Darkness and Light, Catholic Photo Challenge

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

The Catholic Photo Challenge this week is about darkness and light.

Most living things experience a passage from darkness to light. Whether it is in the womb of the body or the womb of the earth, germination takes place in the absence of light. A seed is planted in the dark soil, and with minimal effort on our part, it grows.

It is awe-inspiring when we realize that God chose the things of the earth to express Himself to us. From the simplest thing of a garden, the seed, comes the greatest revelation. It is from the grain of wheat and the seed of grapes that we receive bread and wine, bread to nourish and wine to gladden (Ps. 104:14-15).  Both are essential: the bread of life and fruit of the vine, the Body and Blood of Christ—Eucharist. From that tiny light in a seed to the startling Light of God at Communion, we hear at every Mass “light from light.”

The Divine Seed, Jesus, like most seeds, germinated in the dark. He germinated in the darkness of Mary’s womb, and grew a religion from a blackened tomb in the earth.

We understand darkness. We were born from a place without light, and our earth was formed out of darkness. Much like the seed to which the absence of light is essential to set root and grow, we too have an inner need for darkness. Without the experience of darkness we would not recognize light. Our roots of belief grow in the fact that Jesus rose from the darkness of his Passion. He rose from an earthen tomb. We sprout and develop faith, our light drawn to His light. We bear fruit by being nourished and fed by that which came from the earth—wheat and grapes, bread and wine. And with seeds from the Fruits of the Spirit we plant kernels of goodness and pray that these seeds too will germinate and take root.

 

(Excerpt from Cultivating God’s Garden through Lent, Holy Thursday)

What-Why-How #MyWritingProcess

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

The blogging about #MyWritingProcess appears to have begun in 2011. At least that’s as far back as the thread for this hash tag goes. It’s a wonderful insight about other writers and how they do what they do.

It’s my turn to step into the pool and swim, thanks to Nancy Ward’s invitation. 

What am I working on?

If you are reading this you already know that I write for Patheos. The blog includes prayers, contemplative pieces on nature, and practical gardening tips. I also write a monthly column at CatholicMom.com, and just finished a feature article for Catholic Digest. The presentations on building prayer gardens for this spring are over, unless I get a call from another group.

My main focus is currently on the first round of edits that came this month from Bob Hamma at Ave Maria Press for my new book. I love what he’s done with my (now our) manuscript and am embracing his challenges to improve the work. The launch is set for spring of 2015. Being a gardener I deeply appreciate and enjoy (love!) working with editors. They take my meager efforts, offer their insights, and my work grows in a way I had never thought possible.

I have twelve other manuscripts in progress—gosh, that sounds arrogant. They cover a wide range of topics from saints and soups to retreats and evangelization. They are all garden related, and that would be stretching it a bit when it comes to the memoirs of a gardener.  

What makes my work different from other gardening writers?

My Catholicism. All that I write is from my faith as developed in the Catholic religion. The gardening themed manuscripts are focused on learning about the Creator through his creation. The nature reflections are fleshed out in Adoration.  

Why do I write what I do?

Writing came about by default as I struggled to accept physical decline and associated depression. I struggled mightily with losing my identity as a gardener. I didn’t know who I was if not part of the earth, digging in the dirt, hugging trees, and touching flowers. I prayed desperately to God to be open to his will as my life took a turn, for what I thought was the worst.

What I gradually realized was that I could share with others how God is present in the garden. I brought this new awareness to Adoration, and while there came to embrace the fullness of God’s created beauty. I felt compelled to share this insight with other gardeners and to offer them not only the why but the how of glorifying God with his gifts from nature. 

How does my writing process work?

I am a very slow writer and must work at staying disciplined. I was not an English or Journalism major in college—failing an English class twice! What I’ve learned about the writing process, and am still learning, came by way of Ann Margaret Lewis and the Catholic Writers Guild, and from the writers group I attend.

Notebook: It’s more like a small journal that accompanies me everywhere. When an idea comes—I call them seeds—I write it down. There are a lot of one or two sentence entries. The majority of ideas come during my morning prayer time when I reflect on activities, people, and Scripture. Other ideas come when I am outdoors walking, gardening, or simply sitting with creation.

Adoration: These seeds of thought are taken to the Adoration chapel and developed. The dear women who attend to the altar placed a long narrow table at the back of the pews. It is there that I set my portfolio of notes, papers, articles and books. After offering my prayers and petitions for others, I ask Our Lord to fill my emptiness with his desires…and then write longhand. Sometimes for 15 minutes, more often for over an hour.

God’s Writing Time: The writing that occurs in Adoration takes place independent of this, though that work is always incorporated here. I am graced with a single life of solitude and friends tease me about living in an “upstairs hermitage.”

