Home on the Range


The title for this inspirational piece is not really my creation.  Most of us know a song by that name.  It was a song I learned at an early age.  It is a western song, but that is about all I knew about it.  With a bit of research, I learned that the words of the song are part of a poem written in the 1870s by a Kansan physician, Dr. Brewster M. Higley.  It came to be a song in the 1940s and quickly became very well known. 

I ran across the phrase, home on the range, as I was reading an article.  Home on the range was only part of the title of the article.  The full title reads: “Benedictine nuns make their home on the range.”  I was really intrigued by it and wanted to delve into the article itself.  I was not disappointed.

The first sentence of the article sets the context.  “Sr. Maria Walburga Schortemeyer is at home wading through the mud and manure of a barnyard in boots, work pants, a fleece jacket and her white veil.”  I did not even need a picture to imagine the scene.  I could imagine the good Sister looking much as I looked as an Indiana farm boy wading through the mud and the manure.  I have too many memories of days like that.  But I never was wearing a white veil.  In her farmyard clothes the white veil is the only vestige of her religious habit.

I know quite a few of the men’s monasteries are or were farms.  Many had dairy cows or hogs.  They produced milk, cheese and other farm products, which could be used for their own consumption or for sale to support the monks.  I know the Benedictine motto is “ora et labora,” “worship and work.”  The Benedictines believe every one of us is meant to be creatures of worship and creatures who also value the work God meant us to do.  That makes perfect sense to me.

I also know that Benedictine slogan goes for the sisters as well as the brothers.  They also believe in worship and work.  It just never occurred to me that they, too, might actually be on working farms.  I am guilty of my own prejudices.  That is why reading about these nuns in Colorado was such a good story for me.  Eagerly I read on about the nuns making their home on the range.

The scene opens with Sr. Maria in her work clothes and white veil tromping through the mud and the manure.  Barely a few minutes later and a few sentences later we see her in a different context.  “Minutes later, in the black-and-white habit of a Benedictine nun, she is equally at home singing psalms and praying the Divine Office in a chapel with other nuns.”  Schortemeyer is the ranch manager of the Benedictine Abbey at St. Walburga in Virginia Dale, Colorado.

This is not a monastery I know.  I am aware of the men’s monastery in Snow Mass, CO.  I always wanted to visit that one.  But now, I find that I am even more drawn to visit the sisters in Virgina Dale.  I think they have much to offer me, much to teach me, and much wisdom to share.  Maybe I can anticipate some of that in these reflections.  

It is tempting to see Sister Maria operating in two mutually exclusive realms.  On one hand she is a farmer---a rancher in Colorado.  On the other hand, she is a Benedictine nun---a spiritual woman living as deeply as she can in the Presence of God.  I realize I don’t always see being spiritual coalescing with a walk through the mud and manure!  Being spiritual too often is seen as something ethereal---something heavenly and delicate.  And walking through manure is anything but ethereal!  As I read her story, I realized my own limited way of envisioning things.  She became my teacher.

No doubt, part of my limitations---and probably of our culture---is seeing the spiritual as something antiseptic---untouched by the real, nasty world.  Anyone who is living deeply the spiritual life will tell us, the spiritual journey is lived very much in the midst of the “mud and manure” of our lives and our world.  The good sister knows this; I am learning it.

The lesson for me is to recognize that my own life will be spent at times walking through the mud and manure of my life.  The real question is not whether that will be true.  The real question is how to participate at the same time in the spiritual dimension?  Can I also find my own equivalent of the Psalms, hymn singing, prayer and a spiritual community to give my life depth, meaning and purpose in spite of the mud and manure?

I realize the mud of the world is a given.  What needs to be sought and found is the miracle of the spiritual.  It will not be found somewhere “out there.”  It will be found right in the midst of this world that God created.  The miracle of the spiritual can also be found in a community of others who share the journey that I am traveling.

We are all pilgrims through life in this world---out there on the “range” of our lives.  Our desire is also to find a home on the range.  Can we both be on a journey and also at home?  Sr. Maria and her twenty-three sisters have indeed figured it out.  The have made a home on the range.  All of us can do it, too, in our own way.

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