In a world where religion is poison to some and salvation to others, how do we live together? Is tolerance possible? Bill Moyers explores this question with writer Richard Rodriguez.
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BILL MOYERS: Hello, I’m Bill Moyers, and I’m pleased you’ve joined us. In this hour, we will hear from an accomplished man of letters and an acclaimed man of science. Both are lifelong Christians — one a Catholic, the other an Evangelical. At the heart of their belief is the incarnation — the doctrine that Jesus Christ is both true God and true man. That mystery has informed the journey of these two men of reason who have kept the faith. Richard Rodriguez was in New York recently to attend the PEN Writers’ Festival on Faith and Reason. A devout believer, he openly acknowledged the source of his inspiration.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: What we do as writers connects us to the magical, the mysterious, and, for many of us, the religious — that is, the transcendental.
BILL MOYERS: The son of poor Mexican immigrant parents, Rodriguez writes from a storehouse of memories and images, including the crucifix over his childhood bed and the icons of his parochial school. He became a master of the personal essay. His memoir, “Hunger of Memory,” is used widely in schools and colleges. “Days of Obligation: An Argument with my Mexican Father” was a finalist for a Pulitzer in nonfiction. And in this book, “Brown,” he anticipates the changing complexion of America. More recently, Richard Rodriguez has lived through a close call with renal cancer and surgery that had him looking right at death through the eyes of faith.
BILL MOYERS: Richard Rodriguez, when you were lying on that gurney thinking that you might die, were you afraid?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: You know I’m going to tell you something which I don’t normally talk about in public. Something happened to me which I will merely say as plainly as I can. I was overwhelmed by a sense of peace. It was so profound that I could’ve almost levitated. I’ve never felt so light and so carefree as I did at that moment.
BILL MOYERS: A lightness of being?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: A lightness of being. And it was shocking to me that I was as joyful in that moment as I was. By the time they took me into the surgery, I was giddy.
BILL MOYERS: Well, that wasn’t the anesthesia?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: It wasn’t the anesthesia. And, in fact, I was expected to go into intensive care afterwards. And I was — I didn’t need to. And I was expected to stay in the hospital five or six days. I left after two days. I still don’t know how to account for it except that I do account for it. It was the power of prayer. What I tell other friends of mine who are not religious, is that I faced this prospect of my death with some calm. What I tell people who have prayed for me is that you made an enormous difference in my life. And you consoled me in ways that I did not expect.
BILL MOYERS: Why did you use a different language for talking to the people who are not believers, as you say?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Well, you learn in America to have to speak two ways. You learn, you know, in public discourse not to be very specific about your religious life. It is a general agreement that we will not talk about these things this way. We’ll not talk about levitating. We’ll not talk about this overwhelming experience of peace. Or, if we talk about it, we’ll find a secular way of doing it that will not be offensive to people of non-belief. So, that you go through life with these alternate voices, essentially.
BILL MOYERS: I want to come back to the lightness of being. What lies behind that metaphor, the lightness of being?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: What I discovered in that experience of being on that gurney is that I was able to face death. And I did not resist death. And I was liberated as I’ve never been liberated by any other experience in my life. I was free. There was regret to be leaving people I love. The thought of that was deeply painful to me. But, there was some other realization that I was free. I had been with dying people over the last 20 years.
BILL MOYERS: Mostly from AIDS.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Mostly from AIDS. My closest friend died of ovarian cancer a few years ago. And I have recently helped my parents die. But, it is one thing to help someone else die. It is another thing when they put that little identifying bracelet on your wrist. And then you belong to a different nation. You belong to the nation of the wounded.
BILL MOYERS: The nation of the?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: The wounded. I had never experienced a broken body before. My body was — I have a peasant’s body which is reliable, not graceful but strong and I could take it for granted. And, suddenly, I was wounded. And suddenly, the doctor says to you after the operation, “It looks good,” or something, “It looks promising. Come back in six months, and then again in six months, and then again in six months.” And so far, it looks good. But, I tell friends of mine, that I will always belong on the other side of the river now. I will always belong with the nation of the wounded because what I saw when I was there, is how easy it is to change one’s place in this world, to change one’s passport and to belong with them. When I see people who are injured or in wheelchairs now, or people who are obviously sick, I feel one of them now. Even though my body is apparently healed, I feel also psychologically wounded.
