Seeing the Good Things

Willa Cather’s Shadows on the Rock is set at the turn of the eighteenth century, when Québec City is a sparsely populated imperial outpost in a scarcely charted wilderness.

This charming novel presents a year in the life of Cécile Auclair, daughter of the city’s “philosopher apothecary.”

Though Euclide Auclair is highly respected for the efficacy of his remedies, the success of his career is stunted by his refusal to endorse then-trending medical fashions, such as bloodletting.

Auclair’s ability to provide his daughter with a modestly comfortable but dignified and loving home is secured by the patronage of an aging Count de Frontenac.

Like his protégé, the Count “belonged to the old order; he cherished those beneath him and rendered his duty to those above him, but flattered nobody, not the King himself.”

At thirteen, Cécile is both devoted to maintaining the legacy of her father and the honor of their protector, and fearful of what will happen when they, and the “old order” they embody, give way to the new.

Cather demonstrates a profound knowledge of and sympathy for the Catholic culture of New France. Its people, she tells us, “have loved miracles for so many hundred years, not as proof or evidence, but because they are the actual flowering of desire.”

Characters in the novel exhibit a wide range of virtues and vices, with religion consistently nudging them in the direction of their better selves. Still, how the “shapeless longing” that flowers in faith relates to reality itself remains an ambiguous point in the author’s presentation.

The saintly Bishop Laval, responding to Cécile’s intervention on behalf of a destitute but stouthearted young man, remarks that “schools are not meant to make boys happy,” “but to teach them to do without happiness.”

Though the most devout souls in the novel exert a spiritual power that demands our respect, one has the impression that they have sacrificed all hopes of earthly prosperity for a heavenly treasure whose precise value is never clearly confirmed.

After reading the book, I was privileged to attend a Confirmation ceremony conducted according to the traditional Catholic rite. At its conclusion, the bishop imparts the following blessing on those now attaining to spiritual maturity:

May the Lord bless you out of Sion, that you may see the good things of Jerusalem all the days of your life, and have life everlasting.

In pursuing the riches of heaven, let us not forget that they can also be enjoyed, however imperfectly, on this earth.

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