Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Lessons from Death Comes for the Archbishop

This mesa plain had an appearance of great antiquity, and of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain plateau. The country was still waiting to be made into a landscape... Looking out over the great plain spotted with mesas and glittering with rain sheets, the Bishop saw the distant mountains bright with sunlight.  Again he thought that the first Creation morning might have looked like this, when the dry land was first drown up out of the deep, and all was confusion.

I remember with great disdain reading My Antonia by Willa Cather as a sophomore in high school.  It was all I could do to get through it (though, undoubtedly, I far preferred her work to the other assigned reading, namely, The Fountainhead).

So when friends of ours recommended another book by Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop, I was doubtful.  Still, I thought Cather deserved another chance.  After all, the book is included in Time magazine's list of 100 greatest novels.

Set in recently annexed New Mexico in the 1850s, I presumed the book would be a kind of who-dunnit.  Maybe a suspenseful murder mystery.  I was prepared to enter into a terrible persecution of Christians in the Native American territory, followed by a stunning martyrdom.  Intrigue, action, conflict--I was ready for it all.

Except that is everything Death Comes for the Archbishop is not.

It is not a thriller.  It is not action-packed.  There is no mystery.  And I did not dislike it; I loved it.  My friends (and Time) were right: this is an incredible novel.

To describe Death Comes for the Archbishop in one word, I would say "peaceful."  Cather's writing is simple yet profound, eloquent yet factual.  She is a master writer.  Her sentences, regardless of the scene they tell, fill the reader with a sense of serenity and beauty.  

But the peace of this book does not mean it is boring.  It is not a page-turner, this is true, but it kept my total attention.  The whole book is very unique.  For instance, there is no outstanding, climactic scene.  Cather herself avoided calling it a novel; she preferred the term "narrative."  It has a little bit of everything.  As Guy Reynolds writes in his essay The Ideology of Cather's Catholic Progressivism, the book contains "folk tale, historical detail, anecdotes about Mexican and Indian life, the spiritual biographies of Fathers Latour and Vaillant."  

Cather's inspiration for the "narrative" was based on the historical figures of the first Archbishop of Santa Fe, Jean Baptiste Lamy, and his friend and vicar Joseph Projectus Machebeuf, who became the first Bishop of Denver.  Cather explained, "I never passed the life-size bronze of Archbishop Lamy which stands under a locust tree before the Cathedral in Santa Fe without wishing that I could learn more about a pioneer churchman."

Statue of Archbishop Lamy outside the Cathedral in Santa Fe

Cather renames her Archbishop Latour, which in French means "the tower."  It is fitting, as he is the fortress of the reinvigorated Catholic faith in this new area of the United States.  His long-time friend, companion, and fellow missionary is Father Vaillant who, as his name implies, is valiant in his efforts to spread the faith.  

The Faith, in that wild frontier, is like a buried treasure; they guard it, but they do not know how to use it to their soul's salvation.  A word, a prayer, a service, is all that is needed to set free those souls in bondage.  I confess I am covetous of that mission.  I desire to be the man who restores these lost children to God.  It will be the greatest happiness of my life.

The two personalities--Latour pedantic, refined, and shy while Vaillant passionate, energetic, and of the people--complement each other as they undertake the task of rebuilding and growing the Catholic Church in New Mexico.

Their task is not an easy one.  The climate and geography of the new diocese is their first obstacle.  Travel is slow and precarious.  The route between towns is sometimes barely discernible and one must contend with extreme heat, lack of water, sand storms, and rocky terrain.  To put things in perspective, consider that it took Father Latour one year just to reach his diocese.  

Then there is the matter of the inhabitants of this desert.  The Native Americans have their own belief system, held from the beginning, that is quite foreign to Latour.  And then there are the Mexicans, converted by the Spanish friars long ago, but hardly educated in the faith.  

This settlement was his Bishopric in miniature; hundreds of square miles of thirsty desert, then a spring, a village, old men trying to remember their catechism to teach their grandchildren.  The Faith planted by the Spanish friars and watered with their blood was not dead; it awaited only the toil of the husbandman.

In addition, the Mexican priests, entrenched in their parishes, are filled with avarice, intemperance, and lust--and do not welcome the interference of foreign, French priests.

The book opens with Father Latour almost dying of thirst in the desert, repelled by this hostile territory and daunted by the task before him.  He survives and decades pass until, as the title indicates, Latour does pass from this life.  Yet this death is a peaceful death of old age and, through struggle and perseverance, he dies at home in this land of desert and pueblos.  

He did not know just when it had become so necessary to him, but he had come back to die in exile for the sake of it.  Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!

Cather, an Episcopalian, does an incredible job in describing the Catholic faith of Latour and Vaillant.  Consider the following passage regarding Our Lady:

He sat down before his desk, deep in reflection.  It was just this solitariness of love in which a priest's life could be like his Master's.  It was not a solitude of atrophy, of negation, but of perpetual flowering.  A life need not be cold, or devoid of grace in the worldly sense, if it were filled by Her who was all the graces; Virgin-daughter, Virgin-mother, girl of the people and Queen of Heaven: le reve supreme de la chair.  The nursery tale could not vie with Her in simplicity, the wisest theologian could not match Her in profundity.

