I have been reading Death Comes to the Archbishop. It is balm for the soul after the other stuff I have been reading: the endless tales of clerical crimes, and the horrors visited by the anticlerical Republicans upon the often innocent priests of Spain. Willa Cather traduces Father Martinez, and is somewhat condescending to the Indians and the Hispanics, but she loved New Mexico and is sympathetic to French Catholicism. My wife informs me that Cather taught my wife’s grandfather (Pittsburg High School, Class of 06). Cather wore mannish tweeds and sat on the edge of the desk – very daring.
Toward the end of the book Cather recounts a story told about Junipero Serra, the missionary to California. He and a companion had set off across the desert with only one day’s provisions. On the second day they came to three cottonwood trees and an adobe house with a Mexican family: a father, mother, and small child who had a pet lamb. The family welcomes and fed them; Serra wanted to question them how they fed their flock, but he was exhausted and fell asleep. In the morning the family was gone, Serra assumed to tend their flocks, but a breakfast was laid for the Franciscans.
When Junipero reached his goal those who welcomed him couldn’t believe he had survived the desert. Sierra told them that the Mexican family by the three cottonwood trees had saved them. They knew the three cottonwood trees, but there was no Mexican family there, his hosts insisted. They travelled back to the site: there were the trees, but no house.
When he bade his hosts good-night, he did indeed stoop over the little boy in blessing’ and the child had lifted his hand, and with his tiny finger made the cross upon Father Junipero’s forehead.
For They had returned
to play Their first parts, in the persons of a humble Mexican family, the lowliest of the lowly, the poorest of the poor,– in a wilderness at the end of the world, where angels could scarcely find them.
Years ago, a friend of mine was a law student living in Turkey Thicket in northeast Washington, D. C. When I was visiting him, someone came to the door. He answered it and spoke for a few minutes to a woman, and then came back in with some potholders which the woman was selling. He explained to me that his Croatian grandmother had told him that Jesus and Mary often wander the earth in the guise of a poor person to test our hearts. One never knew whether the poor person who asked for help was the Son or God or the Queen of Heaven – and did it matter?
In the novel, Latour, as he lay dying in his study in Santa Fe, reviews his life. All his past life becomes contemporaneous with him. When I was walking the Camino de Santiago, I wasn’t sure what I should be doing. I found myself reviewing my past life, all the people I had known, from my playmates when I was three years old up to the present.
One person I had worked with was Norm Rebhorn – he was my second level supervisor when I was a federal investigator. I came into investigations under unusual circumstances, and he gave me a break and confidence. He worked out of Philadelphia. He told us that he was often approached by beggars. One guy said he needed money for lunch. Norm said, sure, I was just going to have lunch too. Let me take you to McDonald’s. He guy sat with Norm, grumbling through his cheeseburger. Another time a beggar approached Norm and asked for money. Norm asked him what he wanted it for and the beggar said he needed a drink. Norm gave him the money, saying that he understood perfectly, every now and then a guy needed a drink.
I read John Chrysostom when I wake up at 3 AM from my nightmares induced by reading about sexual abuse. Chrysostom is the Father of Almsgiving. He told his flock in Antioch and Constantinople that they were too harsh in cross-examining poor men who asked for help. Does God cross-examine us when we ask for His help? I would be at a loss to answer His questions – but fortunately He gives when we ask and even when we don’t ask, when perhaps someone asks for us.
When I walked the Camino, I met some people who were begging their way along it. One was a young woman outside the church in Pamplona. I gave her some money, and I thought I should accompany it with a fatherly lecture that this is not a good idea for a young woman to do, but my Spanish is weak, and I thought I could be misinterpreted, so I let it go.
Spain is full of unemployed young men (45% unemployment of those under 30) and some were begging their way along the Camino. I gave a euro or two to them. Once as I entered a town I rested, and the young peregrino asked for 5 euros to pay for a bed at the refugio tonight. I gave him 10, and asked him to say a prayer for me when he got to Compostela. Probably just another young Spaniard down on his luck, but who knows? And does it matter?