I guess my big news for today (which many of you already know) is that I’ve been animated! I complain to Jake all the time about the lack of Latina representation in…everything, but now I can LITERALLY see myself on the screen. It warms my heart. Kudos to the sweet Smith students who transcribed my story so lovingly.
Oh, and a picture from this lovely weekend:
May 7, 2021
I’m taking my morning walk and am puzzling over Willa Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop, which many critics consider her magnum opus. To be honest, it wasn’t my favorite Cather, though I have always been curious about it. The first time I opened it, I felt a void of warmth, a prevalence of eerie silence—such as that after a bell tolls—that I shivered and put it away. But, recently, I was feeling more serenity. I picked it up late at night, measured its depths against the stars overhead, and dove right in.
The story follows Father Jean Latour and his comrade, Father Valliant, as they voyage from a small village in France to open missions in New Mexico, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque to start. Though decorated priests abroad, they encounter turbulent waters, lose their worldly possessions, proceed on horseback, and like a mirage, when they are nearly dead from fatigue and thirst, the glory of a vastly unchartered New Mexico is before them. Cather paints New Mexico the way O’Keefe sees it, or even how Cormac McCarthy views the old one—barren and filled with death, sadness, and longing. But when there’s water, rejoice! Be humbled before the morning mist and the dew settling among the purple brush of the llanos. There are certain things the priest duo holds sacrosanct—their vows, their lovelorn mules, lettuce, leeks, olive oil, clean and proper vestments, and their vision to build a cathedral, not like a shitty American one, but a real European one in the new world.
There are many realities in this book that make me uncomfortable. Cather adopting the mentality of a male priest, for one—to great austerity. The depiction of Mexicans and Native Americans as being lifted from depravity and sin before the eyes of God. The understanding that Mexicans were devout but doing it all wrong.
Father Latour paints a noble figure, as does Father Valliant, much like his name suggests. The sacrifices Latour makes—the depths of his despair—made me want to watch Fleabag Season II all over again. He never wavered from a true and pious Christianity, the one many believe doesn’t actually exist.
I trudged through the sanctimonious chapters of this book, remembered the catechism classes of my youth, where we chased after bible passages to interpret in small groups. I remember the absolution of which we were taught that Catholics didn’t memorize the bible, we knew it in our hearts.
Within these novel chapters, I felt sadness that the emptiness of stretches of life is not escaped even by the holiest. Nearing the end of his life, Father Latour reflects on what he has done. It is biblical in proportion—upon a yellow rock, he has built his church. The magnitude and similarity to St. Peter did not escape me, though perhaps I understand it better, after following Father Latour’s life as a priest. His life was poor, often cold and empty but not without joy. He toiled over his legacy—which was to offer his community refuge in his memory, or in his home. I can think of worse ways to die.
To me, Cather at her most brilliant is Antonia Shimerda on horseback riding wildly through the blue prairies, the sun without a hat, mushrooms stuffed into a pillowcase; the voyage of a lonely pianist in Chicago wearing a red velvet cape across her shoulders, as cold rain drenches her up to the knees, and she called herself Lucy Gayheart. But, perhaps I should say that I respect Cather’s writing in Death Comes to the Archbishop because she gave herself over to the story, and she lived this type of solitude and banishment in other ways.
I’ve always felt an electric connection to Cather after my sister Daisy lent me her copy of My Antonia when I was in middle school. I loved the Cather who refused to wear dresses, who cut her hair too short and refused to marry in a church, who moved from Omaha to Pittsburgh and was perhaps too blunt and bright-eyed. Cather’s writing can be both my refuge and my cathedral.