"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
As a seven-year-old in the New Jersey suburbs, I accepted Jesus as my savior. I grew up attending evangelical schools, churches and youth groups, but I never felt quite at home in any of them. Evangelical Christianity preached a suspicion of the world I did not believe; I was pretty sure I could have my Morrissey and Jesus, too.
I kept thoughts like that to myself, however, and continued praying that one day I’d find a church that didn’t mind if you read writers other than C.S. Lewis, a church that didn’t mind if you wanted to enjoy life in a big city rather than drag its inhabitants toward repentance. In college, after reading Walker Percy and Dorothy Day, I got the idea that the Catholic Church could be that church.
But it was only when I started to feel a little bit lost in the biggest of cities — New York, where I had begun a job in the publishing industry — that I submitted myself to the process. And so, at the age of 27, in a city known for sex and sin, I decided to convert.
Spring came, and I visited my friend Eric in Baltimore. Eric did not believe, but was sympathetic to those who did, although his sympathy could also take the form of gentle mockery.
“When is it exactly that the pope is infallible?” he asked, feigning confusion. We had been talking a walk around Fells Point. “When he puts on the funny hat or sits on the throne? Or does the throne make him invisible?”
We sat down on a bench by the water, and I told him about a black Labrador that came occasionally to five o’clock Mass — a seeing eye dog that lay down at the feet of its owner with patience in a way that made me think that it was getting something out of Mass, too.
I said, “It’s almost as if the Holy Spirit — “
“Holy Spirit my ass,” he said. “It’s well trained!”
The sun was going down. We’d been talking for hours. He was trying to finish his dissertation; I was trying to live up to my potential. “Do you think it’s intellectually irresponsible of me not to be reading every single thing I can get my hands on about Catholic doctrine?” I asked him.
He looked out at the water and smiled. “You’ve already done something intellectually irresponsible by converting,” he said.
But there was something else other than my mind at work here, whether I liked it or not. I could not find the words to say this to Eric. It was something I had trouble admitting to myself. Remembering Kierkegaard and his knight of faith — someone who believed in spite of the evidence against it, who believed because she had subjectively experienced, not deductively reasoned her way to, the truth of God’s existence — was no comfort. If I told Eric about that day in Florence to try to explain myself, would he tell me that I was just as well-trained as that seeing eye dog?
A few summers before, my sister and I had taken ourselves to Europe, and when in Florence, we visited the baptistry. We stood under the dome, under a bearded, dark-eyed Christ looking down on us from the ceiling, seated in judgment, surrounded by angels, saints, evangelists, and prophets. His face gave me a start. I recognized this face, although it had never been made visible to me by the churches I’d grown up in. This was the Jesus of the lover’s sigh. Of the mother’s sigh. The Jesus I had been praying to all my life, whose open hands offered infinite mercy. There he was suspended above us, arms outstretched, suffering everyone to come unto him, whether indifferent, curious, hostile, or humble. He had been sitting there for centuries, wanting really only a few things from us while people came and went below him. Come unto me, if you want to, everyone down there flipping through guidebooks, taking pictures, arguing about where to have lunch, tugging your children on to the next sight.
That day I saw that I could not be anything other than a Christian. I could not be a Buddhist. That seemed faddish — what you did when you wanted to be spiritual without having to subscribe to a religion that was unpopular for the way most of its adherents practiced it. It was what hippies and vegetarians did, and I wanted no part of it. If the Beats embraced it, with their sloppy rhapsodies, I wanted no part of it. I was too much a lover of Christ and his words to leave him behind for Judaism or the Unitarians. He had come alive to me — for me? — in that baptistry in such a way that I knew it would be impossible to follow anyone else. If you walked into a building and, upon Christ’s looming, you felt that you should drop to your knees, even though you had spent your life arranging things so that you would never be in such a supplicating position, you had to give up: He was yours, and you were his.
On a damp, cloudy morning back in New York City, on the first Sunday of Lent, our church’s group of converts met at St. Patrick’s Cathedral to attend the Rite of Election, a ceremony in which all the catechumens in the city’s diocese declared their intentions before God and Cardinal Egan. Once our names were called and we stood before the altar receiving a blessing, there was apparently no turning back. There were hundreds of people there, faces of many colors. But then the priests before us: corpulent, white, reminding me of all the stories I’d heard about the princely class that lived like kept women in their rectories. Fat white men lording it over the faithful. Here was the other Catholic Church, the church that, in all my excitement, I’d been suppressing my knowledge of. It was the church that came to mind for most people when they thought of the Catholic Church, the one that turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse of its children, that would not let women become priests or let their priests marry, that castigated its liberation theologians. The moneyed, secretive, inflexible machine.
