Recently we received a letter from a farmer in Wittenberg, Wis., that provides a unique commentary on human life from a rural-life perspective. Written by Deacon David Ashenbrenner, who serves St. Joseph Parish in nearby Galloway, it merges homespun humor and insight with Catholic values so deftly that we thought we'd share it here:
"On Wednesday, Sept. 27, my wife and I made the 50-mile trip to Poniatowski for Rural Life Days. Being a small farmer (we raise about 700 chickens a year) and being surrounded by dairy and potato farms, we have a personal interest in farming.
"I could say we went because this is a religious event in our deanery, or because the bishop was there, or because we feel the presence of the Lord in our farming endeavors. Truth of the matter is, we came for the same reason that many farmers attend certain events: It was raining.
"That's not suggesting that the presence of Bishop [Jerome] Listecki [of La Crosse] in our area wasn't important. He does a good job understanding the problems of farmers -- for a city fella. As I watched the bishop saying Mass and blessing the animals and machinery, I couldn't help thinking of how people have moved away from the farm life and how some of the attitudes have changed.
"In our farming area, I occasionally notice while distributing the Precious Blood that some of my neighbors have probably just hurried over from some farm chore. That grease is awfully hard to get off when your hands have been in it most of the day. I even sneak a look at my own hands and try to hide any part I missed.
"But there are other times when the farm chore is not so noticeable. Like the Easter morning when our calf, Alleluia, was born. I'm quite sure I washed my hands that morning.
"That got me to thinking what rural 'life' really was. Any farmer who has tried to bring a newborn calf into the world must realize how powerful that life is, even when it is still inside the mother. As farmers, we feel we have the right of life or death over that animal. However, if that were a human struggling for life and waiting to be born...
"I also got to thinking about the other end of life. A couple of weeks ago, our son-in-law's family came to our farm to have us butcher a few chickens for them. Since they come from Pakistan and are Muslim, they asked if they could pray before I carried out the task of decapitating the chickens. Life is important to them, and the taking of life is a sacred venture.
"As I held the axe and waited for them to do the praying, I again thought of the human life. It's hard to kill a chicken or any animal, but sometimes that is what has to be done. We take the life of an animal because we feel human life must control animal life.
"However, as I held that axe in my hand, I knew that I was taking the life of a chicken. If there had been a human being there, how could I ever have swung that axe, be an executioner?
I don't know if we did everything according to their belief of Halal, or if I will get in trouble with the bishop for allowing a Muslim prayer. I do know that I see a close view of life in the birth and death of animals -- how important that life is and how much more important human life is.
"Rural life has a different meaning for different people. Allowing the baby to be born and not helping to swing the axe are two parts of that life."
Deacon Ashenbrenner closes his letter by stating that although he'd like to hear more of the Rural Life Days program as it moves on to the town of Athens, he's got to pick up some supplies so he can mend a fence back home.
"A fox got at our chickens a while ago and I was unable to end his life," he explains. "So I will just have to outwit him."
That's some welcome respect-life wisdom, straight from the farm.