All For Nothing

 Here’s a passage from Willa Cather’s 1927 novel about the first archbishop of New Mexico, Death Comes for the Archbishop. It is from the latter part of the life of Father Latour, the archbishop:

    “One night . . . he was lying in his bed, unable to sleep, with the sense of failure clutching at his heart. His prayers were empty words and brought him no refreshment. His soul had become a barren field. He had nothing within himself to give his priests or his people. His work seemed superficial, a house built upon the sands. His great diocese was still a heathen country. The Indians travelled their old road of fear and darkness, battling with evil omens and ancient shadows. The Mexicans were children who played with their religion.”

    Each sentence of that paragraph is a hammer-blow of sharp accusation. Point after point after point: everything has come to naught. I thought: this is where many of us find ourselves from time to time, tossed by demons of doubt through a sleepless night.

    He couldn’t stand it. He got up, got on his warm cloak (it was December), and went out through the snow to go to the sacristy, to go to the church.

There he found a woman, shivering, a Catholic who had slipped out from the home where she was a servant, denied permission to go to mass. He gave her his cloak. He ministered to her with an attentive ear. He was pleased with her remembrance of “the holy things,” despite it being nineteen years since she was in a church. They prayed together at length, on their knees. He heard her confession. He gave her a little silver medal “with a figure of the Virgin” to have safely with her.

    He had been in the pits, and God woke him up and showed him the truth of his life.


    Readers Write. I have imaginative readers. After I wrote about the coincidence of the feast of St. Michael & All Angels with National Coffee Day, I learned (from one of you) that St. Gabriel, the archangel who appeared to Mary, is apparently concerned with Hatch green chile. Who knew? (Hatch green chile was, when I moved to college in New Mexico, just “chile,” and for decades it was impossible for us to find in New York. When I moved to Dallas and found it for sale in late summer at the grocers, well, I felt I had moved to the land of milk and honey. But little did I think Gabriel might be involved!)

    Another wrote that just to have a National Coffee Day could be a subversive move to reintroduce Christianity into our culture. I quote: “Morning Coffee is, for some, a cup of courage to help them face the day, to be not afraid. It's not hard to imagine an angel offering a cup to a frightened man as a gesture of peace and good will.” He went on: “angels do deliver quite strong wake-up calls when they appear. Morning and evening jolts!” But we could also think of the “cups” which we would “ask God to let pass from before us,” as does Jesus on the night before Good Friday. Obviously this was not a cup filled with coffee—unless we are talking about bad coffee, “in which case we should thank our guardian angel for doing such an exquisite job that something like bad coffee is our chief concern.”

    As I’ve said before, if you have good readers, your column just writes itself. Thanks to all of you who drop a note from time to time.


    Out & About. This Sunday, October 15, at 5 p.m., I will offer the fall theology lecture in my role as diocesan theologian-in-residence, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas. My topic is “Divine Distinctions.” There will be time for questions and then a reception.

    The next Good Book & Good Talk seminar will be on Shakespeare's King Lear on Sunday, November 26, at 5 p.m.



Whate'er He Send

 Yours truly has scratched his head for several years now, trying to find the secret meaning of the fact that the feast of St. Michael and All Angels is also National Coffee Day, September 29. Since angels are essentially incorporeal, it is a deep mystery why they would need a cup of java to get going in the morning. Gabriel, for instance, did not ask Mary if she’d like to share with him a low-fat latte before telling her she would conceive the Son of God.

    Secular time in our part of the world is increasingly separated from sacred time; the world’s calendar takes little notice of the church’s. There is no evidence that the anonymous geniuses who came up with National Coffee Day took any notice that it was the feast of the holy angels.

    Susan and I were married on September 29 precisely because it was the feast of the angels. Although it was inconvenient to secular schedules—a wedding on a Friday at 6 p.m.—we said with smiles that we didn’t want Saturday because “Saturday isn’t the feast of St. Michael and All Angels!” We wanted sacred time to trump secular time in our marriage.

    We sang one of the angel hymns at our wedding: “Christ, the fair glory of the holy angels.” Its theme is that we mortals cannot properly praise God without assistance from the angels, whom we ask God to send to “help us to praise thee.”

    Other angel hymns are clear that praise of God is to be given at all times and in all places, regardless of what those times and places are. “Ye holy angels bright,” which was the ultimate hymn in the 1940 Hymnal, brings this out in two stanzas. One of them, speaking of God’s action throughout our lives, says:

    Take what he gives.

    And praise him still, through good or ill,

    Who ever lives.

God gives, this seems to say, both good and ill; everything comes from God. Take it, whatever it is, “and praise him still.” And in another stanza:

    Let all thy days

    Till life shall end, whate’er he send,

    Be filled with praise.

Whatever God sends, our days should be filled with praise.

.     . . Including, I suppose, praise for coffee.


    Out & About. This Sunday, October 8, I am to preach at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas. The services are at 9 a.m. (with organ) and 11:15 a.m. (with guitar). 

    The evening of that same Sunday, October 8, the Good Books & Good Talk seminar will discuss Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. Anyone who reads the novel is welcome to the conversation, from 5 to 6:30 p.m.; others are welcome to come and listen. This seminar is also at St. Matthew’s: from the parking lot, walk around the church doors to the entrance for the Great Hall.

    The following Sunday, October 15, also at 5 p.m., I will offer the fall theology lecture, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. My topic is “Divine Distinctions.” There will be time for questions and then a reception.

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The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin. Ph.D., is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Friendship: The Heart of Being Human" and "A Post-Covid Catechesis.: