When I was a little kid I lived in Nebraska in a town whose eastern border was the Missouri River. This means that “my” Nebraska wasn’t the Nebraska of myth and legend — flat, treeless, grassland — but forest, bluff, and butte. Almost literally across the street from our house was a forest. It belonged to the Columban Fathers, the branch of the Roman Catholic Church that is concerned with books, publishing and missionary work.
The geography was a narrow strip of deciduous forest, a wide open meadow ruled over by an ancient oak tree, then a kind of road. To the right the road went past many strange relics of an arcane faith that had little meaning to a kid brought up American Baptist. At the end a life size Christ hung from a giant cross. Along the way was a “grotto” made of concrete to look like natural rock. Now I know it was meant to be Jesus’ tomb. If my memory is right, there was an angel somewhere on that very convincing concrete climbing wall (how we used it). The passage was lined with trees and, especially in fall, it was very lovely.
Beyond this passage was a real road but I never saw a vehicle on it. It led to the buildings of the cloister. We never went there. Instead we crossed it and went into the REAL forest. This is where things got good. There was a ravine across which we rigged a rope and tire. My brother rode that across the ravine — and I’m sure others did — but it wasn’t my thing. There were mulberry trees from which a friend and I once shook berries. There were my favorite; narrow trails to run on and, in winter, on which we could ride our sleds.
Above: a drawing I did a few years ago of my brother and me sledding at the Mission.
From time to time, we would see a monk walking between the trees, reading from a small book. I never thought they minded us being there, but in time a high fence was erected. We just went under the gate and went on as always. In the intervening years, the cloister has been built up and some of the forest is gone and the meadow is now an area filled with buildings, but…
Years and years later, when I read the life changing book, How the Irish Saved Civilization I learned something strange and wonderful. My “mission” was home to the spiritual descendants of one of the Irish monks who, with St. Gall, crossed the channel to bring books to Europe in the 6th century. Columbanus.
We live in innumerable parallel universes and are oblivious to many of those in which we live. “Here, Martha Ann, this will be very important to you someday.”