Category Archives: history

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

The poetry of a wise man might crack your shell.

Many people seem to think that politics will save us, that if we could just get the right people, or “our people” in office, they would begin to set things right, however we envision that. Anthony Esolen in the article Listening Up, in the Nov-Dec 2019 issue of Touchstone magazine, discusses some reasons for this idea, and its often corresponding impulse to judge our human forefathers for their sins, judgment not “by eternal verities, but by the cheap modern substitute, the ‘political.'”

He believes we lack historical imagination, and he sets out to consider the different ways one might make better use of stories and history in general, giving examples first from antiquity:

So to attempt to transpose Xenophon or Cyrus to the current day, and to grill him with “political” questions, is not to think politically at all, but to replace reality with a caricature. You will learn nothing from Xenophon that way. You may instead be out to teach him a lesson, him, that is, being the cartoon Xenophon you have made. At no time do you allow yourself to be still and to learn, so that the poetry of a wise man might penetrate your shell, crack it open, and show you the stars.

Once you enter the world of history, you encounter the maddening complexity of human affairs, not to mention that labyrinth called the human heart. With hindsight we can say, with some confidence, that the young Octavius was far better suited for governing the Roman world than was the elder and more experienced Antony. We cannot be so sure of ourselves, though, when it comes to the noble-minded Brutus, and the ambitious and capable Julius Caesar, whom he assassinated.

Esolen goes on to mention American leaders of note, and of complex history and character, such as William Tecumseh Sherman, and Stonewall Jackson, “a genuinely kindly owner of slaves.” And then he comes to his “three broad categories of modern man, each of them characterized by the stories they listen to and tell”: The Man of Faith, The Man of Wistful Unbelief, and the Man of Superstition.

I found his categories to be very helpful in understanding differences between people in the first two groups especially, and their stories that nourish our hearts. Oh, if only the third group would quiet down and listen to some true stories! But they don’t like the stories of the other two groups, and have their own ever-changing and doubtful heroes.

“History is too dark and tangled a forest for them, sacred Scripture too high a mountain to climb. Therefore they fall into worship of the biggest or most prominent things near them: sex, themselves, the State.”

“They are not brave enough to enter the dark caverns of the human heart…. they cannot forgive what men and women really are. They have no sense of sin, which afflicts everyone, including themselves, but they grasp at being among the elect, by having the most up-to-date pseudo-political opinions.”

You can read the whole article here: “Listening Up.”

People who make history know nothing about history.
You can see that in the sort of history they make.
-G.K. Chesterton

 

The chimes of neverwhere.

THE CHIMES OF NEVERWHERE

How many times did the Church prevent war?
Who knows? Those wars did not occur.

The neither state of Neverwhere
is hard to place as near or far
since all things that didn’t take place are there
and things that have lost the place they took:

Herr Hitler’s buildings, King James’ cigar,
the happiness of Armenia,
the Abelard children, the Manchus’ return
are there with the Pictish Grammar Book.

The girl who returned your dazzled look
and the mornings you might have woke to her
are your waterbed in Neverwhere.
There shine the dukes of Australia

and all the great poems that never were
quite written, and every balked invention.
There too are the Third AIF and its war
in which I and boys my age were killed

more pointlessly with each passing year,
but there too half the works of sainthood are,
the enslavements, tortures, rapes, despair
deflected by them from the actual

to rain on the human-sacrifice drum
which millions never have to hear
beating for them in Neverwhere.

-Les Murray

I discovered an earlier version of the poem online which speaks overtly of the Devil and of Christ’s love, but this is the one the poet chose to include in Selected Poems.

Glimpses of then and now.

I had just begun to eat my eggs and greens when I glanced out at the garden table and knew it was warm and cheery there, so I moved out to that sunny corner. There were two lovely bird sounds close by that I haven’t heard lately, and I wondered who was singing, and if I had identified them before…

Then a new sound, and hopping noises in the hopbush, and whom did I see but my old wren friend Bewick! I’m pretty sure I haven’t noticed him in a couple of years. The titmouse was back, too, this week, peeking from under the wisteria. The birds are telling me it’s fall.

I have yet to do most of those pre-winter chores outside; somehow it always seems more necessary to read poems, or watch and write about the garden instead of working in it. I did plant a pot of mums, and had Alejandro transfer a bunch of succulents out of pots and into my gravel area under the manzanita. After I told him which one was my favorite, I came back this morning to see that he had put a circle of small stones around it.

I spent an hour last night looking at pictures of my back yard just four years ago. It is pretty unbelievable what has “happened” since then, by which to say, what the rain and sun and tiny plants have done together, after humans arranged them to work in harmony. The next few photos are from fall of 2015:

The photo below is from February 2016, about two months after planting, through my rainy bedroom window. One of the dodoneas is already dying, and the replacement for the first, defective, fountain is already installed and running.

And this morning:

Oh, but all this new landscaping went in just a moment ago, compared to the events I will be remembering with friends this weekend: My K-8 elementary school is having a reunion, spanning ten years of graduating classes, and I am driving south to take part. Other than my siblings, I haven’t seen any of the people who will be there since high school or before. I don’t think we’ll be wanting to take pictures of our older selves in the “now” – we much prefer the “then” from our yearbooks, where we all look so cute! This one is me in First Grade.

Next, glimpses of my garden currently, and goddaughter Mary on her family’s trampoline, from last week when I got to spend a little time with them.

Work has ramped up on my remodel project. The latest delay has been over non-standard construction in the original house, which was revealed after removing sheetrock in advance of moving a closet wall. This photo shows the three main parties so far, including the contractor and the architect, who are calculating the necessary strength of extra beams they will install to bear the current load, in addition to the weight of the new rooms.

It made me happy to hear how conscientious they are about it. The architect said to me, as I listened in on their hour-long discussion yesterday, in between their tromping up and down the stairs from the garage to the great room above it, “You are learning about how not to build a house.” Everyone has been saying, “Once they get started, it shouldn’t take long.” I think we are at that point now, of having started. But until now, that point was theoretical.

I guess that’s about enough procrastination, and I must go pack a suitcase!
Those garden chores will have to wait till next week. 🙂