Unexpected Beauty, Ancient and Alive

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After morning Mass at a 115 year old country parish, I decided to take a drive along farm lanes, through “God’s country.”

County roads here run straight and intersections at 90º a mile or two apart. I turned south along Hawley—roads were historically named after the land owner—and was surprised to see a hops farm. I wondered if the grower crafted beer or sold to local breweries. The grove was surrounded by a ten-foot-fence against deer browsing, and dozens of 16’ crosses pierced the earth. The cross-beams trailed heavy twine, secured at the base near the bushy vines.

I found the view unsettling as thoughts of Saint Paul Miki and Companions came to mind; twenty-six martyred by being hung on crosses in Nagasaki, Japan.  I shuddered and shook my head to clear the intrusive image of suffering.

Refocusing on my drive, I made note to come back to the farm through the summer to see how the vines progressed.

In south-central Michigan there are several small lakes, marshes, and muck-land farms—which grow celery, onions, cabbage, and peppermint. Crisscrossing three counties I drove past several, and had come upon a massive wetland whose beauty took my breath away.

Tussocks of tall marsh grasses glowed chartreuse in the morning light. They were surrounded by expanses of open water floating groups of lily pads and reminded me of paintings seen hanging in a restaurant by a local artist. The rains of the previous week had raised the water above the ditch-line; it reached the edges of the road.

I left the car and stood near what would have been the shoulder. The soft breeze carried the deep, low scent of a quagmire, and, lucky for me, was enough to keep the mosquitoes away. Up the road a fully grown, two foot Northern Water Snake casually made its way to the opposite bank. In the stillness I listened to the peeper frogs’ trill.

Then from behind, and startlingly near, a loud swish. Instinctively I ducked as a pair of Great Blue Herons flew a few feet above my head. Their bright orange beaks were slightly open, long black legs were extended and tucked tight against their gray bellies. I had never been so near these large, seemingly primordial birds and was amazed at their size.

My heart was beating fast from being startled. I watched with an overwhelming sense of reverence as they landed a few yards away. The pair stood poised in shallow water, and elegantly folded their powerful six-foot-span of wings.

I stood in awe of the vastness of the marsh, the holy silence of nature, and felt the boundless gift of peace that is God’s. It is a peace that though a gift must be sought, and like the Herons that came from behind, brings with it unexpected beauty, ancient and alive.

Witness to the Holy, through Catcalls and All

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This past week while gardening in the front yard I experienced catcalls from broken men as they drove by; they seemed to think entitled to comment about my weight.

Sadly it wasn’t the first time.

A few years back I spent time outdoors helping a friend by doing light painting. He had offices at a very busy intersection outside of downtown. Out front was a wooden sign, about 8’ x 10’, installed several years ago. Like all things made of painted wood, it needed maintenance.

Driving past one day I noticed how shabby the sign appeared and stopped to have a closer look. The situation was dire. Most of the furring strips — that secured the sign to its posts — had rotted through. One hearty gust of wind and the sign would collapse. And the paint was flaking off.

My friend is a busy kind of guy running his business, attending to his family, and being active at church. I offered him my help repairing the sign and he gratefully accepted.

Painting is something I can still do and a three-step ladder is not an issue. We talked about what needed to be done and bought supplies. I looked forward to helping him and being outdoors under the locust tree.

Over several days the work progressed as expected. What I had not anticipated was feeling vulnerable.

The building is located in a section of town that is not the best. Low-income apartments surround his building on two sides — two shootings took place there last summer — and across the road is another complex. Traffic cuts off from the main street down the 100 foot road in front of his business. And the traffic is loud. There were cars and trucks with mufflers gone bad, the deafening thunder of open trailers hauling equipment hitting potholes, and jacked up cars with punk-rock blaring hate-filled words.

At first I felt uneasy working alone with no one in the offices, and assumed I would feel more at ease with time. After all, I was painting on Saturday afternoons on lovely spring days.

That attitude worked for the first day. It was after the second that my fears rose. There were catcalls from drive-bys, the being looked up and down by gangs of adolescent boys, and abusive yelling that escaped through open apartment windows.

I felt exposed and vulnerable. I couldn’t tell who was good or who was a threat. I prayed for my safety as each car drove past, prayed as I avoided eye contact with people walking by. Twice, overwhelmed by fear, I scurried into the offices to quell my panic; I had to finish that sign!

