When they are traveling around the American Southwest visiting the many and remote parishes in their huge diocese, the French priests in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop often have an Indian companion along. At night they camp on the desert sand. This passage is excerpted from the tale of one such journey:
Kneeling on either side of the embers they repeated their prayer together and then rolled up in their blankets. The Bishop went to sleep thinking with satisfaction that he was beginning to have some sort of human companionship with his Indian boy. One called the Indians “boys,” perhaps because there was something youthful and elastic in their bodies. Certainly about their behavior there was nothing boyish in the American sense, or even in the European sense.
Jacinto was never, by any chance, naïf; he was never taken by surprise. One felt that his training, whatever it had been, had prepared him to meet any situation which might confront him. He was as much at home in the Bishop’s study as in his own pueblo — and he was never too much at home anywhere. Father Latour felt he had gone a good way toward gaining his guide’s friendship, though he did not know how.
The truth was, Jacinto liked the Bishop’s way of meeting people; thought he had the right tone with Padre Jesus, and that he had good manners with the Indians. 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.
Maybe the Bishop and Jacinto share some qualities of character, and that’s why they appreciate one another. One aspect of Bishop Latour’s character that I see is his humility. In fact, perhaps there is a double meaning in the book’s title: not just the usual meaning of the ending of his earthly life, which we read about in the last pages, but also the little deaths that come to him day by day, not adding up but subtracting bit by bit from the possibility of earthly glory that might have been his, if he had given his fine mind and life to a different life back in France. Instead of fame and accomplishment, he sees defeat on many levels. But he accepts that.
Fr. Stephen Freeman recently wrote in “The Despised God” about the humility of God. He says, “The ‘glory’ of God is not the glory of wondrous success, shining fame and an incomparable reputation. Instead, we are told that we behold the glory of God ‘in the face of Jesus Christ.’… The crucifixion of Christ for Paul is more than an event that accomplishes salvation – it is an event that reveals Him in His fullness.”
“For many, such meekness in Christ is treated as something of a disguise, or a temporary work for the purpose of salvation. They all too quickly turn away from this understanding to assert that ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead!’ But there is nothing to indicate that the definition of glory is somehow being altered for the sake of the Second Coming. As for the imagery of the Revelation of St. John, it should be read through the Cross rather than used as a corrective for the Cross.
“… the friends of God are foolish, weak, base and despised. That is the narrow way. Interestingly, it is a way that is the most open for all to walk. We need not be wise, strong, and well-thought-of. It turns the world upside-down and our lives along with it.
“Right now the world is desperate for a few fools.”
-Fr. Stephen Freeman