Looking Vaguely into the West

[Originally posted on FB, October 19th.]

In honor of the North American Martyrs, here's a passage from Willa Cather's follow-up to "Death Comes for the Archbishop," her other novel on the Catholic genealogy of North America, an elegiac gem, "Shadows on the Rock," about Quebec at the end of the seventeenth century.

Twelve-year-old Cécile, the focus of the book, looks after a sweet, fatherless boy half her age, Jacques. Towards the end of the novel they are sitting at the top of Cap Diamant, watching the sunset:

"They sat down in the blue twilight to eat their bread and await the turbid afterglow which is peculiar to Quebec in autumn; the slow, rich, prolonged flowing-back of crimson across the sky, after the sun has sunk behind the dark ridges of the west. Because of the haze in the air the color seems thick, like a heavy liquid, welling up wave after wave, a substance that throbs, rather than a light.

"That crimson flow, that effulgence at the solemn twilight hour, often made Cécile think about the early times and the martyrs--coming up, as it did, out of those dark forests that had been the scene of their labors and their fate. The rainbow, she knew, was set in the heavens to remind us of a promise that all storms shall have an ending. Perhaps this afterglow, too, was ordained in the heavens for a reminder. 

"'Jacques,' she said presently, 'do you ever think about the martyrs? You ought to, because they were so brave.'

"'I don't like to think about them. It makes me feel bad,' he murmured. He was sitting with his hands on his knees, looking vaguely into the west.

"Cécile squeezed his arm. 'Oh, it doesn't me! It makes me feel happy, as if I could never be afraid of anything again.'"

Unfathered, like Jacques, we look vaguely into the west, into the crimson flow, and don't know what to do about the future, about suffering, about the direction of our ardor. 

The subtitle of Cormac McCarthy's monumental "Blood Meridian" is "The Evening Redness in the West." At the end of the seemingly manifest destiny of our lives, of our civilization, what do we find? What do we see in the blood of history? Something to make us flinch, or something to make us hope? 

The North American Martyrs belong to the DNA of this New World, and it can still be a brave new world for all, in the self-sacrifice of crucified love.

We celebrate another saint today, Paul of the Cross. He speaks of the complication of joys and pangs. This is the very patience of God, the seedbed of all greatness, in this world and in the new world to come: 

"Love is a unifying virtue which takes upon itself the torments of its beloved Lord. It is a fire reaching through to the inmost soul. It transforms the lover into the one loved. More deeply, love intermingles with grief, and grief with love, and a certain blending of love and grief occurs. They become so united that we can no longer distinguish love from grief nor grief from love. Thus the loving heart rejoices in its sorrow and exults in its grieving love. 

"Therefore, be constant in practicing every virtue, and especially in imitating the patience of our dear Jesus, for this is the summit of pure love."