2016-06-30
Mary Karr

Poet and memoirist Mary Karr surprised many fans last year when she used an an essay in Poetry magazine to "confess" her Catholicism. Karr, famous for her tales of her chaotic and seemingly godless youth in the best-selling memoirs "The Liars' Club" and "Cherry," revealed in the November 2005 issue that after a "lifetime of undiluted agnosticism," she converted in 1996.

Her new book, "Sinners Welcome," goes into more detail about her spiritual transformation. The new volume is filled with poems about faith: from the journey from doubt to growing "thirst" for Christ in "Disgraceland," to the sexual metaphor of receiving communion in the title poem, "Sinners Welcome." Karr took time out of working on her upcoming third memoir to talk to Beliefnet about how prayer led her to believe in God and to stay sober, why she chose Catholicism, and why even sinners should be welcome in church.

Tell me about your religious transformation. In your poem "Disgraceland," you write that you "clung to doubt" for a long time.
Yes, most people do. I think it has to do with how I was raised. I have a lot of intellectual pride. I found the idea that I hadn't figured everything out--or couldn't--very hard to swallow. I was a philosophy major as an undergraduate, and I'm just an arrogant little thing. It's hard for me to admit that I can't understand something, let alone not be in charge of it.

It's always amazing to me that people think, "Because I thought this up, instead of reading it in doctrine, that means it's more true." It's a funny prejudice. I mention in my essay [in Poetry] my girlfriend who thinks she hears her dead husband in a wind chime. And she thinks I'm crazy to believe in the resurrection? Often, people think, "If it's in my own head, it can't be corrupt." But for me, if it's my own head, it's got to be corrupt. It took me a long time to come to that.


How did you come to it?
I couldn't stop drinking, and I kept driving into stuff that had more molecular density than I did. Someone suggested I pray. It's completely through prayer that I came to believe in God. I just sensed a presence south of my neck.

The poet Paul Celan has this great poem--about having a sunflower in the center of your chest. That's how I started to feel: I just felt a presence that was not me. I know it wasn't me because it wanted to do things that I never wanted to do before I prayed.

Such as?
I remember when my kid was a toddler, and I had just started on this [spiritual] journey. My car broke down once, in Boston, in really bad weather. I remember him looking at me with anxiety, thinking "This has gone wrong, and she's going to be upset." And I just remember looking at the sunset and carrying him down the drive and saying, "It's a really pretty sunset, isn't it?" And he was like, "You're not mad?" I don't know why I wasn't, I just knew we were going to be OK.

I don't remember ever really feeling that way [before]. My house growing up was not safe. My parents were great--they were mythic humans to me; they were colossi. They were two of the most mismatched and interesting people I ever met. But they weren't real good at making you feel safe.

I had a needle biopsy once during a very dark spiritual time. I went in as scheduled, and the guy who was supposed to do the biopsy was in surgery and couldn't do it, and they tried to reschedule it. Normally I would have been very upset, but I just said OK and rescheduled it. As I rounded the corner, I ran into someone in the hall. He said, "Do you remember me? You coached my daughter in Little League." It turned out he was an oncologist and he could do the biopsy.

That's the kind of experience I have now. If I had been yelling and screaming at the nurses, I wouldn't have run into him. Then, when I was lying on the table, I really just had such a sense of the presence of Christ. I was so peaceful. When I had come in for the biopsy, when the woman took my blood pressure, I started crying. I remember telling a girlfriend about it, who isn't Christian. She said, "Oh, you just had the feeling that you know you don't have cancer." I said, "No, I had the feeling that whether I had cancer or not, I wouldn't be alone."

I haven't had a drink for about 16 years. It just took three minutes a day. When I first started praying, it was just, "Help me stay sober. Thanks."

Faith for me is not usually a feeling. I am an arrogant bitch. So moments like that, when I really do feel it, are very precious to me. And they come to me at the weirdest times.

Do you feel that sense of safety and calm when you're writing?
No, almost never. I'm always terrified when I'm writing. I do pray when I write, to be guided by the Holy Spirit in the truth I'm supposed to tell that day. I don't think I'm always obedient. I don't always listen for it enough. The only journal I have is from 1965. I could barely write, but I wrote down, "When I grow up, I will write half poetry and half autobiography."

