Bless Me, Ultima | Study Guide

Rudolfo A. Anaya

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Bless Me, Ultima | Chapters 18–19 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 18 (Dieciocho)

Antonio and all the town's Catholics go to church on Ash Wednesday to repent of their sins. Antonio thinks of death ("to dust thou shalt return") and its eternal finality. But the soul survives, and the soul must be saved for eternity. Antonio is worried and preoccupied with "the salvation of [his] soul" because he believes "eternity lasted forever, and a soul because of one mistake could spend that eternity in hell."

Antonio goes to catechism class. Soon it will be Lent and then Easter Sunday when he'll take his first communion. He is afraid his soul will spend eternity in hell, and he dreams of hellfire. In his dreams he frequently sees Florence, the atheist, burning in hell. Florence is serene. He rejects a God who is everywhere, even with Tenorio and his witchy daughters. Later Samuel approaches Antonio and suggests maybe Florence is ready to see the golden carp. Perhaps Florence would find in the golden carp a deity he could believe in.

That Friday at the church, Antonio, his friends, and others attend the ritual of the Stations of the Cross. Father Byrnes walks from station to station, each showing a scene from Christ's sentencing, death, and resurrection. Antonio thinks about the following Saturday when he will make confession and Easter Sunday when he will take communion for the first time. As the priest makes the rounds of the Stations, Horse and other boys mock him and the ritual. When the priest stands near Horse, the boy feels sick from scent of incense. He staggers out of the church and vomits on the church steps.

Fasting during Lent makes Antonio feel depressed. Finally Good Friday comes, and Lent nears its end. Good Friday, too, makes Antonio feel forlorn. But he feels better the next day. He's looking forward to confession with the priest.

Before going into church for confession, the boys get rowdy and insist Antonio play the part of a priest who hears their confessions. The role makes Antonio uncomfortable. The boys think this is just a game, but Antonio takes it more seriously. He is disturbed by the sins each boy confesses to him. Yet he gives each boy his "penance ... [to] say a rosary." The boys try to force Florence to join their game, but because Florence is a nonbeliever he will not confess. The boys begin to get angry, even violent, toward Florence. When they force Florence to his knees he says he has no sins. They insist everyone has sins, and his refusal to take part in their game infuriates them. Florence finally says God has sinned against him. The crowd of boys moves to attack Florence, but Antonio stops them. He will not give Florence penance, and he shows himself to be unafraid of the boys' threatened violence. So instead of beating Florence the boys attack Antonio and beat him quite viciously. The boys stop only when they hear Father Byrne calling them to come into the church for confession. Antonio follows them inside. He makes his confession to Father Byrne.

Chapter 19 (Diecinuever)

It is Easter Sunday, the day of Christ's resurrection. All the children are dressed up, waiting to take their first communion. The boys talk, joke, and gossip as they wait in line for communion. Antonio smiles at his parents and Ultima who are there to witness his communion.

First the children must sit through mass. Antonio prays through it. He feels cleansed by having confessed his sins the day before. He is ready to take in the body of Christ. The priest carries out the ceremony to change the wine and bread into the body and blood of Christ. The blood makes Antonio think of Lupito and Narciso. When it's Antonio's turn he "receives Him {the wafer} gladly." Antonio is so happy God is inside him now. He immediately starts asking this inner God questions: Why did Lupito die? And Narciso? Why do you make Florence suffer? But God inside him gives Antonio no answers: "the fleeting mystery was already vanishing."

Back in his seat in the pew Antonio listens to the priest ask for contributions to the church. Antonio again calls on his inner God to communicate with him, but he finds "only emptiness." Antonio looks at the statue of the smiling Virgin. Then the church service is over.

Analysis

Before confession and communion Antonio is preoccupied with the state of his soul and the seeming unfairness of divine justice. Antonio thinks "a soul because of one mistake could spend eternity in hell ... the knowledge of this was frightful" to him. It is unfair for a single sin to condemn an otherwise good person to an eternity in hell. Florence puts into words what Antonio is afraid to admit to himself, saying, "[The Church says] I am to say God is everywhere ... He shares a bed with Tenorio and his evil daughters." Antonio has no retort to Florence's accurate deduction from Church doctrine.

Antonio's sense of identity is challenged when the boys force him to play the role of a priest. It's a game, but Antonio takes it seriously. Perhaps this reveals his true priestly vocation. When Antonio stands up to the boys who want to beat Florence, he reveals the role of priest imbues him with fearlessness. Antonio "stands his ground for what [he] felt to be right." He would rather take the beating himself than abuse his pretend priestly calling and condemn Florence. Later, however, when Antonio absolves Florence—of sins he says he doesn't have—and refuses to give Florence penance, the boys beat Antonio up for not exacting punishment. After this Antonio seems to recognize his true identity is not that of a priest. Florence tells him "You could never be their priest," and Antonio responds, "No," because inflicting unjust punishment is something he can't do. So Antonio's identity is still in flux.

In the game of priest and confession Florence enrages the boys by insisting he is without sin. The Church teaches, and the boys believe, no person (except the Virgin Mary) is without sin. They want to attack Florence for what they view as his blasphemy and hubris. But when Florence is forced to kneel before Antonio, Antonio looks into his eyes and sees Florence is telling "a frightening truth ... He did not believe he had ever sinned against God." Florence even shouts, "It is God who has sinned against me!"—referring to the unjust punishment in all the suffering he has endured. Such a statement is blasphemous, and the other boys are ready to punish Florence for it.

The punishment the boys threaten to carry out against Florence and do, in fact, inflict on Antonio is presented as if it's divine punishment. Humans are punishing the nonbeliever in the name of God. Yet their anger is fueled by Florence's nonbelief, not by a sinful act. The whole episode is reminiscent of the Inquisition when humans took it upon themselves to inflict the most horrific punishments on those who dared to believe differently or even to question Church doctrine. The boys turn on Antonio only after he says, in his role as priest, "there will be no punishment [for Florence] ... His sins are forgiven." The wrathful God a priest (Antonio) represents is not a God of forgiveness but a God of punishment. So if God's representative on earth—the priest—will not invoke punishment then the populace will do it for Him.

When Antonio takes communion on Easter Sunday, he thinks by ingesting God he will gain knowledge of divine justice and how it works on earth. Antonio swallows the Host and waits for God to speak to him. But God is mute. Antonio asks the God now within him about fairness and justice. But "the Voice within [him] did not answer. There was only silence. ... the fleeting mystery was already vanishing." Antonio seeks God for knowledge of divine will and justice, but the God of the Church cannot or will not grant him this knowledge. Communion did not bring Antonio any closer to God or give him any knowledge or wisdom. In the end Antonio is left with "Only emptiness."

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