When we think of literature that is Catholic, the first names that come to mind are those of well-known Catholic authors – J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, etc. What makes these writers stand out is not only the quality of their work, but also the richness of the worldview they espouse. They highlight beauty, make liberal use of good humor, and aren’t hesitant when it comes to tackling the theme of the battle between good and evil. In some cases, these authors write explicitly on theological matters (in the case of G.K. Chesterton), but even when Catholicism is never mentioned outright, it is clear that their faith influenced their work.
Some of the best Catholic literature, though, was written by people who never “crossed the Tiber.” One such author is Willa Cather, who was not Catholic, but whose novels are peppered with themes, references, and characters that are. There are two kinds of pioneer novels – ones that fail to mention Catholicism altogether, and ones that mention it only in reference to the work of Catholic priest missionaries. Willa Cather offers a third option; a peek into the world of Catholic pioneer families.
Although the history of the United States is not free of anti-Catholic sentiment, what is remarkable about Cather’s novels is how authentic and beautifully they present our faith. The main characters of her famous “Prairie trilogy” (O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Antonia) are not Catholic, but there are Catholics in their lives. Although there are very overt references to Catholicism in some of Cather’s books (namely, Death Comes for the Archbishop), I’d like to focus on the “Prairie Trilogy,” in particular O Pioneers!, because it makes the life of the average Catholic laity look so attractive.
O Pioneers! tells the story of a pioneer town in rural Nebraska, viewed through the lens of the life story of Alexandra. Alexandra is everything one could hope for from a pioneer woman – enterprising, hard-working, and dedicated to her family and neighbors. She and her brother, Emil, befriend some of the French settlers. It is through these men and women that Alexandra encounters Catholicism.
I’ve often wondered what it would must have been like for those early settlers, surrounded by such poverty and simplicity, to attend Mass and to weekly encounter intense beauty. Even the beauty of the physical edifice of the church leaves an impression on Alexandra and her neighbors. Cather describes, “The French church, properly the Church of Sainte-Agnes, stood upon a hill. The high, narrow, red-brick building, with its tall steeple and steep roof, could be seen for miles across the wheatfields…The church looked powerful and triumphant there on its eminence, so high above the rest of the landscape…” ( from the beginning of O Pioneers! part IV, chapter 1). How striking this building must have been, surrounded by fields for miles around, and visible to all settlers, regardless of their faith tradition!
It is not just the building itself that is impressive, though. Alexandra encounters, firsthand, the ability of Catholics to hold in tension the reality of this life as well as the life that is to come. Cather writes, “The Church has always held that life is for the living….while half the village was mourning for Amédée and preparing the funeral black for his burial on Monday, the other half was busy with white dresses and white veils for the great confirmation service…” (from the beginning of O Pioneers! part IV, chapter 6). Death and life make sense in the sacramental economy, and even those outside the Church can see this. This particular chapter is especially poignant, in that it shows intense grief and intense joy co-existing. The community is simultaneously deep in mourning over the death of a young man, and filled with intense joy and celebration in anticipation of the Sacrament of Confirmation being given to their children. Both experiences are thoroughly described, and are thoroughly embraced by the characters. Both experiences are lived out within the context of the Catholic Church.
There is a degree in which the Catholics in Cather’s books seem to be fully living, fully embracing the realities they face. The Catholic characters show what it means to be fully alive – to sin, to repent, to mourn, to rejoice. Christ says in the Gospels, “…I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) What is the Church if not the place where one may come to learn how to truly live? Life cannot be fully, richly lived if it denies the reality of both death and resurrection. The counter-cultural nature of this message is no less startling today than it was then.
It is inevitable that we will encounter an Alexandra or two in our lifetime. When Alexandra encounters the Catholic Church, she finds life in all its strength, weakness, beauty, and pain. What she finds is terribly attractive. What do others see when they see our faith?