Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography
By Richard Rodriguez
Viking. 235 pages, $26.95
WHAT MANY LISTENERS remember about the commentaries that Richard Rodriguez delivered for years on the PBS Newshour is the sound of his voice: the measured, gentle, often sorrowful tone of a man seeking to understand some mystery at the heart of his experiences. This same tone permeates his writing, particularly in this collection of ten essays, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, his fourth book, all written in the aftermath of 9/11. We are, Rodriguez writes, “the victims of love on earth.” This love encompasses families and friends, memories of the past, the places where we live, and all of humanity in Rodriguez’ understanding of his faith, Roman Catholicism.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, are pivotal to the book. Rodriguez cannot escape the conclusion that he and the terrorists worship the same God and are therefore connected. This connection began in the desert: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are desert faiths with a common ancestor in Abraham of the Old Testament. Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad had encounters with God in the desert, which is also a symbolic place, the barren landscape signifying the self- emptying of people seeking to cast off worldly entanglements and experience union with the divine. In “Jerusalem and the Desert” Rodriguez describes a journey he took to the desert because he was curious about the “ecology” of a place where three religions are joined. In a Greek Orthodox monastery, a monk originally from St. Louis denounces Islam as “a perversion” and, defending his fervor, tells him, “The desert creates warriors.” Certain that God is on their side, each of the desert religions has waged holy wars on each other from biblical times to the present.
As a gay man, Rodriguez has known the wrath of religion. In “Darling,” the long essay at the center of the book, he explores how the desert religions have waged holy wars against homosexuals and women. This is in fact a single war, fought on behalf of male power, and the outcome of this battle between fundamentalism and secularism could determine the future of humankind. Central to the sacred texts of each religion are male conceptions of God. The Creation and perpetuation of humanity are signified throughout history by the male seed and its generative powers. In such a worldview, homosexuality is an abomination, a failure of the male line to recreate itself; and men, not women, must control reproduction. Against this background of male power, Rodriguez weaves stories of women he has known: his younger sister, a college classmate, a Dominican nun struggling with her Church, the Irish Sisters of Mercy who educated him, even the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, whose catechism exhorts sexual precaution and drug safety.
“Darling” displays Rodriguez’ skill at associating people and events. Nuns, he observes, began to give up their veils just as Muslim women began to appear in America wearing them. He is convinced that the gay rights movement is a beneficiary of the suffragist movement of the 19th century, when American women first stood up to male power. The civil rights and gay rights movements are often linked; for Rodriguez there is a more fundamental connection between gay rights and women’s resistance to the subjugation that originated in the desert religions. He argues that gay equality is inconceivable without the struggles of women, and he homes in on a particular friend of his, the unnamed “Darling.” Calling a woman “darling” signifies the opposite of male power. In the game of life, this endearment signals that “one is not a sexual player” but an equal, a friend.
Seeking the presence of the divine in the everyday world, Rodriguez is aware of what he calls the “humor of piety.” “The True Cross,” set in Las Vegas during Holy Week, describes the final days of an old friend dying of AIDS-related cancer. As he travels to and from the hospice in this desert city devoted to “the gambler’s prayer—resurrection,” he reflects with gentle humor on its more flamboyant inhabitants: Noël Coward, Liberace, Elvis, Bugsy Siegel. He attends the Easter Vigil Mass at a cathedral designed by the man who did Frank Sinatra’s house in Palm Springs. His friend Luther dies on Easter Sunday.
In other essays Rodriguez writes about Arabic influences on his Spanish heritage, César Chávez, California as a land of “disappointment,” and his beloved San Francisco. The final two essays are moving meditations on old age by a man who’s turning seventy. “Surely autumn is as necessary a part of Nature as spring,” he writes in “Transit Alexander,” an essay that describes the final days of Keats, Pope John Paul II, and St. Francis. In “The Three Ecologies of the Holy Desert,” he addresses the resilience of his own faith in a world where some respond to the horrors of holy wars by embracing atheism. Still, he believes that his frail older brother is no worse a man for not believing in God, and he is no better for believing: “It is simply that religion gives me a sense—no, not a sense, a reason, no not exactly a reason, an understanding—that everyone matters.” Such understanding is more true to genuine spiritual awareness than the motives that have inspired centuries of holy wars. Read these essays to hear a very wise, very humane man reflect on his life in these dangerous times.
Daniel Burr is an assistant dean at the U. of Cincinnati College of Medicine, where he teaches in the medical humanities program.