Although hugely successful, her novels have often been dismissed by literary critics as mere airport fodder. But since returning to her childhood Catholic Faith, Anne Rice has overcome being pigeon-holed as an authoress of pulp fiction with a trilogy based on the life of Jesus – and told in the first person. Not only do they avoid trivialising the life of the Christ, they are, says Patricia Snow, good. Very good. As a result many are beginning to re-think Anne Rice’s capacities as an authoress of serious fiction.
When Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt was published in 2005, my initial reaction was a succinct dismissal: Ridiculous. Who does she think she is, writing a life of Jesus Christ in the first person? There are four gospels, I argued to myself, and everything else is testimony. Does St Paul tell us what Jesus wore, where he went, what he ate, or how he felt? No, he tells us about his own conversion and ongoing formation, his tribulations and lofty goals. St Paul’s soaring theology is firmly grounded in his own experiences in the world. As Luigi Giussani declared, “It is the Church that is the concrete prolongation of the presence of Christ in this world.”
A week later, I picked up Rice’s book again and noticed the author’s note at the end. I read it straight through, interested in spite of myself in the autobiographical details and impressed both by the scope of Rice’s research and her understated, unanswerable conclusions. All I knew about Anne Rice at this point was that she had written best-selling books about vampires. But this was a serious person, I had to admit as I put her new book down, a person entirely in earnest and capable of discerning the truth.
Three years later, in spring 2008, Knopf published Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana, a sequel to Out of Egypt, and six months after that, Rice’s memoir, Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession. The Road to Cana I initially ignored, but, since becoming a Catholic myself, I am incapable of resisting a conversion story. What Karl Rahner says about the saints — that each “creates a new style, proves that a certain form of life is possible, shows that one can be a Christian even in ‘this’ way” — applies
equally to converts, because each blazes a unique and exemplary path to the Church.
To be precise, Anne Rice is not a convert but a revert. Nearly half of Called Out of Darkness is a loving reconstruction of the pre–Vatican II Church of the 1940s and 1950s, in which Rice was immersed as a child in New Orleans, much as an illiterate peasant was immersed in the medieval Church. A late and slow reader, Rice soaked up her faith from her mother and from intensely beautiful, iconic experiences of Mass and Benediction, novenas and liturgical music.
This was the Golden Age of American Catholicism, when seminaries were full and Fulton Sheen was a household word, and Rice takes pains to demonstrate that religion in this world of her childhood included the world. Whether she is describing the inquiring intellectualism of her bohemian Catholic parents, the confident professionalism of the nuns in her Catholic school, the night parades of Mardi Gras, or the movies of Cecil B. DeMille, she is describing a world that, in rich and effective ways, extended the sacred space of the Church.
“The fabric is unbroken,” she says at one point, adding later: “Christian faith was in no way opposed to the world in which I grew up.” In those days before air conditioning, the windows were always open. Churches were never locked. As for her schooling, “there was nothing defensive or especially protective about our Catholic education.” Far from being repressive or dour, the nuns were “exquisitely dressed,” “ebullient,” “intensely interested in their charges,” and “effortlessly grand.” At Christmastime, a season of seemingly universal celebration, residents of the city constructed “enormous and elaborate outdoor manger scenes which drew crowds during the evening by car and on foot.”
Life was a “tapestry,” a “wondrous stream” in which one could thrive, and under it all, justifying the pervasive sense of the sacred in the world, was the Real Presence of Jesus on the altars of the Catholic churches, a presence that the young Anne grasped as concretely as she grasped everything else. “I was as certain that Jesus was there as I was that the streetcars passed our house.” No wonder that when she finds her way back to the Church a lifetime later, it is her mother’s voice that she hears, waking her for early Mass: “He’s on that altar. He’s three blocks away. Now get up and go.”
It is impossible not to grieve when this coherent world of Rice’s childhood breaks up. When she is in high school, her mother dies of alcoholism. Her family moves to arid, Protestant Dallas — “We might as well have been entering America for the first time” — where Rice attends Mass in a high school cafeteria and her father marries a divorced Baptist.
Still, her faith holds. But then, unable to afford a Catholic education, she matriculates at Texas Women’s University, where there isn’t another Catholic among her classmates and teachers. Her Catholic universe disappears at the same time that the arts she loves are sliding into decadence. Growing up, there was the occasional forbidden book or film, but “this was not particularly upsetting because there were so many interesting films that we could see.”
The Church of Rice’s childhood was embedded in a world it could largely affirm, but now, as Rice stands in her college bookstore and gazes at paperbacks by Heidegger and Sartre, Kant and Nabokov, everything that interests her is suddenly and expressly forbidden under pain of mortal sin. The index looms, not only the specific Index of Forbidden Books but the general index that governs any book that might lead a Catholic astray. Everywhere she turns, she encounters frustration and impossibility, as the Church ceases to be for her a beautiful open door, and becomes instead a wall against which she breaks.
Years later, living in San Francisco and grieving for her lost faith, Rice watches The Nun’s Story again and again, a film about a young woman who tries and fails to become a nun. Thinking about the woman’s life, and by extension about her own, Rice says: “She was guilty of the sin we imputed to Martin Luther. Because she could not be perfect according to the system, she left the system.”
By her own description, Rice was a young person of rampant enthusiasms and profane ambitions. She was also a person of almost terrifying integrity and perfectionism. If her Church was intransigent, she was a child of her Church. There was no shading or compromising for her, and seemingly no one to help her find a way to live faithfully with Absolutes. If the Church forbade her to read books she felt she had to read, then she couldn’t be a Catholic. She couldn’t even be a Christian. “My religious mind was an authoritarian mind, and when I found myself at odds with God, I couldn’t speak to Him.” Not only that, she couldn’t separate her relationship with God from her relationship with the Church. In this respect she was a true Catholic, though even now she seems not to grasp the orthodoxy of her intuition. As St Augustine expressed it, “The Church is the whole Christ”; or in Giussani’s words, “The Church is the Host of the Absolute through time.”
So she becomes an atheist, in what she calls a “catastrophe of the mind and heart,” and she tries to find in atheism a discipline and moral compass comparable to what she had known as a Catholic.
This is painful reading, and it is followed by an interminable exile: decades away from the Church, described in bleak, impoverished prose. The advertisements for Rice’s book claim that she writes “movingly” about the deaths of her daughter and husband, and about her “spectacular” career and “explosive” success. This is misleading. Rice writes movingly about the Church. But about the deaths of her mother and husband she says almost nothing, and about the death of her young daughter, even less. As for her career: “It’s pointless to describe my whole life as an atheist, or attempt a memoir of how I became a published writer.”
In short, this is not a book about worldly success or private tragedy. Nor is it sensational. On the contrary, it is as if sensationalism and transgressive curiosity have been entirely burned out of Anne Rice. Of her secular books — books about creatures “shut out of life, doomed to marginality or darkness”—she says flatly, “These books transparently reflect a journey through atheism and back to God. It is impossible not to see this.”
During those years away from the Church, struggling with alcoholism and depression, Rice clings to the residua of Christianity still adrift in the popular culture. Every year at Christmastime, she anxiously awaits the television showings of It’s a Wonderful Life and Scrooge. Similarly, in her present life she demurs when people rail against the commercialisation of Christmas. Such people, she says, “fail to understand how precious and comforting [to people of no religion] the shop displays and music can be.”
Finally, in 1988 she moves back to New Orleans, where she and her family are welcomed with revelatory love by her extended Catholic family. From this point, her return to the Church is inevitable. There are the familiar signposts: pilgrimages; coincidences; the sensation of being pursued. But there are also unusual features. Years before returning to the Church, she begins to support it financially. Then, as inner-city churches close across America, she begins buying religious artifacts—life-size statues and other treasures—and also buildings to house them. Before she is done, she has bought up the real estate of her Catholic childhood: a childhood home that was previously a convent; a defunct Catholic orphanage, with a chapel that she lovingly restores; the mansion that housed both her mother’s Catholic high school and the Our Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel where she prayed as a child.
