“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.

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.

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.