“Something we can Hold in our Hands and Love”

It’s been in-service all week, and I’ve loved it.

My new school seems so well-organized to me. I love the young faculty. I love the supportive administration.

The theology teacher was giving the new faculty a talk on the history of our school. It was beautiful. He talked a lot about Joseph P. Machebeuf, the first bishop of Denver and our school’s patron.

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Bishop Joseph P. Machebeuf. Source: machebeuf.org

“So these two young priests from France wanted to be missionaries. Without their parents’ knowledge, they crossed the Atlantic and came to Ohio. From there, Lamy was sent to be the new bishop of Sante Fe, and his friend Joseph Machebeuf went with him.”

As I listened, I realized that this story sounded very familiar.

“Lamy struggled with the church already in the area. Many of the priests had taken wives and felt very disconnected from the universal Church’s teaching. Machebeuf, years later, would encounter similar struggles in the Colorado territory. While crossing the Rocky Mountains he was thrown from his carriage and suffered an injury that made him lame for the rest of his life.

“He became the first bishop of Denver, and built the first churches and schools here. He also built St. Joseph’s hospital.”

I couldn’t believe it, I thought. I already know this story.

It’s Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop.

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source: goodreads.com

This is the very the novel I spent my last semester of college studying for my senior thesis in English. I spent hours and hours pouring over this novel, writing about this novel, thinking about this novel.

Simple, sparse, and beautiful, I remember wondering at first if I should have chosen a more challenging work… but by the end of the semester had so fallen in love with it that it’s simplicity was one of the very things I addressed in my thesis.

ImageMy thesis, actually, was about storytelling and miracles in the novel. Latour (based on the historical Lamy) and Vaillant (based on the historical Machebeuf) are close friends who have two very different ideas about miracles. The intellectual Latour describes them this way:

Where there is great love, there are always miracles…. [They] seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.  (Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop 50)

So beautiful.

And yet, his friend Joseph Vaillant sees miracles very differently:

The miracle is something we can hold in our hands and love. (Ibid)

He has a much simpler faith. Notice that Father Joseph Vaillant doesn’t locate miracles in our perspective, in our ability to see “what is there about us always,” but rather in the specific interventions of God into our world. Miracles, for him, are so real that we can actually hold them in our hands.

This is Willa Cather’s description of Joseph P. Machebeuf, the patron of my new school.

So, believe or not, I am rather a skeptical person. And being what Flannery O’Connor calls a “big intellectual,” I struggle a lot with trusting in God’s particular intervention and interest in my own life… rather like Latour does in the novel.

But as that theology teacher went on to describe the real Bishop Joseph Machebeuf, I had the strange sensation that perhaps grace had led me here to Denver more intentionally than I had at first thought.

I told this to my best friend Teresa, who also went to UD and understands the gravity of one’s “Senior Novel” experience. She is very confident that I’m not just making up this connection, that it is real, that Providence is at work. She’s usually right about these things.

Well, school starts on Monday. I’m really excited, and really nervous. I miss my kids in Louisiana a lot. I hope I can love my new students just as much. Hopefully Joseph Machebeuf will be looking out for me.

By the way, if you haven’t yet, you should go read Death Comes for the Archbishop.

My Mouth is Dry

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source: acg.org

I have moved to Denver!

I am sitting in my new classroom, imagining the faces that will occupy the empty desks, the colors I will use to mitigate the overwhelming whiteness of the walls, the procedures I intend to begin practicing with them on day one…

…and my mouth is dry.

It will probably feel a whole lot dryer on the first day when I have to speak to my new students (whom, I hear, have been informed that I am a very hard-core scary teacher by my ACE predecessor).

Or the first time a student doesn’t follow directions, and I have to administer a consequence.

Or that first parent phone-call I make… even though I plan on the first one being very positive–a reaching out and introducing myself to all the parents before they know what hit ’em .

Or that first summer reading assignment I hand back… their first taste of my high expectations.

But right now, sitting here, typing and imagining and predicting, my mouth is dry.

They tell you when you move to Denver, you should drink a lot of water. Something about the high altitude and the climate makes dehydration pretty common, especially for newcomers. So I’ve been carrying a water bottle everywhere I go.

And my mouth is still dry.

When I was in Louisiana, sometimes I felt like I couldn’t breathe because of all the moisture in the air. Every time it rained, the water flooded the streets because it had nowhere to go — I guess the ground was saturated already.

Richard Wilbur’s beautiful poem, “Grasse: The Olive Trees,” was floating in my waterlogged thoughts all the time these past two years:

Here luxury’s the common lot. The light

Lies on the rain-pocked rocks like yellow wool

And around the rocks the soil is rusty bright

From too much wealth of water, so that the grass

Mashes under the foot, and all is full

Of heat and juice and a heavy jammed excess.

If that ain’t Louisiana, I don’t know what is.

Funny, because Wilbur is from Massachusetts like me, and lives a couple of hours away from where I grew up. Apparently the South made a big impression on him though (as it has with me). Look at how beautifully he describes the stillness, brought about by the thick heat. I was warned that people in the South walk more slowly, and talk more slowly. Sometimes, during my first year teaching, my kids would ask me to slow down. And it makes perfect sense that they think we rush around so quickly:

Whatever moves moves with the slow complete
Gestures of statuary. Flower smells
Are set in the golden day, and shelled in heat,
Pine and columnar cypress stand. The palm
Sinks its combs in the sky. The whole South swells
To a soft rigor, a rich and crowded calm.

And then, to my Northern delight, Wilbur notices something that protests the South, and all it’s sticky hot sweetness. And, to my even greater delight, it’s an olive tree — evoking images of that golden time I spent in Italy during college, biblical images, this whole idea of thirst….

Only the olive contradicts. My eye,
Traveling slopes of rust and green, arrests
And rests from plenitude where olives lie
Like clouds of doubt against the earth’s array.
Their faint disheveled foliage divests
The sunlight of its color and its sway.

Take a look at this olive tree, and then reread that stanza again:

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source: israeltours.wordpress.com

Yup. It “contradicts” the landscape, the richness, the “excess.” The olive tree is still thirsty, for all of that water and warm sunshine.

But then this, as well:

Not that the olive spurns the sun; its leaves
Scatter and point to every part of the sky,
Like famished fingers waving. Brilliance weaves
And sombers down among them, and among
The anxious silver branches, down to the dry
And tsisted tgrunk, by rooted hunger wrung.

And then he ends his poem, in this incomparably beautiful way, gently evoking images that make you thirsty too, but perhaps for something else:

Even when seen from near, the olive shows
A hue of far away. Perhaps for this
The dove brought olive back, a tree which grows
Unearthly pale, which ever dims and dries,
And whose great thirst, exceeding all excess,
Teaches the South it is not paradise.

And you think of Noah in that sea of water, after that great excess of the great flood, searching the horizon for the little dove he had sent away. And eventually the dove comes back… bearing an olive branch, and the hope of dry land. (Genesis 8:11)

The South indeed “is not paradise,” but neither is Colorado, as beautiful as it is. I can’t really imagine two places more different from one another than Colorado and Louisiana, but here they are, juxtaposed, and here am I in the middle of them, missing the humidity but loving the clearer air.

And my mouth is dry, it seems no matter how much water I drink.

Or, I guess, no matter where I go.

Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” (John 4:13-15)