Finding True Meaning in the Modern World: Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop

To live as an American and as a Catholic is no small challenge, for America is fundamentally a modern project and Catholicism is decidedly not. The driving force of modernity (which began with the Protestant Reformation) can be summarized as “self-discovery”; to be a modern is, essentially, to exist in a constant state of self-awareness—specifically, awareness of one’s individuality. From this awareness comes a relentless quest to understand and express that individuality, and a corresponding desire for structures that permit such expression. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor says that our unending obsession with finding and expressing meaning is unique to our historical situation. “Most of us are still groping for answers about what makes life worth living, or what confers meaning on individual lives. This is an essentially modern predicament,” Taylor writes.

Catholicism, on the other hand, is dismissive of this modern fascination with self-discovery. (It is not, to be clear, dismissive of the self itself, but of the self as an infinitely mutable source of meaning.) Catholicism is hierarchical to its core, and that hierarchy is a metaphysical one; it is based on the very nature of things. Within Catholicism, one’s self is bounded by one’s place within the hierarchy.

Even to write those words is abrasive to modern American consciousness. But of course, in the great variety show of history, the two notions—Catholicism and Americanism—have been flung into close contact, and have formed an unlikely, if uneasy, détente. This détente is the theme of Willa Cather’s little-known and less-read novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop. The novel is the story of the formation of the Santa Fe archdiocese in the southwestern United States and of the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church within the central Southwest. The Archdiocese, which comprised much of the Colorado Plateau and united many ancient Catholic missions under the formal governances of the Church, was separated from the diocese of Durango, Mexico, in 1851 in what was not a particularly clean break. The first bishop of Santa Fe was a French missionary priest named Jean Lamy.

From these historical facts, Cather weaves a story as unexpected and solid as the mesas rising over the high desert of northern New Mexico. Renaming the priest Jean Marie Latour, Cather introduces elements of her own imagination into the narrative, but throughout the story she remains remarkably close to the historical record. Cather structures the book episodically, following Latour as he travels across the land that will become the archdiocese in his various roles, first as Apostolic Vicar and later as bishop.

It is a land of verges. Geographically, the horizon runs sharply along the contours of the mesas, a dramatic separation of land and sky; culturally, Native American tribes live uneasily alongside white pioneers. And religiously, the austerity of American Protestantism clashes with native pagan cults. As Latour crisscrosses the region on mule-back carrying the Eucharist to the faithful, he is constantly crossing from world to world—from tribal villages still following their ancient traditions to Old-West popup towns where American explorers battle the frontier, to Mexican homesteads oppressed by corrupt and wayward priests.

At first the novel seems strung together only loosely. The narration is stark. Each chapter begins in media res and seems to end in media res as well. Occasional characters appear more than once, such as the American scout Kit Carson, who becomes friends with Latour throughout the book. But for the most part, the novel progresses a bit like life; it does not seem to have a strong, driving narrative, an all-consuming plot that holds everything together. Instead, it is a series of events, interactions, scenes, encounters that begin and do not quite end but flow into each other and out again into the past, where they linger as memories whose role in the overall picture is not quite clear.

Cather tells the story in Latour’s voice, seeing through his eyes and sensing with his heart the difficulty of sustaining belief in the midst of apparent meaninglessness. He often thinks back to his childhood in France, a land where Catholicism is in the very soil. In Latour’s France, modernity is the topsoil above deep strata of Catholic metaphysics and practice. The situation in America is very different; America is truly a modern, Protestant nation. In the American Southwest, Latour’s Catholicism sits squarely—and uncomfortably—between the two worlds of the American Southwest: the ancient, often cruel practices of tribal paganism and the modern, self-conscious, expansionist spirit of America. His many missionary journeys back and forth between these worlds seem disconnected, sometimes even pointless. One day, a trader tells him that “he might make good Catholics among the Indians, but he would never separate them from their own beliefs” in pagan spirits that roamed the land and demanded sacrifice. Another day, Protestant Americans in Santa Fe forbid their Catholic servants (more like slaves) from attending Mass, deriding Catholicism as backwards superstition. The soil of the land Latour inhabits is modernity, the individual, democracy; the bedrock is paganism.

In this difficult environment, Latour strives for balance. He is, by dint of his historical place, forced to function as a modern man; he lives on the outskirts of the world’s first thoroughly modern nation and must interact with modern people who are, as Taylor says, “groping for answers about what makes life worth living.” At the same time, he is seeking to set up Catholicism—which, especially following St. Thomas Aquinas, could be described as humanistic—in a land shot through with pagan religions that subjugate individual humans to the capricious demands of bloodthirsty ‘gods.’ He must walk this line while seeking to find the meaning in his own life, to pull together the disparate threads and catch even just a glimpse of the tapestry God is weaving through him. Being a good Catholic, he is not content to wrestle with these tensions abstractly. He is driven to render them into a physical form.

And thus, as his final great act, Latour builds a cathedral. The Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi still stands in Santa Fe. It is a peculiarly European building, constructed in the Romanesque style. The stained glass was imported from France. But the limestone of the walls is from the hills just a few miles south of Santa Fe, and the interior is decorated in a uniquely Southwest style, with statues of saints in native garb.

With the cathedral, Cather’s brilliance as a writer is revealed. Even though the cathedral is the grand achievement of Latour’s vision (“The cathedral is very close to my heart,” he says simply), the novel does not feature its construction at all. It is not there, then it is simply there. Latour discusses its building, locates the materials, dreams of its coming into being, but in the story, no time is spent on the construction. Suddenly, without explanation, he is saying Mass in it. The building of the cathedral, which for Latour is what gives his life and his mission in the Southwest meaning, simply happens.

This narrative choice on Cather’s part indicates her own deep convictions about the source of meaning for our lives. Though she herself was Protestant, she clearly has much sympathy for Catholicism and Catholic ways of thinking, for as Latour’s life draws to a close, the meaning inherent in it becomes clear. It did not need to be groped for or wrested into existence; it was only biding its time to be revealed. Though at the end (not a spoiler, considering the title) death does indeed come to the Archbishop, he leaves behind him a full and beautiful life, one truly well lived, represented by the cathedral he built.

Cather’s decisions as an artist in Death Comes for the Archbishop  make the novel into a powerful testimony of how to live as a Catholic in a modern world. She does not deny that our lives may feel scattered, pulled to bits by the different forces dragging on us from different directions. Neither does she deny the legitimacy of modern man’s desire to find in his life a meaning unique to himself as an individual. But she does not become enamored of the modern myth of the self. For Latour, his life has meaning because of his association with the Church, and his faithfulness in living out his role with it. For the Church is neither pre-modern nor post-modern; it is supra-modern. It exists beyond shifting temporal understandings of the self, and it has the capacity to sublimate every era’s longings and questions into eternal truths. The lesson for Catholics striving to live faithfully in the modern world is this: live life faithfully within one’s calling, and do not worry about wresting meaning and a sense of self from our time on earth. The meaning will become clear in time, for it has been there all along.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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