Thursday, November 21, 2019

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Source of book: I own this. 

I remember reading the opening chapter of O Pioneers back in high school, and telling myself that I should read more Willa Cather. It wasn’t until a number of years later, after I moved out and started collecting books in earnest, that I got copies of both O Pioneers and My Antonia, both of which I enjoyed. (You can read my thoughts on O Pioneers on this blog - I read My Antonia years before I started blogging.) 

More recently, I scored a whole bunch of (barely) used Library of America hardbacks, including three volumes which I believe contain the complete Cather. Yes, I am excited. 

Having loved what I had read of hers, I was determined to take advantage of my new additions, and read some Cather regularly. My friend Darren from law school (we spent way too much time at our school conferences discussing and reading books) named Death Comes for the Archbishop as his favorite. My wife read it a few years ago, and seconded the recommendation, which was all I needed to know. 

I was not disappointed. Death Comes for the Archbishop is a delightful book, with Cather’s classic gentle, nuanced, and empathetic portrayal of ordinary people. Unlike the others of her books I have read, this one starts with its characters as adults (rather than children, as in the ones above), and ends with their deaths at a ripe old age. It also is more of a series of episodes than a story with the traditional arc. The characters live their lives, and interesting vignettes and happenings are remembered. They grow and mature, but never have any one turning point or epiphany. For the most part, they are decent people, with good motives, who try to do their best, accomplish some good, and pass on to their reward. 

This sounds on paper like a kind of...boring sort of story. Except it isn’t. 

The story is based on the lives of two priests from France who worked in the New Mexico territory in the mid-1800s. Although the book mostly follows the history, there are some timeline changes, and a bit of artistic license. Certainly, the details are fictional, but the broad outline of the tale and the general esteem in which the two were held is accurate. 

 The real-life inspiration for Latour was instrumental in building the gorgeous cathedral in Santa Fe.

The book opens with a conference of cardinals in Italy, where a missionary to the New World advocates for the appointment of Bishop Jean Marie Latour to the new territory. Along with Latour comes his vicar, Joseph Vaillant. As we eventually learn through flashbacks, the two were boyhood friends who attended seminary together. This friendship is one of the loveliest things in the book. They genuinely esteem and value each other, and use their complementary strengths to make a great team. 

Once the two reach New Mexico (after a series of mishaps), they work together to minister to their flock for decades, before (and even after) their retirement. They are the kind of clergy that seems hard to find these days: ministers who listen, who respect others (including Protestants and non-Christian Native Americans), and who eschew wealth in favor of service. I know they still exist, and always have - they are just hard to find right now, even in smaller churches, which often end up as little fiefdoms. 

This isn’t to say that the portrayal of priests is all rosy. There are several that are pretty nefarious in their own ways. The ones who build up vast estates, often through underhanded means. There is the one who openly fathers children by many women. There are the ones who antagonized the Native Americans and got themselves killed. It’s a nuanced portrayal. 

Likewise, it is sometimes difficult to believe this book is nearly 100 years old, because it lacks the overt prejudice against non-whites. Rather, it is refreshing to see all sorts - Native Americans, Mexicans, Americans, wealthy, impoverished, enslaved, and women - all portrayed as fully human, equally worthy of respect and assistance as needed, and not defined by their beliefs or ancestry. Father Latour in particular shows great respect for others - although he has little patience for grifting priests or abusive men. 

Perhaps, though, the best part of the book for me was the descriptions of the American Southwest. I live in California, but I am literally next door (as far as states go) to Arizona, and not too far from New Mexico, where most of the story takes place. I have traveled to many of the places in the book, and the landscape is familiar to me. Cather not only shows that she visited these places, but that she loved them. Her depictions show a keen eye for detail - particularly color - and an appreciation of the stark beauty and extremes of the desert. Here are a few of my favorite descriptive passages:

He must have travelled through thirty miles of these conical red hills, winding his way in the narrow cracks between them, and he had begun to think that he would never see anything else. They were so exactly like one another that he seemed to be wandering in some geometric nightmare; flattened cones, they were, more the shape of Mexican ovens than haycocks--yes, exactly the shape of Mexican ovens, red as brick-dust, and naked of vegetation except for small juniper trees. And the junipers, too, were the shape of Mexican Ovens. Every conical hill was spotted with smaller cones of juniper, a uniform yellowish green, as the hills were a uniform red. The hills thrust out of the ground so thickly that they seemed to be pushing each other, elbowing each other aside, tipping each other over. 

