Friday, October 15, 2010

True Conversions No.14: Anne Rice

Called Out of Darkness; A Spiritual Confession
Anne Rice
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008, 245pp., $24.00
ISBN: 978-0-307-39759-1 (bound)

On December 6, 1998, Anne Rice, a financially successful and internationally celebrated author of some twenty-five novels-- starting with the now-classic Interview with the Vampire— made the decision to return to the Catholic faith of her childhood. Not totally a conversion, however; the process and event appear to be more on the order of a spiritual homecoming. Nevertheless, Rice’s decision amazed her avid readers and fans, as did a subsequent decision in 2005 to devote all of her future writing to the exploration of religious themes consistent with her newly rediscovered Christian faith. Published in 20008, Called out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession marks the conclusion of the first decade of Rice’s re-conversion. Now, more securely rooted in her faith identity and commitment, she reflects upon the journey and process which prompted her initial spiritual quest.

The first half of the book is dedicated to Rice’s childhood in New Orleans—the child of a struggling blue-collar family straddling the adjacent, but separate worlds of the Garden District and Irish Channel neighborhoods. She was born into a third-generation Irish Catholic home, and the intimate world of experience she describes is one which would be immediately identifiable to anyone brought up in a similar Catholic enclave (circa 1940-60) in any major urban area in the United States. Here, the Church, most especially the parish church, was the spiritual heart and hearth of both families and entire neighborhoods. The protected and secure world of the Church affected every aspect of life. It marked the passing of the day and the procession of the year according to its holydays: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Corpus Christi. Saints were not only household names, they were members of the extended family and their intercession was sought on matters great and small.

In this highly devotional—and sensual—world of sights and smells and sounds, Rice absorbed an aesthetically-inspired faith: “My earliest experiences involved beauty; my strongest memories are of beautiful things I saw, things which evoked such profound feeling in me that I often felt pain.” Her hopes and longings were part of a dreamlike landscape in which, clearly, God and Beauty were one and the same. At college (Texas Woman’s University), away from home and exiled from this protective Catholic universe, Rice discovered a wider world of experience: one which both shocked and tantalized her. She soon shed her childhood Catholicism and immersed herself in its invitations and offerings.

What seems like a lifetime later, Rice the author returns both to New Orleans and to the Church. Her rediscovery of faith and re-immersion into the aesthetic comforts and consolations of the physical vestiges of her childhood reawaken her childhood longings for God and communion with that God. She buys several buildings in her old neighborhood, including the now-derelict parish church of St. Alphonsus. Other people enter the scene—she reconnects with her Catholic relatives, who to her amazement, are nothing like the narrow-minded and bigoted denizens of her childhood: “ I was picking up the pieces of a Catholic childhood with these significant purchases. I was forming alliances with those still within the fold. I was keeping company with their loving kindness and their daily faith.”

These rekindled relationships, to some extent become real-life replacements for the characters of the novels penned in her years as a self-proclaimed atheist: “The novel (Interview) was also an obvious lament for my lost faith. The vampires roam in a world without God; and Louis, the heartbroken hero, searches for a meaningful context in vain.” Art plus people plus longing plus a willingness to enter into the journey plus a compelling presentiment of being pursued by God—all of this informed and impelled her reconciliation.

In a nutshell, Rice’s conversion has an aspect totally consistent with her aesthetic bent and romantic longings. But is that enough? She seems to have been blissfully unaware and even unaffected by the major convulsions, both individual and societal around her. The major shifts and ensuing tensions within the Catholic Church and the world do not seem to have intruded upon her private devotion: “For just about thirty years, I’d suffered such an aversion to Catholicism that I avoided any mention of it anywhere, including any sustained contact w/ anyone who was Catholic. I’d heard rumblings of big changes in the Catholic Church, horror stories of the loss of the Latin liturgy, of an English Mass. I’d heard that the great church council Vatican II was responsible for this artistic disaster. I’d heard that thousands of priests and nuns had left the church. But I didn’t really know what was happening in contemporary Catholicism.” Who and where are the other inhabitants of the Catholic community Rice has now embraced? What is her connection with them personally,intellectually, spiritually?

The narrative is smooth and apparently seemless. No signs of struggle; not a hair out of place. Even the culminating moment of her decision is described with relative detachment as “ a determination to give in to something deeply believed and deeply felt. I loved God. I loved Him with my whole heart. I loved Him in the Person of Jesus Christ, and I wanted to go back to Him.” At the same time, there are hints of significant subterranean rumblings: the early death of her mother from alcholism; her immersion into the tumultuous world of the San Francisco Bay Area in the Sixties and beyond; her marriage to and subsequent loss of her husband, poet Stanley Rice. The author alludes to these events, experiences, and relationships without drilling down into the substance of their emotional/ spiritual impact on her life and spiritual quest. Her spiritual memoir is more descriptive than revealing.

Finally, there is an interesting Franciscan sidebar to Rice’s account. As a child, she is instinctively drawn to the heroism of the little poor man of Assisi: “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.” Later in life, a fortuitous discovery of a statue of a crucified Christ reaching from the Cross to embrace Francis serves as a significant personal icon. On a subsequent trip to Brazil, she spies the same, now treasured image: Never had I seen a statue that so reflected the disparate elements of my earlier faith. “Here was the sensuality and excess and the spirituality which I had so loved.” And today, ironically, she is a member of St. Francis of Assisi Church, Coachella Valley, California.//

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