How many people would I have to climb over to run down the aisle and out onto Fifth Avenue? This really was intellectually irresponsible. The pope, Mary, Padre Pio, Pope Pius, Opus Dei, the sexual abuse, the forbidding of birth control, the official stance on homosexuality. I wouldn’t marry someone if I had to ignore this much sin and dysfunction. Or would I? But think: Why had I come all this way? And who had led me here? Dorothy Day had submitted. And if it was the church of Dorothy Day, it was the church of Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, Graham Greene, and Flannery O’Connor. A church of dissenters and mystics.
In the last few weeks before Easter, at Mass, the readings reminded us that Jesus healed the blind. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, quoting an early Christian hymn:
But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said:
Wake up, O sleeper,
Rise from the dead,
And Christ will shine on you.
We were also reminded that Jesus called Lazarus forth from the tomb — and perhaps I wasn’t as deadened by fear and anxiety. I was no longer frightened of God; I no longer believed that his plan for my life was to extract grudging submission from me until I died. I had signed up to teach English as a second language through the church. And at rush hour in the morning it was possible to feel what my father used to try to get me and my sister to feel when we sat at the kitchen table putting off driving to school, which was that “Today is another day of wonderful opportunity!” In the morning I had all my limbs and a job in the publishing industry and could walk around the city staring up at the buildings and the sky. I had the train humming with purpose, everyone snapping their papers in half into the straphanger origami needed to read them standing up, squat cups of coffee like whiskeys ordered neat, intently consuming news of the world — what to eat, who to see, what to wear. Tapping their feet to whatever was in their headphones, breakfasting steadfastly, sheep may safely graze, on Gideon New Testaments or the Torah, fortified, ready to go, the train and its riders vibrating with that line from Longfellow: “Let us then be up and doing, with a heart for any fate.” Leaving the train like leaving Mass, bolstered by thinking of the last line in the liturgy: Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Or mammon, whichever you preferred. I no longer cared.
The night we converted, the Saturday night before Easter Sunday, we waited in the back of the church in the dark, standing behind Father N and the Eucharistic ministers. The only light in the church came from the fire in the bowl of the baptistry. “May the light of Christ’s rising dispel the darkness of hearts and minds,” said Father N as he touched a candle to the bowl, and we exchanged smiles as we hovered. I could see my sister and my friend Genevieve in the crowd. There was a feeling of waiting in the wings and walking out into the glare of expectant faces — a feeling I last had in junior high, before piano recitals and choral concerts, before you took to the stage to do your part, a feeling I had never experienced just by standing in a church. After the candle was lit, the procession traveled up the aisle, the large candle lighting pew by pew the small ones held by the congregants.
For a large part of the service we stood in a line up front, facing the congregation and submitting to a series of questions and proclamations. Some of us would be baptized; all of us would take communion for the first time.
“God does not give up on us,” said Father N. “God always brings us out of the place of death and into the place of life.”
We were asked to renounce our sin and make a profession of faith. “Do you reject the glamour of evil and refuse to be mastered by sin?” he asked.
“I do,” we said. The glamour of evil. This city. I no longer wanted to walk its streets thinking of what I didn’t have and how I’d never have it.
“Give them the spirit of right judgment and courage, of wonder and awe,” said Father N. “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit,” he told us, anointing our foreheads with oil, confirming us.
We then took places in the aisles of the church with our sponsors, and people began to file out of the pews. I seized up, shoulders tensing, vowing that only a few friends of mine would ever know that I’d stood in a church with my eyes closed, letting strange people lay their hands on me in a gesture of blessing. Because it sounded, out of the context of this Catholic ceremony, disturbingly Pentecostal.
But we were in a house of miserere, I remembered, which meant a house of mercy, which meant a house of mystery. Here are strangers of all sorts, strangers of kind face. They keep coming. They’re singing “Veni Sancte Spiritus.” I hear piano and voices. They’re passing their hands over me, patting my shoulders, grazing my bare arms with their fingers. A little girl, her gold hoops glinting, led by her father, touches my hand, and I’m a stone dropped down into a stream, disappearing from the world as I know it.
Carlene Bauer is an editor at Elle magazine.More Carlene Bauer.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)