Monday, October 3, 2011
Willa Cather’s Great Catholic Novel
I admit that I stifled a yawn over the Archbishop’s early pages, as well, but by the end my eyes were wide open. Like an afternoon and evening on the mesa-dotted landscape of New Mexico, where the book is set, Death Comes for the Archbishop begins plainly, with a wide-open sky over parched earth, but ends in a soul-stirring sunset.
The book is a fictionalized account of the life of Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy, sent to the newly annexed southwest following the United States’ 1848 war with Mexico. There the archbishop-to-be, renamed Jean LaTour by Cather, finds Mexicans and Indians converted 300 years previously by Spanish friars who need only a little irrigation for their faith to spring to life again.
For the first half or even two-thirds of the book, there does not seem to be much force to Cather’s storytelling. After a prolog set in Rome, the novel begins with a “solitary horseman” in “featureless country,” who spots a juniper tree in the shape of a cross. Time noted that “The style and structure of this book are strange, unemphatic, as if Cather had simply laid the scenes side by side in a tapestry.” But this sells short the last third of the book, where moments of grace arrive at an acclerating clip. As death approaches, the full story and drama of LaTour’s life reveal themselves, including his profound lifelong friendship with fellow missionary Fr. Joseph Vaillant.
The final section of Death Comes for the Archbishop is a beautiful meditation on memory. The Archbishop enters “that period of reflection which is the happiest conclusion to a life of action.” Cather writes, “There was no longer any perspective in his memories. . . . He sat in the middle of his consciousness.”
Cather was not Catholic, but an Episcopalian raised on the plains of Nebraska. Still, her religious sense is profound, and it is not hard to understand how she could have made a Catholic cleric the hero of a historical novel set in the open American west she loved so much. After all, how many notable Episcopal missionaries rode mules named Angelico and Contento while ministering to the Hopi, Zuñi, and Navajo?
This book is a must-read for Christians of all stripes.