BILL MOYERS: What a tragedy that it takes something like that for any of us to be reminded of the frailty and commonality of our humanity.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I don’t know whether it’s possible to, you know, I’ve held people at moments of death. And I still don’t know whether, and I help people through great pain, but not experiencing their pain, trying to console them from pain. But, when you become the person that is being held and you become the person whose brow is wiped, that is a completely different experience. And I’m sorry to say, that my writer’s imagination was never able to make that transference until I actually lived it.
BILL MOYERS: Bear with me, for a moment. If you had died, do you think you would have seen the face of God?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I think I would’ve. But, I don’t even know how to say, “The face of God,” already is to use a metaphor that I don’t — I think I would’ve been in the presence of God. And I think I would’ve been filled with great peace. I think the discovery at the level of physical or sensual detail is going to be shocking and surprising. I believe that to be the case. But, do I think I would’ve seen the face of God? I think that God would’ve seen my face is probably the easier thing to say.
BILL MOYERS: Are you betraying reason when you pray?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: No. I’m acknowledging that reason has only some functions in my life and not others. Reason has a sister. She’s very beautiful. But, she has a very ugly name. Her name is unreason. And she’s a friend of writers. She’s been a friend of writers since the very beginning.
BILL MOYERS: Unreason is the muse of writers?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: That’s right. And to love unreason is to trust intuition, is to trust the transcendental, is to trust the essential mystery of life, is to trust, also, that emotional part of our life that is not reasonable, for example, love. Love is not reasonable. Love defies reason. And in so far as writers are interested in those emotions, that darkness, those shadows. We are not in league with reason. We are in league with reason’s sister, unreason. When I write, I don’t betray reason. I trust myself to other motives. I trust intuition. I trust mystery. I trust coincidence. I trust these areas that reason doesn’t teach me very much about. But, in so far as reason is reasonable, reason should let me be promiscuous too in that way. Reason should let me be more than what she can give me.
BILL MOYERS: There was a recent study of heart bypass patients. And as one of their ranks, I’m always interested in these studies. But, it said that heart bypass patients who knew that they had been prayed over by other people, had no better a rate of recovery than the other cohort who were not prayed over.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: That’s reason talking. And all I can tell you is that my experience was not that. This is my unreasonable experience was transcendent.
BILL MOYERS: What is prayer, for you?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: For me, prayer is a kind of-is most deeply a sense of my vulnerability and my openness to the divine presence. It is a very difficult giving up of myself-hood — of my illness in favor of something larger than me and then, opening up myself up to this other reality. It’s very hard to achieve.
BILL MOYERS: First person singular, but you said you asked other people to pray for you-
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Yes, but —
BILL MOYERS: —when you were heading towards surgery —
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: — well, I —
BILL MOYERS: — that’s a different —
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: —you see, I never think of my religion as being something that I choose. I think in some ways, it’s something that — it chooses me. I mean, people have asked me for many years, you know, “How can you be a Catholic when you’re also a gay man?” Well, like, how could I not be a Catholic. It’s not something that I choose. It’s chosen me. It feels larger than me. It feels like, you know, they’re asking me how can you be your parents’ son? It’s nothing that I chose. It’s something that I believe in. It encompasses me some-
BILL MOYERS: But, that’s a perplexing question to me, because what you’re saying is, “I belong to this church that institutionally condemns me.”
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Yes. It’s —
BILL MOYERS: “It doesn’t accept me.”
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: — but also consoles me, that also on some level it feeds me — that also I own. That is it as much my church as it is the Pope’s church. And I never forget that. I had the difficulty-
BILL MOYERS: The Pope doesn’t agree with you.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Well-
BILL MOYERS: Does he? Does he?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: — I think he might.
BILL MOYERS: Would he say —
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I would say — I would think that he would see himself as a child of God, no greater, and no more special than I am.
BILL MOYERS: But, wouldn’t he see you as a sinner?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Yes, as I see him.
