Published in 1927, "Death Comes For The Archbishop" feels like a much more recent novel. Writing in a beautiful, timeless style, Cather crafts a southwestern legend that reaches across time to touch our souls. The breadth and depth of emotion in this barely 200 page book stunned me. From humor and wonder to horror and endurance, Cather takes us on an emotional journey as much as a geographic one as our holy protagonists attempt to plant the seed of the Church in a rough but beautiful country.
Cather has much to say about religion, friendship, European/Indian/American relations, faith, the desert landscape, and the nature of good and evil. Her portait of the "dark priest" Padre Martinez and his "disturbing, mysterious, magnetic power" lingers in my mind now weeks after I finished reading the book. But ultimately, what sticks with me most is a sense of profound appreciation for the beauty and power of Cather's prose.
One of my friends from book club pointed out that this book shared many similarities to Hesse's "Narcissus and Goldmund" - two similiarly constituted priests, a friendship enduring over time and distance, a beautiful style, and the boldness to take on fundamental questions. I initially thought that "Archbishop" was the American "Narcissus," but when I looked up the publication date, it turns out that Hesse's work was published three years after Cather's!
My highlights below:
PROLOGUE: AT ROME
"No matter, Father. I see your redskins through Fenimore Cooper, and I like them so. Now let us go to the terrace for our coffee and watch the evening come on."
Part 1 - THE VICAR APOSTOLIC
If the Bishop returned to find Santa Fé friendly to him, it was because everybody believed in Father Vaillant — homely, real, persistent, with the driving power of a dozen men in his poorly-built body.
"Ah well, that is a missionary's life; to plant where another shall reap."
"Doctrine is well enough for the wise, Jean; but the miracle is something we can hold in our hands and love."
"Where there is great love there are always miracles," he said at length. "One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always."
Part 2 - MISSIONARY JOURNEYS
The Bishop felt a quick glow of pleasure in looking at the man. As he stood there in his buckskin clothes one felt in him standards, loyalties, a code which is not easily put into words but which is instantly felt when two men who live by it come together by chance. He took the scout's hand. "I have long wanted to meet Kit Carson," he said, "even before I came to New Mexico. I have been hoping you would pay me a visit at Santa Fé."
Part 3 - THE MASS AT ÁCOMA
The Bishop seldom questioned Jacinto about his thoughts or beliefs. He didn't think it polite, and he believed it to be useless. There was no way in which he could transfer his own memories of European civilization into the Indian mind, and he was quite willing to believe that behind Jacinto there was a long tradition, a story of experience, which no language could translate to him.
In his experience, white people, when they addressed Indians, always put on a false face. There were many kinds of false faces; Father Vaillant's, for example, was kindly but too vehement. The Bishop put on none at all. He stood straight and turned to the Governor of Laguna, and his face underwent no change. Jacinto thought this remarkable.
This mesa plain had an appearance of great antiquity, and of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau. The country was still waiting to be made into a landscape.
Already the Bishop had observed in Indian life a strange literalness, often shocking and disconcerting.
Carnal commerce with the Indian women would hae been very easy indeed, and the Friar was at the hardy age of ripe manhood when such temptations are peculiarly sharp. But the missionaries had early discovered that the slightest departure from chastity greatly weakened their influence and authority with their Indian converts.
Part 4 - SNAKE ROOT
The fickle Mexican population soon found as much diversion in being devout as they had once found in being scandalous. Father Vaillant wrote to his sister Philomène, in France, that the temper of his parish was like that of a boys' school; under one master the lads try to excel one another in mischief and disobedience, under another they vie with each other in acts of loyalty.
At home again, in his own house, he still felt a certain curiosity about this ceremonial cave, and Jacinto's puzzling behaviour. It seemed almost to lend a colour of probability to some of those unpleasant stories about the Pecos religion. He was already convinced that neither the white men nor the Mexicans in Santa Fé understood anything about Indian beliefs or the workings of the Indian mind.
"If I'd seen white men bringing in a chest after dark," he observed, "I could have made a guess at what was in it; money, or whisky, or fire-arms. But seeing it was Indians, I can't say. It might have been only queer-shaped rocks their ancestors had taken a notion to. The things they value most are worth nothing to us. They've got their own superstitions, and their minds will go round and round in the same old ruts till Judgment Day."
