Monday, March 31, 2008

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

This is an interesting little book that I probably have to read again if I really want to figure out what Cather is doing in it. On the surface, it’s the story of two French missionary priests who are sent by the Vatican in the 1850s from Ohio to New Mexico to establish a new diocese there. One, Father Jean Marie Latour, is to be the bishop (and, eventually, the titular archbishop), and the other, Father Joseph Vaillant, is to be his vicar. Although the native population of New Mexico had been “christianized” about a hundred years previous by the Spanish, the natives had long ago risen up against their Spanish overseers and established their own power structure which Latour and Vaillant must now confront in the name of Rome. They eventually succeed, but the details of how they succeed are in the end less interesting than theme Cather plays up throughout the book—the theme that the native population of New Mexico, not in the bastardized Christianity that many of them practice, but in the nature worship and ancient pagan beliefs of the Indians and Native Mexicans, have access to the same holiness and sense of the scared that Latour and Vaillant are bringing with them from the Vatican.

And Latour is the only one who sees this. According to Wikipedia, Latour is French for the tower, reflecting, I suppose, the intellectual and reserved way he approaches his assignment, as juxtaposed against Vaillant, or valiant, who charges forward with the fearless promulgation of his faith. Early in the book we stumble across:

A little later, after his devotions, the young Bishop lay down in Benito’s deep feather-bed, thinking how different was this night from his anticipation of it. He had expected to make a dry camp in the wilderness, and to sleep under a juniper tree, like the Prophet, tormented by thirst. But here he lay in comfort and safety, with love for his fellow creatures flowing like peace around his heart. If Father Vaillant were here, he would say, “A miracle”; that the Holy Mother, to whom he had addressed himself before the cruciform tree, had led him hither. And it was a miracle, Father Latour knew that. But his dear Joseph must always have the miracle very direct and spectacular, not with Nature, but against it. He would almost be able to tell the colour of the mantle Our Lady wore when She took the mare by the bridle back younder among the junipers and led her out of the pathless sand-hills, as the angel led the ass on the Flight into Egypt.

And this difference between Latour and Vaillant will be reinforced again and again throughout the story. Not too many pages later is a scene in which Latour questions Vaillant about a bell he heard ringing in their courtyard after his return from a trip. Vaillant confesses that it was something he had found in the basement of the old mission, and that it has been here for a hundred years or more. Latour asks:

“But how could it have come here? It is Spanish, I suppose?”

“Yes, the inscription is in Spanish, to St. Joseph, and the date is 1356. It must have been brought up from Mexico City in an ox-cart. A heroic undertaking, certainly. Nobody knows where it was cast. But they do tell a story about it: that it was pledged to St. Joseph in the wars with the Moors, and that the people of some besieged city brought all their plate and silver and gold ornaments and threw them in with the baser metals. There is certainly a good deal of silver in the bell, nothing else would account for its tone.”

Father Latour reflected. “And the silver of the Spaniards was really Moorish, was it not? If not actually of Moorish make, copied from their design. The Spaniards knew nothing about working silver except as they learned it from the Moors.”

“What are you doing, Jean? Trying to make my bell out as infidel?” Father Joseph asked impatiently.

The Bishop smiled. “I am trying to account for the fact that when I heard it this morning it struck me at once as something oriental. A learned Scotch Jesuit in Montreal told me that our first bells, and the introduction of the bell in the service all over Europe, originally came from the East. He said the Templars brought the Angelus back from the Crusades, and it is really an adaptation of a Moslem custom.”

Father Vaillant sniffed. “I noticed that scholars always manage to dig out something belittling,” he complained.

Vaillant is clearly troubled by the mixed ancestry of the bell, but Latour goes on to celebrate it.

“Belittling? I should say the reverse. I am glad to think there is Moorish silver in your bell. When we first came here, the one good workman we found in Santa Fe was a silversmith. The Spaniards handed on their skill to the Mexicans, and the Mexicans have taught the Navajos to work silver; but it all came from the Moors.”

And near the end of the story, when the friends have been in New Mexico for years and Vaillant is ranging all over the territory to minister to the diocese’s far-flung and sometimes reluctant parishioners:

After Fructosa had brought the coffee, he leaned back in his chair and turned to his friend with a beaming face. “I often think, Jean, how you were an unconscious agent in the hands of Providence when you recalled me from Tucson. I seemed to be doing the most important work of my life there, and you recalled me for no reason at all, apparently. You did not know why, and I did not know why. We were both acting in the dark. But Heaven knew what was happening on Cherry Creek, and moved us like chessmen on the board. When the call came, I was here to answer it—by a miracle, indeed.”

Father Latour put down his silver coffee-cup. “Miracles are all very well, Joseph, but I see none here. I sent for you because I felt the need of your companionship. I used my authority as a Bishop to gratify my personal wish. That was selfish, if you will, but surely natural enough. We are countrymen, and are bound by early memories. And that two friends, having come together, should part and go their separate ways—that is natural, too. No, I don’t think we need any miracle to explain all this.”

