In Double Talk: The Erotics of Male Literary Collaboration, Wayne Koestenbaum asserts that "gay criticism can illuminate Wordsworth as well as Wilde" (5). Such methodology likewise informs the work of Willa Cather. Although "Paul's Case" is the story most often selected as Cather's representative gay fiction, it is also the story that signals the end of her apprenticeship, thus drawing attention to the correlation between homosexuality and the development of her art. But if "Paul's Case" signifies Cather's personal and artistic growth, what works mark her subsequent development and what role does homosexuality play in that maturation? A gay reading of Death Comes for the Archbishop provides a lens through which to examine these questions.
By the 1920s Cather's indirect articulation of homosexuality had shifted to an intense exploration of male friendship. In her novels of this period—One of Ours (1922), The Professor's House (1925), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)—her protagonists all experience emotional intimacy with other men, and these friendships create compelling models of human happiness. Although male friendship and homosexuality are not synonymous, Cather would certainly know that descriptions of emotional intimacy between men would encourage homosexual interpretations of her work. Consequently, when she celebrates male friendship she implicitly acknowledges its connotations as well.
Although most readers feel that Death Comes for the Archbishop is a deeply religious book, few recognize the contribution homosexuality makes to its spiritual mood. As she does in One of Ours and The Professor's House, Cather again depicts male friendship in a largely male environment; however, the religious background of Death Comes for the Archbishop brings to the text a narrative dimension missing in her earlier fiction. Describing the novel's genesis, Cather writes, "The longer I stayed in the Southwest, the more I felt that the story of the Catholic Church in that country was the most interesting of all its stories" (On Writing 5). The way Cather tells that particular story makes Death Comes for the Archbishop the most intriguing of her male-centered fiction.
Discussions of the novel inevitably echo the language of friendship. Merrill Maguire Skaggs observes that in Death Comes for the Archbishop, "Cather recovers her faith in friendship" (19). Cather herself speaks of Jean Baptiste Lamy, the first bishop of New Mexico and the prototype for her main character, as "a sort of invisible personal friend" (On Writing 7). Extending this analogy, Hermione Lee writes that "Cather always had a sense of loss and regret after finishing a book, as though parting company forever from a close friend" (289). And in an analysis of Cather's evocative style, Susan J. Rosowski argues that "As much as the friendship between Latour and Vaillant, the narrator establishes the happy mood of the book: he takes the reader with him as a companion on a journey of storytelling" (169).
The stories Cather tells in Death Comes for the Archbishop are profoundly religious. Simple stories become parables of faith, and minor details assume spiritual significance. Although such stories often erode the novel's erotic texture, it is here that Cather's treatment of homosexuality reveals the nature of her achievement. Linking homosexuality with the early history of the Catholic Church, John Boswell states that "There is in fact a considerable body of evidence to suggest that homosexual relations were especially associated with the clergy" (Christianity 187). "Even popes," he adds, "were not above such accusations, and in some areas the mere fact of having taken orders seems to have rendered one liable to the suspicion of being a 'sodomite'" (Christianity 217-18). Given this historical context, the very subject of Cather's novel intimates homosexuality. Cather indirectly supports this affiliation by identifying the formal sources of her narrative design: the saints' lives and the religious murals of Puvis de Chavannes (On Writing 9). The combined effect of these influences makes Death Comes for the Archbishop "feel like a medieval legend" (Lee 271), a feeling implicitly heightened by the suggestion of homosexuality in the text.
Returning to the recent past for her story and recalling a more distant past in its narration, Cather does more than tell the story of the Catholic Church in the Southwest, and her utilization of the historical novel underscores this complexity. Connecting the historical genre with homosexuality, Ian Young explains that "Tales set in eras when homosexual relationships were more accepted or less suspect than in the present have provided a variety of authors with opportunities for treating homosexual attachments matter-of-factly or even idealistically. A historical setting can enable readers—and writers!—to overcome what resistance they may have toward homosexuality in a contemporary context" (158). Cather's combination of history and narrative thus provides a setting congenial to her friendship theme and a form conducive to its telling. Comparing Death Comes for the Archbishop with the partisan tone of the book that inspired it, William J. Howlett's Life of Bishop Machebeuf (1908), Lee writes that "Nothing could be further from Cather's impartial, apolitical tone. Her appropriation of this, the latest of her male authorities, is all in the direction of suggestiveness and evocation, away from propaganda and orthodoxy" (267). Sexual ambiguity creates such an elusive text and ultimately helps Cather make Howlett's story her own.
