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.”
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.”
The public narrative (news and history) is like watching actors in a play. However, the actors have stumbled into the notion that the play is reality. They react to each other and the narrative within the play, but the reality off-stage (which is the rest of the whole world) is nowhere in sight. We might easily conclude that the entire idea of a public narrative is absurd (and it is, largely).
But people are story-tellers. If you ask, “What’s happening?” the answer will take some sort of story form. Apparently, God is a story-teller as well. In St. John’s gospel we read:
“No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” (John 1:18)
The Latin translation of this verse says that the only-begotten Son “narrates” Him (enarravit). And this is precisely the case. The Christian claim is that Christ Himself is the story of the universe. He is the author and the protagonist. He is the meaning of the true story. Every sub-story (my life and yours) gains its meaning and purpose from the greater story of which they are a part.
Now that Pearl’s family has moved to California, I have nearly half of my grandchildren within an hour and a half’s drive. It was so easy to pick up Maggie on the way home from the mountains, and to bring her here to spend almost a week with me.
First, though, the evening I arrived, her mom took a few of us to the Arboretum on the University of California campus in their town of Davis, so I could check out some of the many plants with low water needs. A rustic and rusty arch of shovels signals the beginning of this part of the gardens, with wide plantings of grasses and native California plants leading on into the Australian section, which is what I was most interested in. I have noticed in books that a lot of striking and unthirsty species come from Down Under.
Maggie had her camera, too, and found families of ducks to take pictures of. We didn’t spend too long, but I managed to take many pictures with identifying signs next to the plants that I liked, so I didn’t have to take the time to write down names.
I’m only posting a few of those, of the nicest looking, which I wouldn’t mind having in my new garden if I can find them in nurseries.
The next morning Maggie and I drove off to my town. I had downloaded Anybody Shining by Frances O’Roark Dowell from Audible on to my tablet so we could listen on the way home, which we did for about an hour, Maggie in the back seat because she’s a lightweight. We shopped that afternoon and evening, to resupply my fridge, and we watched “Cheaper by the Dozen,” under blankets on the couch.
Shopping took a lot of our time during the next few days, because we were planning a tea party that we held last Saturday, and also were having company on Sunday. Giving the tea party was the focus of our time together; Maggie came up with several good ideas before we even got home.
We planned and shopped and cooked and in the end we served: deviled eggs and mint chocolate chip meringues made by Maggie; two kinds of scones with jam and creme fraiche; chocolate pastilles; ham and Swiss quiche made on puff pastry; fresh blueberries and raspberries; chocolate orange sticks; some fancy chocolate and sprinkle-dipped Rice Krispy treats we discovered on one shopping trip; and of course the tea, black and rooibos, and hot cocoa for little girls who preferred that. They all did.
Eight of us ladies whose ages spanned the decades down to four years old enjoyed our party very much. My little goddaughter Mary, four months old, was also present but not enjoying the goodies. The conversation was edifying and stimulating. I sent scones home to the menfolk, and that evening Maggie and I ate leftovers.
We listened to more of our book on the computer and came to the satisfying end. The next day Maggie mentioned it in her own blog post. It is about a girl about Maggie’s age, living in the mountains of North Carolina about a hundred years ago, and her desire to have a friend. The history and the culture of the mountain people are the background of the story, in the telling of which the protagonist Arie Mae expresses her good heart and charming wholesome self through letters she writes to her cousin in the city. The descriptor “shining” she applies to at least two other people in the book, but Arie Mae herself is the truly shining character.
I made Maggie pause the recording so that I could write down a wonderful word of advice from Arie Mae – but could I find the paper I wrote on, just now? No! So I washed dishes and listened again to the last few chapters of the book till I could find the place again.
A sub-plot of the story is about the more educated people coming from the city to write down the songs and stories of the mountain folk, to start schools, to help them in various ways. One conflict concerns the dynamic of the outsiders coming in with their ideas and advice for the people who get the feeling they are not appreciated for who they really are.
The way Dowell ties this aspect of the story in with Arie Mae’s growing friendships is delightful. She writes to her cousin, “It takes time to get to know people. You got to listen to their stories, and you got to tell your stories back. It all goes back and forth, back and forth, until one day you turn into friends. Until that time, I expect it’s best to keep your opinions to yourself.”
My Maggie and I enjoyed more stories together during her visit, in the form of two more movies: First “Hook,” which we watched here at home. I find that story delightful, but I think Maggie at her age couldn’t enjoy the Robin Williams character as well as I. And maybe the lost boys were too familiar in their exaggerated annoying boyishness to a girl with three older brothers. Then we saw “Inside Out” at the theater. How wonderful to go out to a movie, just us girls. We even shared a bag of popcorn. I am liking this new phase of grandmotherhood!
Soon after the opening credits we were amazed to find out how perfect “Inside Out” was for us right now. The main character Riley has a few big things in common with my granddaughter: They are both twelve, and each has just moved with her family across the country to California. So many good ideas, so much wisdom is in this movie, I think I need to see it a few more times to be able to think about it more. Movies always go too fast for me, and there is a lot of fast action in this one, too, so that I found myself several times musing over the possible symbolic significance of an event – musing for a few seconds – and then another metaphor would interrupt me to suggest itself in the next scene.
Riley seems to be at the mercy of her emotions in this story; you might even say that the emotions are the real main characters, as they try to manage her life to make it good. What seems obvious to the ringleader Joy is that Riley needs to be happy, so Joy is always working very hard to program the right thoughts and memories into Riley’s mind to make her happy. The other emotions eventually find out that they have a role to play as well.
Both Maggie and I were uncomfortable with the implication that Riley’s decisions were based solely on her emotions, but there is a lot of truth to the way the thousands of memories in her bank could be used to cultivate various emotions. I loved the image at the end of the movie, after Riley has connected painfully well with her anger and sadness, and the islands of Family and Honesty have seemingly sunk into the sea — she ends up in the arms of her parents, being comforted. She has grown up a lot in the recent weeks and months and is stronger than before, and I’m sure her parents are wiser, too.
My granddaughter who was sitting next to me in the theater had decided a few months ago that she wanted to be baptized in her church before moving away. Back then I couldn’t get it together to celebrate such a happy event with her across the miles, so this week we went shopping for the present I wanted to give her, and found this lovely cross that we both liked. It is a symbol of Something deeper than a memory or an emotion, the great Story of God’s love and our salvation. I’m so thankful He is with us and for us as we go through all the trials that accompany every stage of life. He is the only one who really knows us inside-out.