Reinventing yourself is a particular kind of innovation and Margaret Rose Realy, Obl. OSB, knows that the process requires a deep surrender and a willingness to be surprised.
Realy, a 61 year-old award-winning author of three books—A Catholic Gardener’s Spiritual Almanac, A Garden of Visible Prayer and Cultivating God’s Garden through Lent—is a master gardener and certified greenhouse grower, as well as a liturgical landscape consultant, and retreat leader. She’s also a lay Benedictine oblate who blogs at “Morning Rose Prayer Gardens“ on Patheos and regularly contributes to Catholic Mom and Catholic Digest, in addition to other publications.
For most of her life, however, writing could not have been further from Realy’s imagination. She grew up in the Detroit area in the green industry—her family owned a large greenhouse business—which is where her love of nature and horticulture began. Where gardening, landscaping and spirituality meet was Realy’s deepest joy for much of her life. For 12 years she was the volunteer coordinator of the Garden Society for St. Francis Retreat Center in DeWitt, Michigan. Then she was struck with debilitating arthritis which left her unable to continue digging in the dirt and pushing wheelbarrows. She had to forge a new identity, a process that’s been full of unexpected discoveries. Realy spoke to Aleteia’s Zoe Romanowsky about what it’s like to discover oneself anew, how a student who failed English became a writer, and what quality is the most helpful when coping with the loss of something precious.
Zoe Romanowsky: What does it mean to be a lay Benedictine oblate?
Margaret Rose Realy: It’s best to disregard the word “lay”—that can make it confusing. My personal calling as a Benedictine oblate is to be a contemplative —somewhat of an anchoress, though I use that term loosely. I live a life of celibacy, but that is not the commitment of all oblates—most are married and have children. To be a Benedictine oblate is to be like a monk or nun in the world. We are specifically tied to a monastery and called to follow the charism of that monastery. Mine is service to the poor, and because of the number of prisons here in Michigan, we serve people coming out of the prison system.
The charism of the Benedictine oblates is to find God in the ordinariness of life—St. Benedict is the patron of the ordinary—and to work and pray and offer everything to the Lord. The best way to describe it is a particular practice I have as a lay hermit: I keep a “Christ” chair next to my bed, and I have another one in my oratory. Mentally, I place our Lord there so he’s always present with me. Part of being a Benedictine oblate—or any religious for that matter—is keeping your eyes on Christ, and always having the reality of death before you. Not in a morbid way, but that we are always looking through Christ into the everyday-ness of our world. That is what it is to be a Benedictine, at least in my view.
For a long time your identify was in your craft as a master gardener. What did that meant to you?
We’re all born with gifts—I was born a gardener. I’ve always had a love for nature, and growing things. I went to Michigan State University where I studied botany and horticulture, but I couldn’t master all the memorization required so I ended up with a Masters in Communications. The gardening never went away, though, so I went back to school to become a master gardener and became a certified greenhouse grower. Later I went to work for a friend in their greenhouse and it went on from there.
How do spirituality and gardening mingle?
It’s the beauty of the Creator and his creation. How can someone not understand what’s holy in nature and plants? You can’t deny God in the world; the Trinity is everywhere. The Creator is so obvious to me. I’m not talking pantheism. The entire Bible has all these references to nature. The clarity of Bible images when I would go backpacking were all around me. I could see this in New Age stuff, Wicca, pagan stuff, but just couldn’t find it in Catholicism and our faith, so that’s what I brought forward, I guess. It eventually brought about my books.
You lost your gardening abilities and the physical ability to do your craft. Tell me what happened.
I was in a head-on collision in my mid-thirties. After the initial recovery I was able to continue with my life and didn’t have any ramifications until I got into my fifties. The doctor said this would happen. I developed arthritis, and it developed rapidly. In 2008 it became pronounced, and that’s when the transition took place from being a gardener.
Did you let go kicking and screaming, or was it a peaceful surrender?
The transition to being a writer was kind of terrifying. I had failed English in college; I wasn’t a writer. But I was becoming rapidly disabled. I was the Garden Society coordinator for St. Francis Retreat Center—that was my gift of service. When I realized this could no longer be fulfilled, I was sick over it, very upset. I didn’t know what I was going to do without this ability.
I love Adoration, and one day I was sitting there, quietly crying … “Lord, what do you want? What do I do? I don’t know what to do. You made me this gardening person.” And I very clearly felt him say in my heart: “Write about it.” It was so clear. And I said out loud, “Seriously!?” and scared the poor woman in the chapel with me. I had barely made it though college, so to experience this call was terribly foreign to me.
