Home > Called Out of Darkness(6)

Called Out of Darkness(6)
Author: Anne Rice

And as we came into this garden, one of the girls, my cousin Kitty Belle Murphy, looked up and smiled at me and greeted me cheerfully and kindly by my old name. "Well, how do you do, Howard Allen?" she said with a lovely generosity that was characteristic of her every time I ever spoke to her.

I remember being startled, not by the old name, but by the friendliness with which she greeted me, that she didn't mind people knowing I was her cousin. I already had a profound sense by then that I was a rather disreputable or ques-tionable person. And Kitty Belle Murphy was perfect in every respect.

She was the youngest girl in a family of eight which was a model Christian family, and her mother, our aunt Lillian, was one of the most beloved people in our world. Uncle Cecil Murphy, the father of the eight children, was the perfect model of a Catholic man. Kitty had a great glow-ing generosity of spirit very like her mother, and she remains in this memory of mine nestled among the flowers and near to the Grotto of the Virgin, a large stone edifice, in which the Blessed Mother stood with arms out, appearing to the kneeling figure of St. Bernadette. No Catholic school existed in those days that didn't have a grotto, with the Virgin and St. Bernadette. We all knew the Virgin had appeared to St. Bernadette in Lourdes, France, and that there was a great miraculous shrine there where people were constantly healed by the powerful waters that had sprung from the earth at the command of the Virgin to Bernadette.

Kitty was a saint for me as certainly as was Bernadette.

Indeed, Kitty had a saintly and lovely sister named Bernadette, and she too was a shining light in my childhood, and my years of growing up. After my mother's death, the Murphy girls were like my elder sisters, and they helped me with many of the small problems that a teenage girl confronts. The steady light cast by the whole Murphy family, in their old-fashioned Catholic perfection, has illuminated my life up to the present time. In a real way, they deserve their own book, the Murphy family. Seven of the eight children are living, and they and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are an endangered species indeed.

Back to the first-grade classroom:

What we learned in this school immediately was to write in a perfect Palmer-style hand. We learned this from books of Palmer script, making pages of a's and then b's and moving on through the alphabet. We never learned to print.

We learned to read from an insipid reader filled with fantastical pictures of Dick and Jane and Father and Mother who lived in a fantastical house with a monkey. We knew these were supposed to be ordinary people. But they looked to us like millionaires in a world of luxury that had nothing to do with our own.

They weren't related to the kinds of houses in which we lived, and they had nothing to do with the great mansions of the Garden District. I had some vague sense that they were

"American" and "normal." It was a bore. "See Dick run." I learned it but I didn't learn how to sink into a book or embrace it. And these readers probably had nothing to do with the failure either way.

We also learned the catechism, which was far more interesting to read, and this was my first formal instruction in religion that had to do with printed words.

My difficulties with reading prevented me from ever absorbing it as written material. I remember it as a series of rhythmic recitations:

Who made us? God made us.

Why did God make us? God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in Heaven.

Who is God? God is the Supreme Being.

We learned to recite this out loud, and though we did eventually learn to copy the questions and answers in pencil or ink, it was the rhythm that lodged in my mind.

Now compare the above to "See Dick run." Which is more interesting? Religion as the catechism taught it was infinitely more interesting. Think about the lovely sound of the word "everlasting." Reading lines like "See Dick run" was a bit like playing scales, I suppose. Whatever the case, the readers meant nothing until they started to have real stories in them in the fifth grade. The catechism shaped the learning that sparked my attention and my imagination, and began to fill up my head.

Our classrooms were large with huge windows that were open to the breezes that kept us cool even in periods of sti-fling heat which people in our air-conditioned world would not have borne. There were pictures of the saints in these classrooms, and there were statues, but I don't remember any of them. I think every room had a crucifix. I think every room might have had a picture of Pope Pius XII. It saddens me that I can't remember these details, and that the building, destroyed by Hurricane Betsy, in the sixties, is long gone.

The students in the school were white. These were the days of segregation and I did not ever hear of a school in our neighborhood for "colored" Catholics, and as far as I know there was none. Where these children were educated, I have no idea.

There were in fact many educated black people in New Orleans, and they did have schools, but they were not part of our world. I learned about them much later, when I began to roam the city, and even then the sight of them, these solid middle-class black people, was a bit of a shock.

The people of this time were vigorously racist. Though my parents were not, they accepted segregation as something that had to exist. They actively taught us not to be racist. But they were not social activists. I was not acutely aware of these issues at six years of age. But I lived in a white world of women and little girls. My father, a beloved uncle, and the priests were the only men.

Soon after I entered first grade, we began to prepare for our First Confession and our First Communion, and I think, though I'm not sure, that we went to daily Mass in the nearby church of St. Alphonsus, which was, and is, one of the most engulfingly beautiful places I've ever been.

At this point in my life, this was surely the largest structure I'd ever seen, except perhaps for the church of the Holy Name uptown, and St. Alphonsus was a much more intricately and opulently decorated church. The stained-glass windows are a marvel in themselves. I remember long periods in the pews, when I would study these windows, and the one which has proved unforgettable is the window in which the Boy Jesus appears before the Elders in the Temple, and proves to be admirable and wise. These were romantic and robust depictions, just like the other images in the church, which included vibrant and elaborate murals on the ceiling - of Jesus ascending into Heaven above the assembled Apostles - and numerous other portraits of saints.

A giant mural or fresco stood above the main altar of the church, and the altar was extremely impressive as were the four side altars which this church contained. Our Mother of Perpetual Help had her own special altar to the right of the main altar, and on the far left, on the other side of the church, was the altar of St. Joseph. Two other altars stood against the side walls of the church. And there were times, early in the morning, when Mass was being said on all five altars, because the parish had a large staff of priests, and all priests in those days had to celebrate Mass each day at least once.

