Mary Beth Writes

I read Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop” when I was in high school. I heard it was an important book which made me curious (still does), so I borrowed it from the library and read the whole thing.

It was mud. I didn’t care about the characters; two middle-aged priests who go to the American southwest to build and strengthen the Catholic church. Snooze. Nothing cohesive happens. They do a bunch of walking around in the desert followed by episodes of trying to be helpful a few days here, a few years there. Yawn.

Scroll forward 50 years; I just finished rereading it this morning. Holy Cow! It is beautiful, heartbreaking, progressive, regressive, funny, and deeply inspiring.  All I had to do to appreciate this book is – be old. 

The book starts in 1848 in what is now New Mexico, Arizona, and Mexico. Two priests, college friends from France, have ended up in this territory which has not had much functional Catholic leadership in a hundred years. The priests arrive when they are in their late 20’s, they will live most of their lives here. 

They are good men; reasonable, diligent, hard-working, intelligent, caring, and responsible. Because they yearn and strive to make their mortal lives matter, they tug at your soul. You know this kind of quiet, care-laden, enjoyable, worrisome life because you have one of your own.

Father Latour is an introvert, Father Vallient is an extrovert. They learn the southwest by nearly being killed by it several times. They encounter and live among wonderful people, crooked priests, true saints, and a few psychopaths.

It is a story of good adults living long good lives as they work to inspire and protect spirituality among tens of thousands of people spread over tens of thousands of square miles of gorgeous, dangerous land.

Cather pulls you into the singular colors and overarching sky of the Southwest. “The plain was there, under one’s feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. … Traveling with Eusabio (a Navajo companion) was like traveling with the landscape made human. He accepted chance and weather as the country did…”. (Book Seven / The Great Diocese)

There is no obvious plot to this book. It simply relates, tale by tale, things that happen to one or both of them.  It is based on the real lives of two real priests. The novel rings as clear as the bells of old Catholic churches.

If you have ever lived in or traveled through the southwest, Cather will take you back there.  Father Vaillant is priest for a long time at San Xavier del Bac.  I’ve been there and so have many of you.  (The photo that opens this is that cathedral.) You will see again the cacti, the cliffs and mountains, the grey and red dust, the sky that shines and rains and snows all at the same time. The small brown people to whom  this land belongs. the priests notice and comment that they don't bring spirituality to these people, they just bring more language with which to live it. 

My take on what this book is about is lowbrow, but I noticed it yesterday and I am still thinking about the surprise of it. I went to coffee in the morning with a young friend. After our pleasant repast I drove her back to her apartment which is on the west side of Waukesha. Next I wanted to go to the YMCA which is close to downtown on the east side. But Waukesha, like most cities that slowly evolved along a river, is a challenge to negotiate. The actual map of this town is a game of Pick-Up Sticks.  

So I drove up to the first corner, turned right, then right again, then left, then drove around and down a steep hill. There was some veering here and veering there plus one unprotected left-hand turn from Broadway onto Broadway (not kidding). A few moments to wait for a freight train and then … Voilà- the Y!  

It occurred to me that I drive Waukesha not by a map, not by logic, but by yearning.  I hold my destination in my heart and keep going. 

When I was young, I thought life was what happened after you planned it. That’s why I couldn’t understand “Death Comes for the Archbishop”.  If you are awake, spiritual, and lucky – you want something. You yearn for it. You might not be able to clearly say what your goal is– but you sail towards it every day.  If you are “a good person; reasonable, diligent, hard-working, intelligent, caring, and responsible…”  then your life WILL take you to dangerous, rewarding, and beautiful, places. 

It isn’t until you are at least a little bit old that you will see that what you yearned for became your story. And by looking at what situations you have accomplished and achieved, you finally see what you were yearning towards all along.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

Beautiful

So many of the things I read in high school went over my head because I was naive and inexperienced. I think that is probably true for many young people. I've had your experience with books that I appreciate more now. I've had the opposite experience with movies -- many that seemed really great when I was in college now seem shallow and stupid. I had little interest in history when I was young -- now it fascinates me. I really wish that most people in the US (especially the people in DC) knew more about history. Whoever said youth is wasted on the young was a wise person.

Wonderful writing. Wonderful thoughts.

Never read it but loved other Willa Cather stuff. But: your last two paragraphs really speak to me, at 60...

Like you, I have tried to read Death Comes for the Archbishop as a young woman and again as recently as about fifteen years ago and it never took hold. I couldn't get past the first few pages. Boring! It surprised me because I devoured everything else Willa Cather wrote that I could get my hands on. Inspired by your experience, I will make attempt #3. Thanks.
Mary Beth's picture

I think part of why I enjoyed it so much this time - was the week Len and i spent exploring and hiking Arizona two years ago. I could "see" the scenes in my minds eye.
Mary Beth's picture

Now I need to find My Antonia again....

Like you and others wrote...with age we appreciate stories beyond us as young folks. I may just have to pull out Cather’s books out again!

So with you on this one. I had a bad bout of depression/anxiety around the fear of death during one of my high school years, and my mom sent me to talk to my advisor, who assigned me to read this book. I am sure it made sense to a 50 year old to do that, but even for me, a girl who lived with her nose in a book, it was NOT helpful. I'm sure I'd love it now. Put me off of Willa Cather for years....
Mary Beth's picture

The things well meaning adults think will help angsty kids.... Boggles the mind. I am ready now to re-tackle My Antonia - that made no sense to me back then, either. Currently I am rereading "The Shipping News" for the 3rd time! We are going to Newfoundland in September....

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