Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Just Do It

Death Comes for the Archbishop
by Willa Cather

Now that I have read two Willa Cather novels, I can officially be designated a fan (so saith Reverent Reader). This is a beautifully written book, and I enjoyed it. However, it did not draw me in quite as much as The Song of the Lark, which I read and posted about earlier this year (see January 24, 2008). I think one reason for that is that Death Comes for the Archbishop feels more like a collection of interrelated short stories than a single narrative strand. It was not until near the end that the various characters and story lines seemed to coalesce. It also was hard to get a sense of the sheer perseverance of Fathers Latour and Vaillant, of the drudgery of their days and the routines of their lives, because the book focuses mostly on their travels in the southwestern United States and the more dramatic episodes of their ministries. Cather seems to prefer 3rd person narrative to any other, and description over dialogue (at least in this particular novel), so the continuity and longevity of the relationships between the characters was missing for me, with the exception of the close friendship between the two priests. These are not complaints so much as observations - it is still a wonderful book.

Evidently Father Latour and Father Vaillant are based on actual historical figures. Cather elegantly captures the hardships of frontier life and the lack of support for the church in the early days of settlement in the areas that are now New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. These guys did not even have a road to travel so they could get to their new assignment - it took Fathers Latour and Vaillant literally about a year to get to the southwest when they were ordered by the Vatican to go there. Upon arrival, their reception was mixed at best, and there was very little infrastructure in which to work. But these guys just did it - got on their mules and away they went; baptizing, preaching, marrying, and burying wherever anyone needed or wanted their services. In spite of their lack of understanding of the customs and faith of the Navajo people, and in spite of their single-minded Roman Catholic perspective (typical for that time period, in that part of the country), I found myself admiring these courageous priests. They completely uprooted themselves from their own country (France) and lived very harsh and austere lives because that was how committed they were to carrying the gospel to all God's children. They did not even seem to find it hard to do this - they seemed completely fulfilled by what they were doing.

Next time I feel like griping about a leaky faucet in our church kitchen, or a busted light bulb in the sanctuary, or a "squeaky wheel" who is taking too much of my energy, I will remember the dogged faithfulness of Father Latour and Father Vaillant. They stripped down ministry to its barest essentials - giving people comfort and sustenance in the midst of the uncertainty of living on a harsh and unpredictable landscape; while at the same time challenging those same people to be more faithful to God's call on their lives. We could do that too, even now - we would have to consciously not get so distracted by administration and maintenance that we forget to live out what we believe. Really. We could just do it.

Reverent Reader


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