EDITOR’S NOTE: For 73 years — from its review of Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind in its very first issue (November 1936) — Catholic Digest has covered and reported on popular culture and literature. So when a novelist as well known as Anne Rice makes a public return to the Catholic Church, it seems natural to think that the story of her conversion would be of interest to our readers.
This story is excerpted from Rice’s recent memoir of her return: Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession (Knopf, 2008). We’re offering it here in partnership with Busted Halo, a Catholic Internet magazine sponsored by the Paulist Fathers; another excerpt from Rice’s memoir can be found on BustedHalo.com.
We’d also like to take this opportunity to note — as Catholic Digest has also stated from its beginning — that while we choose material that we feel will interest our readers and help them live their faith, featuring an excerpt from a publication or an article by a writer does not equate with an endorsement from Catholic Digest of all of that other publication’s or author’s opinions, views, or works. In this we take our lead from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Finally, beloved: whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Excerpted from Called Out of Darkness by Anne Rice.
In the mid 1990s I decided, against the advice and inclinations of everyone else, to go to Israel. I wanted to see the Holy Land. I told myself no faith in God was driving me there; I wanted only to see the geography that had meant so much to other people’s faith. I was secretly obsessed with Jesus, but I didn’t tell anyone, and I didn’t tell myself.
What was I looking for? Why did I insist that we remain in the church at the Garden of Gethsemane, as three priests said the Mass in three different languages all at the same time? What did it mean to me to be staring at the Garden of Olives, where just possibly Our Lord experienced his agony before the arrest that changed the history of the ancient world?
I continued to deny faith in God. I truly didn’t think faith was possible again for me. Atheism was reality, and one could not turn away from that reality into a cowardly embrace of religion which one knew to be false. I was just “interested in Jesus,” because Jesus was an extremely interesting man.
I determined to go to Brazil. At some time in my childhood I’d seen in a film the harbor of Rio de Janeiro, and what I most vividly associated with the harbor was the great statue of Jesus Christ with his arms outstretched that rises from the summit of the mountain in the middle of the city. I’d always wanted to go to that spot.
Again, I told myself I believed in nothing. I was fulfilling childhood fantasies. I was looking for adventure. But the compulsion to go to Rio was overwhelming, and the first high point of the journey for me was the climb up Corcovado to the foot of the statue of Our Lord.
We took the tram 2,300 feet up the steep mountain, then made the final ascent on foot with hundreds of other tourists. The statue is concrete and about 100 feet high. It weighs 1,145 tons. As we approached the base of it, the soaring figure was covered completely in clouds.
Imagine, if you can, how enormous this statue is, and what it was like to stand at the foot of it, with all of Rio spreading out beyond the stone balustrades of the cliff. Clouds formed and fragmented and broke over the city of Rio. I had the feeling we were at the top of the world.
Suddenly the clouds broke, revealing the giant figure of Jesus Christ above us, with his outstretched arms. The moment was beyond any rational description. I remember a kind of delirium, a kind of joy. I didn’t acknowledge faith, but a sense that this Lord of Lords belonged to me; He belonged to me in the grandeur of this symbol if He did not belong to me in any other way. Surely what I felt in that moment was love.
But there was a sadness to this happiness: You can’t have faith but you have this. You belong to Him in the guise of art, but you sense something greater beyond it, though you haven’t the courage or the ability yet to reach for what that is.
After visiting Rio, we decided to wander around Brazil. We ended in Salvador da Bahia, where we found two intricate colonial churches. But to describe the way this pilgrimage ended, I have to flash back to an afternoon in San Francisco many years before.
At the time, I was shopping in a store on Mission Street — the Mission Gift Shop — that sold religious statues along with little white Communion dresses and jewelry. I was looking for religious collectibles. I wanted to have them around me. I wasn’t sure why.
In this shop, I discovered an outrageous statue that riveted me, and I bought it, not even noticing what it cost. It’s a double statue, about 2 feet high, of Christ nailed to his Cross and St. Francis of Assisi reaching up to embrace the Lord. But what makes the statue unique is that one of Our Lord’s arms is freed from the Cross and with this arm, He tenderly holds the devoted saint.
This statue was made in Spain. It is hyper-realistic. Blood flows from Our Lord’s wounds. Francis bears the wounds of the Stigmata. The figures are graceful and delicate, and they have dark skin. The Lord’s face is filled with love.
