Place Matters

We’re Called to Evangelize the Communities in Which We Live

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Here is last week’s column from Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, printed in the Southern Nebraska Register.

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To be a good writer, said the novelist and famous Nebraskan Willa Cather, you must “let fiction grow out of the land beneath your feet.”

Willa Cather’s fiction grew out of the place she loved the most—the land in and around Red Cloud, Nebraska, the place where she grew up, and the place where she visited as often as she could for the remainder of her life. 

Cather was born to be a writer, and after graduating from the University of Nebraska in 1895, she often worked far from the prairie she loved. But the place from which she came defined her, and, for her entire life, she was thoroughly a Nebraskan. 

“When I strike the open plains,” she once wrote, “something happens, I’m home. I breathe differently. That love of great spaces, of rolling open country like the sea—it’s the great passion of my life.”

I visited Red Cloud, Nebraska this month with four couples, who took the trip as a fundraiser for Pius X High School in Lincoln.  We enjoyed a wonderful lunch, cooked and prepared by the pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Red Cloud, Father Paul Frank, and then toured the town and area where she lived. We saw the orchards and houses and fields that had become characters in her books, especially the exquisite agrarian trilogy O Pioneers, The Song of the Lark, and My Antonia.

I was impressed by the fact that the place from which she came defined Cather, and her work.  She understood who she was in the context of the community, and even the geography, which formed her. I was impressed by the fact that each of us carries the vision, and sensibilities, and character of the places in which we’re formed.

The spiritual life is no different.  This month, I also visited the Benedictine monastery at Clear Creek, Oklahoma, in the foothills of the Ozarks, with a group of our diocesan seminarians on the feast of Saint Benedict.  We were deeply immersed into the rhythms and mysteries of the liturgical season through Latin Gregorian chant and the Benedictine daily life of ora et labora (prayer and work.)  And on July 16th, I celebrated the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel with our Discalced Carmelite Nuns at their stunningly beautiful monastery in Agnew that overlooks the “valley of paradise” (Valparaiso).

These communities are deeply tied to the places from which they come—their lives are patterned on the seasons and harvests and contours of the soil beneath their feet. Like Willa Cather, the vision of these communities is rooted in the spiritual life meted out in a specific time and place, in a specific way defined by the monasteries in which they live.

The agrarian culture and the communities that make up our diocese, understand the degree to which life is shaped by weather and seasons and soil.  But all of us, whether or not we’re farmers, are shaped by the places from where we come.  Our hearts are molded as Americans, and as Nebraskans, imprinted with the character of our families, our parishes, and our communities. 

We need to understand this in our relationship with Jesus Christ.  We’re called to serve the Kingdom in the very places where God has placed us.  We’re called to be missionaries of charity in our own families.  We’re called to be evangelists in our own communities.  We’re called to build Christian culture in the places from which we spring—consecrating the “soil beneath our feet” to the Kingdom of God.

Some of us, of course, are called to new places, to new missions, in the mysterious hand of Providence.  But wherever we are, we’re called to embrace, unreservedly, the graces of that place.  Willa Cather made beautiful fiction from the prairies around Red Cloud, Nebraska.  We’re called to do more. God has placed us wherever we are—and wherever we come from—to become saints.   Wherever we are, God has placed us there for a reason.  We’re called to make more than fiction.  We’re called to make disciples.

Like Willa Cather, and the Benedictines and the Carmelites I’ve visited, I thank God for the place from which I’ve come, and the places to which I’m sent.  But my prayer, above all else, is that each of us can embrace where God has placed us—our families, our parishes, our communities—with joy, with charity, and with a desire to serve the Kingdom.

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