After morning prayer, with a second cup of coffee, I go to my desk and write for an hour and a half, minimum. Nothing interferes with God’s writing time. Well, maybe if the dog has to go out… When I say I write, it also includes researching of information pertaining to the topic. Sometimes I will return to writing in late afternoons, though my best work is done in the morning.

I call it God’s Time because of the Rule of St. Benedict: nothing comes before the Work of God. I don’t answer the phone, crawl around Facebook, read emails, clean house, etc. Sure, St. Benedict was talking about the Work of God being prayer, and for me writing is just that. I try to honor God’s gift, in answer to my prayer, by prayerfully offering whatever words are written for whoever reads them.

Steps: I make a rough outline, go back and fill it in. If I am working on a manuscript I consider each main topic a chapter, each sub-topic a section in it, and can usually write 3,000-4,000 words for a chapter. I try to write a rough draft of a whole chapter in one sitting.

My rough drafts are really ugly with all sorts of mistakes and incomplete thoughts. BUT the thoughts are all there. I rework it as best I can. Then take it, piece by piece of about 500-1000 words, to the writers group who are wonderful at teaching me how to make it better. For my blog, when I don’t know what is wrong with my piece, I reach out to CWG members for editing. Did I mention how much I love English  and Journalism majors?

I rewrite as directed. I believe nothing is ever perfect and that’s perfectly fine with me. I’ve written my best and leave the manuscript in the hands of whatever publisher is willing to take my workand then it is no longer mine but ours.

Query Letters: I just don’t fuss over them. I’ve done what I could, offered it up, and leave the rest in God’s hands and God’s time. My goal has never been to get published, but to serve Our Lord in whatever small way I can—to which I am still striving.

 Sometimes I feel terribly intimidated when I read the powerful words of other Catholic writers. The words I am given are simple and I try to remember that not everyone seeking God seeks him in theology. For this reason I wrote the following prayer:

Heavenly Father,

Help me to trust that the words you encourage me to write meet the needs of those you guide to read them. Let me continue to delight in the beautiful words written by others and not despair in the simplicity of my own. Help me remember always to thank them and encourage them in their work. Guide my thoughts and my hands to express your desires for our lives. Allow me to follow your will, to trust your ways, to be unconcerned with how I write but that I write in the light of your Light. Lord, send me peace of heart so that envy and disparaging does not constrict my work for your glory.

Amen.

I am tagging a Christian friend, Lynn Eckerle who writes a cooking column for several newspapers and has a wonderful cooking and photography blog.

Laetare Rocks

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

We’ve passed Laetare Sunday, the fourth week of Lent, and still I’ve not been able to adhere to its disciplines: fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. My usual prayer and abstinence routines are securely in place. It is the extras, so important to this spiritual season of faith, that are lacking.

The other morning after Lauds and a rosary, rising from my chair, I stood at the home altar. Drawing the sanctuary light that hung from the wall towards me, I blew out the candle. The holy images that would draw me into prayer hung above and were hidden behind purple cloths. Their hidden faces echoed the distance I felt from the observance Lent.

I touched the arrangement of objects placed on the altar. On a wood box covered by linens was an eight inch rock with angular surfaces of pink and black, on which set three square-cut iron spikes.

The book Way of the Cross, by Pope Benedict, was propped open to the image of the eighth station—Jesus meets the women. Here the suffering Christ was concerned with the weakness of those women. I shuddered remembering his words, “…weep for yourselves and your children…” It is chilling to know that his suffering brought to us in ours would be our only comfort. I wondered if those women, like me, focus on the gentleness of God and minimized the mystery of evil and pain in our world.

On the altar is a path of fourteen stones, representative of each step of the Passion. I picked one up, smooth and cold in my palm, and rubbed my thumb over its surface. These rocks suggest the austere realities of the life of Christ, and moments of our own: The hardness some paths take, the coldness of the journey, that every path has a beginning and an end.

Flat and dark, each stone has its own weight. As do each of our challenges, as do the Stations-of-the-Cross. All are hard and, depending on our frame of mind, can halt our progression under the burden.

I turn and look out the window. Laetare Sunday has passed. It marks a time to rejoice in the middle of Lent, a time to see the joy to come as the Pascal Mystery lives out.

The stone in my hand has warmed. It, along with the thirteen others, holds many silent prayers. The little path of stones is like a Lenten rosary. Each stone passes through the hand, and a memory through the heart. The images may be brutal and sad, but each is softened with gratitude. Had Christ not suffered, I would have no way to God. Had my life not been demanding, my soul would not have sought Our Lord.

It was the hardness of life that had brought me to joy. I look to the rock in my hand and rejoice.

 

A Tatting of Green

Image morguefile.com.

I’m not fond of mud season, but this year I look to it with eager anticipation—it’s been a long oppressive winter. The snow, ice, record lows, and lack of sunlight stretched most of us to our limit. We all have had enough.

