Making the Desert Bloom

If America and the West are to not merely survive, but are to recover from our self-induced decadence, it will require many radical changes. To begin with, we have to get over the childish attitude towards our past as nothing but a series of outrages – against women, races, cultures, homosexuals, and whatever other faddish victim groups we allow to blind us to our quite varied and interesting human inheritance. We’ve been turning a (somewhat wild) garden into a desert, and need to find the wisdom to restore that garden to what it might be again.

I’ve recently been working on a sequel to A Deeper Vision, my long (perhaps too long – but the richness of the subject required it) treatment of modern Catholic thought and practice. The new book will focus on our American Catholic tradition, equally rich and varied, even more than I realized earlier.

For example, I’ve just been reading and re-reading the utterly stunning work of Paul Horgan (1903- 1995) – Catholic, novelist, and historian who won two Pulitzer Prizes, though hardly anyone remembers him today. The first came in 1955 for The Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History (also awarded the Bancroft Prize); the second, in 1976 for Lamy of Santa Fe, a luminous biography of the great bishop who had an immense influence on the Southwest and in many ways the whole country.

To say that every page Horgan writes resonates with life sounds like a literary cliché. But it’s the truth. Horgan was a Renaissance man active in theater, art, and music (he wrote a vivid memoir Encounters with Stravinsky that first got me interested in him as a writer). His most obvious gift is the way he combines a novelist’s sense of color and character (give his best-selling A Distant Trumpet a try) with what seems a kind of spacious omniscience as a historian.

The Great River, for instance, begins in what might seem a barren place of its own: the water cycle from oceans to mountain, to streams, to rivers, and back to the seas. You turn those pages marveling at how he sees something that he doesn’t explicitly name as a wonder of the creation, but that he conveys through some verbal magic.

He’s equally numinous in describing the peoples who gathered around the waters – Native Americans, English, Spaniards – with sympathy for each culture, without hiding their shortcomings. Here he is describing how the Spanish haciendas in Colorado and New Mexico, focusing on their immediate needs, grew further away from Spain, then Cuba, Mexico City, Coahuila, and began to absorb the Pueblo Indian oneness with the land:

Escorials and armadas and missions over the seas were all very well, but now there was enough to do just to sustain life. All about them was a land whose forms of mountain, desert, and valley seemed to prefigure eternity. The brilliant sky called out life on the hacienda by day; and at night, with tasks done, and reviewed in prayer, and promised for the morrow, all seemed as it should be, with the sound of frogs and crickets, and the seep and the suck of the river going forever by, and the cool breath of the fields, and the heavy sweet smell of the river mud, and the voluminous quiet of the cottonwood domes. The haciendas fell asleep under a blessing of nature.

Paul Horgan [Albuquerque Journal photo].

Horgan was born in Rochester, N.Y., and died in Connecticut, but spent his early years in the Southwest and absorbed the spirit of that lesser-known region of America – particularly the influence of the great French Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy who made Santa Fe into a center of Catholic life, evangelization, and the cultivation of both people and nature.

Many people know a bit about Lamy because of Willa Cather’s beautiful 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop. I’ve long been interested in the inculturation of the faith and for me, one of the most memorable things about Cather’s portrayal of Lamy is how – one of the other characters reports – he would turn from a person from one culture to the next, addressing all of them, despite social status, with the same directness and respect.

Horgan’s book makes similar claims in convincing fashion – the proof of which is that the Pulitzer he won for Lamy of Santa Fe was awarded in 1976, a time when the Church was far from being valued in American literary culture.

Horgan’s archbishop is not a milquetoast. He was a dedicated reader of theology and philosophy, and still  was able in his diocese – then covering about one-tenth of the total land area of the country – to bring people together through “respect for three cultures” into what Horgan calls “ultimately their civilized union.”  But when forced to on the long trail between distant outposts on the way out to Santa Fe, Lamy himself took up guns to defend his band against marauding Indians. It was his calm determination that got the group through safely and maintained the Santa Fe settlement and Church for decades.

That determination, however, was not what is sometimes rejected these days as “rigid.” His celebrations of the sacraments were always done with great reverence, dignity, and fidelity to the tradition. And his energy in administration quadrupled the number of parishes and priests under his jurisdiction. He also paid conspicuous attention to the needs of specific people and to material things – notably creating a highly productive fruit and vegetable garden at his residence that showed how the desert might be made to bloom.

New Mexicans, Catholic and not, understood and were deeply attached to him; 6000 people came the day he lay in state in the Santa Fe cathedral.

Every age has its challenges and ours are quite different from – and in some respects maybe more difficult – than in past times. But if we’re looking for inspiration about how to make the desert bloom, we don’t have to look much further than our great American predecessor Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, and to recent writers like the gifted Paul Horgan.


You may also enjoy:

Bevil Bramwell, OMI’s A Catholic Obituary

C.S. Lewis’s A Preface to The Screwtape Letters

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.