A few weeks ago my daughter Janice visited St. Peter’s Press to take a few pictures, and spent more time than she had intended contemplating the beauty of a place that contains within it the tools of a dying era.
Nobody really knows where it is. The press is on 100 College Drive, but you’ll, have a hard time finding it driving into Muenster if you don’t know where you’re going. It’s past the railway tracks, around a curve and down beyond the creek that runs under the gravel road.
The road is flanked by a row of elms on one side, and an open field on the other. Further along the elms line both sides of the road and form a canopy of green in the summer, and deep gold in the fall. If you’re lucky enough to experience thick hoarfrost in winter, it’s magic.
Depending on the time of year, chickadees and nuthatches hang out in the shrubs by the parking lot and give a perfunctory greeting. Generations of birds at the abbey are used to human contact — they don’t beg for sunflower seeds and peanuts, they expect them. I once put out an empty hand just for the pleasure of feeling their airy feathery-ness brush my fingers. The birds made me feel cheap, and rightly so. I never extended an empty hand again.
In December I’ve loved arriving in morning darkness, Lucille’s coffee already brewing and Christmas lights gracing the desks with soft radiance.
Late in fall there have been countless red sunsets that glow like stained glass through the stand of tall fir trees on the west side. The pines whisper — or roar — depending on the strength of the wind.
These are among the things I will miss when the whoosh and clack of the Heidelberg grows silent, and the smell of ink fades.
But what I’ll most miss is the people with whom I’ve corresponded these 24 years. Relationships built slowly at first, but as email became the common mode of communication, and as our website grew, our reach became wider. Strangers would write to say how moved they’d been by something they’d read.
I have dozens of saved messages from readers who took the time to say, “I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for all the wonderful work you and the other contributors do to make the Prairie Messenger such a breath of fresh air . . .” (Vancouver).
“There is so much to love about the PM and the quality of articles regularly featured” (Saltcoats).
“Keep up your good work. I say this to you: the Prairie Messenger has been and continues to be the best Catholic paper in this country . . . (Toronto).
“I want to congratulate the Prairie Messenger for . . . (a specific issue). I spent over two hours reading it! It reported and commented on so many good words and good actions in the church and the wider Christian community and, in this manner, fostered openness to others, the desire for justice and resistance to ‘the globalization of indifference’ ” (Pope Francis) . . . (Montreal).
Many were one-time notes. But some wrote a second time, and a third and, from North Palm Beach, Florida (thank you for your prayers, Jeanette L.), to Alabama, up to Washington, D.C, parts of the Maritimes, through places in Quebec, Ontario, the Prairie Provinces, to the far corners of B.C. and up to Yukon, friendships were formed. One even prayed a novena to St. Jude when one of my cats was missing (we found him — thank you, Jeannette T.). I’ve met almost none of these people, and yet our sharing of stories has been enriching and fulfilling.
Often, however, I did meet people in person. My work at the Prairie Messenger has led to three lifelong friendships. Roma, Lloyd, and Gerald (Gerry) at first corresponded only with regard to deadlines, but, as the years passed and we got together over bottles of wine, barbecued steaks, and city strolls, I have found in each of them a kindred spirit.
When I was younger I believed nothing could surprise me, as if low expectations could signify sophistication. Working at the PM taught me the joy of surprise:
— an empty half-page with a looming deadline would be filled, more often than seemed possible, by someone sending an unsolicited piece of beautiful writing;
— an emailed poem could flood my head with light;
— poets found our paper;
— sometimes people changed their minds;
— I could make someone’s day.
My former boss, friend, and mentor, Andrew Britz, OSB, loved to write about the saints in our midst. He acknowledged it is difficult for anyone to identify with the stories of martyrs, or those who have given away everything to work among the poorest of the poor.
In his “All Saints” editorial from November 2000, Andrew wrote, “We are called to visualize ourselves as part of a mighty throng dazzled before the very throne of God — to see ourselves as part of the communion of saints.”
This was a revelation to me.
“ . . . Most of us are not ready to find our meaning in grandiose stories of cosmic proportions,” he wrote. “But in the stories of Sts. Anthony and Jude, of Sts. Elizabeth and Hildegarde, of Grandma and Uncle Bill, of our spouse and close friend — in these stories we are called upon to find our place in the communion of saints . . . ”
It is my favourite editorial because it offers hope for us all: ordinary people who go to work, raise families, live alone; those who volunteer and get tired, frustrated, bored; who love, and then hate; who are loyal and then betray; who know kindness and then hurt another; who give all day and collapse in resentment when night descends; who make mistakes and then apologize; who forgive as they are forgiven.
The effort to pick up and start again, and again, is the pursuit of holiness, whether we are aware of it, or even believe it. Because we are good. That, to me, is not a surprise.
A couple of weeks ago, on the first really beautiful morning after a long winter, I arrived at work wearing my rubber boots. They’re necessary for about five days in spring, for about five steps from the car to the sidewalk. A paper-thin transparent layer of ice had formed over a puddle on the grass. Crows in the distance asserted their dominance over the otherwise still soundscape. With the toe of my pink boot I tapped the surface of the ice ever so gently, until it crackled into jagged lines and water oozed across the surface.
Some things I will miss.