Category Archives: books

Jacinto and the Bishop

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.

-Willa Cather

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

Bishop Latour meets the elegant goats.

I’ve read Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather three times, including an audio recording narrated by David Ackroyd which I only recently completed. These three readings were so far apart that each time seemed a fresh introduction to the characters and the setting. And yet, I do think that the first two readings helped to form a love in my soul for the Southwest territories of the United States, so that this third time I found it there waiting for me, like the warm sand beneath a red rock butte, a place where I might bed down for the night under the stars and feel whole.

Ackroyd’s voice and narrative style seem perfect for the story. There is a steadiness and a lack of hurry that aligns with the faithful dailiness of the lives of the two missionary priests as they try to meet the spiritual needs of a vast diocese that had just enlarged by nearly 30,000 square miles with the Gadsden Purchase.

They are based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but make frequent trips by horse or mule of hundreds and thousands of miles, even into Old Mexico, to take care of ecclesiastical affairs, to baptize babies and perform marriages, and to serve Mass. Their characters are sympathetic and rich; the story of their friendship over the decades is a thread woven through the novel, made up of small stories scattered through the years.

I’m using this audio book now the way I have two or three others in the last years since I sleep alone, for the times when I don’t sleep. I put a well-known story to play on my phone, set the timer for 30 minutes, and let David or another nice person read me to sleep. This only works with voices that do not draw attention to themselves in various ways, usually by being overly dramatic.

That means I am reading/listening to the book, based on a true story by the way, a fourth time. Because every anecdote and scene seems more luminous and meaningful than ever when it is told or described by a warm human voice, I may post here some passages that appear plain and dry to you poor people who may never have breathed the air of New Mexico or seen the Arizona desert in bloom. But today, it’s only goats we will consider, and I imagine that they are goat-ish the world over.

“After the feast the sleepy children were taken home, the men gathered in the plaza to smoke under the great cottonwood trees. The Bishop, feeling a need of solitude, had gone forth to walk, firmly refusing an escort. On his way he passed the earthen threshing-floor, where these people beat out their grain and winnowed it in the wind, like the Children of Israel.

“He heard a frantic bleating behind him, and was overtaken by Pedro with the great flock of goats, indignant at their day’s confinement, and wild to be in the fringe of pasture along the hills. They leaped the stream like arrows speeding from the bow, and regarded the Bishop as they passed him with their mocking, humanly intelligent smile. The young bucks were light and elegant in figure, with their pointed chins and polished tilted horns. There was great variety in their faces, but in nearly all something supercilious and sardonic. The angoras had long silky hair of a dazzling whiteness.

“As they leaped through the sunlight they brought to mind the chapter in the Apocalypse, about the whiteness of them that were washed in the blood of the Lamb. The young Bishop smiled at his mixed theology. But though the goat had always been the symbol of pagan lewdness, he told himself that their fleece had warmed many a good Christian, and their rich milk nourished sickly children.”

-Willa Cather in Death Comes for the Archbishop

Material history between the pages.

One thing I love about used books is that their physical selves, regardless of the subject or literary content or the reason I want them, have history. I’m always pleased if I find even the name of a person (or a library) and possibly an inscription, giving evidence of its life before coming into my possession. I have discovered a few other little items, like a theater ticket or a clipped newspaper review of the book . But no money, or bacon, and no love letters.

Pippin just sent me this picture of a tortilla that was found in a library book; it looks like the tortilla came with salsa and cheese, too. She remembered an article I’d passed on years ago from the Abe Books Community page: “Things Found in Books.” I thought I’d blogged on this subject, but I can’t find that I did. So I’m passing on that link, plus this one:

From Atlas Obscura: “Best Things Found Between the Pages of Old Books,” including the story of a woman who found a small negative in a book she bought at a used bookstore, developed it, and found it was a photo of her as a child.

You can probably find more such lists online, and maybe have already. I’d be more interested in things that you, my own readers, have found in books, even if it’s only inscriptions. Let me know in the comments, and possibly I will write an update post.

RFC on idols and abstractions

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Today we had our annual birthday party for the Virgin Mary. Did you know her birthday is September 8th? It is one of the Twelve Great Feasts that we Orthodox Christians celebrate, and today, when it fell on a Sunday, several of us baked birthday cakes to eat at the agape meal. Even I baked one! I will try to post the recipe soon.

I guess that festivity put me in the mood to publish this post that I’ve had hanging around for five years. Back then I’d written several on The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon, and was working on a few more. Then, as they say, Life Happened, and RFC fell gradually down to the bottom of the drafts pile.  But he’s back, and I hope you feel the richer for revisiting his delightful book.

“A calorie is not a thing; it is a measurement. In itself, it does not exist. It is simply a way of specifying a particular property of things, namely, how much heat they give off when burned. Only things, you see, are capable of being eaten or burned, loved or loathed; no one ever yet got his teeth into a calorie.

“….How sad, then, to see real beings…calorie counters — living their lives in abject terror of things that do not even go bump in the night. What a crime, not only against hospitality, but against being, to hear him turn down homemade noodles in favor of idols and abstractions — to watch him prefer nothing to something. And what a disaster to himself! To have capitulated so starchlessly before the the devil’s policy of desubstantialization! His body may or may not lose weight; his soul, however, is sure to wither.”

-Robert Farrar Capon in The Supper of the Lamb

Other posts in this series:

RFC is the man we need.
RFC begins with the meat.
RFC considers blood and sacrifice.
RFC makes one of nature’s marvels.
RFC for Butter Week
RFC drinks in graces