Called Out of Darkness

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I haven’t read many of Anne Rice’s novels, not being particularly interested in vampires, but her memoir, Called Out of Darkness, looked interesting when I saw it in the library. It’s about her childhood experience of religion, her retreat from it, and her eventual return.

Her childhood was in a time not so long ago, from my perspective, since it overlapped with mine. It was a time when almost everyone was religious (at least nominally Christian) and there was no air conditioning, which we didn’t miss, not having experienced it. One may have little to do with the other, but it was a more natural time in that respect, and Americans in general were more innocent.

Rice’s life has been unusual in part because she wanted to be a writer without having facility in reading books. So her experience of religion (Catholicism in her case) was direct. She loved the churches and services she and her family attended. She never remembered NOT wanting to go to mass, and she also loved the priests and nuns she came in contact with. Two of her aunts were nuns, and she was impressed with the selfless way in which they lived. She also liked the nuns who taught her in school (though she adds the nuns were tougher on the boys than the girls). Of course this was well before the sexual molestation scandal hit the Catholic church, and probably few even imagined such a thing in those days.

It felt to her like a gigantic family because growing up in New Orleans everyone she knew was Catholic, and all the holidays were religious. She loved them all. She thought, at one point, of becoming a nun, but was dissuaded by her father. In retrospect she says that this was just as well, since she didn’t have the temperament for it.

Temperament, among other things, became problematic for her as she entered her teens. She was annoyed at being treated like a child, since she never felt like one (at least since being a very young child), and being a girl, and a Catholic girl at that, was also a problem.

That’s because, in the 1940s and 50s going steady was a mortal sin, as were hugging and kissing. This was one of the things pushing her away from the church.

Another thing, not specifically Catholic, was the attitude of some about her going to college. One person tried to persuade her it would be better for her to major in something other than journalism, since she would be unlikely to find a job in that field. Another tried to persuade her that highly intelligent people were unhappy. College, she says, is when she put that kind of thinking behind her.

A basic problem was that the Catholic church had come out against the modern world in the previous century, and that was agonizing for Rice, because she desperately wanted knowledge, just as she desperately wanted sex. The only acceptable way to have sex was to be married and have children. There WAS no acceptable way to the kind of knowledge she wanted when so many of the authors she wanted to explore were atheists, or at least not Catholic. She had decided she needed to attend college and work at becoming someone, and that meant a Protestant college, as there was no Catholic university she could possibly afford.

And when she met other students just as hungry for knowledge as she, she also discovered they were good people without being Catholic. They weren’t careless sinners, but thought about what they wanted to do and how to behave ethically.

Talking to a young priest about her doubts, he told her, after he found out about her old-fashioned Catholic upbringing, that she would never be happy outside the church. Though he meant well, she was no longer a Catholic when she left the room, she says.

There had been a mixture of art and mind in the church she had attended as a child. Now that was being taken away from her. So she stopped being Catholic.

“I could not separate my personal relationship with God, and with Jesus Christ, from my relationship with the church.” This, she says, was the real tragedy: she felt she had to stop believing in God in order to leave the church. She left it for 38 years.

It made sense at the time. The church lied to her. God wouldn’t damn people for kissing, masturbating, or thinking. If he did, he couldn’t be called loving, and loving is the way Rice perceived God and Jesus as a child. She tells how a very old nun beamed at her once and said it was wonderful because her soul was pure. That was the manifestation of God and Jesus she wanted to believe. But that’s not what the church told teenagers and young adults.

She adds that from childhood on the church gave people lies to tell outsiders. For instance, that the Inquisition hadn’t executed anyone–that was done by secular society. But secular society and the Catholic church hadn’t been separate in those times. This, she says, was a first-rate Catholic lie.

