The Lilies of the Field (1962)
Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels (76)
There is a young legend developing on the west side
of the mountains. It will, inevitably, grow
His name was Homer Smith.
And why do you worry about clothing? Consider
the lilies of the field, how they grow; they
It's maddening to see so many references to The Lilies of the Field, both book and movie, as "minor." Sure, it's a short book. Yes, the characters and situation are so idealized that it's nearly a fable. No, it does not accurately reflect the state of race relations in America in the early 1960s, nor at any other time anywhere, for that matter. But ask yourself this : how many books have you read in your life that actually made you feel more optimistic about the prospects of the species ? If it's really that easy to create sympathetic characters and write a story that uplifts the spirits, why haven't more authors written them ? Isn't it fair to conclude that the paucity of such stories, and the memorable nature of this one, indicate just how major an occurrence it is when one gets written ?
At any rate, hopefully everyone knows the tale, either from the great film or from a required reading in High School. As the opening lines above indicate, Homer Smith is a nearly mythological figure, a kind of John Henry, Paul Bunyan, or Shane. In an unlikely turn of events, this black Baptist former Army sergeant ends up helping some Catholic nuns, refugees from East Germany, to build a chapel in the New Mexico desert, despite a lack of help, tools, and materials.
Homer Smith brings an invaluable set of qualities to his task, chief among them : self confidence, self reliance, a puritan work ethic, and a healthy amount of pride. Mother Maria Marthe, the Teutonic leader of the tiny band of nuns, brings one great gift, faith :
Faith. It is a word for what is unreasonable.
If a man believes in an unreasonable thing, that is
Mother genuinely believes that God will provide, even that Homer has been sent by God, and that He will see to it that the chapel is built. The powerful combination of this mismatched pair's inner strengths serves as an inspiration to the entire community. Hispanic, Anglo, and Black; Catholic and Protestant; wealthy and poor; German, Mexican, and American; they come together to create a unique house of worship. And as the legend of Homer Smith grows in the desert, Mother Maria Marthe says of him :
'That is the chapel of Saint Benedict the Moor.
... That painting of the saint is the work of Sister
She pauses then and her voice drops. 'He was
not of our faith, nor of our skin,' she says, 'but he
Just as Homer's devotion to his task and Mother's faith give them a certain greatness, the aspirational beauty of this book gives it too a greatness that defies that parsimonious "minor" classification.
-William E. Barrett Papers (Penrose Library, University of Denver)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd