Man’s Natural Aptitude for the Divine
VITAL WORKS RECONSIDERED, #51
Death Comes for the Archbishop.
By Willa Cather.
Although I have been an educator for many years, I wonder how long I can continue. It has nothing to do with age. It has to do with the simple fact that students aren’t buying what I’m offering. I learned my Latin long ago, and in so doing I learned that education has to do with the verb ducere, to lead, or e ducere, to lead out. Accordingly, I have not sought to empower my students, to motivate them, to equip them, to form them, or any of that coffee-mug stuff. Primarily, I have sought to show them: to show them the harmonies, the patterns, the artistry of themselves and creation, and the artistry of God’s final plan.
As I try to lift their eyes up and out, I must compete with the phones they hold on their laps, under the desktops. I must compete with their fascination with hair or socks. I must compete with the anxiety momentarily plaguing them about where and with whom they will sit during lunch. I must compete, in short, with myriad minor distractions pulling their vision down, while its true direction is out.
The overall scenario is the same as that found in Christopher Marlowe’s 16th-century play The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. Neither Mephistopheles nor Lucifer engages in extended argument with Faustus; they simply redirect his gaze. When Faustus beholds the heavens, when he sees that manifestation of the ordering mind of God, he longs to repent. Yet when he remembers the harp of Amphion, the notion of repentance vanishes. And when he asks Mephistopheles who made the heavens, Lucifer distracts him with a parade of the seven deadly sins. And so it goes with most of my students. As awe draws them out, evil shows them a new online game or iPhone update.
We direct our lives according to what we see. If, like the pagans, we see only the relentless revolutions of time’s wheel, we will embrace stoicism. If, like the communists or capitalists, we see only the linear dimension of time, we will strive for some distant utopia which, sadly, we must create for ourselves.
What does the world train my students to see? Dots. The educational system gives them “information,” isolated units of knowledge, which, because they are isolated, are ultimately pointless. Apple, Google, and the like give them flickering screens, which my students navigate with incredible dexterity, fragmenting their minds with image after unrelated image. The film industry does its part by never demanding too much focus from the audience: scenes must change rapidly, and action must be intense.
Maybe that’s all there is to see, just “lines, circles, scenes, letters,” as Faustus gleefully anticipates, after rejecting more comprehensive studies of law, science, divinity, and logic. Our own nature, however, resists such a possibility. In the freedom of its true movement, our vision reaches out. Consider some of the great personalities of history: Johannes Kepler and his laws of planetary motion, but more importantly his realization of the grand music of the cosmos (Harmonices Mundi); Jacques and Raïssa Maritains’ inspirator, Henri Bergson, who refused to confine himself in the scientific materialism of his day, insisting that there is metaphysical reality and that the mind can know truth; and Dorothy Day, whose vision affirmed the reality of all realities, the life and love of God coursing through history, driving her to the simple conclusion that all is grace.
Literature, too, gives us personalities of vision: Ransom, Father Brown, Frodo, Sydney Carton, Abbot Zerchi, Father Zossima. Perhaps the most clearly delineated literary portrait of a seer, one whose power of vision created an order of beauty (always the natural consequence of a complete vision), is Jean Marie Latour of Willa Cather’s 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop.
The story begins with a conversation between three cardinals and a missionary priest, Fr. Ferrand, whose primary aim is to convince the others of the suitability of his candidate for the newly created Diocese of New Mexico. Before Ferrand even names Jean Marie Latour, we learn that this candidate is a French priest and that the French are the “best missionaries.” While “the Germans classify,” Ferrand dogmatically concludes, “the French arrange!”
Already, the cardinals and Ferrand agree that particular qualities must be present in this new bishop. He must be able to see the spiritual needs in a particular area but also be able to carry out the vision, which requires a level of cooperation from the natives. Once Ferrand proposes Fr. Latour for the position, there immediately begins a discussion of his intelligence in, of all things, matters of art. Garcia Maria de Allande, a Spanish cardinal, relates a story of how a missionary begged his grandfather for a painting to bring back to New Spain for the church. The cardinal posits that his grandfather’s collection was likely the finest in all of Spain and that, when given the choice, the poor missionary took the best painting — an El Greco depiction of a young St. Francis — much to his grandfather’s chagrin. With Ferrand’s assurance of Latour’s intelligence, Allande shares the story in hopes that this candidate might have enough of a discerning eye to recognize this painting and return it to Spain.
Even before Latour enters the scene, we are made aware by this discussion that the four men are looking for a seer, someone whose vision is refined and who has a sense of art, that is, someone who can see the physical reality in front of him, holding both the details and the whole as significant, while also recognizing the mystery and higher reality implicit in the form.
Our first encounter with Bishop Latour is on his journey from Santa Fe to Old Mexico. The detailed depiction of the landscape — the conical red hills spotted with juniper bushes, and the hills that thrust themselves out of the ground and push the others aside — can only be recognized by someone whose vision is attuned to seeing some importance in them, in looking up and out; someone who is accustomed to noticing them in the first place. When it is revealed that the repeating hills, combined with the heat of the desert, “confused the traveler, who was sensitive to the shape of things,” it strikes us that the imagery is seen through the eyes of Latour. Someone who is “sensitive to the shape of things” will refine the image of the red hills to something like haycocks and then leave that descriptor for a more accurate account of the shape, that of a Mexican oven.
Exhausted and weary of travel, Latour is consoled by his encounter with a particular juniper tree, which stands out from all the rest of the conical-shaped ones by its towering cruciform shape. He stops and prays before the tree for a while, and when he resumes his journey, he is refreshed. What does he see?
Certainly, he sees an odd-looking juniper tree, different from all the rest. This juniper tree, shaped like a cross, in Latour’s vision becomes the Cross: “The traveler dismounted, drew from his pocket a much worn book, and baring his head, knelt at the foot of the cruciform tree.” For Latour, this Cross in the desert points to a reality higher than what is physically present, one to which he must respond in devotion, in contemplation of the divine.
This vision of the divine in the ordinary is affirmed in another instance, when Latour reflects on the pueblo of Ácoma. He is curious about how the settlers of the mesa first thought of living there, as it was so removed from the soil and water and seemed unable to sustain life. Jacinto, his guide, explains that it was their refuge from the hostile tribes that surrounded them. The bishop immediately contemplates how even the Ácoma share in “the universal human yearning for something permanent, enduring, without shadow of change,” and that, for them, this permanent thing was the rock on which they were able to live. How interesting it is to Latour that, for the Ácoma, what was perhaps the most transcendent reality was something of such form, such substance, and so literal. He relates the imagery of this particular rock to the Rock of the New Testament (St. Peter), to whom Christ gave the keys to His Church and upon whom the Church was to be built, and to an Old Testament view of God as Israel’s rock.
It is evident that Latour fully realizes what he is seeing. He sees the Rock, which he notes is “stark and grim” — perhaps it is even the archetypal form of that which is base and crude — yet he attributes to the Rock “the utmost expression of human need.” Once again, in an even more striking way, the bishop’s vision dwells on the land before him, and the rather mundane image of the mesa, of the rock, becomes the image of the transcendent, of an unchanging God.
A third example of Latour’s vision, of his ability to see the divine in the ordinary, occurs in Book Eight, “Gold Under Pike’s Peak.” Certainly, there are scattered references to the Pike’s Peak gold rush and to Fr. Joseph Vaillant’s significant role in that particular historical moment. (Fr. Joseph is Bishop Latour’s vicar general.) The gold in which we are really interested, however, is not that under Pike’s Peak, but that under an isolated hill off the Albuquerque trail. The hill is in an area where the rock is “a curious shade of green,” and even the earth has “the same green tint.” Underneath the green is a rock of gold, “a strong golden ochre, very much like the gold of the sunlight that was now beating upon it.” This hidden rock will become the cathedral of Santa Fe. In other words, under the thin surface of the natural, Latour finds that which will house the very presence of God. Unlike the gold under Pike’s Peak, the gold of wealth, this is the gold of beauty, which in Latour’s vision is very close to the divine. As he studies the piece of rock in his hand, he displays a “special way of handling objects that were sacred,” the same manner he extends “to things which he considered beautiful.”
In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather provides more than a portrait of a man whose vision penetrates the transcendental realities beyond time. The narrative itself is Jean Marie Latour; it is his vision, not merely a representation of his vision. The narrative process follows a flow, therefore, which demonstrates the same awareness of the transcendent that the reader discovers in Latour. Awareness of the transcendent means, of course, that the boundaries of time, constriction to its linear process, are abandoned. Consequently, the novel demonstrates, first, a certain looseness with linear narrative; second, a distortion of conventional historical perspective; and, third, a willingness to indulge in two-dimensional portraiture.
In its looseness with linear narrative, the book roughly follows the 30-year career of Latour as bishop, then archbishop, of Santa Fe. It is not, however, a single storyline; we do not watch Latour slowly gaining authority among the undisciplined or outright heretical priests of his diocese, culminating in the eventual creation of an archbishopric and the construction of the Santa Fe cathedral. Brief references to these events, there are; narrative development, there isn’t. Instead, the book reminds us that time is not a strictly linear dimension, and it does so by not allowing the reader to rest in a plotline. Whatever plotline exists is frequently interrupted by journeys to the past — sometimes only 20 or 30 years past, sometimes several hundred.
Early in the narrative, for example, when Latour has found refuge from the desert at Agua Secreta, we abandon the story of this secret place in order to dwell on a group of hand-carved wooden figures on the mantel of the house where the bishop has just supped: They “had come in the oxcarts from Chihuahua nearly sixty years ago. They had been carved by some devout soul.” About Agua Secreta itself we are told that the “spot had been a refuge for humanity long before these Mexicans had come upon it. It was older than history.” The bell Fr. Joseph discovers in Santa Fe comes with a history lesson, as does the wooden parrot of Isleta, described as the oldest thing in the pueblo, “probably older than the pueblo itself.” The soup the two priests enjoy, the cloaks they wear, the personages they encounter or hear of in their travels all come with their brief histories.
On other occasions, the interruptions in the narrative flow consist of major intrusions, to the extent that we forget where we are in the bishop’s story. Such an intrusion occurs when a visiting priest tells the story of the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe; yet he tells it with such detail and intimacy that we easily forget that the events occurred 300 years earlier. Another such intrusion is the story of Fray Baltazar, the tyrannical priest of Ácoma, which again is rendered in such detail that it becomes a part of the story of Bishop Latour, rather than a story from more than 100 years ago.
Linear time seems to stop altogether in the final book, Book Nine. In the meditations on his weakness, Bishop Latour returns to his and Fr. Joseph’s time in Ohio, at the beginning of their missionary lives. He travels back further, to France, to his boyhood home, his life in seminary, and that critical moment when Fr. Joseph’s resolve to give himself to the white martyrdom of missionary life almost broke. Interestingly, there is also a lengthy retelling of a tale from the life of Junípero Serra, how while crossing a large stretch of desert, inadequately provisioned, he had been given water and shelter by “a poor Mexican family,” the Holy Family in disguise. The telling of this story effectively repeats the similar story in Book One, when Bishop Latour himself had been hopelessly lost in the desert and then miraculously came upon Benito’s family in Agua Secreta. In effect, we come back to the same event, the same manifestation of the divine in the workings of man. The divine itself, outside the process of time, breaks time’s relentless linear process; or, as the presence of the divine permeates all time’s linear sequencing, time itself becomes one protracted moment.
Latour himself sums up the general mood of the narrative when he considers, near his death, that “there was no longer any perspective in his memories…. He was soon to have done with the calendared time, and it had already ceased to count for him.”
Along the narrative’s course, there are sometimes brief, sometimes lengthy diversions into character portraiture. Most importantly, we see that at the physical heart of the narrative — Books Four through Six — there are in-depth portraits of Jacinto, Don Olivares, Doña Isabella, Padre Lucero, and Padre Martinez. The life and journeys of the bishop, at this central point, are really just a means to bring these characters to the fore. And, just as linear sequence and historical deeds are consistently minimalized, likewise the narrative focuses almost exclusively on who these characters are, rather than on what they do.
Jacinto, the bishop’s guide, for example, is, to a certain extent, a parallel to the bishop, albeit an Indian parallel. Like Latour, he is attuned to realms beyond what is immediately visible; however, for Jacinto, those realms remain within the world of nature. Before the narrative provides more intimate knowledge of Jacinto in Book Four, we have already met him sitting by the fire on an earlier journey with the bishop. Considering the stars, Jacinto states his conviction that “they are leaders — great spirits.” Later, during their journey to rescue Fr. Joseph, the two are caught in a blizzard. Desperate for shelter, Jacinto takes the bishop to a place known only by his people, a cavern, but one which immediately causes within the bishop senses of illness and dread. Jacinto, upon entering, sits on the floor and falls “into reflection.” Later that night, the bishop wakes to see him standing against the cavern wall, “listening with supersensual ear” for, we assume, the stirrings of the mysterious creature, which, Jacinto says, the Pecos Indians keep hidden in the mountain.
Cather precedes the portraits of Lucero, Martinez, and the Olivareses with the portrait of Jacinto in order to clarify the contrasting visions of Jacinto and Latour. There is, in fact, a telling contrast to the cave scene in the bishop’s visit with Padre Martinez. The profound discomfort he experiences in the cave he also experiences in the home of Martinez: “He did not like the air of this house,” as in the cavern he had “detected at once a fetid odor.” The rumbling of the underground river in the cavern is reflected in the rumbling of Padre Martinez’s snoring “like an enraged bull.” And the sense of the cavern’s mysterious presence is repeated when, in Martinez’s house, “a little dark shadow fluttered from the wall across the floor.”
Though Jacinto is awake to the presence of potentially destructive natural forces, the bishop is awake to destructive moral forces. In the case of Padre Martinez, we find a man openly defying priestly laws of celibacy; indeed, he justifies it with the old argument that it is necessary to sin in order to receive forgiveness: “The soul cannot be humbled by fasts and prayer; it must be broken by mortal sin to experience forgiveness of sin and rise to a state of grace.” Padre Martinez eventually establishes his own schismatic church, the Holy Catholic Church of Mexico, in which he is joined by Fr. Lucero. While Martinez is a consumer, a fleshy man with “high shoulders…like a bull buffalo’s” and a mouth “the very assertion of violent, uncurbed passions,” Lucero is a gatherer who “had been a miser from his youth, and lived down in the sunken world of Arroyo Hondo in the barest poverty.” On his deathbed, Lucero insists on a blinding number of candles, for fear that “some thief will come, and I will have nothing left.”
Book Six features another pair, Antonio Olivares and his wife, Isabella. Olivares seems to be a benign influence; it is he, after all, who becomes the great benefactor of the cathedral. Unlike the bishop, Olivares’s interest is in the cathedral’s aesthetic, rather than its devotional, value. He is attuned solely to the superficial appearances of the created order. “Settled in one of his big chairs from New Orleans,” on the night of his New Year’s Eve party, Olivares gazes admiringly at the picturesque characters he has gathered around him: Kit Carson in his “handsome buckskin coat, embroidered in silver”; the Indian hunter Manuel Chavez, “very elegant in velvet and broadcloth”; and especially his wife, Doña Isabella, “with a delicate blond complexion which she had successfully guarded in trying climates, and fair hair.”
Olivares offers to assist in the cathedral project for much the same reason that he presented Latour with “the silver hand-basin and pitcher and toilet accessories which gave him so much satisfaction all the rest of his life.” Olivares’s appreciation of the aesthetic, however, is another sort of seeing that, like Jacinto’s, contrasts sharply with Latour’s. Though Olivares might appreciate the strong flavor of his companions, just as he appreciates “cigars better than cigarettes, and French wine better than whiskey,” he does not have the bishop’s wariness toward a character like Chavez, always ready “to add a few more scalps to his record,” and who “distrusted the new Bishop because of his friendliness towards Indians and Yankees.” As for Isabella, we recognize quite readily the fault of a woman who avoids a court hearing simply because she does not want to admit that she is over 50.
These are the portraits that are at the geographical center of Death Comes for the Archbishop. They take center stage in a narrative supposedly focused on Jean Marie Latour; and, verily, they do help us to know him, as they help to clarify his quality of seeing. By that quality, the ruffles and splashes on time’s surface are minor distractions to a vision which penetrates beyond that surface; a vision which sees the holy and that which belongs to the holy; or a vision which sees demons and that which bears evil’s smudge.
So, what is the point? After all, is all this talk about seeing the divine in the ordinary merely the imposition of piety, another one of those holy opiates? Cather, in a letter to Commonweal (April 17, 1936), indirectly addressed this possibility. She tells of the Native American inhabitants of the cliff dwellings, the Anasazi, and the art with which they graced their daily tools. “Why did they take the trouble?” she pointedly asks, especially when they were beautifying “cooking pots when they had nothing to cook in them.” The Anasazis’ artistic effort, Cather concludes, “sprang from an unaccountable predilection of the one unaccountable thing in man.” That unaccountable thing is that which finds no source in the law of supply and demand, that which is not genetically or chemically engineered. From the beginning, it is simply a gift, a part of who we are. It is a longing for the divine; yet, even prior to that longing, it is a natural aptitude for the divine. That natural aptitude, however, consistently is rendered impotent by a sinister, methodical redirection of vision. It is the same redirection that occurred in Genesis. From focus on God, Eve turns to look at something in the corner of her sight, something glittering, most likely left there by an Amazon delivery van.
When death finally comes for the archbishop, there is “no longer any perspective in his memories,” Cather writes. Lack of perspective, however, has been a consistent characteristic of Latour’s life’s entire narrative, which means, naturally, that death has always been coming for the archbishop. Not in any gloomy sense, but in the sense that the archbishop has always lived with one foot, or one eye, beyond time. When the final fact of death eventually comes, he approaches it without fear or anxiety — “the mistakes of his life seemed unimportant” — but with mild intellectual curiosity. Fear and anxiety are the mark of the modern man, the subtext on millions of prescription bottles. And so shall they continue to be his mark until, like Jean Marie Latour, we begin to see the miracle of the divine in the ordinary, until we see, as Cather puts it, “what is there about us always.”
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