Reflections: Death Comes for the Archbishop

Few novels manage to maintain the meditative rhythm throughout that Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop does. Bishop Jean Latour and his longtime companion and spiritual helpmeet Father Joseph Vaillant traverse the New Mexican territory in the wake of the Mexican war (1848) and, eventually, the Gadsden Purchase (1853). Latour and  Vaillant commit their lives to serving a long neglected Catholic flock, dispersed as it is across hundreds of miles of desert.

Although we know from the beginning that death will come for the archbishop, this knowledge only provokes us to see more clearly how the potentially mortal harshness of the conditions that the inhabitants of the desert face give rise to a specific kind of life force. Each section of the book focuses on a different brand of spiritual purity, and each lingers over the amazing natural beauty in which it thrives. We see: the loyalty of an Indian guide who will put at risk a tribal secret to save the life of Latour in the midst of a snow storm; the devotion of an old slave who takes advantage of being ousted from a warm house in the clear night of a bitter cold snap to worship at the altar of Mary; the struggle the holy man daily faces between his religious duties and his personal affections made easy under the cleansing solitude produced by desert sand storms; and the power that the light of a sunset cast on the stone of a cathedral can have to revive the spirits of a dying man.

Underneath the reflections on purity, fervor, commitment, and man's place in nature hums a slender but satisfying tale of the sustaining friendship between two men who have left behind their families and country in order to fulfill a mission in which they believe.

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