07/31/2012 12:23 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Teen's Garden Will Coax the Hallelujah From Your Lips

I've always felt closest to God, or whomever you perceive God to be, when I'm among nature's splendor. And always, I've gained a powerful understanding of spirituality when I'm immersed in landscapes, whether standing on a mountain, dipping my toes in a cold creek, sitting in a Morning Glory and Joe-Pye weed-filled meadow or laboring in my higgledy-piggledy garden. It's here I soak up its magnificence and opening to its sublime teachings.

Seventeen-year-old Maura Reilly-Ulmanek, a senior at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Ky., says she feels religion and spirituality can be experienced in their purest forms in nature. And last month, she captured the everyday spirit of God in a small garden. In doing so, she won a trip to Carnegie Hall in New York City, where she attended the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards ceremony with keynote speaker Meryl Streep. Maura brought home a gold medal for her stunning poem, "esther's garden."

The Kentucky teen received inspiration for "esther's garden" while tending to neighbor Esther Hurlburt's garden. "I was really inspired by the beauty of her garden along with some spiritual concepts I was considering at the time," said Maura.

Esther Hurlburt is a kind and cheerful gentlewoman, a 56-year-old nurse who is an ordained Unitarian Universalist community minister who practices ministry in the community at large. She is also a geriatric care manager. An advocate for the aging, she founded The Legacy Home Ministry, a cooperative living arrangement for aging women of limited means.

Esther spoke modestly about her garden, calling it a small hodge-podge of flowers, vegetables and herbs, yard sculptures and a koi pond. She is thrilled the garden gave attention to Maura and her work, saying she cried when she first read the poem. She describes Maura as a humble and talented teen who helps her by cat sitting and watering the garden when she is away. "I think it was by grace that Maura found inspiration in my garden. I am honored to be the recipient," Esther said. She only hopes Maura will get to attend one of her dream colleges: Columbia or Yale.

Esther is also very happy that people love the poem and suggested that perhaps the reason is because "It speaks to our Spirits rather than to our intellect. It speaks to a universal element in humanity that seeks connection with God, however it is we understand God. Her gift was capturing this longing in poetry. In theological terms, she describes all things are of God and God is in all things."

esther's garden

i wish you could have seen

mother teresa holding hands

with Him for the first time

their soft fingertips

tasting of lavender

and lemongrass

i've tried to tell father daniel

that esther's rain-glazed benches

are as good as any pews

and i'd like to feel moss and

soil under my knees

when i stoop to pray

you'd think she's trying

to teach all things to speak

in latin greek and love

can't the black-eyed susans

say amen?

let the junebugs

baptize us with rain water

we'll whisper our confessions

to the steady koi

the cicadas hum

the sweetest sermons

you'll ever hear

listen they'll coax

the hallelujah

from your lips

i don't know much about the bible

but you can't tell me

that He hasn't written His will

in spiderwebs and slug trails

that we weren't each born

with a little eden in our bones

teaching us to dance

to the holy murmur

of what is here

--Maura Reilly-Ulmanek

Maura gives all of us a gift and a wonderful opportunity to deeply appreciate, connect with, and explore spirituality's most profound gifts. From her insight, we receive exquisite treasure -- pure and evocative soul-searching prose poetry -- a precious message that I'm going to frame for my desk. If I ever find myself feeling religious empty or in need of nature's holiness, I'm going to visit esther's garden.


Photo by Kim Michele Richardson