Part 5 - PADRE MARTÍNEZ
Father Latour judged that the day of lawless personal power was almost over, even on the frontier, and this figure was to him already like something picturesque and impressive, but really impotent, left over from the past.
He had already learned that with this people religion was necessarily theatrical.
The Bishop had never heard the Mass more impressively sung than by Father Martínez. The man had a beautiful baritone voice, and he drew from some deep well of emotional power. Nothing in the service was slighted, every phrase and gesture had its full value. At the moment of the Elevation the dark priest seemed to give his whole force, his swarthy body and all its blood, to that lifting-up. Rightly guided, the Bishop reflected, this Mexican might have been a great man. He had an altogether compelling personality, a disturbing, mysterious, magnetic power.
Naturally he hated the Americans. The American occupation meant the end of men like himself. He was a man of the old order, a son of Abiquiu, and his day was over.
Part 6 - DOÑA ISABELLA
When they were tramping home, Father Joseph said that, as for him, he would rather combat the superstitions of a whole Indian pueblo than the vanity of one white woman.
Part 7 - THE GREAT DIOCESE
The Navajo came out of his house and took possession of Angelica by her bridle-bit. At first he did not open his lips, merely stood holding Father Latour's very fine white hand in his very fine dark one, and looked into his face with a message of sorrow and resignation in his deep-set, eagle eyes. A wave of feeling passed over his bronze features as he said slowly: "My friend has come." That was all, but it was everything; welcome, confidence, appreciation.
Nothing one could say of Father Vaillant explained him. The man was much greater than the sum of his qualities. He added a glow to whatever kind of human society he was dropped down into. A Navajo hogan, some abjectly poor little huddle of Mexican huts, or a company of Monsignori and Cardinals at Rome — it was all the same.
Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!
Father Latour judged that, just as it was the white man's way to assert himself in any landscape, to change it, make it over a little (at least to leave some mark of memorial of his sojourn), it was the Indian's way to pass through a country without disturbing anything; to pass and leave no trace, like fish through the water, or birds through the air.
Part 8 - GOLD UNDER PIKE'S PEAK
But it was the discipline of his life to break ties; to say farewell and move on into the unknown.
"To fulfil the dreams of one's youth; that is the best that can happen to a man. No worldly success can take the place of that."
Part 9 - DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP
"For many years Duty separated us, but death has brought us together. The time is not far distant when I shall join him. Meanwhile, I am enjoying to the full that period of reflection which is the happiest conclusion to a life of action."
He often quoted to his students that passage from their fellow Auvergnat, Pascal: that Man was lost and saved in a garden.
"I will go at once, Father. But you should not be discouraged; one does not die of a cold." The old man smiled. "I shall not die of a cold, my son. I shall die of having lived."
Yes, he had come with the buffalo, and he had lived to see railway trains running into Santa Fé. He had accomplished an historic period.
Those early missionaries threw themselves naked upon the hard heart of a country that was calculated to try the endurance of giants. They thirsted in its deserts, starved among its rocks, climbed up and down its terrible canyons on stone-bruised feet, broke long fasts by unclean and repugnant food. Surely these endured Hunger, Thirst, Cold, Nakedness, of a kind beyond any conception St. Paul and his brethren could have had. Whatever the early Christians suffered, it all happened in that safe little Mediterranean world, amid the old manners, the old landmarks. If they endured martyrdom, they died among their brethren, their relics were piously preserved, their names lived in the mouths of holy men.
There is always something charming in the idea of greatness returning to simplicity — the queen making hay among the country girls — but how much more endearing was the belief that They, after so many centuries of history and glory, should return to play Their first parts, in the persons of a humble Mexican family, the lowliest of the lowly, the poorest of the poor, — in a wilderness at the end of the world, where the angels could scarcely find Them!
For many years Father Latour used to wonder if there would ever be an end to the Indian wars while there was one Navajo or Apache left alive. Too many traders and manufacturers made a rich profit out of that warfare; a political machine and immense capital were employed to keep it going.