A Place for All

“You know, it’s about a hundred yards past the old Morton place.” Dad grew up where the one-mile grid of roads went unnamed. Didn’t need to be! People knew where they were by relationships and landmarks. “No, Dad, I never knew the Mortons and don’t have a clue where they lived.”

I grew up in a city where I depended on house numbers, street names and quantifiable directions to a location. “You do too! The Morton place is about a quarter of a mile south of the farm.” Though vague, at least Dad’s reference to “the farm” gave me a clue I could understand.

An orientation to place — a sense of where we originate, stand, belong — seems vital if not essential. Although driven to America by the Irish potato famine of the 1840s and the failed democratic revolutions of 1848 in a region we know as Germany, my ancestors were typical of most. They came together in multi-family units while clinging  tenaciously to their language and religion.

On a recent visit to my mother’s ancestral village of Weiberg in the North Rhineland region of what was Prussia we were struck by how that terrain mirrors the land near St. Helena, Cedar County, Nebraska where they settled in 1861. Just makes sense — as one Nebraska author writes, we know such land by heart.

That became abundantly clear yesterday. In playful banter an eleven year-old neighbor accused me of not being a very good Minnesotan. Without even a hint of forethought I retorted, “I’ve never aspired to be a Minnesotan. I’m a Nebraskan.” Though I enjoy living here and have sunk deep roots, I know my place. My heart and sensibilities rest most happily and assuredly deep within the Nebraska prairie.

On our annual trek back to Cedar County earlier this month, my Florida brother and I reminisced, visited relatives (at least the few who are left) and said a prayer at the graves of grandparents going all the way back to Ireland and Germany.

Tending the grass of my parents grave, I stood atop the spot where my cremains will one day be interred. It felt right. Felt like home. It felt like the place where I want to be laid to rest — amid four generations of family in a land I know by heart.

Yes, my family moved from this place 62 years ago and I admit a true disinterest in whether any Mortons remain. Still, it all comes down to knowing who and whose we are! That takes years, decades even; involves traveling vast distances and engaging rugged terrain; nothing short of a lifetime.

Nothing is more humbling and challenging than moving toward diminishment, even dependence. Earlier this month my brother and I visited cousins in a nursing home, stayed at the home of our brother’s widow as well as placed flowers on many more graves. In time this is the place we all find ourselves (if we are among the lucky ones).

What we depended upon for our identity and livelihood — houses, careers, bank accounts, reputations, responsibilities — prove not to be solid or even essential, loved and good as they were. Finally, it all comes down to knowing who and whose we are, where we really belong.

Recently I came upon this by Brendan Freeman. It pretty much says what I have come to believe:

Our true homeland is not here; our true monastery is not a building or a visible place. It is in the heart, in the center of our being — a space that can never be diminished or demolished. It is eternal and everlasting as the heavens. …the soul lives where it loves.

And, I might add, our true homeland is as all-embracing as the Nebraska prairie.
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The precise and perfect image of “knowing the land by heart” comes from Ron Hansen in his short story entitled Nebraska, in his collection of stories with the same name.

Trappist Fr. Brendan Freeman, OCSO is Superior ad Nutum of Holy Trinity Abbey in Huntsville, Utah. His experience of assisting the community through the process of closing is shared in Cistercian Studies Quarterly, vol 52.2 (2017) pages 221-29. “…the soul lives where it loves” is from John of the Cross in his Spiritual Canticle (8.3).

In Defense of May (and Marriage)

Tra la! It’s May! The lusty month of May! That lovely month when ev’ryone… Guenevere belts exuberantly. Everyone, what? The fantastical composer of Camelot would have us believe…

It’s mad, it’s gay, alive, a lust display
Those dreary vows that everyone takes, everyone breaks
Everyone makes divine mistakes.
The lusty month of May.

Spectacular? Yes. Glamorous? Yes. Over-the-top? For sure? But there is absolutely nothing about May — compared to any other month — to justify the disparaging suggestion that it is a time when dreary vows everyone takes, everyone breaks.

