Book 7 Chapter 2
2. December Night
Summary: Bishop Latour, keenly feeling the absence of Father Vaillant, is unable to sleep one late, cold December night. He goes to the church, where he finds an old Mexican woman, Sada, weeping. Sada is a slave owned by an American family, the Smiths; she, too, has come to the church seeking solace. She is ecstatic to be taken by Latour into the church, where she sees the altar for the first time in nearly two decades. She and Latour pray together; Latour promises to pray for her as he celebrates Mass in the new year to come and during the Novena (devotions for a special purpose during nine consecutive days) before Christmas. He also gives her a medallion picturing the Virgin Mary that he tells her has been blessed by the Pope. Following his encounter with Sada, Latour again feels peace.
Analysis: Immediately following as it does Magdalena’s brief appearance at the end of the previous chapter, the introduction of Sada—another poor woman trapped in an abusive situation—provides an interesting parallel to Magdalena’s situation. Where Latour and Vaillant were able to intervene and make Magdalena’s life better, Latour either cannot or does not do the same for Sada. When Vaillant, before his departure, had urged that Latour do something “to secure the consolations of religion for the bond-woman,” Latour “replied that the time was not yet; for the present it was inexpedient to antagonize” the Smiths (p. 215). Yet, while Latour cannot secure freedom for Sada as he did for Magdalena, he does make her life better in a spiritual sense by promising to pray for her at Mass and by giving her the medallion, supposedly blessed by the Pope. As he kneels with Sada at the altar, Latour is “able to feel… the preciousness of the things of the altar to her who was without possessions; the tapers, the image of the Virgin, the figures of the saints, the Cross that took away indignity from suffering and made pain and poverty a means of fellowship with Christ” (p. 217). A stress upon the suffering of Christ is a prominent strand of Roman Catholic devotion; here, we see how it can bring “the consolation of religion” even when, for whatever reason, a believer’s physical circumstances cannot be changed. Sada will return to the Smiths, but she does so believing that her sufferings are shared by Christ and bring her closer to him. This, too, is a “miracle”—the flourishing of faith and the renewal of hope in the midst of hardship—and, true to his character, Latour identifies it as such: “He received the miracle in [Sada’s] heart into his own, saw through her eyes, knew that his poverty was as bleak as hers” (p. 217). The suffering, therefore—shared with Christ, and understood by his Mother, the “Kind Woman in Heaven” Mary (p. 217)—not only brings Sada closer to God but Latour closer to Sada. Also consistent with his character, Latour clearly sees himself as a servant of this suffering woman: “This church was Sada’s house, and he was a servant in it” (p. 217). This emphasis on suffering as a nearly sacramental means of union with the divine often raises the ire of critics of Christianity in general and Roman Catholicism in particular; and, to be sure, the belief can be abused as a justification of abusive relationships and of a failure to do anything to alleviate suffering. In this chapter, however, Cather seems to intend for readers to take the nature of suffering as “a means of fellowship with Christ” and with each other at face value. Even suffering can be a setting for miracles of love.