It is as if she is creating a stage set, or trying to fashion a body out of dust. She reminds me of the man in the parable who finds a treasure in a field and buys that field, except in Rice’s case she buys her fields before the treasure of faith returns. In extravagant, painfully literal ways she tries to recover the world she has lost, but “every step is marked by sadness, and a grief on the edge of despair.” Faith itself, the priceless treasure that would make sense of her purchases, is beyond her. Her chapels and mansions are museums. Where is the living flame?
Where it always was: on the altars of the consecrated churches that still survive in the city.
When she realises this—when her childhood belief in the Real Presence in the Eucharist reasserts itself—her return is sealed. “He might have used the falling rain to call me back,” says Rice; “he might have used the music of Vivaldi. But no, he used the doctrine of the Real Presence.” Can she be serious? By the logic of her whole life, he could have used nothing else. The very principle that drove her out – the indissolubility of Christ and his Church – brings her back. And, as she comes back, questions and impossibilities that tormented her for years subside.
There was the sense that if he knew everything, I did not have to know everything. . . . No social paradox, no historic disaster . . . no torment over the fate of this or that atheist or gay friend should stand between me and him. . . . The reason? It was magnificently simple. He knew how or why everything happened; he knew the disposition of every single soul. . . . He wasn’t going to let anything happen by accident! Nobody was going to hell by mistake. Nowhere in this part of the book does Rice mention her daughter who died before her sixth birthday. The girl is not even named in the book, so reticent is Rice about her loss. And yet, as it lifts off her, Rice’s deep anguish over the fate of this small daughter, dying outside the Church, is unmistakable.
By my estimation, her daughter died in 1973. Two years later — “It was the most deliberate thing I ever did” — Rice published Interview with a Vampire, a novel in which a six-year-old girl is bitten and ultimately destroyed by a vampire named Lestat, whom Rice has called “the voice of my soul” and “my dark search engine.” On this evidence, one can propose that the whole edifice of Rice’s vampire fiction had its origin in a terrifying anxiety: that the author herself was a kind of vampire, who had infected her daughter with atheism.
If this is true, the great grace of Rice’s conversion is that this nightmarish sense of responsibility subsides. She is not the author of life or death. “In this great world that was [God’s] creation, he knew every plot, every character.” Not only is God omniscient, he is capable of righting every wrong. Twenty-five years and twenty-one books after the death of her daughter, Rice entrusts both herself and the people she loves to God. Freed from a lonely circle of hell, she comes back to the Church. Four years later, she confirms the choice she has made: Leaving Lestat behind, she consecrates her writing to Christ. Once Rice is back in the Church, she decides she will write a life of Jesus Christ. For years, she realises, she has been obsessed with this man. And she is long accustomed to doing historical research. So she begins to read — everything she can find that has to do with Jesus. The Index is long gone; there are no bars to her inquiry. She reads not knowing what she will find: “Having started with the skeptical critics, I expected to discover that their arguments were frighteningly strong. . . . Surely [Jesus] was a liberal, married, a homosexual, and who knew what?”
In her childhood Rice heard talk of people “reading themselves out of the Church.” How satisfying, instead, to watch her read her way to the Truth. And for those of us who have suffered the misapplications of Vatican II, how valuable to be reminded that there were windows in the Church that did need to be opened. Even John Paul II opened his pontificate with “Be not afraid!” and “Open wide the doors to Christ!”
Preparing for her project, Rice reads not only skeptical and orthodox criticism, ancient and modern history, but Scripture itself, especially the gospels, again and again, until they cease to be a “collection of quotations” and the life of Jesus “flows through chapter and verse.” She writes about crossing a barrier in her studies, and “coaxing the gospels to life.” She says that every new examination of the text produced fresh insights, “cascades of connections,” and startling links to other parts of the canon—and all of this I can believe. When I read Out of Egypt and The Road to Cana, setting aside my prejudices and forgiving the occasional false note, something similar happened to me. Christ’s early life ceased to be a series of discrete events and familiar tableaux, and became instead a living account.
How does Rice accomplish this? Chiefly by embedding Jesus, not in a small, holy household but in a messy extended family, whose elders know things about Jesus that he doesn’t know and is trying to find out. (What happened in Bethlehem? Who is his father?) These elders are entrusted with the task of protecting and raising Jesus, even as they struggle with their individual reservations and fears.
