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Merrimack College JO H N J. M U R P H Y Willa Cather and Catholic Themes There are two conflicting strains woven through Willa Cather’s fic­ tion: one leads toward and the other away from home and family. Her late story “The Best Years” pulls toward home. The young schoolteacher Lesley Ferguesson savors “the feeling of being at home. It went all through her . . . like getting into a warm bath when one is tired. She was safe from everything, was where she wanted to be, where she ought to be.”1 In the early story “Paul’s Case,” a water image is again used, but this time asso­ ciated with a home context that imprisons and drowns: Cordelia Street is “worse than jail, even; [its] tepid waters . . . were to close over him finally and forever.”2 Art and culture, the great world beyond, attracted Paul, who in his romantic fantasies wanted to “float on the wave . . . , to be carried out, blue league after blue league, away from everything” (162). In varying degrees, several Cather characters try to cscapc drowning in family and small town waters. These include Thea Kronborg in The Song of the Lark, Lucy Gayhcart, Jim Burden in My Antonia, and Claude Wheeler in One of Ours. Others arc sustained by the home place, like Antonia Shimerda, Anton Rosicky in “Neighbour Rosicky,” Alex­ andra Bergson in O Pioneers! and Cecilc Auclair in Shadows on the Rock. Still others, like Godfrey St. Peter in The Professor’s House and Myra Hcnshawe in My Mortal Enemy arc poised between, established in the great world but in need of domestic security and alienated from their roots. *This essay is based on the main address given at the Willa Cather Spring Con­ ference, Red Cloud, Nebraska, 5 May 1979. 1Five Stories (New York: Random House Vintage Books, 1956), p. 124. 2Five Stories, p. 171. 54 Western American Literature Godfrey's story and Myra's story immediately precede Death Comes for the Archbishop, where this tension between the world and home disappears. In the midst of a personal crisis involving disillusionment with his family, society, the times, and himself, Godfrey St. Peter tells his students, “Art and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had,” and also that the cathedral-buildcrs “might, without sacrilege, have changcd the [Lord’s] prayer a little and said, Thy will be done in art, as it is in heaven.”* St. Peter makes a valid point about religion, but he restricts it to imagina­ tive satisfaction, to our happiness in surrounding “our creature needs and bodily instincts with as much pomp and circumstance as possible.” Myra’s story is more telling becausc, having abandoned her midwestcrn Catholic origins for a glamorous husband and a romantic New York life, when the world fails her, she abandons her idolatries and makes amends to her forebears by returning to the Church, “like one of the great sinners . . . coming home to die in some religious house. . . .”4 Although the religious theme seems somewhat ambivalent in this drama of suffering, love, and hate, Cather explores mysteries beyond the realm of art. Myra keeps an ebony crucifix with an ivory corpus near her sickbcd and calls out one night, “Ah Father Fay. . . . Religion is different from everything else; because in religion seeking is finding” (94). Archbishop Jean Marie Latour was conceived by Cather after Myra makes her peace with God, and in Latour there is little conflict between domestic satisfaction and the world, between salvation and the Medusa of art. The Archbishop com­ bines rather than divides the worlJ and the home and is, at once, father, uncle, husbandman, cook, builder, scholar and teachcr, artist and his­ torian. That Latour could sustain such diverse roles indicates Gather’s understanding of the Catholic ideal of the priest. According to Catholic belief, Christ shares his priesthood with men through the sacrament of Holy Orders, giving them the power to change bread and wine into His body and blood, and the power to forgive sins. Ideally, then, having these powers, the priest becomes another Christ, which the opening of Arch­ bishop clearly...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 53-60
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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