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."