by Paul Elie
from Georgetown University

Darlings of the Desert

Richard Rodriguez’s Darling is a spiritual autobiography, and it is a book about the desert.

A spiritual autobiography about the desert?

Yes. Here is the beginning of why:

Moses, Jesus, Muhammad – each ran afoul of cities: Moses of the court of Egypt, Jesus of Jerusalem, Muhammad of Mecca. The desert hid them, emptied them, came to represent a period of trial before they emerged as vessels of revelation …

What we think of as the Abrahamic religions, the religions of the book, Rodriguez shows us to be the religions of the desert. The formulation is new to me, but that others have probably said so before Richard hardly matters. His desert isn’t like anybody else’s desert.  Here the desert is a place of eternity:

In The Desert Fathers, Helen Waddell writes that the early Christian monks of the desert gave a single intellectual concept to Europe – eternity. The desert monks saw the life of the body as “most brief and poor.” But the life of the spirit lies beyond the light of day. The light of day conceals a starlit darkness into which a man steps and becomes suddenly aware of a whole universe, except that part of it which is beneath his feet.”

There are people in every age who come early or late to a sense of the futility of the world. Some people, such as the monks of the desert, flee the entanglements of the world to rush toward eternity. But even for those who remain in the world, the approach of eternity is implacable. “The glacier knocks in the cupboard / The desert sighs in the bed,” was W.H. Auden’s mock-prophetic forecast. He meant the desert is incipient in the human condition. Time melts away from us. Even in luxuriant weather, we know our bodies will fail; our buildings will fall to ruin.

That passage is three square meals of significance.  But Rodriguez – the most offhandedly profound of writers – sets against it a passage just as rich.  Here the desert is a place of survival: 

If the desert beckons the solitary, it also, inevitably, gives birth to the tribe. The ecology of the desert requires that humans form communities for mutual protection from extreme weathers, from bandits, from rival chieftains. Warfare among Arab tribes impinged often upon the life of the Prophet Muhammad. In response to the tyranny of kinship, Muhammad preached a spiritual brotherhood – discipleship under Allah – that was as binding as blood, as expansive as sky.

Rodriguez’s desert is also a place of Elvis Presley and of hospice care.  He is a Sacramentan — a native of Sacramento — who writes about his home state as well as anyone has ever written about anywhere.  I suspect he’s on his way, in Darling, to a depiction of California as the desert.

At a dinner following his Faith & Culture event at Georgetown, Richard surprised us all by matter-of-factly declaring that he thinks Washington has become the center of things.   But when you read the new book, you come away thinking the desert is the center of things.


  • 12 October 2013