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 that I had so loved. I kept the statue on my desk as I wrote my “atheistic novels” and I defended it now and then against people who were understandably shocked by its lurid embodiment of suffering. Once I was even photographed holding the statue.
But a deeper attachment to the statue involved my unresolved memory of the Catholic school girl who had once prayed to Francis and to the Lord, who had once read excitedly the life of Francis, and who had once asked the Lord if He would grant her the Stigmata — the visible signs of his wounds. I had prayed for a mystical union with Our Lord.
Flash forward now to Salvador da Bahia, and a group of us walking up the steep hillside street to see two sensational colonial churches. We turn in to one of these, and enter the inevitable captivating gloom, replete with the flicker of candles, the familiar envelope of lingering incense and sumptuous detail. And there on the distant altar, giant sized, is this very double statue.
I felt a great shock. It was as if someone were whispering: This is not some statue you bought in a shop and put among your collectibles. This is a figure of the love of Jesus Christ that is waiting for you. This is the mystery of the Incarnation. This is the Lord bridging the gulf between God and humankind. This is the Lord, in the midst of his atoning suffering, reaching out for… you.
I went back to the hotel, became sick with a blinding migraine, and did not go out again in Brazil.
In the next few years, if not before, I became convinced that I was being pursued by the Lord. When I went to Italy in 1998, and visited church after church, the feeling continued. On our last day in Rome, we happened into St. Peter’s Basilica late in the evening. As we wandered over the vast, intricate marble floors, we realized Mass was being said deep in the sanctuary.
Two of our party, who were Catholic, went up to hear Mass and I went with them. I had an overwhelming desire to join them at Communion, but I could not; I knew the rules too well. The pain of this moment was unforgettable. I felt I was not acknowledging something that I knew to be true: God was there. God was everywhere. God was God.
At home that year, it seemed that no matter when or how I turned on the television, images of the Mass flashed onto the screen. Mother Angelica had, by that time, created the great Catholic network, EWTN, and I found myself drawn to watching in spite of myself. Again and again I turned on the television to see the priest lifting the host at the moment of Consecration. EWTN during those months became a constant reminder to me of my lost faith. Mother Angelica — whom, in my ignorance then, I regarded as an amusing little nun — was the apostle who reached me during that year.
All this while, I continued to buy religious statues, to surround myself with the saints who’d once been the mentors of my childhood, and I continued to give support to my parish though I never set foot in the church.
The Vampire Armand and Vittorio are the two novels I wrote during the last year of my official atheism. Both reflect the conflict I was experiencing — the longing for reconciliation with God and the inevitable despair that underscored the seeming impossibility of it. But no novel I wrote better reflects my longing for God than Memnoch the Devil, written several years before, in which my hero, the vampire Lestat, actually meets “God Incarnate” and his rebellious angel Memnoch, and is offered an opportunity to become part of the economy of salvation.
Lestat rejects the offer, and flees from the purgatorial realm where souls prepare for acceptance into heaven. But he carries out of this realm and back into the real world a particular article that had come into his hands earlier in the novel, on the road to Golgotha, where Lestat encountered Christ carrying his Cross. The article was the legendary veil of Veronica, the veil that supposedly bears the image of Christ’s bloodstained face.
The novel ends on a note of ambiguity: Were Lestat’s visions of God and the devil real? Or was Lestat the plaything of capricious spirits for whom Christianity is but one form of game? What is unambiguous at the close of the novel is the existence of Veronica’s veil.
At the time I wrote the book, I saw the veil as causing confusion in the “real world” to which Lestat returned, evoking devotion and piety from a range of characters whose actions could be viewed as irrational and hysterical at the worst.
I now feel differently about the veil in that novel. It is not the character of Lestat who rescued it from time and brought it into the modern world. It is the author who grabbed hold of it and fled from moral confusion in the novel with the face of Christ on the veil in her hands. It is the author who held it up for all to see, and then backed away, deep into the fictional matrix, leaving its meaning unresolved until she finally returned to faith, to the loving — and eternally outstretched — arms of the Lord. CD
Copyright © 2008 by Anne Rice. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. This story was published in partnership with BustedHalo.com. For another excerpt from Rice’s book, visit BustedHalo.com.