From the trope of the hidden years, Rice has inferred that someone was hiding him, and, by the logic of first-century living, this would have been a clan, a web of individuals who have been in Egypt together and are returning to Nazareth.
There is Mary’s brother, Cleopas, loquacious and imprudent, feverish and risible. (“‘Why do you laugh?’ [Jesus asks him.] He shrugged. ‘I am still amused. . . . Did I see an angel? No. I did not. Maybe if I had, I wouldn’t laugh, but then again maybe I would laugh all the more.’”) There is Cleopas’ wife, Mary, crazed with anxiety when Cleopas appears to be dying, cornering the young Jesus and pulling him around hard to look at her.
“Can you cure him!” she asked, her voice thick, her face glittering with tears.
My mother tried to pull her away. . . .
“You can’t ask this of him. . . . He’s a child and you know it!”
Aunt Mary sobbed.
There are also the Jews outside the immediate family: the rabbis at the synagogue in Nazareth, for example, who are wary of impostors and sin and reluctant to admit the young Jesus to their midst, even as Jesus’ male relatives step up behind him in strength. When critics object that these books aren’t sufficiently literary, or that their prose is naive, they miss the point. The value of the books lies in their psychological realism, in Rice’s achievement in imagining a human, fallible family, entrusted with the One who has been awaited for centuries, but entrusted with him uncertainly, ambiguously, hidden under the ordinary aspect of a child. How would an ordinary family have handled such a responsibility? How would they have borne the strain?
As for the books’ straightforward prose, what Rice is trying to convey is so complex, the simpler the prose the better. Because of Christ’s hypostatic union, there are layers and depth charges in every scene. There are wonderfully subtle passages where the family reads Scripture together, Scripture that points to Jesus; or there is the moment when Jesus, the immortal God, encounters death for the first time; or there is the scene in the Temple when James confesses his envy of Jesus, crying as he hands his birds to the blood-splashed priest.
Every sin, in an ultimate sense, is a sin against God, and the ritual of the Temple existed to atone for sin. But in this scene, James’ sin against his brother is literally a sin against God, against the great High Priest who will ultimately cancel his debt. Moreover, his sin – envy – hearkens back to the original sin. Rice doesn’t draw attention to these implications; the prose is neutral and unadorned. But the scene is not simple.
Sometimes the tension in the books follows from the different levels of understanding of different characters, or their different approaches: the loquacity of Cleopas, for example, set against the reticence of Joseph. Other times, the depth charge is for the reader alone, as when the family passes the crucified rebels outside the walls of Sepphoris.
Again, Rice has been criticised for making use of miracles from the apocryphal infancy gospels, and I suppose a casual browser can be excused for thinking that because Out of Egypt opens with such a miracle, the rest of the book will be a string of sensational events. But this isn’t the case. Rice’s solution to the thorny problem of kenosis – What powers does the human Jesus have, and what does he know? – is both consistent and elegant. She gives us a Jesus who is groping towards an understanding that on one level he already possesses, and, at the same time, a Jesus who is learning to discipline and set aside powers that have been his from the beginning.
There are two movements in Out of Egypt, in other words: one in the direction of self-knowledge, and the other in the direction of self-mastery. By the beginning of The Road to Cana, these twin tasks have been accomplished for so long that people in Nazareth are beginning to wonder if any of the old stories are true. Again, we have the human reactions to the strain of waiting and not knowing. “Where are your mighty deeds?” one character asks Jesus scornfully. And another, in secret: “Are you ever afraid that it’s all – lies?”
But Rice does more in these books than provide Jesus with a believable family. She also makes persuasive decisions about how events in Scripture fit together. For example, in the gospels, Jesus simply appears at the Jordan to be baptised. Rice has decided that he would have traveled there with his family.
All of Judea, we remember as we read, went out to John to be baptised, and in The Road to Cana the family of Jesus travels with everyone else, sleeping in tents and eating with strangers, arguing about politics and the meaning of the baptism. It is the end of Jesus’ hidden life, but only Jesus and Mary realise this. Mary is sad; Jesus is sympathetic but relieved. As for Joseph – a brilliant stroke on Rice’s part – Joseph, whose work is complete, is dying. Later, when Jesus is driven into the desert by the Spirit, Satan will taunt him with the fact that he wasn’t there when Joseph died.
