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"Not Stones At All, But Life Itself"

"Not Stones At All, But Life Itself"

Frank Griswald
Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Right Reverend Frank T. Griswold, XXV Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, addresses the Cather Spring Conference.

"It would not be an exaggeration to say that Willa Cather is partly responsible for my choosing the path I have chosen."

A singularly memorable event during the 2009 Spring Conference was the talk given by the Right Reverend Frank T. Griswold, XXV Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, about his long-time love for the works of Willa Cather and their place in his life. The opening quote is from Bishop Griswold's address, which we excerpt here.

Encountering Death Comes for the Archbishop as a teenager whose views of the priesthood "were rather romantic," Bishop Griswold saw Bishop Latour and Father Vallant as "my heroes, and also exemplars of the endurance and sacrifice I associated with ordination."

Some years later, as a young priest in Philadelphia, he was moved to read the entire body of Cather's work. "I found, again and again, that her characters and their responses to what life set before them, touched something deep within me, and enabled me to look more closely at my own life and the challenges I faced."

After another passage of years, Bishop Griswold made the first of several visits to Red Cloud. "My first inkling that she had a connection with the Episcopal Church was when I visited Grace Episcopal Church and learned that she had given a pair of stained glass windows in memory of her parents. I had assumed, as others had before me, largely on the strength of Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock, that Cather had become a Roman Catholic at some point in her maturity. I later learned that she and her parents had been confirmed in Grace Church."

Cather and her parents took this step in December 1922. And as she famously stated in the brief prefatory note to her collection of essays entitled Not Under Forty, "the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts." Bishop Griswold's talk focused in part on the thinking that led to her confirmation during this critical year.

Quoting Mildred Bennett's The World of Willa Cather: "Miss Cather found it difficult to believe. 'Faith is a gift,' she said; and she admitted that even her Catholic books were written out of admiration for a faith she could not quite accept." Without endorsing or explicitly countering this position, Bishop Griswold offered a more expansive interpretation of Cather's faith: "It is my sense that one of the forces that drew Willa to make a formal commitment to the Episcopal Church was that the Anglican tradition was one that gave place and high value to transcendence and mystery represented by sacramental and liturgical continuity with its Catholic roots. At the same time it possessed an open, pragmatic and somewhat skeptical spirit as a result of its emergence from the struggles and conflicts of the Reformation."

"Probable Persuasions"
Evoking the work of the 16th century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker, Bishop Griswold emphasized the capacity for ambiguity and paradox that lies within Anglican thought. Truth, and meaning, are not matters of infallible certitude but simply "probable persuasions." We make what we can of what we have, but certain knowledge is not within our grasp. (Bishop Griswold had presaged this point in the introduction to his talk in a deceptively casual aside: "Certitude is often the enemy of truth.")

"Life is an unfolding encounter with mystery mediated by the quotidian," Bishop Griswold continued, "whereby truth overtakes us not as a proposition, but as something we experience. I believe this confluence, not without tension, fitted the shape of Cather's soul."

"We can see this tension reflected in Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock. Bishop Latour and Euclide Auclair's skepticism regarding the extravagance of certain ‘miracles' becomes an invitation to a more sober and homely understanding of what is miraculous. Miracle is not denied, it is simply declared to exist in a more ordinary unfolding of life."

Melting into the Land
The title Bishop Griswold gave his reflections -- "Not stories at all but life itself" -- comes from Cather's words on the work of her friend and mentor, Sarah Orne Jewett: "The 'Pointed Fir' sketches are living things caught in the open, with light and freedom and air spaces about them. They melt into the land and the lie of the land until they are not stories at all, but life itself." As Bishop Griswold pointed out, this melting into the land is also true of Cather's work; it observes the surface of life but also its revelatory depths, through a "careful sorting and sifting of what one observes along the way."

Thus we touch upon Cather's much-studied essay, "The Novel Démeublé." And for Bishop Griswold, a novel démeublé is one stripped of all distraction in order that the reader can follow, with the author, "the lines of spiritual motion that lead to revelation."

We are drawn to Cather's characters, Bishop Griswold suggests, because we can see something of our own aspiration and error in them. Like Clara in "The Bohemian Girl," drawing back from the possibility of freedom, we may cling protectively to old hurts and old sorrows. Perhaps we have a moment of identification when, in Shadows on the Rock, the arrogant and self-possessed Bishop Saint-Vallier ultimately embraces a humility that is a little theatrical, "as he had been in his grandeur."

"Not stories at all, but life itself." And "life itself," suggests Bishop Griswold, is synonymous with the English Jesuit poet Gerald Manley Hopkins' formulation of the world as "word, expression, news of God."

"I think that this is how Willa Cather understood the world," Bishop Griswold said. "Cather had a particular vision and gift for following the lines of spiritual motion as they are perceived on the surface of life deeper into some point where revelation occurs."

Bishop Griswold's address will be published in a future edition of The Willa Cather Newsletter & Review.


Click here to purchase Praying Our Days, by Frank T. Griswold.