This book is about faith in God.
For more than twenty centuries, Christianity has given us dazzling works of theology, yet it remains a religion in which the heart is absolutely essential to faith.
The appeal of Jesus Christ was first and foremost to the heart.
The man knocked on his back on the Road to Damascus experienced a transformation of the heart. St. Francis of Assisi, giving away all of his clothes as he turned to follow Christ, was reflecting a decision of the heart. Mother Teresa founded her world-famous order of nuns because of a decision of the heart.
The immensity of these figures finds an imperfect student in me, but not an inattentive one.
I want to tell, as simply as I can --- and nothing with me as a writer has ever really been simple --- the story of how I made my decision of the heart.
So here is the story of one path to God.
The story has a happy ending because I have found the Transcendent God both intellectually and emotionally. And complete belief in Him and devotion to Him, no matter how interwoven with occasional fear and constant personal failure and imperfection, has become the true story of my life.
If this path to God is an illusion, then the story is worthless. If the path is real, then we have something here that may matter to you as well as to me.
Before I can describe how I returned to faith, at the age of fifty-seven, I want to describe how I learned about God as a child.
What strikes me now as most important about this experience is that it preceded reading books. Christians are People of the Book, and our religion is often described as a Religion of the Book. And for two thousand years, all that we believe has been handed down in texts.
But no doubt many children learned about God as I did --- from my mother and from the experience of church which had little or nothing directly to do with knowing how to read.
Over the years, I turned out to be a consistently poor reader, and I don’t think I ever read a novel for pleasure until I was in the sixth grade. Even in my college years, I was a poor reader and, in fact, couldn’t major in English because I could not read the amounts of Chaucer or Shakespeare assigned in the classes. I graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in political science, principally because I could understand the historic background I received for political ideas through good lectures.
I was twenty-seven before I began to make up an undergraduate degree in English, and thirty-one before I received a master’s in English. Even then I read so slowly and poorly that I took my master’s orals on three authors, Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, and Ernest Hemingway, without having read all of their works. I couldn’t possibly read all of their works.
The reason I’m emphasizing this is because I believe that what we learn through reading is essentially different from what we learn in other ways. And my concept of God came through the spoken words of my mother, and also the intensely beautiful experiences I had in church.
It’s important to stress here that 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.
In fact I remember my early childhood as full of beauty, and no ugly moment from that time has any reality for me. The beauty is the song of those days.
I vividly remember knowing about God, that He loved us, made us, took care of us, that we belonged to Him; and I remember loving Jesus as God; and praying to Him and to His Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary, when I was very small.
I can’t really associate any one image with Jesus because there were so many around me, from small highly sentimental holy pictures, which we treasured at home, to magnificent images of Jesus in St. Alphonsus Church.
I’ll describe the church in a minute, as it takes considerable describing, but first I want to mention a small place where we went often to pray. This was the Chapel of Our Mother of Perpetual Help on Third and Prytania streets, a consecrated Catholic chapel with a tabernacle and an altar, in which Mass was celebrated every day. The chapel was a huge room inside an old Garden District mansion, set in spacious gardens, that was also a high school.
My mother had graduated from this high school many years before, and I recall going to a garden party on the grounds when I was a little child. The building itself was impressive, with a central doorway, floor-length windows on the front and on both sides, and colonnettes along the front porch that held up the porch above.
Much later in life --- during the 1990s --- when I was a well-known author, I actually bought this building, as it had tremendous meaning for me. Not only had my mother gone to school there, but my aunts and cousins had gone to school there as well. Some cousins had been married in the chapel. And my strongest religious memories were centered on this place. The story of that purchase and what it meant requires a book, and indeed I wrote a novel using the building as a key backdrop, but that is not my concern just now.
This is what it was like in the 1940s to go to the Chapel of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.
We left our house at St. Charles and Philip, and walked up the avenue, under the oaks, and almost always to the slow roar of the passing streetcars, and rumble of traffic, then crossed over into the Garden District, a very special neighborhood filled with immense Greek Revival-style homes, many of which had been built before the Civil War. This was an immediate plunge into a form of quiet, because though traffic did move steadily on Prytania Street, it was nothing as loud as the traffic of the avenue. The oaks were bigger and more ancient, and the enormous houses with their Corinthian or Doric columns were monuments in themselves. Everywhere there were flowers. Purple lantana and ice blue plumbago burst through the pickets of black iron fences, and beyond in the more groomed gardens grew the flowers I associated with rich people: multi-petaled camellias and gorgeously defined roses in black beds. It was fine to pick the soft fragrant lantana, and the bunches of plumbago. The finer flowers one left alone.
It was often evening when we made this short walk, and I remember the pavements as clearly as I remember the cicadas singing in the trees. The pavements varied; some were herringbone brick, very dark, uneven, and often trimmed in velvet green moss. Other sidewalks were purple flagstone, just like the purple flagstones of our own front yard. Even the rare stretches of raw cement were interesting because the cement had broken and buckled in so many places over the roots of the giant magnolias and the oaks.