You were very prophetic.

Listen to Karr read a poem
I just knew it was what I was supposed to do. It's such a strange thing for a little kid to think. So in my experience, the times that I do permit myself to be guided by prayer--even when I do things that are counterintuitive, like turning down big zillion-dollar advances to write books I don't feel like I'm supposed to write. I'm never misled. That doesn't mean I'm always going to write a great book. The thing I have to do as a writer, and that God permits me to do, is that I have to be willing to fail. I don't know what God wants me to do, and I never get any kind of long-term instruction.

What is your Catholic practice like now?
I go to church. I participate in all the sacraments, except obviously last rites. It's hard to get them to give you that in advance. I pray every day, to varying degrees of effectiveness.

I feel like I'm starting a new spiritual phase of my life right now. I've just found a new church and a new priest. I pray the rosary. I do a chaplet called the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. On the Our Father beads you pray, "Eternal Father, I offer you the body and blood, soul and divinity of your only son, our Lord and savior Jesus Christ in atonement for my own sins and those of the whole world." On the Hail Mary beads, you say, "For the sake of his sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world." It's a very quick little chaplet, you can say it in 15 minutes or so. Sometimes my mind is really at a scamper, I'll just whip it out.

I also try to just talk to God in the morning and ask for guidance about the day, and in the evening, do what they call an examination of conscience, where you ask yourself, what did I do today that brought me closer to God and what did I do that moved me further away?

What's your answer on a typical day?
Oh, I do a lot of stuff. I'm not a very good Christian. My nature is pretty selfish. I'm the kind of person who will take the last cookie. My mother was an only child and drank a fifth of vodka every day, and my dad also drank. Like I said, I have had a hard time feeling safe most of my life. But I have a sense of safety now much more often. My stress hormone levels have even gone down. That's a good advertisement for religion.

What I say to people who say they don't believe in God is, "What does it cost you to pray for 30 days?" I encourage them to pray for 30 days and see if their life gets better--that's the only reason I did it. It's the only reason I stopped drinking, because somebody said if I did that, it might help. I haven't had a drink for about 16 years. It just took three minutes a day. When I first started praying, it was just, "Help me stay sober. Thanks."

Did you do those three minutes willingly?
No. I had my middle finger pointed at the sky 90 percent of the time. I'm not innately humble or obedient or any of that stuff that helps you participate in a religion wholeheartedly.

Why are you choosing now to come out to the world as religious?
Listen to Karr read a poem
If you look at my books, it's always been there. Robert Hass, who used to be [U.S.] poet laureate, was my teacher. When he introduced me recently at [the Univesrity of California at] Berkeley, he said "If you look back at the very first poems of Mary's, you see that she was always on a spiritual quest." I've written about when I was doing what I call "God-o-Rama," when I was really looking for a place to practice a faith. [My son and I] would go to zendos, or Baptist churches, Episcopalian, Jewish temples. But if you had told me I was going to wind up Catholic, I would have fallen over laughing.

So how did it happen that you chose Catholicism?
I was guided by the Holy Spirit. I can't say it any better than that.

A lot of things appeal to me about a lot of religions. I would have thought I was going to end up Episcopalian, but the fact that there wasn't a body on the cross was too subtle for me. And the carnality of the [Catholic] Church really drew me--that there is a body on the cross, that we are hunks of meat.

Your work demonstrates that appeal of the carnal--some of your poems are sexual metaphors for faith.
Yes, "Sinners Welcome," the title poem, certainly is. Everybody thinks it's about having sex, but it's about taking communion. Being entered by the God. I said, "He enters me and joy sprouts…" In any Christian church, communion is supposed to be about someone's passion. Someone lends you their passion, someone suffers for you. You take someone's suffering into your body, and you're transformed by it. It's such a great idea.

Why did you choose the title "Sinners Welcome" for your book?
At the church that I went to in Syracuse, there's a banner outside that says "Sinners Welcome" It's in the poorest part of Syracuse, where all half-way houses are, so about 20 to 30% of the parish is disabled, either physically or mentally.
I always loved walking in under that banner. I used to think you had to be good to go to church.  You can go even if you haven't been to confession, if you haven't been absolved. Who needs it more than a sinner?