Earth's Crammed With Heaven: The Ántonia Principle

03 November 2014

But she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one's breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions. It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.”
my ántonia / / willa cather

I don't make a point of hiding my affection for Willa Cather's richly descriptive memoir, My Ántonia. It's been almost a year now since I first read it, and although its length wanes next to Dickens' (whose does not, for that matter?), I've drawn some of my favorite quotes and passages from its brief pages. I lost myself wholeheartedly in that story last winter, blissfully ignoring the fact that it was a piece of required reading for my English course. I don't think I've enjoyed an assigned novel so well since Pride and Prejudice made a cameo on my World Literature syllabus two years ago. 

In January I emphasized the beauty of Cather's description, and while I could wax on for hours in the same direction, it is Ántonia herself who deserves a moment of recognition. I am continually drawn to the passage quoted above near the book's end. That something in her capable of "[firing] the imagination" breathes fruitful life and glowing vivacity into Ántonia to such an extent that it transcends her age and physical decline. At this point in the memoir, deep-set wrinkles have replaced her once-ruddy complexion; her hair has grown thin and lank; the health of her frame has turned sallow with age; but none of it matters. According to Jim, she "[can] still stop one's breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow [reveals] the meaning in common things."

I realized soon enough why I kept returning to this section. Something in my heart cried out, That's what I want.

I wanted to be like Ántonia.

For that matter, who doesn't wish to imitate this lively girl, lovely woman, and now wise mother? Jim Burden devotes his entire memoir to her record. Cather paints her name on every page. Even the untamed prairie emulates her unquenched spirit. Ántonia wends her way through the book.

What strikes me about this woman, however, contrasts dramatically with the very thing that repulses me in Jim. While Jim spends the entirety of the book in her shadow, playing the role of her adoring worshiper, longing for their easy childhood days before the threshold to adulthood brought new troubles, Ántonia faces each fresh dawn with remarkable strength and courage. She plows and plants in the fields to save her family from starvation, ignoring Jim's requests to play in the tall prairie grass. She works in town as a hired girl and earns respect from her employers through her diligence and loyalty. And then in the high summer days of her girlhood, she finds time to dance each night away at the pavilion. Her name becomes synonymous with joviality, good health, strength, and fruitfulness: the very essence of life.

But if I were to be honest with myself, I'd admit that I am much more like Jim Burden, who paints pictures of Egypt and artfully leaves out what it lacks, refusing to face either the day at hand or the days to come in light of rosy-hued yore. My journal — stories new and old — ancient blog posts: all of them can attest to this. (Take your pick; I have witnesses enough.) And perhaps that's another layer of My Ántonia that appeals to me. Jim's heavily nostalgic tone wraps a veil of reminscence around the book. "Whatever we had missed," he concludes at the story's end, "we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past." For him, that is enough. His Ántonia is still the sun of his world, and he will spin out the rest of his days in her sphere.

God, in His infinite wisdom, does not call us to a romantic worship of the past anymore that he calls us to blindly accept the future. This hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks during our senior girl Bible study several weeks ago. Studying the Book of Ruth — a legacy as rooted in seasons of planting, tending, and harvesting as Ántonia — lent me a new appreciation for the present. As a narrative, it seems almost too simple in its brevity; as a record of God's intervention, it's positively magnificent. The words I want to focus on, however, are of Boaz's overseer.

and she said, "I pray you, let me glean and gather after the reapers among the sheaves": so she came, and hath continued even from the morning until now, that she tarried a little in the house.
ruth 2:7

God — through Boaz — approaches Ruth while she is laboring steadily. This is the sort of living that is focused on the Lord's daily mercies. Ruth could have clung to Naomi, her one familiar tie in Bethlehem; she could have pined endlessly for Moab and her lost husband; she could have done anything other than the Lord's will. She didn't know the entirety of His plan, nor where it would leave her. She didn't even know Boaz. But she had the willingless to take the next step, though the way loomed dark as dusk before her, and she made a menial task like gleaning so faithful and beautiful that even the overseer bothered to take note of her.

And then the Lord intervenes on her behalf, and she stops in her work and throws herself before Boaz, humbled at His great mercy through this man. She depended on His Providence, and He provided for her.

Ántonia left Bohemia and learned to embrace life on the Nebraskan prairie. Ruth abandoned Moab and submitted herself under the God of Abraham in following Naomi to Bethlehem. And the anthem that rings through my ears as I sit on that couch with some of my closest friends and let the Word of God wash over me is this:

the Lord comes with grace and favor when we are diligent in the tasks He's given us.

I so often forget that life is more like a string of rumpled hills than a staggered array of highlands and valleys. I try to fool myself that excellence, dedication, and a willing spirit are not just as important (and sometimes all the more so) when writing a paper, expressing a thought, or cleaning a bathtub as when speaking before a crowd. Is it true, O Christ in Heaven, that we are weighed in the balance of the everyday? Do not we live out our faith on the same soil where You've planted our dusty feet? Therein lies the beauty of Ántonia's spirit and the awful grace of Ruth's bent figure: with only enough light to see a step or two before them, they have caught a glimpse of Heaven oozing through the plowed cracks of Earth.

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware
More and more from the first similitude.
[elizabeth barrett browning]

2 epistles:

  1. I was fascinated by My Antonia when I read it last year for English class. And yet I could never pin down why I absolutely loved it and kinda sorta hated it at the same time, that is until now. I completely agree with you about Antonia and Jim. It is so much easier to dream about the future or remember the past, and yet to really live a big life one must accept and enjoy whatever the Lord hands us each day. His mercies are new every morning! (Lamentations 3:23)

    Thanks for posting this! It is well written, intriguing, and beautiful.

    ReplyDelete
  2. You are such a beautiful writer, Elizabeth. Thank you for this post.

    ReplyDelete

"Gracious words are like a honeycomb; sweetness to the soul and health to the body." —Proverbs 16:24

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