The walk was two and a half blocks.
The chapel stood behind a high black picket fence with its gate permanently open, and a short flight of white marble steps led up to the white marble porch. I don’t recall the chapel ever being locked.
The sky during these trips was often bloodred, or purple, and the trees were so thick that one could only see hundreds of fragments of the sky amid clusters of darkening leaves. The color of the sky seemed to me to be connected with the song of the cicadas, and the drowsy shadows playing everywhere on the margins of what was visible, and the distinct feel of the humid air. Even in winter the air was moist, so that the world itself seemed to be pulsing around us, enfolding us, holding us as we moved through it.
The chapel had an immense and ornate doorway.
Immediately on entering, one smelled the wax of the flickering candles, and the lingering incense from the Tuesday night benediction service and from the daily or Sun- day Mass.
These fragrances were associated in my mind with the utter quiet of the chapel, the glow of the candlelight, and the faces of the tall plaster saints that surrounded us as we moved up the aisle.
We went right past the many rows of dark wooden pews on either side, up to the Communion railing, which I think was white marble, and there we knelt on the leather-cushioned step as we said our prayers. We laid down there the flowers we’d picked on our walk. I think my mother told us that Mr. Charlie, who took care of the chapel, would put these flowers in some proper place.
The great altar against the back wall, just beyond us, was a masterpiece of white and gilt plasterwork, and the altar proper, the place where Mass was said, was always covered with an ornate lace-bordered white cloth.
In a long horizontal glass case in the lower body of the altar, there sat a long series of small plaster statues around a table making up the Last Supper, with Our Lord in the center, and six Apostles on either side. I knew this was Jesus there at the table, facing us. And in later years, I came to realize the figures were arranged in imitation of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. It was detailed and artful and complete.
The Body and Blood of Jesus were in the golden tabernacle on the altar above. This was the Blessed Sacrament. A candle burning in a red glass lamp nearby told us that the Blessed Sacrament was there. This was called the sanctuary light.
On account of this Presence of Our Lord in the chapel, we moved with reverence, whispering if we had to speak, and kneeling as was proper. This chapel required all the same respect as any large Catholic church.
I remember the gold tabernacle had a concave front, and carved doors. The tabernacle was set in a lavish plaster edifice that included small white columns, but the details are now gone from my mind.
We said our prayers as we knelt there. We paid our “visit.” And we left as quietly as we had come.
I don’t remember being particularly puzzled by these truths, that Our Lord was in the tabernacle, in the form of bread, which was in fact His Body and Blood. I just remember knowing it. He was most definitely there. He was splendidly and miraculously there. He was also completely accessible. We talked to Him. We told Him our prayers and our thoughts.
I was accustomed to all this before I could talk or ask a question, and I was as certain that Jesus was there as I was that the streetcars passed our house. I was nourished on the complexity of this, and I suppose I felt quite gently filled with these ideas.
Above the tabernacle, in an ornate frame, was an exotic and dark golden picture of Our Mother of Perpetual Help --- the Virgin with the Boy Jesus in her lap. This was indeed a distinct image, quite different from anything else in the chapel, and I don’t recall ever asking why.
Years later I discovered it was a Russian icon, and that was the reason for its unusual style. What I remember knowing when I was little was that Mary was our Mother as well as the Mother of Jesus, and that in this picture, the Boy Jesus had come to her with a broken sandal, seeking her help.
A long time later, I learned the story of the picture --- that the Boy Jesus had run to His Mother in fear. Angels on either side of Him, quite visible in the icon, had frightened Him by revealing to Him the cross on which He would one day die, and the nails that would be driven through His hands. These angels hovered in the air with these terrible instruments. Being only a boy, Jesus had run to His Mother for comfort, and with a sorrowful face she embraced Him and sought to give Him the solace He so badly needed.
As a little child, I saw all these elements and I understood them in a less narrative way. There was the Child leaning tenderly on His Mother, and there was she, His eternal comfort, and, yes, there were the angels holding the emblems of what Jesus would one day undergo.
That Jesus had been crucified, had died, and had risen from the dead was completely understood. One had to look no farther than the Stations of the Cross along the walls to see that story acted out step by step.
These Stations, which were square paintings, each richly colored and detailed, were vivid and realistic in style, as was every other image in the church.
To me they looked interesting and were irresistibly pretty. There was nothing exotic or abstract about them as there was with the icon.
In each picture, Our Lord was serene and infinitely patient, a tall handsome man with long soft brown hair. We felt an immediate sadness when we thought about what Jesus had suffered. But Jesus was now quite beyond all suffering, and what He had suffered, He had suffered on earth among people, and He had suffered it for us.
The other important elements in the chapel were the life-size statues, each painted in vivid color. They stood on pedestals along the walls.
Excerpted from CALLED OUT OF DARKNESS: A Spiritual Confession © Copyright 2010 by Anne Rice. Reprinted with permission by Anchor. All rights reserved.