Home > Called Out of Darkness(7)

Called Out of Darkness(7)
Author: Anne Rice

But that first one in particular I don't recall. I recall rather the shadowy aisle of the church and the immensity of the confessional, and the utter seriousness of this confrontation with the reality of sin.

On the day of my First Communion, the only thing I really cared about was my white dress, my paper wreath of white flowers, and those I'd visit afterwards as the special little girl who'd just made her First Communion.

Someone at some point told us that Napoleon Bonaparte had once said that the happiest day of his life was that of his First Communion. I felt dreadfully inadequate after hearing that. There was no doubt in my mind that I lacked that kind of depth. And years later when I discovered Napoleon had been about twelve when he made his First Communion, I was distinctly relieved. After all, I'd been only six.

Now this is the memory I hold sacred from that day.

After the ceremony I was taken to old Mercy Hospital on the riverfront to visit the nuns. My aunt Anna Mae of the beautiful name was there, no doubt, though I don't recall her.

I do remember being in the garden with the sisters, another one of those lovely places with which my childhood is filled.

I suppose you couldn't have a Catholic institution without a lush and beautiful garden. You couldn't have a hospital, an old folks' home, a boarding school or a grammar school without that mysterious place set apart for blossoms, within brick walls.

And I recall an ancient nun, a kitchen sister, all in white with an apron, coming into the hospital garden and telling me with a radiant face that this was a wonderful day because my soul was so pure. She was thin, almost wraithlike, and she made me think of driftwood; but the look of joy on her face and the enthusiasm with which she said these words were breathtaking to me. She seemed utterly and completely sincere and in the presence of a magnificent concept that went beyond anyone or anything present.

She is the memory of my First Communion, and I never knew her name - a woman who came out of the kitchen in her white apron to tell me gently and with immense conviction what it meant that my immortal soul was pure.

After First Communion I went all the time to Mass and Communion, and in those days this involved a total fast from midnight. One could not drink a drop of water. One could eat not a crumb. But it didn't matter. This was part of the way things were, and Mass was the way to begin every single day.

Even in summer, when we did not have the sisters to herd us into the church, my mother roused us. "He's three blocks away," she would say. "He's on that altar. Now get up and go." She'd have breakfast ready when we came home.

By second grade, we were reading "Bible history," and this was our beginning of understanding the Bible as a collection of tales. It is true that Catholics of this period did not learn the Bible. And I don't ever recall seeing a Bible in our house.

We weren't forbidden to study it; we simply didn't do it. The Gospel on Sunday was a reading by the priest from the New Testament; the Epistle on Sunday was a reading from the letters of St. Paul. I don't think I ever really understood who St.

Paul really was, except that he had written the Epistles read to us on Sunday, but why or when I did not know.

I never understood the Epistles. They struck me as vague and abstract.

Our study of "Bible history" told us the tales of both Old and New Testaments, which we learned from little books with delicate pen illustrations in which the biblical figures were appealingly drawn.

Recently I've examined several editions of the Illustrated Bible History by Dr. I. Schuster. And I'm fairly certain we used a version of this material, though precisely which edition I don't know. What strikes me as I look at the books now is that the stories of the Bible are detached from the voice or name of any particular book of the Bible, and though much biblical language is used, there are also sections of teaching which do not come directly from Scripture. For example, right after the words of God condemning Adam - "for dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return" - there comes a paragraph which reads "How great is the mercy of God, that He promised a Redeemer to our sinful parents." This is not in the Bible as far as I know.

After the story of Cain slaying his brother Abel, there comes this line: "The innocent Abel slain by his envious brother is a figure of Christ."

The point here is this: I grew up on these little Bible histories, reading more and more with each passing grade from school, and though they gave me an immersion in biblical lit-erature, I did not come out of it really knowing Scripture itself.

The emphasis here is on incident and not on the biblical voice.

When we came to the life of Jesus in our Bible histories, we moved into a harmonized version of Jesus' life, with no specific reference to an Evangelist as the source of the details we read. Though the words of Christ appeared in these stories, we did not have the stylistic flavor of the individual Gospel. Certainly there was no sense that the Gospels contradicted one another or challenged one another because there was no sense of the individual Gospels.

I recall loving this material and reading it with interest, though again I can hardly call it reading. I took the information from the page, but I never sank into the prose and rode along with it into another realm.

Later on in school, and in the library, I did go through many types of books. Those that held my interest were principally Greek myths and lives of the saints.

I discovered the wondrous world of Greek myths at the public library, and I read the lives of the saints in the library at school. I could follow this type of material because of action and incident, and I felt I was gaining information from it which I could apply directly to my own life. It had little to do with the style of the writing or with any imaginary world created by a particular author's prose.

Books that demanded that type of surrender were over my head.

I also read in the library books about prehistoric times and about ancient Egypt and ancient Greece. Pictures in these books had a powerful effect, and the topics were frequently discussed at length in our house. I fell in love with the lore and art of ancient Egypt. The realm of Greek mythology remained an obsession with me all my life.

And I recall vividly studying small marble Greek statues of gods and goddesses that decorated the lobby and mezzanine of the beautiful Saenger Theatre downtown. These statues were elaborate and true to baroque models, something I couldn't know, but could only sense. The theater had huge Greek statues way up at the tops of its walls, and I loved to gaze up at these statues at times when the movies were not so interesting. The ceiling of the Saenger Theatre was the dark blue night sky, covered with stars.

Greek mythology, stories of the gods, stories of the ancient Egyptians, all this intrigued me and excited me, but precious little discussion of any of this occurred in the classroom.

No one ever suggested that there was any tension between studying classical times or ancient times, or prehistoric times and being a believing Catholic. This was all legitimate and profitable knowledge, and conversation at home involved it all.

