Heaven under our feet…

Henry David Thoreau said that heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.  I am not a religious person, although I was raised in the Catholic church to be one.  I had my first communion at St. George Parish here in Hermann.  The group photo shows a collection of shiny little faces, the girls in white dresses and veils, the boys in white shirts and ties – our hands clasped seriously in prayer.  About 10 years later, we were all confirmed together, but we don’t appear quite so serious this time – too many other things occupying the minds of teenagers. 

Even through college I managed to get to mass almost every Sunday.  Then I went to Alaska, took one look at all the incredible raw beauty that hits you from every angle, taking your breath away, and I realized that maybe heaven is already here on earth.  At that point, organized religion seemed, well, just too organized for me.  It became clear to me that what I experienced around me, whether in nature or from the good I saw in other people, provided a much more spiritual connection than anything I could find in a physical church. 

Be that as it may, one of the most spiritual places I have ever encountered is right here near Hermann, and yes, it does include a church.  Northeast of Hermann, across the Missouri River, is the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows at Starkenburg.  Germans settled in Starkenburg in 1847, including some of my own ancestors.  The area includes St. Martin’s Church, the chapel, a grotto, the Stations of the Cross winding through the trees, and other historical features.  My father’s father had a store just up the road in the early 1930’s, one of his many attempts at entrepreneurship.  There is a B&B on the site now,  Les Lavandes, an oddly French name for such a staunchly German area.  I would say my dad’s fondest childhood memories were his years living in Starkenburg, and roaming the church grounds, illicitly shooting squirrels.  Both he and my mother are buried there.

 

It’s not quite accurate to call Starkenburg a religious site, because it is so much more than that.  Calling it a religious experience may steer some folks away from visiting it.  Simply put, Starkenburg’s spirituality is tangible.  You feel it around you – it has a calming effect on your being.  You can believe in anything, or nothing at all, and the place just takes you in without any needed explanation. 

The grounds at the Lady of Our Sorrows Shrine at Starkenburg are always open for meditation, a walk, or a picnic lunch under the trees.  St. Martin’s Church, the museum, and the Chapel are open until dusk each day.  Pilgrimages are held twice a year with a large German meal and mass at the outdoor alter (3rd Sunday in May and the 2nd Sunday in September).  From Hermann, go north on Hwy 19; turn left on Hwy 94 for 4 miles through the village of Rhineland; turn right on P for 2 miles – you’ll see the steeples through the trees. 

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Scenes from a morning walk…

I’ve become a morning person.  I never used to be one.   My mom joked that it was a good thing I was in the afternoon kindergarten class, or she would have never gotten me there at all.  As each year goes by, I seem to enjoy the early mornings more and more.  My mind feels refreshed, and I feel I can get a jumpstart on my day.   Also, my husband, Mick, often has trouble sleeping at night, and usually sleeps in, giving me several hours with the house all to myself.

Since becoming a full-time grad student, I probably put in as many hours of work as when I was actually gainfully employed, but it makes for a much more flexible schedule.  One of the great benefits is having the time for a morning walk.

One of my favorite walks is down a narrow gravel road to a small Protestant church, the Bethany United Church of Christ.  In this rural countryside, you get the sense that many scenes have not changed through the years – this is one of those.  You meander down the road with a hay field on one side and woods on the other, and then you see a church steeple poking out through the trees.  A huge oak towers near the church – you can imagine its gnarled limbs providing shade for several generations of parishioners.  Cows graze in the fields beyond.  If you can overlook the electric lines to the church and the sound of drivers in the distance on their way to work, you will think you have walked back to another time.

The Bethany Church holds an ice cream social the middle of August each year – in fact, we were there just last Friday evening for it and spent time catching up with our neighbors, Bernadine and Larry.  There is a lot of “social” in this picnic.  It draws quite a crowd – the ice cream is good, but I think the homeyness of the setting and the opportunity to just sit and have an old-fashion visit is what brings folks back every year.

To find the Bethany UCC from Hermann, take Hwy 100 east for 7 miles.  Turn right on Z and drive about 1-1/2 miles.  You’ll see the sign for the church turn-off on the left