Upon the recommendation of one of my oldest and dearest childhood friends I bought a copy of Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. Cather was a Nebraskan, somewhat revered here in my home state, yet I had yet to read anything she’d written. Sally is a fan of her writing and after exchanging some text messages last January I picked it up in anticipation of reading it this summer. I will finish it tonight. My friend did not steer me wrong. It has been a delight to read this 19th century story of Bishop Latour and his friend, Father Valiant in what would become New Mexico and Arizona. I offer no book review. Only an endorsement and this passage which I highlighted when I came across it.
Father Valiant began pacing restlessly up and down as he spoke, and the Bishop watched him, musing. It was just this in his friend that was dear to him. “Where there is great love there are always miracles,” he said at length. “One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.”
It brought to mind that famous observation by a man of the 20th century, Thomas Merton. In his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander the Trappist monk wrote:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.
It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.
I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time.
When reflecting upon the nineteenth anniversary of her being confirmed as a Catholic, author/speaker/blogger Heather King wrote:
But my experience has also been this: There has never not been a church, a copy of the Gospels, a breviary, an altar, a place to kneel, a cross with a body on it, a priest to say Mass and hear my Confession. I have never once been encouraged not to die to myself, not to serve the poor, not to quest, seek, pray, lay down my life. I have never been invited to hold myself to anything less than the very highest standard.
I can’t think of a more appropriate place to have been confirmed and taken my first Communion than in the middle of Hollywood. For religion is not separate from life. It is life: our heart, our pain, our divided selves, our shattered dreams, our longing for the infinite.
Willa Cather was not a Catholic. Yet in the paragraph I pulled from her text she touches on a truth that Merton and King both echo. Love will bequeath miracles. We can see these miracles when we but open our eyes and ears to perceive “what is there about us always.” Merton in his street corner revelation sees that in all the busyness of the pedestrian traffic that he loves them all, these images of their creator.
I can state without any hesitation that I have made the same, though more clumsily-stated, observations as Bishop Latour, Thomas Merton and Heather King. I have been asked over the years about how I can possibly justify being a Catholic in the 21st century. The inquiries have been sincere or a few even mocking in their tone. The mockers say I was obviously brainwashed by my parents, having learned it from my earliest ages. As my parents are not Catholic and I freely joined of my own accord at the age of 25 this accusation is false, and drives the mockers into an insult-laden fury as they deem it much worse to make such a decision on my own. At least if my parents had indoctrinated me I could not be held at fault as an impressionable young mind, but to make such a decision as an adult? I must be mentally unstable, immature, stupid, etc., etc.
None of that is true. I merely walked toward the Son.
The Church has her faults, yes. Human beings have wrought wrongs and even injustices in her name. And therein lies the reason for her faults, for she is made up of human beings. Huddled masses, imperfect in our original sin. The majority of us painfully aware of our sins having examined our lives and seeing in the Church a path forward if we but have the discipline and the strength to take it.
In her conclusion, Heather writes:
I think of how the mark of the saint is a capacity for love so extreme that the world often sees it as insane. I think that, after nineteen years of toil, sweat, pondering, loneliness, and often seemingly barren prayer, I still don’t much focus on what’s wrong with the Church.
I focus on the miracle that She took in a wretch like me.
My experience has been the same as Heather’s. I have the same sense of things spoken of by Cather’s Bishop Latour. I myself have shared in a rare moment of such divine love as Merton. The maturation and practice of my religion has done more to strengthen my ability to love and my desire to serve others than any book, tape, website or government program ever could. My religion is engrained with my life. I do not wear it as a cloak one hour a week at Mass and then remove it once I leave the church.
At least that is my goal. I do fall short on occasion. I am a frail human (a wretch). But I get up after each fall. I do not give up and receive strength from my religion through the examples of the saints, the liturgy, the sights-smell-and-bells, and from my fellow Catholics in the pews and Christians around the world through the examples of their lives. The source the unites all of these elements is God.
In my longing for the infinite I have experienced such love. I have witnessed such miracles.
Our eyes are open, but do they see?
Death Comes for the Archbishop is based on the life of Jean-Baptiste Lamy (1814-1888), and partially chronicles the construction of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. You can take a virtual tour of this beautiful basilica by clicking on this link.