By DAVID A. KING, PH.D., Commentary | Published March 20, 2014
Jesus knew how to tell a story.
Jesus also knew that the best stories were short, and more importantly, simple. Yet he knew that his parables imparted profound wisdom, truth and beauty condensed in a manner that neither sermon nor treatise could ever as effectively convey.
You don’t forget the Parable of the Good Samaritan. You don’t forget the Good Shepherd. You hear the Parable of the Prodigal Son just once, and its lessons and mysteries can sustain you through the deepest hurts and move you to transcendent joy.
I think Jesus would have liked this exchange:
“It is not a fault in her if she believes that God sent you.”
“He didn’t send a Black Baptist to a Catholic nun. He didn’t do anything like that.”
“It would be odd, wouldn’t it?”
Those lines are from another simple story. They appear in William E. Barrett’s 1962 novella, “The Lilies of the Field,” and they express in three simple statements the mystery that is at the heart of a little modern classic of empathy, faith and trust in both God and fellow human beings.
Not many people think about William Barrett now, though “Lilies of the Field” remains in print. Born in 1900 in New York, Barrett moved to Denver as a teenager and after returning to New York for college, spent most of his life in Denver. He had a love for aviation and served the Air Force as a civilian lecturer while also acting as a consultant in aviation and aeronautics for the Denver Public Library. He and his wife were married for 57 years. It sounds like a quiet, even mundane, life.
Yet Barrett was also a writer who wrote over 20 books, most of them novels. Three of the books were made into popular films, including “The Left Hand of God,” “The Lilies of the Field,” and “Pieces of Dreams,” which was adapted from the novel “The Wine and the Music.”
Barrett was also an essayist, a biographer and a reviewer. He wrote a well-received biography of Pope Paul VI. The Atlantic chose Barrett to write its review of Flannery O’Connor’s posthumous collection “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” His brief review contains a telling phrase, perfectly applicable to “The Lilies of the Field,” which praises O’Connor’s “vivid simplicity of language.” Indeed, one of the great qualities of the novella is its plain, unassuming voice. It is a voice perfectly suited to a fable, or parable, for that is what the book really is.
Homer Smith—black, Baptist, and from South Carolina—has been discharged from the Army and is making his way across the West, wandering, looking about, and working only when he needs to. His station wagon is a traveling house, and he has no particular compulsion to settle anywhere. Much like Walker Percy’s own Will Barrett, Homer waits and watches; if something happens, then something happens. Homer is simply content to be free.
One day, Homer drives past some strangely dressed women at work on a place that obviously needs work. He decides to stop. His plan is to work a day or two, make some money, and then move on. God has other plans.
“Gott ist gut. He hass sent to me a big, stronk man,” says the woman to whom he first speaks. The woman turns out to be Mother Maria Marthe, the abbess of a small convent of just a very few East German nuns.
Mother Maria Marthe and her sisters want to build a chapel. Homer, or Schmidt, as the nuns call him, is going to build it for them. Homer doesn’t know this, and when he learns about it, he doesn’t want it. Again, God has other plans.
Homer is confused by the nuns. “The word, ‘Catholic’ came into his mind and with it the strange, awesome word, ‘nun’. It had not occurred to him that these women were nuns. He found the idea incredible.” He plans to collect his wages and get out, fast. Yet when he asks for pay, he and Mother Maria Marthe engage in a funny exchange of Scripture verses. The Mother wins out, of course, when she quotes St. Matthew 6:28-29: “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”
Though there are other conflicts that arise throughout the course of a taut 92 pages, the Mother essentially has the last word. Schmidt builds the chapel. He builds it by turns as an obsession, as an obligation, and ultimately as an act of faith. Then he disappears.
Do not think that I have “spoiled” the book. Because Barrett makes it apparent from the opening sentences that “There is a young legend developing on the west side of the mountains. It will, inevitably, grow with the years.” The reader already knows what will happen. Far more important is why it happens.
Barrett once said of his fiction that “A good novel is the biography of an imaginary person, and when the biography is completed, the person is no longer imaginary; he is as real as his creator.” Homer Smith is completely different from the white, Catholic, Westerner William Barrett, but Barrett shapes Smith’s character in a way that displays remarkable empathy and insight into the qualities that not only make him different but at the same time universal. Further, his evocation of the nuns, who are based partly upon the Sisters of Walburga, is also brilliant.
In just a few pages, Barrett illustrates how easily communion between people can really occur. Smith is immediately invited to eat with the nuns; he doesn’t much like the food, but the sharing of a meal makes an impression upon him. Smith isn’t at the convent for one night until he’s enlisted to teach English, and while he is initially reluctant, he soon finds himself fascinated by the rediscovery of his own language. Before he knows it, Smith is leading Sunday night sing-alongs; he sings the hymns of his youth while the nuns chant in Latin. Smith even comes to prefer the Latin!
As all this is happening, the chapel is slowly being built; neighbors who once doubted the nuns are volunteering to help, and prejudiced people of all kinds slowly overcome their attitudes.
Here is where the novella could lapse into sentimental drivel, but Barrett keeps it from happening because his Catholicism refuses to succumb to cynicism; he genuinely trusts that human beings are essentially good, and that belief allows the book to be true.
Barrett sincerely believed, as he said, “that life produces more happy endings than unhappy endings, regardless of the physical appearances to the contrary. Happiness is always cheated in the census because people count their miseries carefully and catalogue them, accepting their blessings without thought.”
Further, Barrett was writing in 1962. His simple language rings with the idealism of Kennedy, King, and the American folk-song revival. Deep in his heart, Barrett truly believes, we shall overcome one day. That was the spirit of the time; in spite of the anxiety of the Cold War, the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, the growing tensions in Vietnam, the idealists—and particularly the Catholic idealists—really believed we could nurture our collective essential decency to achieve the greater good.
The Mexican-Americans in the book, in a marvelous twist of magic-realism, waste no time after Smith’s departure in turning him into both a mystic and a mystery: “Juan Archuleta swore that he had laid bricks beside Homer Smith and that often the bricks flew into place with no one touching them. … Jose Gonzalez claimed that often a white light shone around the man.”
Mother Maria Marthe is more down-to-earth: “He was not of our faith, not of our skin, but he was a man of greatness, of an utter devotion.”
“The Lilies of the Field” was destined to become a film; before the book was published, a movie adaptation was already being planned. The film is a classic of the waning golden age of Hollywood, and as such, it bears many of the flaws of that time. Yet it also retains the era’s charms. Lilia Skala is wonderful as Mother Maria Marthe, and was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress.
Still, the film belongs forever to Sidney Poitier, who made history by winning the Oscar for Best Actor; true to Barrett’s ideas about characterization, Poitier becomes Homer Smith in a splendid performance.
William E. Barrett died in 1986, and most of his books are now out of print, but “Lilies of the Field” endures as a testament not only to the strange ways in which God works, but more importantly, that “Gott ist gut.”
David A. King, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and an adjunct faculty member at Spring Hill College, Atlanta. He is also the director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.