Divine Art: “Something we can hold in our hands and love”

The story of Our Lady of Guadalupe features prominently in the beginning of Willa Cather’s sparse and beautiful novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, a story based on the lives and friendship of two French Catholic missionary priests in the southwest. Today is the feast day of Saint Juan Diego, so it seems like a good time to return to a fascinating scene and discussion in the novel that explores the miracle he experienced.

Father Latour, later the “archbishop” of the novel’s title, is a fictionalized version of Bishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy and, like his historical counterpart, is contemplative and intellectual. He and his more emotive friend Father Joseph Vaillant (who is based on Joseph Machebeuf, eventually the first bishop of Denver) have an interesting conversation in the opening part of the book. Both of them have just listened to a young priest retelling the story of the miracle of Juan Diego’s tilma and the roses. Both friends are deeply moved when they hear of how Our Lady converted millions to Christianity in the matter of a few years, as they, too, are in mission territory in the vast expanses of the new archdiocese of Santa Fe.

Latour later observes to his friend, reflecting on Juan Diego’s experience of the apparition and the image on his cloak,

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. (50)

It is a beautiful and thought-provoking interpretation. Indeed, Cather ends first part of the novel with his words, as if to emphasize that everything else that comes afterward in the novel should be considered in these terms. Latour’s description suggests something of the miraculousness of the every day– if we could only see and hear “what is there about us always”. It makes me think of a favorite epigram of Emily Dickinson: “Not revelation–tis–that waits / But our unfurnished eyes.”

And yet… there is something distinctly modern in Latour’s interpretation of miracles too, as if they are more a matter of adjusting one’s internal, subjective perspective than bumping into something unexplainable in external, objective reality. His words are particularly strange when you consider the story itself; what is the miracle of Our Lady’s appearance to Juan Diego if not an instance of “faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off”?

Taken too far, Latour’s characterization of miracles might move us toward Thomas Jefferson’s famous rather ribboned version of the bible.

But setting aside for the moment its possible problematic theological implications, I think his description is an important interpretive key to the novel. There’s another way Cather might be inviting us to conceive of Latour’s words here, especially when you consider them alongside his friend Father Vaillant’s very different description of the event.

Vaillant, moved almost to tears by the story, says fervently, “The miracle is something we can hold in our hands and love” (50).

In my senior thesis in college, in which I focused a lot on this scene, I summarized the differences in the two friends’ descriptions of miracles this way:

The bishop locates miracles as occurring within interior human perception, whereas Father Joseph locates them as occurring in nature, in the external world. Father Latour seems to define miracles as a process—of refinement, clarification or sharpening; but Father Joseph seems to define miracles almost as objects: indeed, they seem rather unsettlingly personal and tangible—they can be touched, even held “in our hands.” Miracles, for Father Joseph, are interventions into nature. But Father Latour distances his definition from the idea of divine intrusion, of “faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off,” and places it instead within the context of corrected human perception. And of course, one cannot hold that in one’s hands!

Or can one?

Now, I think there is a way in which these views might be harmonized–or at least brought much closer together. What if we considered them as different descriptions not just of miracles, but of art?

I mean, one could argue that miracles themselves are a kind of special divine art. All of nature is divine art, of course, but when God intervenes in nature He’s making a rather unique statement. So maybe there is a kind of analogous connection there.

But I think there is also textual justification for looking at these two definitions as descriptions of art. The conversation between Latour and Vaillant occurs in the context of the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and that story’s miracle explicitly involves a work of art: the image on Juan Diego’s tilma, which we are told looks “exactly as She had appeared to him on the hillside” (49). The mantle, especially in its strange properties and marvelous preservation over hundreds of years, becomes a kind of “miraculous portrait” that we can “hold in our hands and love.”

Maybe in this scene, Cather is suggesting that art (literature in particular?) can achieve two things: it “refines” the reader’s interior perceptions, our ability to see the world as it truly is, and it offers us a kind of tangible object of wonder and beauty to hold and to treasure. The first description concerns what art does for us, the second more what art is in itself.

Why does any of this matter?

I think these two “roles” of art are often in tension with one another. They are like two poles that pull the artist in different directions. On the one hand, art should be about “refining perceptions”—that is, correcting our vision, or even challenging our assumptions about what art is and can be. I think (in my very inexperienced opinion) that a lot of modern art (and literature) likes to push boundaries for this very reason. Contemporary art is very much about changing the way we see things, perhaps especially art itself.

On the other hand, art should also be about creating “something we can hold in our hands and love”— that is, something grasp-able, accessible, that moves us with its beauty. This kind of art is more content with being something beautiful than with engaging in mind- and category-bending acrobatics.

I think my favorite examples of art, both literary and visual, do both of these things, but I think I am drawn much more to the Father Vaillant side. Theologically, I’m also more drawn to his view of miracles. They are real, they are out there, they aren’t just in my head, they happen.

But as Father Latour points out, we do need the “eyes and the ears” to perceive them, and this takes the healing of our perceptions. “Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear” (Mk 4:9).

“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” (Luke 10:23-24)

San Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin by Raul Beroza