Quite the contrary! I’m honored to have been asked to officiate at a couple of weddings in the next few months. My considered assessment based on interaction with these couples suggests something beautiful, wonderful, singular and sacred.

Officiating is being invited to get up, close and personal with the intimacy shared by a couple. But we all witness the same mystifying magic when two people commit to loving their one-and-only unto death. It’s not as rare as cynics suggest. However, it’s more precious than even we can imagine.

My husband and I enjoyed dinner with one such couple this weekend. Below is my thank you to them from the next day. I share it here in the form of an open letter with the hope that its contents express something worthwhile for others as well.  Of course, names have been changed and descriptors generalized to protect this precious couple’s privacy:

Dear Ginny and Peter,

It was wonderful to reconnect and renew friendship last evening. We had a really enjoyable time with you over dinner and covering a broad range of topics in conversation. Thanks for your warm and generous hospitality — the prep time it took to prepare such a feast (homemade pasta!!!!) is recognized and appreciated!!! We also love Willow and cannot wait to introduce him to Jeb the Dog.

Savoring our time with you, a few more thoughts have come to mind. For example, I cannot say often enough, prepare for your marriage every bit as much as for your wedding. Yes, you’ve got great experience of living together as a couple and significant knowledge of each other. Don’t take that for granted, build on it!

You might simply reflect — personally as well as together — on the question, “What does it mean for me/us to make a public, permanent ‘I’m-not-going-anywhere-without-you’ commitment?” Make a point of talking with each other about the details of, and dreams for, your relationship even more than the specificities and practical details of your wedding.

Take advantage of the wisdom that surrounds you in your families and communities. You might say to people and couples you admire and respect, “We look forward to our marriage as much as our wedding. We really appreciate the way you live your life and believe you have tried and true wisdom to share. What good counsel would you care to share with us based on your experience?”

The sort of people you’d want to ask that question would be deeply honored — and probably humbled — that you’d seek their confidence. Then listen, listen, listen! Engage them with questions that further plumb their wisdom. These conversations may turn out to be more valuable than any wedding gift you receive from them.

Another thing occurred to me this morning while walking with Jeb the Dog at the creek… The link between spirituality and intimacy. A crude but accurate way of expressing it is, “Sex and love-making is not just about our bodies!”

Intimacy — deeply satisfying, other-centered, life-giving connection — is not just about being physically naked but by being emotionally and spiritually transparent, received and treasured by your one-and-only. In this way, your lives will deepen and your ongoing commitment will be greatly enhanced — both on your wedding day and all the years to come. Begin cultivating now this desire and capacity to actively engage each other spirituality.

That might sound pretty abstract, even disembodied. Here’s a practical way it might take shape for you… Today I am ordering for you a copy of Joan Chittister’s most recent book, Radical Spirit: Twelve Ways to Live a Free and Authentic Life from Barnes & Noble. Not because it’s about marriage, it’s not! I’m sending it because anything Joan Chittister writes is worth reading.

I propose that you read it together and talk about it as you go. It’s not “homework” from the guy officiating at your wedding. It’s simply an explicit invitation to you as a couple to develop the habit of continuously deepening your capacity to share intimately about your spirituality — to be transparent, received and treasured in this core part of who you are personally and together. You both seem to like books. Perhaps sharing some spiritual reading is a practice you will want to continue in the years ahead.

Do this, or something more to your liking, because you want to as a lead-up to your wedding day. Keep doing some practice of explicit sharing of your spiritual selves as an ongoing enrichment to your lives throughout your marriage. It’s then that you will enjoy the cumulative gifts of deeply physical, emotional and spiritual love-making — the greatest proof for, and most intimate encounter with, the love of God we can experience this side of whatever else is next!

This sort of marriage will be my heartfelt desire for you as I officiate at your ceremony but also all the while we are enjoying a great celebration of fun, family and frivolity.

Again, thanks for a most enjoyable dinner and conversation last evening. The two of you, together, are a blessing.

Richard