I am currently reading Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather. I may write a fuller review when I’ve finished, but the book has already moved me so much that I wanted to say a word or two here.
C.S. Lewis was fond of writing that the beauty and joy that we see here on earth is only beautiful and joyful inasmuch as it is a participation in the joy of Heaven. In other words, we acknowledge something or someone as beautiful, or joyous, or lovable because we are actually experiencing the heavenly, but here and now. In the Last Battle, the protagonists enter Aslan’s Country (Heaven) and discover to their surprise that it is actually Narnia itself– not merely Narnia renewed or restored, but actually Narnia in its real essence. This essence is so real that what they thought was Narnia in the life before was only a shadow, or poor copy, of the real thing.
Of course, the Mass is the ultimate expression of this reality. The Holy Sacrifice really is the Sacrifice of Calvary, yet made present here and now.
Apart from Mass, we see these little glimpses of Heaven often, if we can but perceive them. Yet less frequently we actually experience oases on the journey that really make obvious the joys that the Lord wills for us if we will be faithful to the end. He showers graces on us, and sometimes these graces include the ability to see the graces he showers, if you get my meaning.
For example, my family attended a party last summer that was just such an event– a beautiful setting, gracious hosts, good Catholic friends, fun, food, even fireworks. It struck me forcibly that if this was possible on earth that the communion of Saints in Heaven must be wonderful indeed.
The Oratory is another such example for me– an island of charity, faith, truth, beauty and culture in a secular wasteland.
Reading Death Comes for the Archbishop has been one of these joys, and in fact is almost a chronicle of these types of heavenly glimpses in the life the title character. Though the tale is fictional, the stories related are as true as anything in this life can be.
The book is a series of vignettes of the life and travails of a Catholic missionary Bishop who is sent to New Mexico in the mid-nineteenth century. Nearly every such vignette has moved me greatly. I might post other excerpts later, but for now I’ll start with this one.
In this chapter, a Mexican woman who is the ill-used slave of a local American family turns up at the church in the middle of a freezing winter’s night. Her masters are protestants who are hostile to the Church and who won’t let her go to Mass or receive the sacraments. She has come in the middle of the night hoping to visit the church. The Bishop, who was unable to sleep, arises and finds her there. He gives her his cloak and ushers her into the church:
The church was utterly black except for the red spark of the sanctuary lamp before the high altar. Taking her hand, and holding the candle before him, he led her across the choir to the Lady Chapel. There he began to light the tapers before the Virgin. Old Sada fell on her knees and kissed the floor. She kissed the feet of the Holy Mother, the pedestal on which they stood, crying all the while. But from the working of her face, from the beautiful tremors which passed over it, he knew they were tears of ecstasy.
“Nineteen years, Father; nineteen years since I have seen the holy things of the altar!”
“All that has passed, Sada. You have remembered the holy things in your heart. We will pray together.”
The Bishop knelt beside her, and they began, O Holy Mary, Queen of Virgins….
More than once Father Vaillant had spoken to the Bishop of this aged captive. There had been much whispering among the devout women of the parish about her pitiful case…. Now that they were back in Mexican country, the Smiths were afraid their charwoman might escape from them and find asylum among her own people, so they kept strict watch upon her…. When [some women of the parish] said they had come to ask Sada to go to Mass with them, [Mrs. Smith] told them she had got the poor creature out of the clutches of the priests once, and would see to it that she did not fall into them again….
When they rose from their knees, Father Latour told Sada he was glad to know that she remembered her prayers so well.
“Ah, Padre, every night I say my Rosary to my Holy Mother, no matter where I sleep!” declared the old creature passionately, looking up into his face and pressing her knotted hands against her breast….
He spoke soothingly to her. “Remember this, Sada; in the year to come, and during the Novena before Christmas, I will not forget to pray for you whenever I offer the Blessed Sacrifice of the Mass. Be at rest in your heart, for I will remember you in my silent supplications before the altar as I do my own sisters and my nieces.”
Never, as he afterward told Father Vaillant, had it been permitted him to behold such deep experience of the holy joy of religion as on that pale December night. He was able to feel, kneeling beside her, the preciousness of the things of the altar to her who was without possessions; the tapers, the image of the Virgin, the figures of the saints, the Cross that took away indignity from suffering and made pain and poverty a means of fellowship with Christ. Kneeling beside the much enduring bond-woman, he experienced those holy mysteries as he had done in his young manhood. He seemed able to feel all it meant to her to know that there as a Kind Woman in Heaven, though there were such cruel ones on earth. Old people, who have felt blows and toil and known the world’s hard hand, need, even more than children do, a woman’s tenderness. Only a Woman, divine, could know all that a woman can suffer.
Not often, indeed, had Jean Marie Latour come so near to the Fountain of all Pity as in the Lady Chapel that night; the pity that no man born of woman could ever utterly cut himself off from; that was for the murderer on the scaffold, as it was for the dying soldier or the martyr on the rack. The beautiful concept of Mary pierced the priest’s heart like a sword.
“O Sacred Heart of Mary!” she murmured by his side, and he felt how that name was food and raiment, friend and mother to her. He received the miracle in her heart into his own, saw through her eyes, knew that his poverty was as bleak as hers. When the Kingdom of Heaven had first come into the world, into a cruel world of torture and slaves and masters, He who brought it had said, “And whosoever is least among you, the same shall be first in the Kingdom of Heaven.” This church was Sada’s house, and he was a servant in it.