In addition to the vivid description, I love the truly poetic use of words and repetition, building the scene by sounds as well as pictures. This one too is familiar:

About a mile above the village he came upon the waterhead, a spring overhung by the sharp-leafed variety of cottonwood called water willow. All about it crowded the oven-shaped hills, -- nothing to hint of water until it rose miraculously out of the parched and thirsty sea of sand. Some subterranean stream found an outlet here, was released from darkness. The result was grass and trees and flowers and human life; household order and hearths from which the smoke of burning piñon logs rose like incense to Heaven.

For those unfamiliar with them, the Pinyon (or Piñon) Pine is where we get pine nuts from. They come in a few varieties - the singleleaf in my part of California. Father Latour isn’t exactly correct when he describes them as a kind of cedar. The junipers are closer to cedar, while the pinyon is a pine. But he is correct that the wood smells aromatic, yet delicate. It is difficult to explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced it - or the smell of pinyon pines after a thunderstorm. It’s magic. 

Another marvelous description is of the area around Ácoma

Ever afterward the Bishop remembered his first ride to Ácoma as his introduction to the mesa country. One thing which struck him at once was that every mesa was duplicated by a cloud mesa, like a reflection, which lay motionless above it or moved slowly up from behind it. These cloud formations seemed always to be there, however hot and blue the sky. Sometimes they were flat terraces, ledges of vapour; sometimes they were dome-shaped, or fantastic, like the tops of silvery pagodas, rising one above another, as if an oriental city lay directly behind the rock. The tables of granite set down in an empty plain were inconceivable without their attendant clouds, which were a part of them, as the smoke is part of the censer, or the foam of the wave. 

Knowing the physics behind the phenomenon does nothing to diminish its grandeur. This phenomenon is common throughout the Southwest, and has caught my eye many times. 

I can’t leave out this bit, on the Datura, a common poisonous (and hence medicinal) plant throughout the area - and my own state. 

The mesa was absolutely naked of vegetation, but at its foot a rank plant grew conspicuously out of the sand; a plant with big white blossoms like Easter lilies. By its dark blue-green leaves, large and coarse-toothed, Father Latour recognized a species of the noxious datura. The size and luxuriance of these nightshades astonished him. They looked like great artificial plants, made of shining silk. 

The descriptions of food are evocative too. Latour, a Frenchman, waxes eloquent about onion soup, which Father Vaillant is able to make to his specifications. 

“Think of it, Blanchet; in all this vast country between the Mississippi and the Pacific Ocean, there is probably not another human being who could make a soup like this.”
“Not unless he is a Frenchman,” said Father Joseph. 
“I am not deprecating your individual talent, Joseph,” the Bishop continued, “but, when one thinks of it, a soup like this is not the work of one man. It is the result of a constantly refined tradition. There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup.”  

These moments of dialogue are always a treat. Vaillant is the man of action, full of energy, even after he is crippled by a bad fall. Latour, on the other hand, is the thoughtful and philosophic sort. I love this line of his when talking to Vaillant about miracles. 

“Where there is great love there are always miracles,” he said at length. “One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our own perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.”  

Later in the book, he remarks to a man calling the ancient stories of the Navajos primitive superstitions, that “their veneration for old customs was a quality he liked in the Indians, and that it played a great part in his own religion.” 

Joseph Vaillant is a bit less patient with human foibles. One hilarious episode involves a widow of a wealthy Mexican ranchero. The property is left to her and her daughter, then to the church after their deaths. The other relatives are furious and challenge the will, claiming that the daughter isn’t really the widow’s child - she is too young. The reason this almost succeeds is that the widow refuses to admit her age. She looks young, and claims to be, well, far too young to have given birth to her own daughter. Finally, Vaillant is able to put enough pressure on her to admit, if not her real age (which we never learn), but a lower age that is at least high enough to support a claim of maternity. Afterward, Vaillant and Latour discuss it:

When they were tramping home, Father Joseph said that as for him, he would rather combat the superstitions of a whole Indian pueblo than the vanity of one white woman.
“And I would rather do almost anything than go through such a scene again,” said the Bishop with a frown. “I don’t think I ever assisted at anything so cruel.”