The difference in perspective between these two characters is an interesting lens through which to view the book, but there’s much more here than just the difference between two priests. There is Cather’s, and sometimes Latour’s, almost pagan reverence for the land and the people who inhabit it. Not a surprise coming from Cather, but certainly interesting when told from the perspective of a Catholic priest. Back near the beginning of the book, when Latour is making his way on horseback to his new diocese, and “miraculously” finds a settlement of Mexican farmers with which to sup and spend the night, Cather describes the following scene:

After the feast the sleepy children were taken home, the men gathered in the plaza to smoke under the great cottonwood trees. The Bishop, feeling a need of solitude, had gone forth to walk, firmly refusing an escort. On his way he passed the earthen thrashing-floor, where these people beat out their grain and winnowed it in the wind, like the Children of Israel. He heard a frantic bleating behind him, and was overtaken by Pedro with his great flock of goats, indignant at their day’s confinement, and wild to be in the fringe of pasture along the hills. They leaped the stream like arrows speeding from the bow, and regarded the Bishop as they passed him with their mocking, humanly intelligent smile. The young bucks were light and elegant in figure, with their pointed chins and polished tilted horns. There was great variety in their faces, but in nearly all something supercilious and sardonic. The angoras had long silky hair of a dazzling whiteness. As they leaped through the sunlight they brought to mind the chapter in the Apocalypse, about the whiteness of them that were washed in the blood of the Lamb. The young Bishop smiled at his mixed theology. But though the goat had always been the symbol of pagan lewdness, he told himself that their fleece had warmed many a good Christian, and their rich milk nourished sickly children.

It’s almost as if Latour in this new land is developing his own idea of what is holy, and although that idea is informed by the teachings of his church, as we will see, it is often manifest in the simple lives and customs of the people that inhabit this ancient land. Cather continues:

About a mile above the village he came upon the water-head, 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 pinon logs rose like incense to Heaven.

The Bishop sat a long time by the spring, while the declining sun poured its beautifying light over those low, rose-tinted houses and bright gardens. The old grandfather had shown him arrow-heads and corded medals, and a sword hilt, evidently Spanish, that he had found in the earth near the water-head. This spot had been a refuge for humanity long before these Mexicans had come upon it. It was older than history, like those well-heads in his own country where the Roman settlers had set up the image of a river goddess, and later the Christian priests had planted a cross. 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.

Is Cather saying that some places are holy beyond the context of a specific religion? Look closely. I think she is.

And she says it in several other places. In the middle of the book, when Latour’s native guide takes him into a cave to shelter them from an approaching storm, a cave generally held sacred by the native population:

It was said that this people had from time immemorial kept a ceremonial fire burning in some cave in the mountain, a fire that had never been allowed to go out, and had never been revealed to white men.

And late in the book, when Latour is near his death and remarking on the color washed upon the mountains by the sunset, drawing a direct relation between the mountains and the sanctified saints:

Yes, Sangre de Cristo; but no matter how scarlet the sunset, those red hills never became vermillion, but a more and more intense rose-carnelian; not the colour of living blood, the Bishop had often reflected, but the colour of the dried blood of saints and martyrs preserved in old churches in Rome, which liquefies upon occasion.

And most directly, near the very end of the book, when one of Latour’s old native friends comes to visit him to the last time to see if he could intervene on their behalf in the forced relocation of his people.

It was Manuelito’s hope that the Bishop would go to Washington and plead his people’s cause before they were utterly destroyed. They asked nothing of the Government, he told Father Latour, but their religion, and their own land where they had lived from immemorial times. Their country, he explained, was a part of their religion; the two were inseparable. The Canyon de Chelly the Padre knew; in that canyon his people had lived when they were a small weak tribe; it had nourished and protected them; it was their mother. Moreover, their gods dwelt there—in those inaccessible white houses set in caverns up in the face of the cliffs, which were older than the white man’s world, and which no living man had ever entered. Their gods were there, just as the Padre’s God was in his church.

And north of the Canyon de Chelly was the Shiprock, a slender crag rising to a dizzy height, all alone out on a flat desert. Seen at a distance of fifty miles or so, that crag presents the figure of a one-masted fishing-boat under full sail, and the white man named it accordingly. But the Indian has another name; he believes that rock was once a ship of the air. Ages ago, Manuelito told the Bishop, that crag had moved through the air, bearing upon its summit the parents of the Navajo race from the place in the far north where all peoples were made—and wherever it sank to earth was to be their land. It sank in a desert country, where it was hard for men to live. But they had found the Canyon de Chelly, where there was shelter and unfailing water. That canyon and the Shiprock were like kind parents to his people, places more sacred to them than churches, more sacred than any place is to the white man. How, then, could they go three hundred miles away and live in a strange land?

These and others make it clear to me that Cather is saying something about the universal sacred, that divine thing that touches everyone in every culture, and which should therefore be respected regardless of what form it takes. And as a final case in point, let me pull the following thoughts out of Latour’s brain, as he reflects on the adulation they drape annually on a small wooden figure of the Virgin Mary, dressing her up in a wardrobe finer than those of the Queen of England or the Empress of France, and parading her through the streets of their humble village:

These poor Mexicans, he reflected, were not the first to pour out their lives in this simple fashion. Raphael and Titian had made costumes for Her in their time, and the great masters had made music for Her, and the great architects had built cathedrals for Her. Long before Her years on earth, in the long twilight between the Fall and the Redemption, the pagan sculptors were always trying to achieve the image of a goddess who should yet be a woman.

This isn’t the narrator’s voice. Cather presents this as the reflections of Father Latour, which might mean that we should interpret this as if the pagans were waiting unbeknownst for Mary the mother of God to come along and fulfill their transcendental image of the woman goddess. But given everything else Cather has done in this novel, I think it means something else entirely. I think it means Mary is the Catholic representation of that universal desire, just as Gaia and Isis are for the cultures that created them.


  1. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an very long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn't appear.
    Grrrr... well I'm not writing all that over again. Anyways,
    just wanted to say superb blog!

    Look at my webpage Lee Trotman SCE

    1. Dear Anonymous. I wonder if the "Look at my webpage" has anything to do with why your comments don't appear on this blog?

  2. I love your blog.. very nice colors & theme. Did you make this website
    yourself or did you hire someone to do it for you? Plz reply as I'm looking to create my own blog and would like to find out where u got this from.
    thanks a lot

    My site :: Eric Gray Buffalo NY