Enter by the Narrow Gate is rich with questions of religion and faith, the difference between the two, what happens when religion turns to fanaticism, and how easy it is to misinterpret someone else’s spiritual motivations.
Familiar New Mexico locations abound in from El Santuario de Chimayó to La Choza, a restaurant in the Santa Fe Railyard area. Carlson takes great care with his depiction of the state’s history and culture even as he fictionalizes and conflates small details for dramatic effect. Every character receives this respectful treatment as well, from Ellie, the missing girl, to a dead boy with whom she and Victor went to college that we never actually meet. The brothers of St. Mary’s are a varied and eclectic array of personalities, some of whom are quite open to new ideas and different faiths, while others are so closed-off that they live in a state of withered rage. The novel, while grounded firmly in theological and spiritual themes, is not a Bible-based mystery but an exploration of humanity.
“I grew up in a family that was tight and rigid, religiously, and so my whole life I’ve been interested in looking without judgment at how people find meaning in their lives. If someone were to read my book and think that I’m proselytizing, then they have really missed the point,” Carlson said. “I don’t have a hidden agenda or want someone to move from position A to position B. I love religion, but not as something I’m trying to sell.”
Lest anyone perceive as a quiet book focused solely on the contemplative and monastic, rest assured that the mystery takes a spectacular twist. Lives are endangered, and the threat of the apocalypse hovers over a few of the characters, putting others high in the mountains at risk. Carlson’s knowledge of religion, fanaticism, and violence is put to good use in this part of the narrative; it is easy to draw a parallel between how some people view the Penitentes — and use this ignorance to fuel their fear of them — with how Muslims are perceived by those who confuse terrorism with a faith tradition.
“To isolate and target Muslims in general, like this Republican idea of having a religious test for immigrants, is exactly what religious-extremist groups like ISIS want,” the author said. “It fits their hopes that Muslims will feel so isolated in the United States that they would either have to leave or they might as well do something horrible. They know that whenever there is a terrorist act, Muslims will be harassed and bullied. One thing I point out in my talks is that groups like ISIS recruit over the internet, and the first thing they demand is that the young person cut off all contact with their mosque. The mosques in this country are 99-percent against this kind of violence. They do not identify terrorism as an expression of Islam — it’s a distortion of their faith.”
In the end, it comes down to remembering that everyone observes God in his or her own way, Carlson said, and to live together peacefully is to respect this ancient need that humans have to connect to something larger than themselves. “Whenever I visit monasteries and see the vows that monks and nuns have taken that I have not taken, I get it. I can feel the power of it in their lives, the influence. I don’t practice my faith that way, but I leave with a deep sense of commitment to making something that is often trivialized in our culture anything but trivial.”
“Enter by the Narrow Gate” was published by Coffeetown Press in November 2016.