BILL MOYERS: You’re saying the Pope is a sinner?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: In many ways, is a sinner, yes. And one accepts that in a complicated family, you accept parents-
BILL MOYERS: It is complicated-
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: — and parents accept children and there is love and there is disagreement. And there is anger. And there’s all the difficultly of that relationship. I do feel that the church is not something I chose, but it continually chooses me.
BILL MOYERS: What do you recognize in yourself now when you go to church?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I always sit by myself in a corner of the church. I feel at odds with the community. I feel that in some sense because I am a barren man, I am childless, in a church that celebrates family as one of the central mysteries of the church. But there’s a ceremony at various times where husbands and wives renew their vows. And we all applaud and here are all these solitary people sitting there watching a minority population now. The husband and wife and such, renewing their vows sometimes with embarrassment in front of all of us. I feel in some sense that I am at odds with the church. . at I am a loser within the eyes of the church. And then I think to myself those are all the preconditions for why I should be in church. Those are all the reasons why this church is for losers.
BILL MOYERS: Come unto me all ye-
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Exactly. And when you stumble so go to church, you know. I’ve never thought of the church as a place for winners. I’ve always thought of the church as a place for losers. I don’t understand these super churches that talk about Christ as a winner. Christ was a loser in this world. And I feel very much at home with a religion of loss.
BILL MOYERS: Is that what you meant when you wrote in your memoir, quote, the resolution of my spiritual dilemma, if there is to be one before death, will have to take place where it began, among persons who do not share my religious convictions.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: What I mean by that I guess is that here I am talking. I would guess the majority of people listening to this conversation are not of my faith. The majority of people who’ve read my books are not of my faith. The conversations I have in the day by and large are among people who are not of my faith. I grew up in a medieval village. I went to a Catholic school. The only people I knew were Catholics. The neighbors, the so-called non-Catholics, were people I was polite to and so forth, but I didn’t know them. Little by little that medieval world has given way. And then the boy finds himself more and more moving to a world in which you do not assume. You do not assume that you pray together when you go to college. In fact there is no prayer together. You go to a Catholic school college now there’s barely a crucifix on the wall. I asked a Jesuit once at a university in Chicago whether this was a Catholic university anymore. I think it was Loyola. And he said, “Beats me.” Well, it beats me too, you know. And I think to myself, you know, I don’t. That consolation on Fridays during Lent of going as a school and going to the stations of the cross, the consolation at funerals, going to sing the great hymns of sorrow, as a seventh-grade class you would go together. That consolation the day would begin with the morning offering. The day ends with the act of hope, which is a prayer at the end of the day. There is this ritual before lunch when the bell rings everyone stands up to sing, to say the Angels. The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary and she conceived of the Holy Ghost. Those prayers divided the hours of the day. And then suddenly they were no more. Suddenly my day was a silent day. Suddenly the church spire is silenced because the neighbors are complaining the bell wakes them up on Sunday morning. Suddenly you live in a world that does not share that rhythm, those prayers, those consolations, those sounds.
BILL MOYERS: Are you closer today to Protestant Christianity than you are to those memories of the Catholic Church?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Well, the question is is my Catholic Church closer to Protestant Christianity, and I think it is. I’m deeply entranced by high liturgical traditions, the Orthodox, for example. But I find myself at home with many religious traditions. And, you know, when the Cantor at Temple Emmanuel not far from my house begins to sing I am transported. And that voice and that prayer embraces me. September 11th did not alienate me from Muslims. In some sense it forced me to recognize my tie to Islam. We all come out of the desert. We believe in the same desert god. As more and more I thought about it, as more and more I was impelled myself to a literal journey to the desert, I realized that in the presence of other people of faith there is a closeness that I feel in many ways and I recognize myself in them, yes.
BILL MOYERS: You said you were on a journey to the desert. You’re going back in a couple of weeks?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Going back in a week, yes. I guess maybe as a Christian I’m always called to the desert. Maybe that’s one of the things that Christ calls us to the desert. This landscape, almost lunar, so inhospitable. It occurred to me that there is some significance in the fact that this has not forest. This is not a jungle. This is not the sea shore. This is a landscape of its — with its own particularity of —
BILL MOYERS: — of extreme hot and cold.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Extreme hot and cold.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Loneliness.