An early scene illustrates Cather's suggestive style. Awakened in Santa Fe by the morning Angelus, Bishop Latour is imaginatively inspired by its silvery tone: "Full, clear, with something bland and suave, each note floated through the air like a globe of silver. Before the nine strokes were done Rome faded, and behind it he sensed something Eastern, with palm trees,—Jerusalem, perhaps, though he had never been there. Keeping his eyes closed, he cherished for a moment this sudden, pervasive sense of the East"(43). Just as the fourteenth-century Spanish bell reveals its oriental craftsmanship, so too does it evoke the novel's narrative method; as it sounds its exotic notes to Latour's discerning ears, it likewise presents to the reader the possibility of erotic overtones in Cather's text.
This scene also announces Cather's most pervasive strategy, that of interweaving disparate elements: earth and sky, history and fiction, sexuality and spirituality are blended together, as are the gold and silver of the Spanish bell. Among the most perfectly fused elements in Death Comes for the Archbishop are art and religion. Cather articulates her artistic principles in "The Novel Démeublé": "Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there—that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself" (50). Throughout the text these ideals are indistinguishable from those of religious faith. Latour's definition of miracles illustrates this narrative fusion: "The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears hear what is there about us always" (50). Whether in the form of miracles, memories, or heightened moments of perception, intangible impressions abound in Death Comes for the Archbishop, further blending art and religion, feeling and faith.
Homosexuality adds another element to Cather's narrative interplay and exists in Death Comes for the Archbishop as perhaps the most provocative presence of "the thing not named." John J. Murphy observes that the Acoma legend of Fray Baltazar "is a compendium of most of the excesses of the native clergy" (263), including "political intrigue, gambling, hoarding money and siring children" (259). Scattered details in the text imply other transgressions. In the prologue, set in Rome, the dinner guests of Cardinal de Allande describe the New World clergy as "dissolute" (8), and in Santa Fe "lewd" children are chastised for "speak[ing] filth against the priests"(216). Kit Carson admits to his early thinking that all priests were "rascals" and nuns "bad women" and adds that "A good many of the native priests here bear out that story" (76). In his personal letters Father Machebeuf admonishes the native clergy as "scandalous beyond description" (Howlett 164) and registers disgust at the "atrocious accusations and insulting reflections" (Howlett 193) charged by rival priests against himself and Bishop Lamy. Providing a broader historical outline, Boswell states that "Many pagan writers objected to Christianity precisely because of what they claimed was sexual looseness on the part of its adherents, and much Christian apologetic was aimed at defending Christians against the common belief that they were given to every form of sexual indulgence—including homosexual acts. This belief seems to have been at least partly rooted in fact" (Christianity 131).
Such "facts" are missing in Death Comes for the Archbishop, and Cather's omission draws attention to a curious gap between church history and the novel's historical perspective. In curbing the native priests' "sensual disturbance[s]" (145), the text reprimands every indulgence except homosexuality. Indeed, while "Carnal commerce" (106) with women is frequently mentioned, nothing is specifically said of homosexual relations; although they are vaguely implied, they remain categorically unnamed and undenounced.
What is the significance of Cather's silence? Is she being evasive or merely exercising delicacy and restraint? Or is her discretion another "strategy of reticence"? The answer lies, I believe, in Cather's sexual aesthetics, her evocation of homosexuality to suggest "the thing not named." To disparage homosexuality would disparage her art and, more importantly, diminish the emotional relationship at the center of Death Comes for the Archbishop. As if to avoid this contradiction, Cather spiritualizes the friendship between Latour and Vaillant, and their relationship, like their vocation, assumes a vow of intimacy without sexuality. Celibacy, however, does more than circumvent physiology; it transcends the physical and becomes Cather's paradigm for spiritual love.
