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."

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