Cather describes the great pains both priests take to minister to the sheep of their widespread, diverse flock.  Risking their lives, they prevail through storm, illness, and distance to administer the sacraments.  To do so, they leave their families and home, abandon familiar food and native tongue.  
Their sacrifice bears much fruit.  With their presence comes culture and civilization.  Indicatively, the French priests bring fruit trees and cultivate gardens.  Archbishop Latour has religious sisters accompany him back to this diocese, where they begin a school to educate the illiterate natives.  As Mitchell Kalpakgian remarks in his article in Crisis magazine, "The Jesuits, then, bring to the New World what the Church always brings with the Gospel--a human way of life that raises man from the primitive to the refined, from the ignorant and superstitious to the rational and educated, from the meager and the dreary to the abundant and the beautiful.  The Church concerns herself with the whole man, body and soul, and performs both the spiritual and corporal works of mercy in its evangelization."

Latour's evangelization is charitable and respectful: he upholds and admires the beauty and meaning of the culture of the Indians.  He is sensitive to their traditions and customs.  As Cather writes, describing Latour's relationship with his Indian guide:

There was no way in which he could transfer his own memories of European civilization into the Indian mind, and he was quite willing to believe that behind Jacinto there was a long tradition, a story of experience, which no language could translate to him.

It is the diversity of the many Indians that is another gripping aspect of the novel.   I was especially intrigued by the Acoma Pueblo.  Seeking refuge from neighboring Navaho and Apache tribes, the Acoma built their pueblo on top of a mesa, 365 feet off the ground.  A single staircase, carved into the rock, granted access to the top.  God is our rock.  St. Peter is the rock upon whom Christ built His Church.  But for the Acoma, the literal rock is their safety.
The Acoma Pueblo

And so Fathers Latour and Vaillant labor, bringing the Good News to the people of New Mexico.  Their missionary work, born on the back of mules, is inspiring in its fervency, extensiveness, and consequence.  Their friendship is inspiring in its longevity and complementarity.  Through them and the people they minister to, Cather creates an incredible narrative, one I would like to revisit again, perhaps while driving along the mountains and mesas of the southwest.

"I shall not die of a cold, my son.  I shall die of having lived."

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Lessons from The End of the Affair

She had said to me--they were nearly the last words I heard from her before she came dripping into the hall from her assignation--"You needn't be so scared.  Love doesn't end.  Just because we don't see each other..." She had already made her decision, though I didn't know it till the next day, when the telephone presented nothing but the silent open mouth of somebody found dead.  She said, "My dear, my dear.  People go on loving God, don't they, all their lives without seeing Him?" 

This was my third time reading Graham Greene and my admiration and enjoyment of his writing has increased with each successive novel.  Greene wrote many books, but there are four especially "Catholic" novels: The Heart of the Matter, The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair, and Brighton Rock.  Thank goodness I still have Brighton Rock left to read--I really enjoy Greene that much.

It is hard to say, but I believe The End of the Affair may be my favorite Greene novel yet.  Out of all the books I have read and are listed on this blog, it is this one that comes closest to my novel.  Both are first-person point of view--an intimate introspection.  Both also trace a character's conversion, and the demise of a romantic relationship.  Furthermore, the connection between love and hate is explored.

Our books share similarities.  But I wish I could write more like Greene.  He can compose a four word sentence that just hits you with its raw veracity and power.  Greene is coarse: his images are unsettling, his characters flawed and sinful.  Yet his underlying theme is refined and supernatural.  The mixture of base human emotions and actions (hate, jealousy, adultery) and the break-through of grace amidst the muck of sin is riveting. 

In The End of the Affair, Greene takes corrupt human love and from it--perhaps through it--points to the perfect love of God.

In many ways the book is based on Greene's own life.  The protagonist is an author and sometimes reflects on the art of writing.  The End of the Affair is dedicated to a certain "C," which in the United States' edition of the book is spelled out as "Catherine."  This is the woman with whom Greene had an affair for eleven years.  He wrote this book toward the very end of his own affair with Catherine.

The person who tells the story is Maurice Bendrix.  His last name points to something that is bent--what should be straight is forced into a curve or angle.  What is bent in Bendrix is his understanding of love, for his love is one crippled by jealousy.

Maurice, a writer, was studying the life of Henry Miles, a government worker, to glean background for a character in one of his novels.  Through Henry, Maurice became acquainted with Mrs. Sarah Miles, who immediately captivated him.  They began a three year affair, which was frequently poisoned by Maurice's extreme jealousy. 

"Wouldn't you want me to be happy, rather than miserable?" she asked with unbearable logic.

