The late author of the 'Vampire Chronicles' had an on-again, off-again relationship with the Catholic Church, but within her writing there was "a yearning for beauty, goodness, and truth that could only have come from God."
Anne Rice died this past weekend at the age of 80. She wrote 37 novels, including two about Jesus, but she is best known for her Vampire Chronicles. Beginning with Interview with the Vampire in 1976, Rice changed the way that vampire stories are told. Suddenly, the horror of vampirism was not the fear of being seduced by a monster. Rice told the story from the vampire’s perspective, so that the horror was suffering through an endless existence in a seemingly meaningless world.
As she recounts in her 2008 memoir, Called Out of Darkness, Rice grew up in the richly textured Catholicism of New Orleans. “My knowledge of God was entirely iconic,” she said in an interview. “It was from my mother taking me into the church, kneeling at the communion rail, pointing at the tabernacle and saying, ‘Jesus is there.’” Those early experiences never quite left her, yet her reading of philosophy and her marriage to poet and ardent atheist Stan Rice, who died in 2002, made her feel that she needed to leave her faith behind. When their daughter Michele died of leukemia at age six, Rice struggled to make sense of a world where death was random and final. Her books about vampires and witches became a way of coping with a longing for God that she was certain could never be satisfied.
Yet as time went on, Rice’s books became increasingly haunted by questions of faith. In her fifth vampire book, Memnoch the Devil, which came out in 1995, the vampire Lestat is offered a job helping the devil to clean up the mess made of the world by God. Lestat is taken on a journey through heaven and hell. He even has a direct encounter with Jesus. It is easy to see the trial that was going on inside of Rice. She felt both the tug of God’s calling and a reluctance to let go of her objections to religion.
In 1998, Rice had a powerful experience of conversion that brought her back into the Catholic Church for 12 years. “In the moment of surrender, I let go of all the theological or social questions which had kept me from [God] for countless years,” she wrote in her memoir. “I simply let them go. There was the sense, profound and wordless, that if He knew everything I did not have to know everything, and that, in seeking to know everything, I’d been, all of my life, missing the entire point. No social paradox, no historic disaster, no hideous record of injustice or misery should keep me from Him. No question of Scriptural integrity, no torment over the fate of this or that atheist or gay friend, no worry for those condemned and ostracized by my church or any other church should stand between me and Him.” The clarity of that encounter transformed Rice into a defender of the Catholic faith. She vowed to write only for God going forward.
When you watch videos of Rice during those years, there is a peace that seems to exude from her as she speaks about the life of Jesus, the Blessed Mother, and the Mass. “If there is a true religion on this earth, it’s Christianity,” she said in 2010. And yet, by the middle of that same year, she had announced that she was once again “quitting Christianity,” ostensibly over a number of social and political concerns she had previously said were muted by the profundity of encountering God. “I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity,” she said. “It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group.”
At the time Rice made this announcement, I will admit that I was upset by it. It was hard not to feel like the victim of gaslighting, though perhaps Christians like me deserved to be a little chastened for having been too excited to have a famous convert we could point to as a model.
Yet for me, it was more personal. I loved Rice’s novels when I was a teenager and young adult. They had helped me wrestle with my own demons, which finally landed me not only back in the Catholic Church but stronger in my faith for having had to face the Church’s failings. As Flannery O’Connor famously said, “It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.” The Church is a mess, but Jesus is Lord, which is why the Church is also the great Sacrament of His love. You cannot have Jesus without the Church, which is ultimately what makes the Church beautiful, because He shines His light directly through the cracks and the brokenness.
Looking back now though, I have more compassion for what Rice must have been going through. While the surface of Rice’s rejection of Christianity was intellectual, there was an undercurrent of a desire for belonging that went unfulfilled. “I’ve tried,” she said when she announced she was leaving the Church. “I’ve failed. I’m an outsider.” What motivated Rice’s religious explorations was a desire for unconditional love that always seemed just out of reach. “I think I am always seeking redemption,” Rice told America Magazine in 2014. “The vampires represent those of us in society who feel damned and I am always seeking a way for them and those of us who identify with them to be saved.”
Rice never quite knew how to resolve her desire for God with her other desires. Her story is very human. Her life was in some ways hopeful, in others tragic, but in the background of everything she wrote was a yearning for beauty, goodness, and truth that could only have come from God. “I’m always glimpsing something that is bigger than I can describe, which as a writer is frustrating to me,” she said. I pray that she may know the peace and love of Christ that she so longed for, and that the saints and angels she wrestled with for so many years may now be the ones to carry her home.