BILL MOYERS: Water becomes a salvation.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Indeed.
BILL MOYERS: Hallucination, mirages.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Yes. An oasis, which is both our beginning and our conclusion, which is both Eden and Paradise. These — the tribalism that the desert encourages — these aspects of the ecology seem to me to be somehow important. And that’s what I’m going to search right now.
BILL MOYERS: What happens to you there?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I feel part of a very ancient Pilgrimage that the people who have been on that desert, the people I so deeply admire. Moses. John the Baptist. Christ.
BILL MOYERS: Abraham?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Abraham.
BILL MOYERS: Jesus?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Jesus.
BILL MOYERS: Muhammed?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Muhammed. These are people who have walked on that desert. And to be in the desert in daylight. In that stunning daylight is also to be blinded by the desert. And you realize how much of the experience of God in the desert is heard rather than seen. These eyes are almost blinded by the light but in the desert, everything becomes and God whispers. Because He’s heard in the wind. And there’s this sense of God not as overwhelming thunderstorm but God as whisperer. God as coming close. And there is this pilgrimage that I engage in as a Christian, which necessarily connects me to Jews and Muslims. They are also on that desert. And to feel myself there is to feel myself connected. September 11, or no September 11, I am part of a pilgrimage that they are also on. And that is the testimony of my life that I did not expect that September 11 would draw me to that landscape. I thought it would, but like most Americans I recoiled and feel separate. But I feel now this other sense of common quest. The desert may end up describing to future generations the landscape of the soul, probably better than any other landscape that we have.
BILL MOYERS: The landscape of-
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: The soul.
BILL MOYERS: The soul.
BILL MOYERS: The desert has created tribalism because people need each other there.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: They cannot be by themselves.
BILL MOYERS: But that tribalism also becomes desert tribalism has become the source of conflict between the great —
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: And it also becomes-
BILL MOYERS: The I versus the We.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: It also becomes a source of great consolation. It also becomes a source of community, and becomes a source of faith. As a Catholic, as a Christian, I do not believe singly. I believe in a community. I belong to a community. I don’t invent my Christianity. I’m sent to it, and join a community. So I belong to a tribe too. I mean that this is a human motive, Bill. This is not something, you know, that we sort of live with or we live without. I mean the vast loneliness in this, in our American society, is based on the fact that we are so unable to embrace this we, this ancient pronoun which is so basic not only to religion but to communities, as you say, on the desert floor.
BILL MOYERS: And yet there is this great preamble to the Constitution. We, the people — what’s happened to it?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: America is torn between pronouns it seems to me.
BILL MOYERS: Between pronouns?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Yes. On the one hand, we are people who give our allegiance as a people paradoxically as a we, we give our allegiance to the freedom of the individual, to be I. You are free to be yourself. You are free to think as you want. You are free to believe as you want. You are free to be who you are.
BILL MOYERS: And you don’t object to that.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I do not object to it. I cling to it.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I am gay. I am an American. I’m a middle-aged man. I am a writer. These are all sentences formed out of that grammatical possibility.
BILL MOYERS: But are you lonely for community? Are you lonely for the tribe? Are you lonely for we?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I also, we also belong to Oriental religions, the religions of the desert. And these are not religions of the I. These are religions fundamentally of the we. Protestantism comes closest. Because it forms itself in the Reformation during this grammatical transformation between the we and the I, Protestantism with its freedom from the priesthood, with its insistence that you have a right to the text as much as Padrecito in Mexico, the priest reading, telling you what it means. That your freedom is valid. Protestantism is as much the religion of the I as Christianity is able to develop it seems to me. But even within Protestantism there’s this enormous loneliness that gets console with these services where everybody’s holding hands and singing together. I always thought that the reason Protestants sang so well is because they were so lonely. And Catholics, who live with the assurance of we, didn’t bother to sing at all, because we knew that the priest was praying in our name and that we belonged to this larger we community. What we’re having now as Americans, as we feel this threat from Islam is this consolation of our religious traditions, that we are communal people. And more now than ever before it seems to me Americans are hungering for this communal assurance even to the point of saying that America is a Christian country. Even to the point of saying that we are, you know, that we mustn’t be afraid of our religiosity. That this is key to who we are as people.