She could have gone to an opposite extreme and become promiscuous, for instance. Instead, she married the young man she had known for several years, and stayed with him for the rest of his life (he died fifteen years ago). And theirs was, for the most part, a gender equal relationship at a time when that was probably unusual. She wanted to become something, and he thought she should. They argued as equals about the things that passionately interested them, sometimes scandalizing their friends.

These passions, contrary to what one might think, had little to do with the new movements that had begun in the 1950s and were becoming public in the sixties. Rice says she had missed the civil rights movement because she’d moved to California before it became front page news. She was looking at the past, so didn’t pay attention to Vietnam, and didn’t realize that assumptions about race and gender were being overturned. Feminism she thinks was a movement too painful for her to participate in at the time. She was trying to understand the past, especially the World Wars, and was unaware of the present. She admired secular humanism as she found it in San Francisco and Berkeley, and still does today, she says–much against the fashion in some sectors of society.

Two things then happened to change her life significantly. Her daughter became sick and died before turning six. This led her to write her first novel, Interview with a Vampire, which not only established her as a writer, but also as a person separate from her husband. Now, when people spoke to her it was because they wanted to talk to HER, not her husband.

The other was that they had another child, and decided they needed to stop drinking, which they did, thus avoiding the bad health, inability to work at high capacity, and possible early death that comes with alcoholism.

Then, as a wife and parent, she pursued her writing.

She wrote about people shut out of life for various reasons. Vampires are outsiders. So are witches. So are castrati. And since she didn’t write in the intellectually fashionable way, she attracted readers who sometimes never read anything else.

The arc of her writing was to lead her back to God, she says. She found this particularly in the historical research she did to create her novels, most especially in the survival of the Jews which, according to what she’d learned in school, shouldn’t have happened. She’d been drawn to a brilliant Jewish family she’d met (and had babysat for) in her early teens, and was heartbroken when they’d moved away. In her later life she had many Jewish friends, and was as impressed with their determination to do right as with the Catholics she’d grown up with.

Then, in 1988, she moved back to New Orleans with her family, and found that the huge Catholic family she had left there accepted them the way they were, quite against her expectation. When she was growing up Catholics were told to shun anyone who married outside the church, divorced, or did a number of other things the church disapproved of. But she wasn’t judged for those things or for having written about witches and vampires. Suddenly the church felt inclusive, that ordinary Catholics were no longer willing to automatically exclude minorities who transgressed on some dogma, no matter what the church hierarchy might say.

In the late 80s and 90s Rice’s faith in atheism was beginning to crumble, she says. She traveled to religious sites and collected religious relics. The natural world and artistic world both spoke to her of the existence of God. Not only that, but twentieth century American was still obsessed with Jesus, and not just the fanatics. Jesus Christ Superstar is a frivolous example, but there were also many books written, and a whole new genre of popular Christian music became commercially viable. Probably some of this was fanatically dogmatic, but not all of it.

Rice says of her own novels that they rebelled against modernist literature in telling stories in old-fashioned ways, but not against the modernism the Catholic church opposed. Her characters were isolated individuals who didn’t live according to dogma, maybe especially not according to sexual dogma. Her novels, she says, are committed to sexual freedom and gender equality–all the things that had been going on in the 60s and 70s which the Church had generally opposed, and which she had generally been oblivious to. Overall, she says, they’re the story of her return to faith from atheism. Atheism hadn’t exactly been wrong, in the context of a church that rejected so much of the modern world, and hence of life, but ultimately it was unsatisfactory for her.

The world was telling her of God’s existence and love, and eventually she surrendered to it, realizing that she didn’t have to understand everything. God did and does. She only had to play her part.

At this point, she says, came a miracle: she didn’t know ANYTHING about the contemporary church. If she had, she might never have felt able to return. She didn’t know about the church’s rejection of ordination of women (she had once wanted to become a priest), or of the polarization between Right and Left within the church, nor about the pedophilia scandal that had only recently broken. All she knew was that the Catholic church of her childhood still existed, and that this was her way to return to God.