Coming to this church for 5:30 a.m. Mass with my mother was an experience, after which we had soft drinks - an unusual treat - at a little restaurant on St. Charles Avenue before going home.

To the right of the altar, and down farther into the body of the church, there was a giant crucifix hung against one of the many Corinthian columns that made up the church. Our Lord on the cross looked resigned with His eyes closed. At His feet stood His sorrowful Mother, whom we sometimes called the Mater Dolorosa, or simply Our Lady of Sorrows.

And I liked to talk to Our Lord on this cross.

Throughout my early years, I witnessed sumptuous Masses and services in this church.

Midnight Mass that first year for me involved a procession in which we first-grade girls were angels with heavy wings strapped to our backs, and we moved out of the sanctuary, and down the center aisle, two by two, over what I recall as a carpet of flower petals.

Benediction in this church, that is, the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, was a splendid affair, and I recall once the priest moving down the center aisle and up another, with a canopy carried over him and the monstrance with which he blessed all those he passed.

To attend the Stations of the Cross in this church was profoundly inspiring, with the priest and two altar boys moving from Station to Station, announcing the name of the Station - for example, the first, "Jesus Is Condemned to Death," or the Sixth Station, "Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus," or the Eleventh Station, "Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross" - and then reciting the prayer for that particular moment on Jesus' journey to the tomb.

The prayers being recited by the priest had been written by St. Alphonsus Liguori, the patron saint of our parish and our church and the saint who founded the Order of the Redemptorist Fathers who staffed our parish and all its schools and its two churches and its chapel in the Garden District.

After the recitation of the prayer for the Station, we sang a verse of a long continuous sad and tender hymn. At the First Station, the verse went:

At the Cross her station keeping, Stood the mournful Mother weeping, Close to Jesus to the last.

After the Fourteenth Station, "Jesus Is Placed in the Sep-ulcher," the concluding verse ran:

Virgin of all Virgins best

Listen to my fond request,

Let me share thy grief divine.

This was quite an experience even for me in my youngest years - intense, and deliberately sorrowful and purposeful and satisfying as rich food or drink.

But to return to the momentous events of first grade, learning to make one's First Confession was keenly important and then First Communion was a bit like a little wedding, as we girls wore the most stunningly beautiful white dresses that our parents could find, and wreaths of white flowers in our specially curled hair. We also wore rouge and lipstick for this.

Later, at age twelve, Confirmation, which I "made" in Holy Name of Jesus Church, near Loyola University, was another little wedding, on an even grander scale. Our dresses were fancier and more expensive, and this time we wore not only the white wreaths of flowers, but exquisite veils thrown back over the wreaths to form beautiful layers of white netting trimmed in a thorn stitch of white silk.

These were the big sacraments of being Catholic. And they were high points of Catholic life for everyone involved.

The First Confession I recall with some pain. This came before First Communion, and I was perhaps six years old.

We were taught how to examine our consciences and determine what sins we had committed; and we were told that we had to be extremely thorough, and confess every single sin that we could recall. To deliberately leave out a sin was a terrible sin, a sin of sacrilege that would invalidate the Confession and of course leave one in a state of sin which was devoutly to be avoided at all costs. When the priest gave us absolution, our sins would be forgiven, absolutely completely wiped away. The penance given by the priest would be a matter of Hail Marys or Our Fathers. I never remember it being more than that during the entire time I was growing up.

Now, I was six years old at this time, as I said, which meant, strictly speaking, I had not reached the Age of Reason. So I wasn't really qualified to commit a sin. However, I was going to be seven soon enough, and I was painfully conscious of what that meant. At the age of seven I could commit a mortal sin and go to Hell forever for it. And so the Confession went forward, and the Confession was of the utmost importance.

We also learned at that time that there were two kinds of sins, mortal sins and venial sins, and this was a lesson that has stayed with me, in one form or another, all my life. I don't think I've ever stopped thinking of sin in terms of two kinds of sins.

A mortal sin was of course the worst. If one died with a mortal sin on one's conscience, one went to Hell. I vaguely recall the question in the catechism, "What three things are necessary to make a sin mortal?" I've been unable to find a reprint of the catechism that has the answer I can only partially reproduce. It went something like "The matter must be grievously wrong, the sinner must know that it is grievously wrong, and the sinner must have full intent to commit the sin." There's a great deal to ponder in this answer. But let me move on to the description of venial sin which I can take now from a reprint of the 1933 edition of the Baltimore Catechism:

Venial sin is a slight offence against the law of God in matters of less importance; or in matters of great importance it is an offence committed without suffi-cient reflection or full consent of the will.

Again, there's a lot to ponder here, because the description is both detailed and comprehensive and describes human actions on a multitude of levels and from different points of view.

As a little child, I found nothing confusing in any of this.

It seemed logical and of a piece with the images in the church, the complex and ever unfolding story of Jesus' life on earth, and the entire picture of God in Heaven and the faithful down here struggling to do His will.

I remember standing in the back of the church with other little girls waiting nervously for this first Confession. The confessional box was a tall tri-part affair made of black wood.

The priest sat in the center compartment, behind a little black wooden gate, and with a green curtain hanging above it, and those who wanted to confess entered to kneel in compartments on either side. The priest alternated between sides, opening a screen to hear the Confession of the kneeling person whom the priest could hardly see. To those of us going to Confession, the priest was a profile and a voice.

I was afraid I'd forget something; I went back over and over my sins. But I don't recall now what they were. I suspect they focused on the Fourth Commandment: "Honor thy father and thy mother." It did seem this was the most important challenge facing me at that point. I don't recall the Confession itself. I recall others over the years, as I went to Confession every week after that right up through the age of seventeen.

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