Over the course of a week I watched the snow cover and banks recede. I hoped that, just maybe, there wouldn’t be another winter storm. But it is only mid-March and winters have held their place well into April.

When accumulations of snow are over twelve inches, the soil and the organisms within it are protected from changes in air temperature and prevented from freezing. Beneath the snow in unfrozen earth roots continue to grow. They develop as they seek water, expanding incrementally. Solid frameworks of roots are important when dormancy breaks.

For now, it is the time of dirty snow. When all the accumulated dirt scooped up in the plowing and shoveling condenses on the melt.

Most winters bring a period of warmth, as in the January thaw, when the crud of winter reconnects with the earth. This winter—I live in central Michigan—the thaw didn’t come until the week before St. Patrick’s Day. With so much dirt in the snow banks, along the drive were mounds of mini-glacial till. Soon enough I would shovel the till for the gardens.

I wonder if there is a hidden purposefulness for the grime at the end of winter. The dirtiness creates a longing for what is fresh and clean. The darkness of days, the inactivity of our lives, the dingy greens and dulled browns can make a person ache for new growth, for life affirming change.

There are moments in life when dirt accumulates between the flurries of prayers. Times when religion lies dormant and I am unexpectedly rude, or as Elizabeth Scalia had written, failed to see The Holy in others. In the melting away of coldness in the heart, my grime becomes apparent.

But dormancy always breaks, spring always comes. There at the edge of the melt, a tatting of green,  new life beyond the thaw.

 

After Glow

My final oblation was at hand. That night at vespers I would lay my heart and all my will upon the altar. My joy was boundless and barely kept in check. I cried as I prayed lauds, overwhelmed with love. I wanted desperately to commit “for the rest of my life” to service of God and neighbor.

Three hours before vespers Fr. John heard my confession. I know myself well—when anxious I fall mute—and had spent time writing out my sins. There is a powerful movement of the soul when the hand adds weight with leaded lines to the elusive sense of sin. I wanted the lines erased so I could stand in grace when professed.

We headed across the chapel to the sacristy to bless my cross. While Father retrieved the holy water and prayer card from the cabinet he asked what I felt about the upcoming ceremony. I gushed and flushed red with excitement.

It was like a wedding, I told him, but without the anxiety. I would be making a promise to God, a vow that He would always be first: my first thought in the morning, the last as I curled up to sleep, with me when awake in the night or moving through my day.  Fr. John is accustomed to my radiant exuberant joy, and smiled at my delight in a monkish sort of way.

Another novice, Michael, would also be making his final oblate profession that night. We were given our sheets that the Prior would read, and on which were highlighted the words we were to answer. I laughed at Fr. John’s impish comments of weddings, and was quickly shushed by the Prior. I have an infectious laugh that had obviously infected the monastic silence.

Vespers were spoken and I noted the cadence and tone of men. Their voices resonated and softened an old hardened scar on my heart. It was the will of God that drew me to the monks. According to The Rule of St. Benedict, it is though these men only would I grow in holiness. A terrifying and comforting thought in one.

Michael and I were called to the sanctuary where the promises were asked, and our promises given. As I approached the altar to sign my Formula of Oblation I wasn’t sure if I would cry with joy, tremble so hard that I couldn’t sign my name, or faint outright in glory.  I placed my hand on that holy table and calmed—the moment had arrived.

Signing my name at the altar changed my life, but not as in the earth-moved-under-my-feet. It had the sense of “I was that, and now I am this.” I imagined it to be much the same as a parent when a child is born. Or the way one feels after the marriage vows. The expressed reality of “I am no longer allowed willing to be as I was.” The time comes with a child or marriage for a decrease in self for the good of another. 

In the eagerness to be all as offered in my oblate promise, there existed a counter intuitiveness of becoming more of who I am in God and less of who I was as only me.

Fr. John Martin, OSB
Margaret Rose Hildegard Realy, Obl. OSB

I find the glistening of limerence still sparkles in the glow of the honeymoon. When all is seen in The Light and lightness carries the day. This is the time before the real work of the spoken promises–when the I do’s and I will’s with the help of God’s grace–haven’t yet begun.

Soon enough the work of the day will come. That after the ecstasy the meals will need making and the dishes done. For a little while longer I will rest in the quiet comfort of the honeymoon. I cherish the glow.

 

UPDATE: I just learned a small but significant detail about signing the Formula of Oblation on the altar. Prior Michael (above, at the altar) stepped several steps away once I touched the altar and he did not come forward until I had finished, and stepped away. He did that because the novice him/herself must lay the document on the altar and sign it without the abbot as intermediary. The oblate or monk is therefor the servant of God first and the subject of the abbot second.

Images Margaret Rose Realy, Ob;. OSB. All rights reserved.