In contrast to this story, there is another of an enslaved woman who sneaks away from her cruel Protestant masters to pray at the Catholic church. Latour finds her there, and does the little he can to give her comfort and ease her heart - he lacks the political power to free her at that time, although the book mentions later that he found a way to do so years later when he was on firmer political standing with the American authorities. 

What I found intriguing about this story was the way Latour talks about the need for a female facet to the Divine. Protestantism is a reaction against the excesses of Catholicism (and the associated political realities), so one of the things we have lost is the feminine half of the divine nature. Although I think most non-fundie Protestants would agree that God is neither male nor female, and that both human genders are equally in God’s image, in practice, we act as if God is male only, and only males truly resemble God in that sense. This is a sad loss. Here are Latour’s response.

He seemed able to feel all it meant to her to know that there was a Kind Woman in Heaven, though there were such cruel ones on earth. Old people, who have felt blows and toil and known the world’s hard hand, need, even more than children do, a woman’s tenderness. Only a Woman, divine, could know all that a woman can suffer.

Latour also gets that the Kingdom consists not of the rich and powerful, but by the marginalized. (And he lives like it too - very much to his credit.) 

“O Sacred Heart of Mary!” she murmured by his side, and he felt how that name was food and raiment, friend and mother to her. He received the miracle in her heart into his own, saw through her eyes, knew that his poverty was as bleak as hers. When the Kingdom of Heaven had first come into the world, into a cruel world of torture and slaves and masters, He who brought it had said, “And whosoever is least among you, the same shall be first in the Kingdom of Heaven.” This church was Sada’s house, and he was a servant in it. 

I am left to imagine the revolutionary change in our nation and its religion if more of our “christians” felt and acted this way toward the marginalized among us - the poor, the homeless, the immigrants, the minorities. Wow. Imagine it. 

There is one more exchange between Latour and Vaillant that struck me. Vaillant has been called to serve in Colorado, where the mining boom has left great need for spiritual care. Latour knows that his time of working hand in hand with his friend is ending. 

“Well, we are getting older, Jean,” he said abruptly, after a short silence.
The Bishop smiled. “Ah, yes. We are not young men any more. One of these departures will be the last.” 
Father Vaillant nodded. “Whenever God wills. I am ready.” He rose and began to pace the floor, addressing his friend without looking at him. “But it has not been so bad, Jean? We have done the things we used to plan to do, long ago, when we were Seminarians,-- at least some of them. To fulfil the dreams of one’s youth; that is the best that can happen to a man. No worldly success can take the place of that.”

And I guess he is right. To have fulfilled at least some of one’s dreams is a blessing - and something to be thankful for. 

At the end of his life, Latour also expresses gratefulness for two things that he lived long enough to see: the abolition of slavery, and the return of the Navajos to their land. 

[T]he Bishop turned to Bernard; “My son, I have lived to see two great wrongs righted; I have seen the end of black slavery, and I have seen the Navajos restored to their own country.”
For many years, Father Latour used to wonder if there would ever be an end to the Indian wars while there was one Navajo or Apache left alive. Too many traders and manufacturers made a rich profit out of that warfare; a political machine and immense capital were employed to keep it going.

That last line was startling to me. Not much has changed on that front, alas. From the Keystone Pipeline - leaking crude oil all over Native lands - to the incarceration industrial complex that makes fortunes from the imprisonment of innocent child immigrants, there is still a hell of a lot of money to be made from inflicting injustice on vulnerable human beings. 

This is just a taste of the book, of course. I liked it enough that I think I will try to add Cather to my regular rotation of authors. Particularly now that I have her works in such nice hardbacks. This book wasn’t quite like either of the others I have read, but it shares her delightful writing, her deep empathy, and her eye for the details of what makes us human. 

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