Death Comes to the Archbishop: Book 1 Chapter 2

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2. Hidden Water

Summary: Latour enjoys the hospitality of a Mexican family in Agua Secreta. They tell him they fear the Americans will take their land from them, as well as corrupt their faith. The next day, Latour celebrates Mass on a homemade altar; almost everyone in the village attends. Latour spends the afternoon meditating by the stream, realizing that the faith spread by Catholic missionaries so long ago has not died, but awaits only the proper nurturing of a shepherd to revive it.
Analysis: The chapter begins by extending the implied comparison of Latour to Jesus by showing the new Bishop enjoying table fellowship with the poor and the humble, a trait of Jesus’ own earthly ministry. (The Mass itself, of course, reflects Jesus’ table fellowship with his disciples, for, according to Catholic doctrine, it is a commemoration and re-presentation of the first Eucharist—thanksgiving sacrifice—in the Upper Room.) The people of Agua Secreta are presented in idyllic, almost idealistic terms: “they told [Latour] the simple story of their lives. They had here all they needed to make them happy” (p. 26). They are presented as child-like innocents, and while the implied comparison may strike some modern readers as paternalistic or condescending, it does not seem that Latour means it to be so. Indeed, he thinks of the smoke from the burning logs on the villagers’ hearths as rising “like incense to Heaen” (p. 31)—a clear scriptural allusion to the prayers of the saints on earth rising to God in the book of Revelation (8:4). Furthermore, the villagers are shown to represent an unbroken chain of continuity with the past. For example, “these people beat out their grain and winnowed it in the wind, like the Children of Israel” (p. 30). They represent not only continuity with the biblical past of the Christian faith, but also continuity with the initial Spanish settlers in the land: Benito, for instance, tells Latour that his grandfather settled in New Mexico “soon after the time when the French killed their king” (p. 26). Indeed, they represent a continuity with ancient humanity itself: “This spot had been a refuge for humanity long before these Mexicans had come upon it” (p. 31). The perceived impending encroachment of American “infidels” (i.e., Protestants; p. 27), no less than the “tyranny” of the old priest Father Martinez back in Santa Fe (p 32), are threats to this continuity, threats against which Latour seems determined—gently, but firmly—to defend his new flock (“This settlement was his Bishopric in miniature,” p. 32).
Furthermore, the villagers have continuity with the ancient Catholic faith, as Latour recognizes: “The Faith planted by the Spanish friars and watered with their blood was not dead; it awaited only the toil of the husbandman” (p. 32). On the other hand, while the villagers’ faith is continuous with what has come before, it is also discontinuous in that it has become indigenous. The doctrines and practices of the Church have, by necessity, become acculturated to the New Mexican setting. While Latour realizes that this process is not a new development within Christianity—“It was older than history, like those well-heads in his own country where the Roman settlers had set up the image of a river goddess, and later the Christian priests had planted a cross” (pp. 31-32)—it nonetheless seems to strike him as something of a surprise. We see this reaction in Latour’s conversation with Benito’s grandson about the small, carved, wooden statue of “Santiago,” or Saint Joseph, adoptive father of Jesus. Joseph wears “the costume of a Mexican ranchero” (p. 28), and, unlike in Europe, in New Mexico he is the patron saint of horses and those who ride them (pp. 28-29). Although the local religious iconography is different, then, it is still pleasing to Latour: the folk statues “are much more to his taste than the factory-made plaster images in his mission churches in Ohio—more like the homely stone carvings on the front of old parish churches in Auvergne” (p. 28). Like those homely stone carvings in Europe, these homely wooden carvings in New Mexico offer physical testimony that faith has taken hold in the peoples’ hearts. It is not foreign; it has become natural, able to find expression in culturally appropriate forms. And it is this successful implantation and survival of faith, as well as the fact that he has been received so hospitably in the village, that Latour regards as “a miracle” (p. 29).

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