I read one morning Acts 14:16-17 “In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways; yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good and gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”

Up on the ladder again, painting around lettering, I wondered how many of those that passed, including the men who bellowed slurs from cars, knew God and had faith. The Lord allows us all to choose our own way. He offers the same fruitful seasons to the trying-to-be-good and those not-yet-seeking-goodness.

The Lord did not leave our world without witnesses — and that would be those of us with faith. I realized that working to make the sign look better was a witness to charity, my calmness as the gang of boys sauntered past an act of trust in them that they could perceive. To the people watching me from apartment windows, they saw a desire to persevere beyond the catcalls.

Back then and again recently, I found a means through my anxiety. My default is to pray, and I did for those who passed my way.

Image by Ingi Finnsson from Pixabay .

The Scent of Water

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Planting fruit trees is not something done lightly. They represent a long term commitment to nurturance and stability of site. Once I felt established in my house, a semi-dwarf Johnagold apple and dwarf Bartlett pear were planted.

The dwarf pear tree grew along the west fence that framed the back yard.  It had begun to branch wildly the year after it bore its first fruits. In a short time I couldn’t ignore its adolescent growth spurt and was tired of dodging branches when I mowed.

It was mid-summer, peak season for disease spores of all types, and the wrong time of year to prune.  But one afternoon after a particularly nasty thwack on the face, I lopped off the offending limbs, and clipped short the suckers around the graft. My aggravation dissipated as I piled the limbs behind the shed.

And that was that, or so I thought. Because of my impatient behavior and improper pruning, within a few years the little tree was badly infected with Crown Gall.  It had to be cut down and burned. All that remained was a four inch stump just above soil level. The stump was, and still is, a constant reminder of the consequences of my choosing wrongly out of frustration.

Two years had passed since the tree was removed when I noticed a vertical growth in the garden bed. A closer look revealed the pear stump had sent up suckers. Nippers in hand, I cut them off. Every summer —I’m waiting to see what this season brings— the shoots continued to grow back. I smiled at the Biblical persistence of the rootstock.

For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. Though its root grow old in the earth, and its stump die in the ground, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth branches like a young plant. (Job 14:7-9)

I saw the analogy to my life, and in friends’, in that through losses much of who we were at the time of the disaster was cut away. The loss of employment and dignity, the death of loved ones, accidents and disability all created a dying to self. Our stability was shaken, our ever self-sufficient selves were cut low. Yet at the scent of water —the scent of hope— new shoots emerged, new life grew from stable roots. There remains in our hearts a persistent longing for God.

That little tree was still bearing fruit, just not pears.

Image by vazah from Pixabay .

 

Iris germanica, Mary’s sword

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Researching Iris germanica cvs. for a book with Our Sunday Visitor to be released in the autumn of 2021, I remembered the delight in receiving a gift by an artist friend when I retired from landscaping in 2013. Here again is that story:

I remember as a child the sweet fragrance and stunning colors of the species Iris germanica, commonly known as bearded iris or Mary’s Sword. I can still recall my first encounter with them. Walking home from kindergarten, I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, inhaled a wave of fragrance, and, sniffing the air, followed my nose.

Just a few houses up grew a garden filled with fans of blue-green leaves topped with a rainbow of sturdy flowering stalks. The surprised woman, whose garden I’d just invaded, told me they were bearded iris and showed me the fluffy beard on the petals. She then gave me a stalk—almost as long as I was tall—of deep purple blooms that smelled like grape bubblegum. I was hooked!

The hook was not only for irises, but gardens as well. Our family’s business was greenhousing, having an acre under glass. Not until that day did it occur to me that the plants that grew on the benches made their way into gardens. The seed of realization took root and I grew up with a love of plants.

For over 50 years the things of life were experienced in a garden. Joys and sorrows, growth and decline, prosperity or lean were all worked through with pant legs wet and hands muddied. The years included creating gardens for others, and since 2003 I’d worked the grounds at St. Francis Retreat Center.

This week my efforts as a gardener there drew to a close and I retired as the Garden Society Coordinator. I was drawn to this facility in response to God’s call to build gardens of visible prayer—not something one does alone. I had to come out of my private world, and once out, lead others to follow the vision. I told God I would do my part if he did his, and of course he did.

With the hands of those friends, thirteen gardens of prayer and memorial were built. Eventually the society moved from creating gardens into the phase of maintenance. And I had moved into decline—becoming more disabled by trauma-induced spinal arthritis. The effort to heft a thirty-five pound bag of fertilizer was now matched to a gallon of milk.

