

The radio shows and the worlds they revealed were as much a part of life as church. Same with films. My mother loved movies, and she told us stories that she had learned from movies. She described movies to us which we all thought would never come to the theaters of our time again. So anything one learned from the radio, from film, from museums, from church - all of it was a rich and wondrous stream in which one could thrive.

The radio brought us not only shows but broadcasts of the Rosary being recited, every evening for fifteen minutes. The Sunday Mass was broadcast over the radio too. My grandmother, long unable to go to church because of her broken hip and her built-up shoe, listened to the Mass in the dining room as she said her Rosary and read Our Sunday Visitor, a Catholic newspaper, all at the same time.

When I went to school and began to read, I lost an immense world of image, color, and intricate connections, but undoubtedly I retained more than I lost.

I gained in school a poor understanding of things through written text. School was when excruciating boredom and anger and frustration really began for me. The mystery and calm of the early years were destroyed by school. School was torture. School was like being in jail. It was captivity and torment and failure.

But what remained forever, what continued, was the sense of God and His Presence, of His embracing awareness of us and all we said and did and wanted and failed to do, and of His love. School couldn't destroy that faith. And alongside it, I retained the sense that the world was an interesting creative place, especially if one could get out of school.

Let me emphasize this again: Christian faith was in no way opposed to the world in which I grew up. One didn't leave the world to go to church. Church was simply the most interesting place in the world that I knew. The fact that the school was Catholic and the school taught about God didn't come between me and God. Nothing could do that when I was a child. I simply thought the school was a boring and miserable place. And I think I was right.

Chapter Three

Be re ll i eve d . I don't intend to describe eleven years of Catholic school in the same detail as I've described the world before school. I hated it too much to describe it here. It's much easier to try to draw useful conclusions from what happened than to relive it and wind up in a padded cell.

Before I go on to deal with school in any way, I'd like to talk a little more about my mother. And also I need to talk about my father and my older sister.

If I hadn't known my mother was the primary source of my education when I was little, I certainly knew after a few years of staring out of the window in school.

My mother's whole presentation of the world is what I took away from the first fourteen years of my life.

As I mentioned earlier, she'd read poems to us from before I could recall. My sister, Alice, and I would snuggle up with her on her bed in the smallest and coziest bedroom in the house. The book was called Two Hundred Best Poems for Boys and Girls compiled by Marjorie Barrows. It was a small hard-cover with a drawing of three timeless little children against a black flowered backdrop.

The poems were illustrated with small silhouettes by Janet Laura Scott and Paula Rees Good. The publisher was the Whitman Publishing Company, in Racine, Wisconsin.

This was the only book from which my mother read to us in the first years. "Song at Dusk" by Nancy Byrd Turner set the tone of my entire life.

The flowers nod, the shadows creep, A star comes over the hill;

The youngest lamb has gone to sleep, The smallest bird is still.

The world is full of drowsy things, And sweet with candlelight;

The nests are full of folded wings -

Goodnight, goodnight, goodnight.

Other poems in the book were filled with pirates, dragons, fairies, and general mystery and magic. My older sister, Alice, liked the more action-packed poems, but I think we agreed on "The Tale of Custard the Dragon" by Ogden Nash.

Belinda lived in a little white house, With a little black kitten and a little gray mouse, And a little yellow dog and a little red wagon, And a realio, trulio, little pet dragon.

The poem goes on for over twelve stanzas, and the gist is that Custard the dragon was a coward who nevertheless proved to be the only brave one in the house when a pirate broke in and threatened them all.

Belinda paled, and she cried, Help! Help!

But Mustard fled with a terrified yelp, Ink trickled down to the bottom of the household, And little mouse Blink strategically mouseholed.

But up jumped Custard, snorting like an engine, Clashed his tail like irons in a dungeon.

With a clatter and a clank and a jangling squirm He went at the pirate like a robin at a worm.

The reason I've copied out here so many stanzas of this poem is because I think it was significant that we, as little children, were acquainted with this kind of rhythm and vocabulary. Other poems in the book make a similar demand on the mind, and offer a similar musical delight.

Probably nothing I ever wrote as a published author did not derive in some way from the sixteen or so poems my mother chose, over and over again, to read to us from this book. The sheer pleasure of the experience was key.

I spent hours, not reading the poems, but looking at the silhouettes on each page and it did seem to me that these tiny pictures, usually no more than intricate borders for the poems, were filled with mystery.

But her poetry reading was the smallest part of my mother's influence. She told us fabulous stories all the time.

Lying on her bed, listening to her, I learned all about life. She loved to recount her own experiences, how she'd gone to California and lived among a family of movie people, ventured out to a town called Trona to work for a while, lived in Little Rock, Arkansas, though Heaven knows why, and how she'd dated this or that interesting young man, and gone to this or that Mardi Gras ball, or dinner at the yacht club, or how her father - dead in 1917 - had been a powerful longshoreman who could carry huge sacks on his shoulders, dazzling other weaker men. She discoursed at length on other people, their psychology, what they were like, and she loved above all perhaps to tell us the plots of movies. Ben-Hur she had loved and also The Count of Monte Cristo, starring Robert Donat, and there were numerous other films which she sought to make real for us, which we might never see.

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