Although Cather creates a "deliberately chaste book" (Lee 285), she simultaneously encodes an ambiguously erotic text. Spiritual friendship itself is foregrounded in a theology that combines religious feelings with physical affection. Tradition is very much a part of Latour's "imaginative intelligence" (Bloom and Bloom 210), and Death Comes for the Archbishop values the inherited rituals of cooking, craftsmanship, and Catholicism. Boswell describes another heritage that is also part of the novel's inclusiveness: "It is indeed too often overlooked that just as there was a pagan ascetic and antierotic tradition, so was there a Christian tradition of tolerant and positive attitudes toward love and eroticism" (Christianity 163). Cather's "mixed theology" (31) hints at this duality, as when Latour and Martinez argue over clerical celibacy. Here Cather discreetly opens their debate to include intense friendships between priests, perhaps what Martinez means when he refers to "French fashions" (148). Of Cather's background in theology her friend Edith Lewis writes that "all her life she had been profoundly interested in Catholicism—especially in the Catholicism of the Middle Ages, of the time of Abelard and St. Bernard. She had read widely on the subject long before she came to write the Archbishop" (147). Although Cather specifically mentions St. Augustine and his prohibitive doctrines, the narrative indirectly summons more tolerant Christian thinkers, such as St. Anselm of Bec, later archbishop of Canterbury, and St. Aelred of Rievaulx, the Bernard of the North, perhaps the most influential writers in the medieval tradition of passionate friendship.
Cather transmutes this theological tradition into literature. As she was interested in the daily life of such a man as Lamy, so too do the lives of men such as Anselm and Aelred inform her narrative. Although Anselm was the first "in his generation [who] groped for words to express the intensity of his feelings for his friends" (Southern 34), it is Aelred's views, found in treatises such as Spiritual Friendship and The Mirror of Charity, that expand the similarities between Cather's text and the lives of the saints. Aelred emphasizes affection as a means of approaching divine love and finds in friendship a correlation between physical and spiritual experience. It was Aelred, Boswell writes, "who gave love between those of the same gender its most profound and lasting expressions in a Christian context" (Christianity 221).
Aelred announces his central theme in the opening of Spiritual Friendship: "Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, is in our midst" (51). Echoing St. John, he stresses that "he that abides in friendship, abides in God, and God in him" (66). Like St. Aelred, Cather is interested in approaching divine love and posits friendship as a path toward its realization. The search for the ideal friend in One of Ours leads to the idealized friendship in Death Comes for the Archbishop, a relationship that fictionally renders Aelred's teaching that "God is Friendship" (65).
As friendship was an essential part of religious life for men like Anselm and Aelred, Cather builds her narrative around male friendship and its spiritual ideals. Latour and Vaillant, Eusabio and Latour, Vaillant and Revardy, Lucero and Martinez, Latour and Bernard, Antonio Olivares and Manuel Chavez fortify the text with the strength of their affections. The latter's story sounds the tone of Cather's narration. As a youth Manuel Chavez was left for dead while on an Indian raiding party. Pierced by arrows, "one shaft clear through his body" (185), and suffering from hunger and thirst, Chavez walked two days and nights before finding food and water, finally collapsing "under two noble oak trees" (186). As a prosperous rancher the elegantly handsome Chavez boasts his aristocratic lineage from two Castilian knights who liberated the city of Chavez from the Moors in the twelfth century. The ancestral knights evoke the medieval friendship of Amis and Amile, and their liberation of Chavez echoes the liberation of Athens by Harmodius and Aristogeiton. The arrows add a religious aura to Chavez's history, recalling the crucifixion of Christ and the suffering of St. Sebastian, the sacrificial saint of gay iconology.
Cather's stories of male friendship depict the intermingled emotional, spiritual, and erotic relationships of her characters. The narrative style of a legend accommodates this inherent fluidity: "In The Golden Legend the martyrdoms of the saints are no more dwelt upon than are the trivial incidents of their lives; it is as though all human experiences, measured against one supreme spiritual experience, were of about the same importance. The essence of such writing is not to hold the note, not to use an incident for all there is in it—but to touch and pass on" (On Writing 9). The unaccented style of a legend merely suggests and then moves on, as the Indians move across their country, in unhurried narrative flight. "In this kind of writing," Cather continues, "the mood is the thing" (On Writing 10), and the mood of Death Comes for the Archbishop is one of "extraordinary personal devotion" (289).
Religion engenders Cather's text, and in a crude frontier society it maintains a link between men and their humanity. The gift of Christianity is its sympathy, and Cather's protagonists respond to the humanizing influences of Catholicism. Her principal male characters either resemble biblical patriarchs or recall the apostles of Christ. Rather than emasculating them, their religious feelings, however feminine, broaden their masculinity. Although later "misguided" (293), Kit Carson is compassionate throughout much of the narrative, Eusabio is respectful and courteous, Luzon is generous, and even the young murderer about to hang is gentle and tender-hearted, spending his last hours in solicitous devotion to St. Santiago. As has often been remarked, Latour is Cather's quintessential hero: "delicate and distinguished, chivalric, aesthetic, sympathetic (especially to the Indians, for whom Howlett has no time at all), nostalgic for France, in love with order and tradition, patient to the point of passivity, vulnerable, self-doubting, and in need of Vaillant's support"(Lee 268). His "broad sympathies" (Brown 264) and "attitude of acceptance" (Rosowski 163) make him the perfect embodiment of Cather's imagination as well as the ideal expression of her art.
