Book 8 Chapter 3
3. Auspice Maria!
Summary: Once the wagon Father Vaillant will need for his travels to Colorado has been made ready, he departs—following a revelatory conversation with Bishop Latour, in which, for the first time, Vaillant realizes how much his impending departure is affecting his superior and his friend. Latour also urges Vaillant to take both of the mules Manuel Lujon gave them so long ago, Contento and Angelica, with him, seeing as how they—like their riders—have for so long labored together. Once Father Vaillant leaves, Latour takes solace in devotion to the Virgin Mary.
As the years pass, and Vaillant follows his missionary passion among the Colorado gold miners, he occasionally returns to Santa Fe, but never for very long. On one visit, he returns seeking money and donations for the mission work in Colorado. He and Latour discuss the degree to which they have fulfilled the dreams of their youth. They bless and embrace each other one last time.
Analysis: Book VIII of Cather’s novel concludes with quite a poignant chapter. One of the most arresting moments occurs when Bishop Latour—the man established so early on in the novel (I.4, p. 50) as being predisposed to spotting commonplace miracles where others do not—confesses to Vaillant, on the eve of the latter’s departure for Colorado, “Miracles are all very well, Joseph, but I see none here” (p. 251). It is a stark instance of raw human emotion, glimpsed in conflict with deep faith. This “final break” (p. 250) between these two life-long partners in ministry and close friends seems to be a test of faith for Latour. Where Vaillant—excited, as is his wont, about the prospect of his new missionary adventure—sees the guiding hand of Providence (“Heaven knew what was happening in Cherry Creek, and moved us like chessmen on the board. When the call came, I was here to answer it—by a miracle indeed,” p. 250), Latour sees only his own “personal” and “selfish” motivations in recalling Vaillant (p. 251). His theology is being influenced by his own personal emotional state—“the loneliness of his position” (p. 251)—even as Vaillant’s theology is being influenced by his own emotional state. The dynamic is fascinating to observe, as is Cather’s emphasis upon Vaillant’s ultimate position. When reflecting upon why and how Latour—a socially aloof intellectual, in many ways—ended up as the first bishop of a rugged and wild frontier, Vaillant can only, and piously, conclude, “God had his reasons… perhaps, after all, something would remain through the years to come; some ideal, or memory, or legend” (p. 252). This statement is not only a further affirmation of providence; at the meta-textual level, readers may interpret Cather’s novel itself (inspired as it is by historical events) as the thing that will remain from Latour’s labors, no less surely than the cathedral he aspires to build. Cather’s novel, in effect, becomes a fruit of divine providence, for it does indeed convey “ideals” and “legends” regarding Bishop Latour, lessons for and parables of the importance of love and connection with others in the service of God: “It was just this solitariness of love in which a priest’s life could be like his Master’s” (p. 254)—a clear affirmation of the theme we have traced throughout the text, the necessity of Jesus’ representatives to be like Jesus.
The chapter title, “Auspice Maria,” is Latin for “under the protection of Mary.” This chapter shows us that Latour, no less than Vaillant, harbors fervent Marian devotion, although he expresses it differently than his comrade. Where Vaillant, as we have seen (VII.1), seeks to express his dedication to the Blessed Virgin in a life of activity, Latour experiences devotion to Mary in solitary reflection and contemplation—that “solitariness of love” referenced earlier (p. 254). The chapter’s numerous references to the wooden statues of Mary carved by the Mexicans, and the ways in which they adorn them, indicate that the people among whom Latour ministers, too, are “auspice Maria.” (Readers may well recall the nighttime encounter with Sada in VII.2, where she and Latour shared a devotional connection to Mary.) Beyond the confines of Catholic theology, however, Mary also serves in this chapter as an image of that “catholic” (i.e., universal) spirituality that Latour has cultivated within himself in the New World—or, perhaps, that the New World has cultivated in him? Mary is, we are told, a “presence” (p. 253) who was on earth “in the long twilight between the Fall and the Redemption”—i.e., between the sin of Adam and Eve and the saving work of Christ—and “pagan sculptors were always trying to achieve the image of a goddess who should yet be a woman” (p. 255). Mary here represents the sacred feminine, common in so many religious traditions. She provides a point of contact between spiritual traditions. She unites what seems too diverse to be united. She is thus a symbol of the common spiritual yearnings of humanity, and reinforces the value Cather’s novel places upon connection across self-imposed barriers of doctrine and creed: remaining true to one’s own faith, while simultaneously reverencing the faiths found within others.