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Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography”

By Richard Rodriguez

Viking

235 pages, $26.95

By Michael D. Langan

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Richard Rodriguez, author of “Darling: A Spiritual Biography”, is sometimes called a public intellectual in America.

His vita attests that he is a Christian and a homosexual. Rodriguez, a longtime PBS contributor, left academe to write freelance. In addition to his work for Harper’s Magazine and the Los Angeles Times, his work, “An Argument with My Mexican Father,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

In “Darling, A Spiritual Biography,” Rodriguez turns his attention as an essayist to religion, specifically about God and the desert. Rodriguez observes that the question the modern believer might ask is “… why the God of Abraham chose to reveal himself in such a landscape – nearly lunar, where humans are daily reminded of their tenuous place on this earth.”

An intensification of that thought took place, the author notes, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when “America’s full attention (turned) to the Middle Eastern deserts – the ecology where the Abrahamic religions began … and we heard American soldiers say that they felt they were being deployed into the Bible.” He says that Christianity, like Judaism and Islam was “born of sinus-clearing glottal consonants, spit, dust, blinding light.”

Rodriguez tries dealing with the heft of this question as an essayist, framing ideational alternatives: “I write within the conventions of the modern literary essay. I stress literary. An essay is the biography of an idea. These essays are not intended to convert or persuade the reader; they are intended to delight the reader with complexity.”

For some readers, “delighting with complexity” may seem a conundrum. It can be a valid experience as anyone familiar with Rodriguez’s lucid writing will attest. Further, analyzing complexity - as a topic from a literary perspective - does not meaning writing to confuse; it means opening up a complicated issue with clarity.

Rodriguez writes about unbelief and religious doubt, too. He says that such doubt is a useful corrective to fanaticism. Rodriguez notes that “There is within my Roman Catholic tradition a heroic religious literature of doubt. Some of the greatest saints acknowledged being tormented by unbelief; felt their souls enveloped by darkness despite their prayers. And yet they persisted in their holy lives. Mother Teresa, for example.”

Since being gay is part of the author’s experience, there is considerable justification throughout these essays about the importance of his sexuality to his life.

“Darling” of his book title refers to a friend of his, a woman, now deceased. In the central chapter of this book, he recalls “a fateful lunch I had with Darling at a restaurant in Malibu on the day her divorce was final.”

The author had an epiphany during that lunch. He says that as they ate he began to think that the beginning of the modern gay movement was not the riot at Stonewall but rather the procession of 19th century women in Europe and America demanding the right to vote.

The essays in this spiritual biography were all written after 9/11. They include among others, the first chapter, “Ojalá” (In Spanish, “I pray it may be so”); “Jerusalem and the Desert”; “The True Cross”; “Tour de France”; and “Disappointment.”

Here is Rodriguez’s explanation of Ojalá; a frequent expostulation of his mother’s when he was a child. He says, “In fact the name of Allah was enshrined in the second and third syllables of my mother’s Ojalá. I doubt my mother knew that, though maybe she did. I didn’t. The expression is a Spanish borrowing from the Arabic commonplace prayer Insha’Allah – God willing.”

In his chapter entitled “Jerusalem And The Desert,” he writes of this enigma. “The paradox of monotheism is that the desert God, refuting all other gods, demands acknowledgement within emptiness. The paradox of monotheism is that there is no paradox – only unfathomable singularity.”

From the chapter “Darling”, Rodriguez writes about his association with the Catholic Church.

“Q: Why do you stay in the Catholic Church?

A: I stay in the Church because the Church is more than its ignorance; the Church gives me more than it denies me. I stay in the Church because it is mine.”

Elements of this spiritual autobiography were written for different publications. Here they are joined as an integrated work and dedicated to the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas who educated him as a boy.

Earlier in his career, Time magazine wrote of Rodriguez, “What reader can say no to suspended judgments that are hung from such bright lines of language?”

As I’ve always been transfixed by the lively complexity of his writing, I’d say not many.

Michael D. Langan is a former headmaster of the Nardin Academy and a frequent News book reviewer