Word from Wormingford
Posted: 10 Apr 2012 @ 00:00
Ronald Blythe muses on the death of two archbishops
I HAVE been re-reading, as I sometimes do at this time of the year, Willa Cather’s novel Death Comes for the Archbishop. It tells of an elegant French priest sent to carve out a diocese in New Mexico in the 1850s, when, by nature, he would have much preferred to read Madame de Sévigné in the gardens of Italy.
Although an aesthete, however, Fr Jean Marie Latour possesses a spiritual toughness that makes him the right choice for this enormous work. Thus, in unforgettable prose, he rides off.
New Mexico was converted ages before by the Jesuits, but the faith has been distorted by folk-art, etc., and Latour’s task is really more difficult than if he had to bring the Church to where there was no Christianity at all. Cather’s writing is that of a great traveller, and her psychology that of a supreme artist of the 1920s. Her young priest, who is often dreaming of Paris and thinking in poetry, does all that is demanded of him, and dies an old archbishop.
Latour comes to mind in April because it is when we should remember Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered in 1012 by some drunks who had kidnapped him. Like Becket — and like a surprising number of priests who hoped to evade high office in order to live as their personalities required them to live — he had been forced to leave his cell in the ruins of Bath to be Bishop of Winchester. He was 30. Twenty years later, he was a reluctant Archbishop of Canterbury.
The convention of Danegeld was in full swing when the northern raiders demanded ransoms to stop their burnings and rapes. In 1012, they demanded the enormous ransom of £48,000. The King was too scared to do anything; so it was Archbishop Alphege who held a council, at which, instead of talking about money, he reminded everyone of the laws of Christian civilisation, and how these must prevail at all costs in the face of lawlessness and inhumanity.
Alphege’s position and courage were very like those of so many martyrs, including Becket — and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, hanged by the Gestapo at Flossenbürg in 1945, the pattern never changing over a thousand years. The mockery and violence was that of the soldiery before the crucifixion.
This is what Bonhoeffer wrote on the eve of his execution. He had been in New York — he need not have returned to the Nazis:
O God, early in the morning I cry to you.
Help me to pray
And to concentrate my thoughts on you:
I cannot do this alone.
In me there is darkness,
But with you there is light;
I am lonely, but you do not leave me;
. . . In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience;
I do not understand your ways,
But you know the way for me. . .
Restore me to liberty. . .
Lord, whatever this day may bring,
Your name be praised.