The Thinking 

Death Comes for the Archbishop

July 7, 2017

JANE S. writes:

There is a scene from Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop that takes place in a remote Spanish mission in colonial New Mexico. An old man is lying on his deathbed, while the priest administers the Sacrament. Others take turns praying at his bedside while the rest of the community keeps vigil.

Watching beside a death-bed was not a hardship for them, but a privilege—in the case of a dying priest, it was a distinction.

In those days, even in European countries, death had a solemn social importance. It was not regarded as a moment when certain bodily organs ceased to function, but as a dramatic climax, a moment when the soul made its entrance into the next world, passing in full consciousness through a lowly door to an unimaginable scene.

Among the watchers there was always the hope that the dying man might reveal something of what he alone could see; that his countenance, if not his lips, would speak, and on his features would fall some light or shadow from beyond.

The “Last Words” of great men, Napoleon, Lord Byron, were still printed in gift-books, and the dying murmurs of every common man and woman were listened for and treasured by their neighbours and kinsfolk. These sayings, no matter how unimportant, were given oracular significance and pondered by those who must one day go the same road.

I often recall that passage and think: those people had their priorities straight. They were tuned in, in a way that we are no longer tuned in.

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