Friday, August 18, 2006

Death Comes... A Beautiful Scene

There was one chapter in Death Comes for the Archbishop that particularly moved me. I want to preface this by saying that, although Latour is a great character, Cather makes him very personal; someone we can really relate to. One December night, during a time of coldness and self-doubt,

"he was lying in his bed, unable to sleep, with the sense of failure clutching at his heart. His prayers were empty words and brought him no refreshment. His soul had become a barren field. He had nothing within himself to give his priests or his people. His work seemed superficial, a house built upon the sands. His great diocese was still a heathen country. The Indians travelled their old road of fear and darkness, battling with evil omens and ancient shadows. The Mexicans were children who played with their religion."

Wow - who could't relate to that? Moms in particular, I think, tend to really knock themselves out and yet always feel guilty in many of these same ways. Isn't it easy for us to think that our job is very small and we still can't seem to succeed? What a beautiful, comforting picture to see that self-doubt is a normal (at least in the sense of common) part of attempting to accomplish what is actually an enormous job (remember Chesterton here too, of course).

But this is only the beginning of this beautiful segment. Father Latour felt a longing to go to the church to pray and yet fought it for a time before "despising himself" for avoiding it just because it was cold. It turns out there was someone waiting for him - an old Mexican woman who was a slave in a Protestant American home. Her owners were very hostile to her faith and wouldn't allow her near a church or priest. But in the winter, she slept in the woodshed and this once she got up the courage to go to the church. He brought her into the church to pray and learned that it had been nineteen years since she had been inside a church. Cather beautifully portrays her deep devotion and faithfulness and the impression this makes on Latour. You have to read this chapter yourself as it is impossible to do justice in a summary, but here is a little more to leave you with for now.

Never, as he afterward told Father Vaillant, had it been permitted him to behold such deep experience of the holy joy of religion as on that pale December night. He was able to feel, kneeling beside her, the preciousness of the things of the altar to her who was without possessions; the tapers, the image of the Virgin, the figures of the saints, the Cross that took away indignity from suffering and made pain and poverty a means of fellowship with Christ. Kneeling beside the much enduring bond-woman, he experienced those holy mysteries as he had done in his young manhood. 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.

Not often, indeed, had Jean Marie Latour come so near to the Fountain of all Pity as in the Lady Chapel that night; the pity that no man born of woman could ever utterly cut himself off from; that was for the murderer on the scaffold, as it was for the dying soldier or the martyr on the rack. The beautiful concept of Mary pierced the priest's heart like a sword.


Love2Learn Mom said...

By the way, I think there is a problem with the word "divine" in referring to Mary, at least if Cather means to describe her as God or "to-be-worshipped". I wonder if she meant it in a more poetic way of describing some supernatural and beautiful sense (we do use the word "divine" with other meanings too) Just wanted to mention that.

WJFR said...

Thanks for the excerpts. They, and your comments, moved me too. I will have to order that book from my library -- I've read several others of Willa Cather's books but not that one, yet.