Book 3 Chapter 2
Summary: Latour and Jacinto leave Isleta, continuing their long journey through the desert, eventually arriving at the village of Leguna. Instead of sleeping in the church’s sacristy, Latour and Jacinto make camp outdoors. They discuss the nature of the stars before sleeping.
Analysis: Although some might view the decoration of the church at Leguna as an unfortunate example of syncretism (the heterogeneous merging of disparate elements, particularly in religion)—“about the altar [were painted] gods of wind and rain and thunder, sun and moon” (p. 89)—in the context of Cather’s novel it may instead represent that necessary “acculturation,” even “incarnation,” of the Catholic religion to the New Mexican setting. Latour has already expressed a certain level of comfort with “syncretism” in discussing the Moorish-made bell that rings the Angelus in Santa Fe (I.4); he likely approves also of the fusion of Catholic and native religious symbolism about the Laguna altar. Furthermore, the decoration of the altar represents that continuity with the past that is proving to be an important concern of the book: “Whether this decoration had been done by Spanish missionaries or by Indian converts, [Latour] was unable to find out” (p. 89). In other words, the altar has been decorated this way for some time. It stands as a testimony to the successful rooting and grounding of the Catholic faith in the village, as well as to the ways in which the spiritual expressions that preceded it have enriched, have literally “ornamented,” the imported faith.
Latour’s decision “to sleep on the rock dunes, under the junipers” (p. 90) instead of in the church sacristy (the room in which ecclesiastical vessels and vestments are stored, and in which priests can prepare for the celebration of the Mass and other sacraments) speaks well of the new Bishop, and highlights his growing connection to the wild environment in which he finds himself. His increasing sense of being “at home” in the New World mirrors the way in which the faith he professes flourishes when it, too, adapts to its new surroundings. Similarly, readers get a sense of Latour’s adaptability to the New World as the Bishop reflects: “There was no way in which he could transfer his own memories of European civilization into the Indian mind, and he was quite willing to believe that behind Jacinto there was a long tradition, a story of experience, which no language could translate to him” (p. 92). That important passage reveals Latour’s understanding of and respect for (and no begrudging respect, either) the essential difference between the Old World and the New. Latour can successfully navigate them both because he honors each for what it is, and does not attempt to impose one upon the other. We see him exercising this dynamic again a bit later in his conversation with Jacinto, as they offer differing view on the nature of stars—Latour’s, an understanding informed by the “wise men” (p. 92) of science; Jacinto’s, an understanding bequeathed him by his people’s mythology. “Whatver they are, they are great” (p. 93). Latour can find common ground between the two worlds, and embodies this commonality within himself.
The chapter ends with Jacinto’s thoughts, praising the Bishop for just this authenticity: “In [Jacinto’s] experience, white people, when they addressed Indians, always put on a false face… The Bishop put on none at all” (pp. 93-94). The Bishop—once more, true to his calling as a representative of Christ—is “truly human” (to borrow the creedal formulation). “Jacinto thought this remarkable” (p. 94)—another “miracle” of love.