Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Realm of Mystery


Richard Rodriguez is one of the few contemporary American writers whose Catholicism seems to reside at the forefront of his identity. To give you an idea of his clout in the academic world, he was selected, along with the likes of Frank Kermode, Burton Raffel, and Seamus Heaney, to introduce a unit in the mass-market literature textbook that our high school uses. He is canonical reading for most university writing courses. Perhaps no other writer so accepted by the secular elite openly addresses the Catholic faith and how it has shaped his vision of the world.

     This vision comes across clearly in a recent interview in The Paris Review. Consider the following: 
From boyhood, particularly my lower-middle-class childhood in Sacramento, I was transported by religion into the realm of mystery. Consider this: The Irish nun excused me from arithmetic class so that I could serve as an altar boy at a funeral mass. Along with the priest and the other altar boy, I would welcome Death at the doors of the church. We escorted Death up the main aisle. I later went with the cortege to the cemetery. There was a fresh pile of soil piled high at the edge of the grave site, discreetly, if unsuccessfully, covered by an AstroTurf rug that was as unconvincing a denial of the hardness of time as a cheap toupee. I wondered at the mourners’ faces—the melting grief, the hard stoicism. Thirty minutes from the grave, I was back within the soft green walls of Sacred Heart Parish School. It was almost lunchtime. I resumed my impersonation of an American kid.
 Even his interviews are like essays. The details, from the use of "arithmetic" rather than "math" (doesn't "arithmetic" convey the rote drudgery so much better?) to the AstroTurf toupee covering the balding head of time, draw a stark contrast between religious mystery and good ol' American banality. One world fulfills us; the other leaves us withered and dry. Like others whose writing hums with the magical and mysterious, Rodriguez appears not to be bound by this or any age. The passage above (save for the reference to AstroTurf) could have been written in the 13th century.
     I need to read more of his work. His recent spiritual autobiography seems like a good place to start.

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