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I’ve been reading Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop , struck by the austere beauty of the landscape she paints:

In all his travels, the Bishop had seen no country like this. From the flat red sea of sand rose great rock mesas, generally Gothic in outline, resembling vast cathedrals. They were not crowded together in disorder, but placed in wide spaces, long vistas between . . . . The sandy soil of the plain had a light sprinkling of junipers, and was splotched with masses of blooming rabbit brush—that olive-colored plant that grows in high waves like a tossing sea, at this season covered with a thatch of bloom, yellow as gorse, or orange like marigolds.

This mesa plain had an appearance of great antiquity, and of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into a mountain plain, plateau. The county was still waiting to be made into a landscape.

Silent and barren, craggy and unknown—almost uncreated in its solitary expanse. Not unlike the human heart. But, as Bishop Latour will come to realize, the land is set alive with the occasional dogged spring, and aglitter with the burning sun. The desert, also, has its blooms.

Then, after a decade of working in the New Mexico mission, the bishop is parted from his longtime friend and faithful vicar, who sets off for Colorado on a mission of his own:

Father Joseph drew rein and looked back at the town lying rosy in the morning light, the mountain behind it, and the hills close about it like two encircling arms. ” Auspice, Maria! ” he murmured as he turned his back on these familiar things.

The Bishop rode home to his solitude. He was forty-seven years old, and he had been a missionary in the New World for twenty years—ten of them in New Mexico. If he were a parish priest at home, there would be nephews coming to him for help in their Latin or a bit of pocket-money; nieces to run into his garden and bring their sewing and keep an eye on his housekeeping. All the way home he indulged in such reflections as any bachelor nearing fifty might have.

But when he entered his study, he seemed to come back to reality, to the sense of a Presence awaiting him. The curtain of the arched doorway had scarcely fallen behind him when that feeling of personal loneliness was gone, and a sense of loss was replaced by a sense of restoration. He sat down before his desk, deep in reflection. It was this solitariness of love in which a priest’s life could be like his Master’s. It was not a solitude of atrophy, of negation, but of perpetual flowering.

The desert, also, has its blooms.



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