Not, she says, that she could consider herself an actual Christian during this time. She didn’t live an unChristian life, but it wasn’t especially Christian either. The essence of it was a struggle how to proceed. The Christian life means to entirely substitute God’s will for your own, and that’s where many of us hesitate. Rice had numerous employees; would God demand a sacrifice so she could no longer employ them? Many Christians have suffered persecution, often physical persecution as well as emotional. Would that be demanded?

Then she realized that, as a writer, it was her role to write what God wanted her to write. So that’s what she began doing. As she did, she discovered that the only version of the life of Jesus that resonated with her was the orthodox version: he was the Son of God, and performed all the miracles recorded in the New Testament. She says she read many of the books that question the New Testament, and found the scholarship slipshod, one place where I would probably disagree with her, though my knowledge of the the question is far from complete.

For Rice, the Incarnation is what is important, so she dubs herself a Christmas Christian instead of a Passion Christian. The Passion and Atonement leave her cold compared to the idea of God being born a child of a mortal woman. A woman, moreover, who had become pregnant outside of wedlock, giving rise to obvious rumors. While the Passion may be as or more important, it’s not what moves her.

She also began reading the Gospels, the rest of the Bible, and Biblical scholars as well. What she found, she says, is that she couldn’t see the Gospels as anything but written by first-person witnesses. She couldn’t see the books as collaborative or edited, something else I would probably disagree about. She finds tremendous depth in those books, as the Church has always insisted, but cannot force anyone to believe.

The other thing she realized was that she was called on to love everyone. Literally. It’s easy to condemn Christians and everyone else for not doing this, or not doing it well enough. A temptation, she says, we always have to resist.

She includes a prayer written by St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace,                                      Where there is hatred, let me sow Love.                                             Where there is injury, pardon,                                                                Where there is doubt, faith,                                                                   Where there is despair, hope,                                                                Where there is darkness, light,                                                             And where there is sadness, joy.                                                          O Divine Master, grant that I may                                                          Not so much seek to be consoled as to console;                               To be understood as to understand;                                                   To be loved as to love;                                                                            For it is in giving that we receive–                                                        It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;                                              And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. 

Rice tells us of finding a statue of Christ on the cross reaching down to embrace St. Francis. She found it three times: once in an antique shop, once in a church in Brazil, and then in the church she was attending as this memoir was written.

I think it’s significant that the present Pope is Francis, and that no other Pope before him had taken that name. I think that was because the Church went through a time of great hatred, some of which began about the time of St. Francis, with the crusade against the Albigensians. That crusade was the birth of the Inquisition, model for future police states, which led to the persecution of the conversos (the Jews who had converted to Christianity in Spain, but continued to practice Jewish worship), the great wars against the Protestants, the persecution of the witches, and finally to the ideals embodied in the US Constitution about the separation of church and state to avoid religious wars. Maybe the appearance of the present Pope and his choice of the name Francis is significant. Maybe it means that a majority of Catholics are tired of the hatred that made them embattled in many places and separated religion from science.

And if that’s true for a majority of Catholics, maybe it’s true for a majority of people in general: Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or atheist, despite the horrors still perpetrated in the world, too often by religious people.

Rice notes the religious obsessions with sexuality and gender, and wonders if these could not be made secular as much (but not all) of science has. Science tells us something of how the stars are made, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also see them as lights created by God to guide us. We can also, if we wish, see God in every human, every animal, and the whole natural world. That would be a more optimistic view of the universe than seeing the world as merely the story of random chemical reactions.

Unless, of course, God were to continue to be viewed through the lens of dogma and power. When God is only a tool of the powerful, organized religion loses its point. It has nothing to offer the rest of us, especially the poorest, most vulnerable, and most persecuted.

Anne Rice had, it seems, to leave her church and return to it to realize just how significant it was to her. Her path won’t be the same path as anyone else. But her story can serve as an inspiration, rather than a roadmap.

 

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