"I'd rather be dead or see you dead," I said, "than with another man.  I'm not eccentric. That's ordinary human love.  Ask anybody.  They'd all say the same--if they loved at all."  I jibed at her.  "Anyone who loves is jealous." 

The affair abruptly ended during the bombing of Britain in 1944.  Sarah and Maurice were together when Maurice decided to go downstairs to investigate whether they should seek safety in the basement.  A bomb hit his apartment and Maurice found himself buried underneath his front door.  Gaining consciousness, he went upstairs to find Sarah, who looked disappointed to see him alive.  It was the last day of the affair: he never heard from her again.

Maurice (and the reader) are left with a resounding question: Why?  Why did Sarah end the affair?  Did she ever really love Maurice?  

They live two separate lives, until nearly two years later when Maurice happens upon Henry late one rainy night.  They go out for drinks and Henry admits to Maurice that he suspects Sarah is cheating on him.  (Henry, naive and trusting, never had an inkling of Maurice and Sarah's affair.)  His jealousy aroused, Maurice puts into action Henry's discarded plan to hire a private detective.

What Maurice learns is that there is a new love in Sarah's life.  But it isn't who he expected.  When the private detective hands Maurice Sarah's diary, he has the key to the mystery.

Greene deftly switches from Maurice to Sarah as narrator, jumping from past to present and back again.  Sarah has the opportunity to explain the situation from her perspective, through her diary.  

The day of the bombing, she found Maurice under the door and returned upstairs, certain he was dead.  Terrified and desperate, she found herself praying, begging God to spare Maurice's life, offering to believe in God in exchange.  But that wasn't enough of a sacrifice, so to make the deal more enticing, Sarah promised not to see Maurice again.  At that moment, Maurice entered the bedroom alive and practically unhurt.

The end of their affair was the beginning of a new love for Sarah.  At first she hated God and the vow she made to him, and longed for nothing other than to be with Maurice again.

I'm tired and I don't want any more pain.  I want Maurice.  I want ordinary corrupt human love.  Dear God, you know I want to want Your pain, but I don't want it now.  Take it away for a while and give it to me another time.

To find a way around her vow, Sarah begins to visit a professed atheist, Richard, who spends his life trying to convince people that God doesn't exist.  In their visits, however, quite the opposite occurs: the man's disbelief leads to her belief.  For how could this man hate someone who didn't exist?  Doesn't hate necessitate an object for that hatred?  

Even though her visits serve to only build her faith (the faith that keeps her away from Maurice), Sarah continues going to see Richard out of pity: she feels sorry he has no one else to hear his arguments.  Her pity also leads Sarah to stay with Henry, even after preparing a letter for him stating she was going to be with Maurice.  

What Sarah realizes through these experiences is that, if she loves as God loves, she can love more than just Maurice.  She can love the boringness of her husband.  She can kiss Richard's disfigured cheek.

In fact, perhaps her love for Maurice was actually an attempt to love God.  For Maurice was the one who paved the path for this greater, perfect, unconditional love.  Maurice encouraged Sarah to search for the truth, just as he tried to present the details of his stories accurately.  Her love for Maurice led her to God.

Did I ever love Maurice as much before I loved You?  Or was it really You I loved all the time?...was it me he loved, or You?  For he hated in me the things You hate.  He was on Your side all the time without knowing it.  You willed our separation, but he willed it too.  He worked for it with his anger and his jealousy, and he worked for it with his love.  For he gave me so much love, and I gave him so much love that soon there wasn't anything left, when we'd finished, but You.  For either of us...You were there, teaching us to squander, like you taught the rich man, so that one day we might have nothing left except this love of You.  But You are too good to me.  When I ask You for pain, You give me peace.  Give it him too.  Give him my peace--he needs it more. 

Sarah and Maurice's love could never satisfy.  There was constantly the poison of the realization that what they had must end.  But God's love was different.  

If one could believe in God, would he fill the desert?

After finishing the last page of Sarah's diary, Maurice realizes that Sarah has always loved him--and still loves him.  He immediately seeks her out.  She evades him, but finally he tracks her down in an empty church and promises her they will leave together to start a new life.  But before anything can happen, Henry calls Maurice a few days later to tell him that Sarah has died of pneumonia.

Now Maurice's hatred is directed to God, the lover who has finally and eternally claimed Sarah.  Little miracles, seemingly the work of Sarah, begin occurring in the lives Sarah has touched.  Maurice and Henry even become good friends.  Instead of comforting Maurice, these instances terrify him.  For if Sarah could make that leap of faith and even maybe become a saint ... could he, would he?

Hatred began the book; hatred ends the book.  Maurice closes with a prayer of animosity, telling God to leave him alone.  But the reader remembers Sarah's insight: one cannot hate someone who does not exist.  Hate and love work together and the path to Maurice's conversion, though perhaps long and filled with bitter struggle, has begun.

They say God is a jealous lover.  He will use many means to capture our hearts.  Even the evil of something like adultery can become the means to a great good: conversion.  God works through our corrupt human love and hate and, instilling His grace, raises us to supernatural height.