Resignation is never easy when giving up something you love. It was hard to walk away, but it was time to let it go into the competent hands of another gardener following God’s call.

The other night at dinner—surrounded in prayers that I remain at peace and not get all weepy—I said good-bye. At table I sat near the groundskeeper who had shared the vision of gardens and beside whom I had worked for eleven years. He didn’t seem to mind that throughout the dinner I would pat his arm—it kept me calm and affirmed what we had accomplished.

After Fr.Larry Delaney thanked me, I stood and thanked the volunteers for helping to bring souls to God through our gardens. I had not seen the artist of our society, Cindy Evans, leave the table, but I did see her return with a large framed painting. I knew immediately what they all had gifted—her iris painting!

It was one of her cruci-florals paintings (in which a cross is incorporated in the image of the flowers).  I’d seen its beginning in the basement studio at the retreat center. It was from a tied and tea-stained canvas that Cindy saw irises emerging: three flowers reminiscent of the Trinity, lance shaped leaves representing the swords of sorrow that pierced Mary’s heart, and the purple stalks of blooms representing power and strength—and title of her watercolor. I gasped in delight when I first saw the tan mottled canvas with pencil traced outlines of the blooms. We agreed that I would be the first one offered to buy it once completed. There at the party was her finished work, a gift from all.

Image by Margaret Rose Realy, Obl OSB. All rights reserved.

The painting Power and Strength is hung in my oratory to the right of the altar and Divine Mercy image. I don’t know what God’s plans are for me as his gardener, but in the words of St. Faustina, “Jesus, I trust in you.”

It was the Iris that ignited gardening in my heart, and here they were again, at the end of my journey. What a perfect gift to conclude a gardening life spent on knees, touching earth.

Image by Margaret Rose Realy, Obl. OSB. All rights reserved.

Image by Radfotosonn from Pixabay .

This is the Way?

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Several years ago I was walking a river path in the northern third of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. My rubber half-boots made sucking sounds when, avoiding puddles, I walked on the soggy chartreuse grass. The thaw had left the ground and spring rains melted the earth. It was mud season, again.

Near the end of my trek, on the low side of the path, was a narrowing between trees. On each side grew tangles of brambles. Across the whole of the path was a sizable puddle…and a quandary. How was I going to get to the other side? I was too old and heavy to leap across the four foot expanse and too unsteady to agilely tip-toe around its unknown slippery depths.

I studied the gray-green surface and thought… There might be only a thin layer of mud below. Then again, the path I had been walking along had had sizable divots from exposed mole runs or possibly foxes — pretty good chance of a hole beneath the water. I picked up a large stone and tossed it in the center, sighing as it disappeared.

I imagined that if I stared long enough at the puddle some unknown saint-of-conundrums would miraculously dry it up. Or possibly a bunny would come along and hop through the puddle, revealing the depth. And where was that chivalrous man willing to dirty his cloak for a damsel in distress?

I can imagine a lot of things, but couldn’t imagine away that puddle.

When perplexed — by people, rarely by nature — I try to listen for the whisper of the Holy Spirit. A Bible verse (Isaiah 30:21) came to mind, “…this is the way; walk in it…” God’s humor at that moment was nearly lost. I looked to the heavens through naked branches and with a tone of sarcasm asked, “Seriously, you’re going with that verse?”

I rolled-up my pant legs, then unfolded the cuff of my socks so they were higher above my ankles. I slipped off my half boots and walked cautiously down the soggy path, letting out a small gasp at the first step into the cold muddy water.

Gingerly keeping my balance I brought the other foot down and sank ankle deep and gasped again as the cold mud covered my foot. Another step and the anxiety gave way to hilarity of the suck-plop sound of each step.

Holding on to the trunk of a tree I squished about — feet nearly numb with cold — in the gravelly muck. I giggled then self-consciously silenced myself peering around to see if any one was near. What would they think of a gray-haired woman in 50º weather stomping about ankle deep in mud? I stopped my playing and stepped carefully out the other side.

A few yards up was a fallen tree. I sat on it, pulled off my socks and smacked them against its trunk to remove the mud. Drying my feet with a scarf, I rolled down pant legs and slipped on shoes.

Having a little fun traversing the mud made the journey memorable. Sometimes when faced with the mud of life, we just have to “walk in it,” eventually getting to the high side and cleaning things up as best we can.

(5/2013)

Image by towilmasz from Pixabay .