All of this is wonderfully done. It is a tour de force of cross-referencing, a dazzling pulling together of disparate elements. One of the tax collectors at the Jordan turns out to be Matthew. Even Herod makes an appearance, and the gauntlet is thrown down between him and John.
But by the end of The Road to Cana, the second book in Rice’s proposed trilogy, I became aware of a difficulty that I’m not sure the author can overcome. At the wedding at Cana, when Jesus emerges from obscurity, he is the mature Christ whose voice we have already heard. In Out of Egypt, the child Jesus watches and ponders, wonders and dreams. He says little. Similarly, for most of the second book, Jesus is waiting and renouncing, and when he speaks — with patience and restraint — he is still not precisely the Jesus we know. But once he turns the water into wine, he is manifestly the Messiah who has spoken particular words to us all. And my question is, can it work, at this juncture, to add to his words in the gospels? Is it possible for anyone to speak as the mature Jesus spoke, without profanation or debasement?
In a First Things interview with Father Dwight Longenecker, Rice said about her work: “I have to never stop being afraid.” This is reassuring if it means that she is exercising great restraint. My hope is that in her third book she can avoid the kind of mistakes she makes at the end of The Road to Cana, where a note of airy sentimentality and a few discomfiting anachronisms creep into the speech of Jesus. (“What will you do now?” Cleopas asks him. “I will go on,” Jesus says, “from surprise to surprise.”) Still, Rice has surprised me before, and, while I want her to be afraid, I am aware that it is her daring that has given us a fully human Jesus, a prodigy as alarming as it is inspiring or sweet.
When I first read Out of Egypt, it was the intense fear felt by the young Jesus that most disconcerted me. What is she doing? I kept wondering. Can this possibly be right? Then I remembered the icon that hung in the chapel where Rice prayed as a child, the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, which shows a small, frightened Jesus clinging to his mother for comfort, while hovering angels show him the instruments of his passion.
The icon is attributed to St Luke, who was in the confidence of Mary, and, here as elsewhere, Rice takes tradition at its word. Moreover, she makes fear in general, and fear of death in particular, almost the defining mark of our fallen humanity, the proof that Jesus has come in flesh. As St Paul writes, “He himself partook of the same nature, that through death he might deliver all those who through fear of death were subjected to lifelong bondage.”
In The Road to Cana, it isn’t fear but love that alarms the reader: romantic, human love; the love of a man for a woman. On the second page of the book, we learn that Jesus loves his young kinswoman, Avigail. Again, I felt afraid. Where is she going with this? Be assured: Rice goes nowhere in the book that isn’t orthodox. Jesus is celibate. He doesn’t marry. Where he is going, no one can go with him. But in the meantime, he loves Avigail. Then he tells us, “It fell hard on me suddenly that I would sometime soon be standing among the torchbearers at her wedding.” Again, I was taken aback, this time pleasurably. This was artful and almost thrilling: So the wedding at Cana will turn out to be Avigail’s wedding. Then I realised something else. This means that when Jesus changes the water into wine, he will do it for a person whom he loves.The personal is political, the saying goes. For the Christian, the personal is theological, or more accurately, the theological is always, at the deepest level, personal. Jesus comes for all humanity, but he comes for us as individuals. He loves us as individuals, suffers for us as individuals, works miracles for us as individuals, dies for us as individuals.
There is nothing remote or abstract about it, because in order to redeem us, he became a human being – as close to us as the small boy who stands at James’ side in the Temple, as close as a lover. This is our faith, but how hard it can sometimes be to believe. When Jesus eventually lets Avigail go, comforts her, redeems her reputation that has been damaged in an unrelated event, and even provides for her future with another man by giving her the treasure from the magi as a dowry, Avigail says sadly, “You’re really the child of angels.”
“No, my beloved,” he says. “I’m a man. Believe me, I am.”
Republished, with permission, from First Things
Patricia Snow is a writer in New Haven, Connecticut.