Details of Latour and Vaillant's friendship intensify Cather's sexual aesthetics. Physical affection and spiritual ardor are perfectly joined, as their love for one another is identical to their love of the Catholic Church. When they were boys at school, Latour chose the "homely" Vaillant to be his friend, thus beginning a life-long companionship. As Aelred teaches in Spiritual Friendship, the progression of friendship through selection, testing, and acceptance imitates religious training; faith and friendship intermingle, as choosing a friend mirrors knowing God. In dramatizing Vaillant's struggle to break the ties of blood and country and become a missionary priest, Cather conflates spiritual and emotional crises by placing a "higher trust" in faith and friendship alike (204). Latour and Vaillant's departure from their native Auvergne has all the anguish and excitement of a romantic elopement, and their friendship is as suggestive of a marriage as is the relationship between Christ and St. John. Vaillant's signet ring, later worn by Latour, signifies their deep emotional commitment to each other and to God.
In one sense Cather's story of the Catholic Church follows the historical and cultural shift from Hellenism to Christianity. As Mary Ruth Ryder points out, by the time she wrote Death Comes for the Archbishop "Cather would increasingly describe human struggles in religious terms, never abandoning the allusions from classical myth which were such an integral part of her thought, but subordinating those images to a larger dimension of Christian allegory" (248). In addition, Death Comes for the Archbishop demonstrates Cather's artistic interest in Catholicism and its connection with her aesthetics. "It can be argued," writes Brian Reade, "that the Roman Church had greater attractions than any Protestant Church for the homosexual—both male and female—in that its theology and teaching were not based on empirical studies of the Bible" (8). The notion of divine love especially appealed to Cather's imagination and, as Rosowski observes, was "the most important single idea she took from Catholicism" (164).
As Cather's gift of sympathy reflects her experience of divine love, homosexuality reflects its imaginative possibilities. Without a central female character and with its emphasis on Mariology and the Virgin birth, Death Comes for the Archbishop appears to be a sexless narrative, or at least a text in which sexuality seems carefully contained. However, Cather places a parallel emphasis on Christ, and as Thomas M. Casey notes, Cather's Christology "needs to be understood if we are to make sense of certain sections of the narrative" (25). Evoking an image of Mary as "a goddess who should yet be a woman" (257), the text also envisions a humanized Christ: Latour feels the "Presence" of Christ when he is alone in his study (256); and throughout Death Comes for the Archbishop the closeness of a divine companion is a component of spiritual friendship.
A Christ-centered narrative can contain significant homosexual implications. "To embrace the faith is to be embraced by Jesus," and in the context of the Aesthetic Movement, for example, Victorian writers such as Gerald Manley Hopkins found in Catholicism a means to release sublimated desire (Woods 47). While Gregory Woods argues that "the theme of Christ's homosexuality is periodically recurrent" (46), Boswell explains why this is so: Sexuality appears to have been largely a matter of indifference to Jesus. . . . He pronounced no condemnations of sexuality among the unmarried and said nothing which bore any relation to homosexuality. The only sexual issue of importance to Jesus appears to have been fidelity: he did not mention the procreation or rearing of children in connection with marriage but only its permanence, and he prohibited divorce except in cases of infidelity. He was apparently celibate himself, and the only persons with whom the Gospels suggest he had any special relationship were men, especially Saint John, who carefully describes himself throughout his gospel as the disciple whom Jesus loved. (Christianity 114-15). Whereas gay feelings are conducive to this kind of love, the sexual ambiguities in Cather's text evince a similar sensibility, reminiscent of both Christ and his followers and other biblical stories of same-sex relationships.
