Having just returned to Chicago from the small, rural New Mexican community where she grew up, Rozann Carter reflects on the differences between urban and rural Catholicism-- on display within a simple, fervent prayer for rain.
O God, in Whom we live move and have our being, grant us sufficient rain, so that, being supplied with what sustains us in this present life, we may seek more confidently what sustains us for eternity. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, on God for ever and ever.
-taken from the Roman Missal of the Catholic Church, special prayers For Civil Needs
Mounted on the post of the barb-wire fence that separates the front yard from the pasture is a rain gauge. When the first crest of a thunderhead is visible on the horizon, when the phone lines are busy with local farmers and ranchers dialing up their neighbors 20 minutes further west to see the scope of what is rolling in, while families are anticipating the post-rain, deep-breathing, prayerfully giddy backporch session that is hopefully to come, that rain gauge sits—a quiet, inanimate, unaware receptacle of the palpable hopes of an entire community—hopes grounded in an inch-worth of measured drops of water.
Please, God. Please let it rain.
And so they wait, day after day, watching the local weather channel with religious devotion for an often-disappointing percentage chance… and then the sky for a sign that the “real Weatherman” is more merciful than KFDA’s Doppler Dave. They make plan A’s and plan B’s based on the news, selling the cattle for another week of wind, tumbleweeds and dirt; holding onto the herd upon the prediction of a gully-washer. They talk at the coffee shop (the kind with Cain’s Drip and Mini-Moos cream) about what they’ll do when the grass doesn’t grow and only the noxious “loco weed” survives, about the inordinate number of grasshoppers that are eating up the remaining stalks… and then, with lightness and joyful carrying-on, about how the local football team just whipped a 3A school across the Oklahoma line.
And they go to Mass. They bring their humble and fervent pleas for provision; they arrive with a sense of being utterly susceptible and powerless to muster up a rain cloud on their own accord; they fortify themselves with weighty back-up-- their children, who have been given specific directives to keep petitioning, keep praying, keep giving thanks. (The cycle of desperate hope and resignation/elation that accompanies this rain-prayer was on hilarious display in my family growing up. My cousin Kyle, upon making the connection that rain meant a “happy dad” and after a few confusing mornings of 3+ inch rains and no puddles, was discovered making the rounds filling up the rain gauges with a water hose.)
The orientation of rural communities around the cycle of the seasons, the weather and the type of Divine blessing that calls to mind the Israelites’ “manna in the desert” creates a specific type of spirituality. There is a seriousness, a depth of dependency, and a daily resignation to the will of God that occurs in rural life which is difficult to replicate. I returned to Chicago last week after having spent a long weekend at home in Northeast New Mexico amidst the highs and lows of the agricultural Spring, more aware than ever before of this contrast.
Urban Catholicism, mind you, is a grace-infused, organizing force that defines neighborhoods, serves as a means for acquiring healthcare and education, and populates carnival-style block parties. It makes a city into a community and organizes initiatives to make free-time valuable (eternally valuable) for those with little to none of it. It holds the common good in high esteem and boldly participates in both local and global corporal works of mercy to elevate this good. It provides a place of worship, of repose, and of embodiment of the Kingdom of God, very much amidst the imposing forces of a hostile culture.
Rural Catholicism, on the other hand, has a different organizing dynamic. The rural Catholic Church, especially if it exists in an agricultural community, is place of gathering, not so much to unite a varied prayer, but to pray a common prayer in unison. It’s a pinnacle experience bringing together career, community and faith. Its liturgy is positioned at the end of another week of county-sweeping forecasts, of community-wide fulfillment or disappointment, of answered prayers or the resignation that there is a deeper lesson to be learned in the seemingly unnoticed appeals.
Within the mystique of the pastoral, the perception of being idyllic, serene, and simple, and even the criticism of being disconnected from the societal and cultural milieus of the day, there is something of rural life that gets at the heart of what it means to know one’s place vis-à-vis God. The daily necessity of fervent supplication creates an almost monastic, beggar’s mentality that orients one around the all-powerful, other-ness of Providence in humble submission, while still pleading for his very personal intervention, as if He calls forth blades of grass in the same way that he numbers the hairs on one’s head and names the sparrows.
The rural Church exemplifies a necessary reorientation of priorities, the temporal in service of the eternal, in the midst (and for the good) of the entire community. The Old Testament nature of this daily trust keeps one humbly and thankfully dependent, in a proactive and yet submissive way, which is the prerequisite for true sanctity.
The lesson to be learned from the rural church is contained within this dynamic of praying for rain. Within the interior identification of what it is that we physically need, what we may take for granted but simply cannot live without, we recognize that we are fundamentally a beholden people. We are dependent on a God who reiterates that our fervent supplication does more for us than for Him, a God whose mercy, severe at times, is exercised with our ultimate good in mind. He sends the rain in due time, but during that passing time, he glories in the spiritual transformation that comes only by way of the recognition of a need so intense that it cannot be filled by our own power, but so daily that it must be constantly reckoned with.
Would that we were all this vulnerable… always.
Please God, let it rain.
Rozann Carter is the Creative Director at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.