Willa Cather’s bishop on miracles, vision and love

Sep 2, 2014 by

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Here is a stunning passage from Willa Cather’s novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop:

“Where there is great love there are always miracles,” [the bishop] said at length. “One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices of healing power coming suddenly from far off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.

death-comes-for-the-archbishopI was in dire need of a novel this summer and picked up this book at a great independent bookstore in downtown Chicago when my family was vacationing there last month. The book turned out to be worth its weight in gold. I had previously read Cather’s My Antonia in my undergrad, and my professor for that class was a Cather scholar; so I knew I was in for goodness going into it.

And that passage above speaks to me on a number of levels.

The last sentence — “what is there about us always” — so often Christians pray for God’s presence in our midst. As if there is a place or time where God isn’t! So our prayers really shouldn’t be about asking God to show up. God is always present; but are we present? Usually not. That’s why we need to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).

“I do not see you as you really are . . . I see you through my affection for you.” Love is more than an emotion; it is a life-encompassing way of seeing and being in the world. The bishop here is talking to his friend and priest within his parish, Father Joseph. The two have a long history together going back to seminary in Europe and eventually making it to the recently-annexed territory of New Mexico in the mid-19th century (the overall setting of the story). So there is a fraternal love that is deeply at work, but it goes deeper.

” . . . human vision corrected by divine love” — Christian love sharpens, even transforms our seeing and being in the world. The sensory metaphors of sight and hearing are thematic throughout Scripture, and they’re usually deployed to critique how we humans, even (especially?) God’s chosen people, don’t have faithful vision or hearing. Indeed, Paul tells us that, “For now we see through a glass, darkly . . . ” (1 Cor. 13:12).

But the miracle of God’s love becoming manifest is that — as the bishop says, echoing the biblical sensory metaphors — “for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear . . . ”

When our seeing, hearing, speaking and interacting amidst our relationships with family, friends, neighbors, and yes even enemies — when all of that looks like Jesus and his love for us (which is how we know what God’s love is), then there are divine miracles happening on this earthly plane. We better be watching, and we better be participating. But such miracles flow from a divine love that corrects our limitations and redirects our intentions.

That is why we need to pray in order to be present to “what is there about us always.”

Brian R. Gumm is a bi-vocational minister in the Church of the Brethren. Based in Toledo, Iowa, Brian works in educational technology for Eastern Mennonite University and is exploring church-planting and community peacebuilding initiatives in his local community. He writes at Restorative Theology, where this blog post originally appeared.


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  • Shirley Hershey Showalter

    I’ve loved this book for many years and for many of the reasons you describe in this essay. Another famous quote from the same book: Where there is great love there are always miracles. Cather takes us deep into the mysteries while also encouraging us to sharpen our senses — participate in direct, practical experience. She pushes down into the earth and reaches for the sky.