“Thy will be done in art, as it is in heaven”: Cather on religion and art

I’m a little depressed, worrying about my dad’s health and not feeling that great myself since last night. But I did read most of Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House today and figured quoting a rich passage is almost as good as a chunk of dark chocolate at a time like this, right? :)

Professor Godfrey St. Peter is lecturing his history students when a student asks him a question.

“No, Miller, I don’t myself think much of science as a phase of human development.  It has given us a lot of ingenious toys; they take our attention away from the real problems, of course, and since the problems are insoluble, I suppose we ought to be grateful for distraction.  But the fact is, the human mind, the individual mind, has always been made more interesting by dwelling on the old riddles, even if it makes nothing of them.  Science hasn’t given us any new amazements, except of the superficial kind we get from witnessing dexterity and sleight-of-hand.  It hasn’t given us any richer pleasures, as the Renaissance did, nor any new sins–not one!  Indeed, it takes our old ones away.  It’s the laboratory, not the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world.  You’ll agree there is not much thrill about a physiological sin.  We were better off when even the prosaic matter of taking nourishment could have the magnificence of a sin.  I don’t think you help people by making their conduct of no importance–you impoverish them.  As long as every man and woman who crowded into the cathedrals on Easter Sunday was a principal in a gorgeous drama with God, glittering angels on one side and the shadows of evil coming and going on the other, life was a rich thing.  The king and the beggar had the same chance at miracles and great temptations and revelations.  And that’s what makes men happy, believing in the mystery and importance of their own individual lives.  It makes us happy to surround our creature needs and bodily instincts with as much pomp and circumstance as possible.  Art and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had.

“Moses learned the importance of that in the Egyptian court, and when he wanted to make a population of slaves into an independent people in the shortest possible time, he invented elaborate ceremonials to give them a feeling of dignity and purpose.  Every act had some imaginative end.  The cutting of the finger nails was a religious observance.  The Christian theologians went over the books of the Law, like great artists, getting splendid effects by excision.  They reset the stage with more space and mystery, throwing all the light upon a few sins of great dramatic value — only seven, you remember, and of those only three that are perpetually enthralling.  With the theologians came the cathedral-builders; the sculptors and glass-workers and painters.  They might, without sacrilege, have changed the prayer a little and said, Thy will be done in art, as it is in heaven.  How can it be done anywhere else AS it is in heaven?  But I think the hour is up. You might tell me next week, Miller, what you think science has done for us, besides making us very comfortable.” (54-56) (Chapter Five)

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2 thoughts on ““Thy will be done in art, as it is in heaven”: Cather on religion and art

  1. This sounds like a fascinating book. I haven’t read much (any?) Cather. This might be the one to start with. Why not the reading PLUS the dark chocolate! :)

    I’m sorry to hear about your dad. Wasn’t he just there doing construction? Take care of yourself too – rest as much as you can.

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