Spiritual friendship sets the tone for all else in Death Comes for the Archbishop. Rosowski writes that "the friendship of the two priests is one of great love, the major example of the mood that unifies the narrative and the miracles that run through it" (163). Everything, including eroticism, is seemingly subsumed by spiritual devotion. In a narrative strategy akin to the ritual of transubstantiation, passion is transformed into pity, and sexual energy is transmuted into spiritual desire. Just as Latour sees the spiritual beauty of Vaillant, they both see the inner beauty of those around them, such as Jacinto's fine manners and Magdalena's radiance. The landscape itself evokes a "religious silence" (151). Conspicuously missing in this text is the purely physical beauty of a Julio, Cather's young Mexican guide and inspiration for much of the sensuality associated with the Southwest in her earlier fiction. Nor is there a physical male image of such evocative power as that of Tom Outland in The Professor's House or the English boy in One of Ours, a luminous youth with "cheeks like pink apples, yellow curls above his forehead, long, soft lashes" (320). El Greco's portrait of an effeminate "St. Francis in meditation" (Death 12) comes closest to these earlier examples of masculine beauty. Yet while sexuality and spirituality are equally rendered in that androgynous portrait, its erotic attraction is diminished by its spiritual appeal.
Other details continue this pattern. Lucero's boastful joke ridiculing Martinez's declining vitality underscores the elimination of sexuality from the text: "'You see how it is,' Padre Lucero would say to the young men at a wedding party, 'my way is better than old José Martinez's. His nose and chin are getting to be close neighbours now, and a petticoat is not much good to him any more. But I can still rise upright at the sight of a dollar. With a new piece of money in my hand I am happier than ever; and what can he do with a pretty girl but regret?'" (161). Cather's unruly horses in One of Ours, Pompey and Satan, become affectionate mules in Death Comes for the Archbishop, symbols of Latour and Vaillant's emotional intimacy. Even the Spanish names heard throughout the text defuse sexuality with their spiritual lull: Contento, Angelica, Tranquilino.
Cather reinforces her relaxed narrative manner by describing her experience of writing the novel as "a happy vacation from life" (On Writing 11). An early scene sets this rhythm in motion. As Latour rides into Santa Fe for the first time, the narrator observes that "The long main street began at the church, the town seemed to flow from it like a stream from a spring"(22). Subsequent images sustain this mood, as everywhere the text emphasizes release: underground water breaks through the desert's floor, old Sada is released from spiritual bondage, Magdalena is saved from a brutal marriage, images of keys abound, cities are liberated, and animals are set free. Near the end of the novel the abolition of slavery and the return of exiled Navajos to their traditional homeland reemphasize Cather's pattern of spiritual freedom. A perpetual flowering, such as that associated with Arroyo Hondo and the Canyon de Chelly, intensifies the novel's renunciation of sex by providing a spiritual refuge, "an Indian Garden of Eden" (297).
Even as it renounces sex, Cather's text avows a sexual impulse; while one is sublimated, the other is set free. The rhythm of the novel is both spiritual and physical, its language simultaneously chaste and erotic, spontaneous and controlled. Yet while a flexible idiom combines sexuality and storytelling (the text begins with climax and ends in release), Cather's "primary ecstasy" remains a flowering of spiritual desire (Sergeant 229). Always traveling, a physical and spiritual voyager, Latour is frequently presented waking up in the early morning, the physical counterpart to the awakening of the spirit. Cather's central metaphor for spiritual freedom is death itself, the release from life, "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" (170). The dramatic conclusion of Death Comes for the Archbishop is a climax not only of Latour's life but also of the images of release shaping the narrative: "Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!" (276). Throughout this description physical signs communicate spiritual growth. As in Cather's most provocative passages elsewhere, an indeterminate "something" again tantalizes a reader. The "something oriental" (45) that Latour sensed in the Spanish bell anticipates the "something soft and wild and free" in the exhilarating morning air; indeed, the "something that whispered to the ear on the pillow" awakens the eroticism of the desert landscape.
Loretta Wasserman attributes Wallace Stevens's praise of Cather's style to her mature handling of sexual themes (357); intimations of homosexuality reflect this sophistication. While patterns of male friendship in Death Comes for the Archbishop participate in the homosocial/homosexual continuum of mainstream American literature, especially the western tradition of Owen Wister and James Fenimore Cooper, underpinnings of "extraordinary personal devotion" affiliate Cather's text with distinctly gay themes, from the Sacred Band of Thebes to Whitman's "Calamus" poems. Connections with Walter Pater's homosexual critique confirm the novel's place within this tradition. Although the names Marius (Marius the Epicurean) and Latour (Gaston de Latour) endow the text with a Paterian resonance, the most striking correspondence is the similarity between Cather's climactic passage and the controversial conclusion of Pater's The Renaissance: "While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odourous, or work of the artist's hands, or the face of one's friend" (237). Cather's "something soft and wild and free" echoes Pater's something "exquisite," "strange," and "curious." Friendship is clearly implied, and that friendship is just as clearly homoerotic; for both writers male friendship is the "imaginative stimulus" (Pater, Marius 314) shaping their art. That Pater deleted the conclusion from the second edition of The Renaissance suggests its erotic potential. As Reade points out, "It was not much. But whatever it was, it was a significant gesture in the Victorian moral continuum" (20).
