I wake up because the floor lamp in my bedroom has been turned on. (Passive construction indicates all that is seen and unseen.) It is three o'clock in the morning. My chest feels bruised, heavy. I am certain my mother has died.
Caveat: The lamp has a dimmer switch. My mother is in a hospital a few blocks away.
Several days later, I tell a neighbor, a man I know well, that my mother died and that the floor lamp in my bedroom came on during the night. My neighbor is sincerely sorry to hear of my mother's death; he supposes there must have been some kind of surge in the electrical grid.
Our lives are so similar, my friends' and mine. The difference between us briefly flares — like the lamp in my bedroom — only when I publish a religious opinion.
On June 17, 1992, Anita Mendoza Contreras was seated at a picnic table in Pinto Lake County Park, near Watsonville, California. Mrs. Mendoza Contreras was thinking her thoughts, as people used to say about someone staring out a window or worrying the hem of an apron, and among her thoughts were her children, about whom, for reasons of her own, she worried. She worried, and so she knelt down beneath an oak tree to pray. As she prayed, Mrs. Mendoza Contreras experienced a vision of the Virgin Mary. During the vision, Mrs. Mendoza Contreras's attention was fixed upon a portion of the trunk, high up in the spread of the oak tree. After the vision ended, Mrs. Mendoza Contreras saw that an image of the Virgin had formed within the bark of the oak.
Word of an apparition circulated somehow, and, the days being long, the nights being warm, people got into their cars after work and drove to Pinto Lake to see the oak tree with the Virgin's picture on it.
That is what we did, too — two friends and I — after an article about the image appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.
The parking lot was a vacant field. I stepped in a cowpat. Federico Fellini, who as much as anyone entertained my adolescence and taught me the hope of magic, interjected into several of his movies comic scenes of crowd hysteria in the wake of miracles. As a worldly roman, Fellini relished the humor of piety. As a Roman Catholic, as a lover of circuses, he shared the human need for marvels.
We saw people coming toward us who had already seen the tree. They looked the way adults look — parents with young children — after an amusement has left them stranded: torpor, hunger, school tomorrow. Children were picking up acorns to put in their pockets. Already, I could see this wasn't going to be what I wasn't even aware I was hoping for.
Some women were sitting on aluminum foldout chairs, praying their rosaries in Spanish.
Easy to spot the relic tree within the grove because there were votive candles at its base. Boys with convinced expressions held compact mirrors with which they directed our eyes to the image by reflecting spangles of the setting sun onto the tree trunk.
I seem to remember there were already objects hanging from the branches — T-shirts, teddy bears, petitions — the forensics of hope.
I saw what they meant; I saw the shape. But I could not see what they saw. What Mrs. Mendoza Contreras saw. Though I, too, felt the need for visions that people brought to the tree and left there.
In the holy deserts of the Middle East, mountains rise from flat plains. It is on the mountaintop that God condescends and human hope ascends to within a hair's breadth of what humanity needs, what humanity fears. In the world's famous mountain- top theophany, Moses ascends Mount Sinai, under cover of cloud, to receive the Ten Commandments from God. The Israelites who wait below on the desert floor grow bored, unruly, forgetful of the wonders they have already witnessed. And that is the way of such stories. Heaven on one side of the veil; the field of folk on the other. Sometimes a souvenir passes from one side to the other.
We stayed half an hour; we stopped in Pescadero for green chile soup on our way home. No souvenir.
Another summer day: After the attack on the morning of September 11, someone posted on the Internet a photograph of one of the disintegrating towers. The image of a face seemed to form from whorls of black smoke --people were quick to say the devil's face. The face had a bulbous schnoz and more closely resembled the face of W. C. Fields.
Anyway, it was not Satan that people I know talked about in the days and months after September 11. It was religion — the religion of the terrorists — and the dangerous presumption of men who say "My God."
After September 11, it became easier, apparently it became necessary, for many of my friends to volunteer, without any equivocation of agnosticism, that they are atheists. It was not clear to me whether they had been atheists all along or if the violence of September 11 tipped Pascal's scales for them. People with whom, as my friend Will used to say, I would share my lifeboat, declared their loathing for religion, particularly the desert religions of the Middle East — the eagerness to cast the first stone, the appetite to govern civil society, the pointy hats, the crooks and crosses, the shawls, the hennaed beards. One of my closest friends, who lives in Memphis, observed that God looks to be deader than Elvis. (In his e-mail, my friend nevertheless resorted to a childhood piety: "God" is hallowed as "G-d.") But most of my friends left it at nothing. Whiteout. January First of the rest of their lives. (Buddhism retained its triple-gong rating.)
I was driving an elderly friend to a funeral. In response to nothing I had said (I suppose because we were on our way to a funeral), my friend announced her conviction that the world would be better off without religion. "I mean all of them," she said. An angry gesture of her open hand toward the windshield wiped them all away. As we drove on in silence, it occurred to me that I had interpreted what my friend said as something about men, though she had not said men. I had interpreted what she said as about God. But she said religion.
"I feel the same way about the Olympics," I said.
"Don't get me wrong," she said after a while. "I believe in the Good Lord. It's religion I don't like."
From his desert perch, a drab, plump ayatollah rejoices in the deaths of young martyrs who send infidel dogs to hell. The teachings of Jesus Christ go begging when a priest falls to his knees on the hard rectory floor to fondle and blight an altar boy's innocence.
My friend the doctor, whom I see every Sunday at Mass, whom I follow in the Communion line, asked, as we were leaving church, if I think the world is better or worse off for religion.
If you think the world is perfectible, then worse.
From DARLING by Richard Rodriguez. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright Richard Rodriguez, 2013.