Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Death Comes for the Archbishop

What can't one say about this book? It is a rich tapestry of real characters, lyric description, history retold, vivid scenery, and poetic feeling. There is much of vice and more of virtue, Catholic mystery reforming pagan superstition, the juxtaposition of widely variant cultures, and the telling of deeply personal stories of love, loss, growth, and reward. It is a journey of faith and a lesson in creation, full of the expanse and primeval vigor only found in the American West.

Immediately striking to one's senses is the beautiful writing of this novel. Cather wields her pen as a painter would a brush upon canvas. Her prose calls forth powerful scenes with rich and lovely color. She describes the rugged beauty of the West with a clarity and brillance few others have ever achieved.

"Ever afterward the Bishop remembered his first ride to Acoma as his introduction to the mesa country. One thing which struck him at once was that every mesa was duplicated by a cloud mesa, like a reflection, which lay motionless above it or moved slowly up from behind it. These cloud formations seemed to be always there, however hot and blue the sky. Sometimes they were flat terraces, ledges of vapour; sometimes they were dome-shaped, or fantastic, like the tops of silvery pagodas, rising one above another, as if an oriental city lay directly behind the rock. The great tables of granite set down in an empty plain were inconceivable without their attendant clouds, which were a part of them, as the smoke is part of the censer, or the foam of the wave.
Coming along the Santa Fe trail, in the vast plains of Kansas, Father Latour had found the sky more a desert than the land; a hard, empty blue, very monotonous to the eyes of a Frenchman. But west of the Pecos all that changed; here there was always activity overhead, clouds forming and moving all day long. Whether they were dark and full of violence, or soft and white with luxurious idleness, they powerfully affected the world beneath them. The desert, the mountains and mesas, were continually re-formed and re-coloured by the cloud shadows. The whole country seemed fluid to the eye under this constant change of accent, this ever-varying distribution of light."

Perhaps the most inspiring element in this book, however, is its portrayal of the depth of affection capable in the human heart. I have rarely encountered a tale of friendship as moving as that found in this beautifully depicted history of the diocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Two priests of profoundly different personality but equally brilliant sanctity make their way from France to the deserts of the American West by way of the settlements in Ohio. Along the way, they share triumphs as well as trials inifinitely more numerous which bind them ever closer in spiritual brotherhood and purity of affection, the like of which is expected only of Heaven. The weakness of one is counteracted by the strength of the other. The insight of the first is supported by the energy of the second. The boldness of the latter is tempered with the gentility of the former. Each has saved the other from disaster. Each would sacrifice his life for the other. Each becomes the Light that illuminates Christ's truth for the other.
And yet, in the end, God calls them to a sacrifice of this friendship, separating them for their final and perhaps most successful days. The calling is quietly accepted and followed, though not always understood. The two men go their separate ways, carrying the Gospel to ever more widely varying groups of people until such time as they are reunited in the eternal love of God in heaven. On his deathbed, the first bishop of Santa Fe returns to a "tip-tilted green field among his native mountains" where he tries "to give consolation to a young man who was being torn in two before his eyes. . .to forge a new Will in that devout and exhausted priest," in final witness to the two most important things he had ever had in life--God and his friend.