BILL MOYERS: You speak with such an optimistic note in your voice, Richard. And yet I know you think of yourself as living still on Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion, living on the day of the suffering not on the day of the resurrection, Easter. There’s a sadness in your writing, a sense of great loss.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I think I’ve said this in print. I think that sad cultures have better foods than optimistic cultures. I think optimistic cultures tend, like the United States, to have better jails than sad cultures. But Mexico has better beer than the United States has and better fiestas than our three-day weekends. I think sadness is not antithetical to happiness. I find within the sorrow of Mexico great cheerfulness. I find within the apparent optimism of America an enormous sadness. This country seems to me so, so desperately sad, so lonely. A culture that raises children to leave home is so desperately lonely. People are looking to connect to other people and going online to try to find their wife or their boyfriend or someone to listen to them, some connection, some human connection. There’s this desperation. I, you know, I need to take this call now because it may be someone who’s really gonna change my life. Everybody wandering at 45 degree angles down the street, you know, listening.
BILL MOYERS: Or the click, click, click of the lonely solitude of the
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I — it’s, you know, this country is not a happy country. Mexico seems much more cheerful by comparison.
BILL MOYERS: And yet it celebrates the day of the dead.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: It celebrates the day of the dead. It honors the dead. It brings the dead into the house. It feeds the dead their favorite foods. It gives them their favorite cigarettes. That happened to also cause the lung cancer. It takes flowers, petals of flowers, to the cemetery so that the dead know how to come back and forth. It gets drunk among tombstones. It sings with the dead. It sits in through night. This is a sad culture. But this is also a culture of some animate life. And you realize that there is some motion. There is some energy at play now in the world that is as as fierce as anything I have ever seen before. The south is moving. And the south maybe-
BILL MOYERS: The southern part of the globe you’re thinking about, yeah?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: That’s right. I’ve been to Tijuana, Mexico. I meet three young men who belong to group called Victory Outreach which is an evangelical Protestant group. Praise the Lord. They’re coming to the United States. One of the boys tells me to convert the United States to Christianity.
BILL MOYERS: It’s about time.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Illegally coming I should tell you. We are watching this migration from the south. We call it Hispanic, but they look Indian to me. The evangelicals are going from the United States to Europe to convert Europe to Christianity. Nowhere in the course of history do we understand these dynamics because we establish that somehow Europe evangelized the United States. So, how could it be that this procedure now is reversed? How can it be that three brown boys that belong to this group called Victory Outreach, who resemble Indians more than do Hispanics, how can it be that they’re going to Frankfurt and Paris and London and Amsterdam to convert Europe? What kind of world is that where the south begins to convert the north? We are borrowing each other’s ideas. We are being influenced by one another. We are taking the Methodist housewife who says about one thing she is religious in her day. And that’s her yoga class. We are borrowing. We are absorbing. We are learning, you know, the wisdom of Buddhism now in ways that we never expected to. At the same time there is this other impulse in us. As the world grows more complicated there is gonna be this impulse to clarify, to say, “I don’t want beige. I want black or white again.” You know, those terrorists on September 11th were not people of the village. They were cosmopolitan people.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: They were people who lived in cities. They were people of some education. You see in the world right now, you see people who live among complicated, within complicated societies. And they may respond to that complexity by accepting the complexity within themselves. Or dangerously, as you’re proposing. That there may be coming people who find themselves within this complexity desiring black and white again. The pure. And being horrified by the unclean. And beware of that in this world.
BILL MOYERS: These were not the thoughts on that gurney that day when you were about to be operated on for renal cancer, right? Very terrifying diagnosis.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. No, those were not the thoughts. The thoughts were rather more intimate. And I, you know, one of the things you confront when you confront your death is not so much the insignificance of your life. But how sweet it was. And how many people loved you. And I can, you know, all I can tell you is that I was — I entered a realm of blessedness that I’d never experienced before. And it was real. It happened to me. And I feel rather like a mystic from the mountaintop. And you can believe me or not believe me. But my body healed.
BILL MOYERS: Richard Rodriguez, thank you very much for joining me.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Thank you, Bill.
This transcript was entered on April 14, 2015.