As for the lives of the saints, I was able to pick away at the stories, especially those written for children. By the sixth and seventh grades, I read these almost exclusively, never attempt-ing any fiction written for children, which seemed to me a waste of time. My curiosity about history was building. I remember being swept up in a life of Leonardo da Vinci to the point where I fell in love with him. I pored over a lurid history of the Roman emperors and their debaucheries which gave me nightmares.

It's important here to note that there were saints of all kinds for study, and that there were as many female saints as male saints.

In fact, I never associated gender with a saint.

St. Rose of Lima with her spectacular penances and supernatural abilities was as interesting as St. Ignatius Loyola who had founded the Jesuits; after all, St. Rose of Lima could toss roses in the air which formed a floating cross. St. Martin de Porres, who could be in two places at one time (the gift of bilocation), was as fascinating as St. Teresa of Avila who founded the Discalced Carmelites and wrote her own autobiography, a book with which I struggled pretty much in vain.

St. Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians, was fabulously interesting, not only because she was beautifully pictured with an organ or a harp, but because she had been a valiant martyr, and her persecutors had tried, without success, to suffocate her in her lavish Roman bath. Sometimes the sufferings of the saints were too much for me. I shuddered when I read about St. Lawrence being roasted alive. I questioned my own courage in the face of his example. I preferred to read the colorful adventures of saints like Francis of Assisi who accomplished great things without the necessity of a bloody death.

I also chipped away, during those years, at The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, and at The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius but gained very little, and went back to the narrative adventures of heroism that never failed to carry me along.

There was St. Alphonsus, who had founded the Redemptorist Fathers of our parish. And St. Elizabeth of Hungary, who had given so much to the poor. There was St. Lucy, whose eyes had been put out during her martyrdom.

And St. Agnes, who had died a martyr as well. There were saints from all periods of church history, and this included our own times. St. Therese, The Little Flower, had lived only a short time ago. And most recently, St. Maria Goretti, a lovely young Italian girl, had died rather than give up her chastity to an attacker, and had been canonized by Pope Pius XII.

We all wanted to be like Maria Goretti. We would have died rather than give up our chastity, of course.

But I hungered for something beyond martyrdom - the greatness of St. Francis of Assisi, leaving his rich father, to found the Franciscan Order and reform the entire church. I hungered for a spectacular life of extraordinary triumphs, and I don't think I understood anything really about obedience or humility in terms of this sort of life. The idea for me was to be exceptional, to be great.

All these saints had their emblems or tokens, and many of their statues filled our churches. St. Rita, a tall dark-clad nun, always had the wound in her forehead, through which she suffered willingly for Christ. I remember standing in front of her statue in the back of St. Alphonsus Church and praying to her in the hopes that she would help me to love suffering, which in fact I intensely disliked.

St. Catherine, the martyr, was always pictured with a wheel. St. Lucy, her eyes miraculously restored, held the first pair on a plate. We visited her statue in St. John the Baptist Church and prayed to her there. St. Teresa of Avila held a feather quill because she was, on account of her writings, a Doctor of the Church. St. Agnes, in the small holy pictures we treasured, always had her lamb beside her. And St. Louis of France, perhaps my favorite at one time, was pictured with his golden crown, as he had been the king of France.

On the corner of Josephine Street and Constance Street, one-half block from St. Alphonsus Church and right across the street from St. Mary's Church, stood the "holy stores," or two shops that sold statues, rosaries, and holy pictures. And I loved collecting these holy pictures of the saints.

When I was about twelve, I persuaded my father to clean up a little unused room on our back porch, and to paint it so that it would become an oratory for me, like the oratory used by St. Rose of Lima in her family garden in Peru.

My father did a wonderful job. I remember he painted the walls a beautiful shade of gray. And I put up lovely gilded holy pictures all around the walls of this little room. I spent time in it praying. I was trying to be a saint.

In school, Bible history at some point gave way to church history, and this held my interest because of the high level of incident and the narrative flow.

I lost the real thread of what was happening, but I recall spectacular events like the Greek Schism when Eastern Catholics split off from Roman Catholics, and also the time of the Babylonian Captivity when the pope did not reside at Rome; there came a troubled time when there were three men claiming to be popes. At some point, St. Catherine of Siena, one of the greatest saints ever, went to the true pope and persuaded him to return to Rome where the true pope should always live. I was overwhelmed by the life of St. Catherine of Siena. In her zeal to serve the Lord, after nursing lepers, she took the washbasin she'd been using for this and drank the water. I wanted the courage to do something as great.

With regard to the Bible, I continued to hear it in the readings at Mass, and the words were deeply poetic and impressive. Surely I became acquainted that way with many incidents in the life of Christ, but again, I had no sense of the overall flow.

Whatever the case, I came out of Catholic school knowing all the important people and incidents of the Bible, without a sense of its distinctiveness, its idiosyncrasies, or its poetic qualities. I had little sense at all of the Bible's voice.

And I came out with a strong sense of the history of the church - at least up to the Reformation - and of the lives of the saints. As for the Reformation, it was described to us in wholly negative terms. Martin Luther, we were taught, had been a deeply flawed human being. Horrified by the corruption he saw in Rome, he had recoiled from the whole church.

And because he himself could not be perfect according to the rules of the faith, he had rebelled against them, something which we in our humility must never do.

Protestant religions were not true religions, and they differed from us in one striking and essential way. Protestants didn't believe in good works, we were told, and we knew that good works were essential. "Faith without good works is dead." That was our motto, and that was the motto of every Catholic hospital or sanitarium or Catholic school.

But all this was theoretical to me, as I knew no Protestants. And I couldn't imagine people who didn't believe in good works. I couldn't grasp what such a Christian life could possibly mean. The whole world around me was Catholic.

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