I also realized that being a writer was going to mean I wouldn’t be able to stay hidden anymore. I didn’t kick and fight so much, but I had to let go of my own fears and anxieties in order to embrace it.
How did you get from there to becoming the author of three books?
My first challenge was to somehow pursue people who knew how to make this happen. This was terrifying.
In March 2009, on my way to Adoration, I got a phone call from a friend who thought I should connect with the Catholic Marketing network and they sent me to Ann Lewis, who at time was president of the Catholic Writers Guild.
The real story here was a lesson in trusting God. The way I knew God was in control of the situation was how everything came together.… When I called Ann she happened to be home in the middle of the work day; I didn’t have to pay to travel to the Catholic Writers Guild conference; I was given a scholarship to the conference; and I didn’t even have to pay for my hotel room. So, here I was going half way across the country, on money I didn’t have, into an industry I knew nothing about, with people I didn’t know. I was stunned. That’s when the full surrender happened.
Oh, and there’s another piece to this that I almost forgot! They have pitch sessions at this conference—where you can have a slot to talk with publishers. The spots almost filled up instantly. Ann told me she had a cancellation with an acquisitions editor for Circle Media—who happened to be a gardener. I sold my first book at that meeting. I could never have realized all this through my own devices. It was only by surrendering.
What advice would you give to someone who feels robbed of something they thought would always be part of their lives, or someone who feels called to a particular mission and yet the door closes—or never opens at all.
One word: Openness. Openness to trust. It’s not easy for us as humans. “‘Let go and let God” is so worn out, but it’s true. When I was going through my challenges, I tried to frequently place myself in the presence of God. It helped me to let go of whatever was keeping me stuck in the spiral of sadness.
St. Francis deSales talks about placing ourselves in the presence of God in four ways: God is all around me in all things. God is fully in me, diffused though my whole body. God is affectionately gazing at me. And God is ever near me, present before me. This was my creed of daily life as I transitioned into being a writer. As humans we want to control, we want to manage our world. To place yourself in the presence of God is being open to what is holy, to grow in trust. But the key word is openness and all that it encompasses.
Did you ever feel something precious had been taken away?
I’ve never thought that God took away my gardening. It was the circumstances of my life that had taken away the opportunity—the circumstances of living on this plane. My abilities were being limited and it was very hard to let go of because it was my identity: I work in the garden, I pet trees, I talk to shrubs—it’s who I’ve been since infancy. To let go of that identity was very hard. It affected my spirituality, my dependence on God. But whatever our life transitions, the lesson is to draw closer to God. This is the most important.
What fruit has come from being willing to walk through new doors?
The first fruit has been the ability to draw closer to what is holy. There’s a saint who said, “Give me, Lord, what will rebound to your own profit.” Being able to say this with confidence is a fruit.
The next is just calming down, being free from anxiety. When you start to open up and have confidence that God has your back, you become more quiet and calm. That peace is important—it allows me to embrace that openness and to let go. I find that if I’m anxious, others feel it. Quietness tends to be infectious.
How are you feeling now? How does your arthritis affect your life today?
I manage my arthritis nutritionally. I work with a doctor who is familiar with my condition and I have to moderate my physical activity—I can’t sit for long periods, which is my worst habit—because my arthritis is in my neck and upper back. I’ve been pretty successful at managing it without drugs and surgery and am doing really well. It’s not constant; I don’t have to live in pain 24/7.
What are you doing right now and what’s on the horizon?
When I went to the Writers Conference last August. I was approached by three people about three books. I’ve had other invitations to write. I’m trying to be open to where the Lord is leading. I’ve coordinated three Catholics writers retreats and I’m finding a great deal of joy there, it feels very right. This might be where I’m being called next. I am open to this, but also open to more writing.
I’ve also begun to paint. Gardening helped me to quiet myself and process things, but with writing, words are constantly going through my head, which is challenging for me. My neighbor had a wine and painting party and invited me…. “You’ve got to get out of the house, “ she said. “I’m a hermit!” I replied. But I went, and son of a gun, I painted for almost three hours and it felt like three minutes.
Long story short, I found an art teacher and started taking classes. It’s been almost a year and I had no idea that I could paint. I’m not an artist—I can’t create from my own imagination—but I copy, and do it pretty well. In my view, it’s a step above refrigerator art, but other people don’t think so; they really like it. So it’s been fun. I just began selling cards with the images I’ve painted. Mary, my teacher, says I will get better at creating original images in time. It’s another one of these “openness” things.
Zoe Romanowsky is lifestyle editor and video content curator for Aleteia.