Cather's allusion to Pater is also a significant gesture in her appropriation of the homosexual literary tradition. In Death Comes for the Archbishop the values she associates with male friendship attain the spiritual truth Claude Wheeler glimpsed at the end of One of Ours. By the end of the novel it is no longer the physical presence of his friend and companion but memories of Vaillant and their life together that strengthen Latour's fortitude. His deathbed reverie once again recalls the moment in their native Auvergne when they anxiously awaited the "dilegence" for Paris to carry them into the unknown. The earlier voyage resembles the one he is now making, and the face of Vaillant figures in both. In Pater's conclusion, as in Whitman's "When I Heard at the Close of the Day," the presence of the lover brings forth the soul. While her predecessors see the lover literally, Cather metaphorically extends their image. Unlike Godfrey St. Peter in The Professor's House, who relinquishes "something very precious" (282), Latour connects with the lover and is released into something complete and great, a redemptive trinity of art, religion, and friendship.
Pater's "face of one's friend" illuminates a recurring vision in Death Comes for the Archbishop. Always sensitive to the shape of things, Latour is particularly sensitive to countenances, and although he does not seek miracles or faces appearing from afar, he finds the miraculous everywhere. All faces to him are revelatory; "to look closely is to understand" (Lee 276), and by carefully reading either the face of old Sada or the cruciform tree, Latour experiences the "mysteries" and "holy joy" of religion (217).
This pattern builds to a supreme moment near the end of the novel when Latour, upon entering Santa Fe for the last time, looks upon the "golden face" of his cathedral set within the embracing arms of the Sandia Mountains (271). As David and Mary-Ann Stouck write, "The Bishop of the novel's title finds ultimate peace in the building and contemplation of his cathedral, in which religion and art are perfectly conjoined" (294-95). For Latour, however, the cathedral and Father Joseph are also joined, as religious devotion mirrors dedication to one's friend. With its rising twin towers, the cathedral is as much a tribute to Vaillant as it is to the glory of God; a testament to art and religion, it is also the triumph of faith and friendship.
In Death Comes for the Archbishop eroticism dissolves into spirituality in a process akin to the casting of the Spanish bell. Rather than spoiling the Angelus, exoticism enriches its tone; homoeroticism similarly enhances Cather's text. The mystery is that such a deeply religious book shows no hostility toward homosexuality, and it is the nature of this assimilation that helps make Death Comes for the Archbishop Cather's most perfect fiction, perfect in its fusion of theme and technique. Acknowledging Cather's achievement, E. K. Brown writes that "Her craftsmanship in language, her sense of a true economy, her command of rhythms individual without being eccentric, had never before reached such a delicate sureness"(257). Sexual aesthetics are part of this narrative strength. After the novel was published and widely read, many readers thought Cather herself was a Roman Catholic. Yet the narrative's authenticity demonstrates more than a depth of religious feeling. As James Woodress observes, "the novel was forged in the crucible of Cather's imagination," out of which came a profound humanity, including a sensitivity toward the friendship at the heart of her story (201).
Particular friendship is Cather's crowning metaphor for "particular sympathy" (208). As Rosowski points out, "From the core friendship between Fathers Latour and Vaillant, a joyful mood extends outward, in what appears to be indiscriminate envelopment. . . . sympathy is the moral pattern" (164). Homosexuality widens this metaphoric embrace and instills feelings in the novel that make Southern's assessment of Spiritual Friendship aptly descriptive of Cather's text: "The treatise that Aelred wrote on friendship is the most beautiful example of the casting of an ancient humanistic theme into a Christian mould" (35). Fusing a classical ideal with Christian belief, Cather turns male friendship into a spiritual allegory, and like the fragrance of incense from the piñon fire, it too gives Death Comes for the Archbishop the pervasive aura of a perpetual religious service. Faith and friendship coalesce before us as the miracle of God's love appears in the face of one's friend.