by Pastor Doug Kings
I wrote the following a few years ago after the death of the popular American poet Mary Oliver. Her poetry and her life reflect the most basic themes of Holy Week and their presence in our lives: cross bearing and resurrection. Oliver guides us in how to bear our own crosses, help others with theirs, and find the hope and new life God places all around us.
The death of the Pulitzer Prize winning and best-selling poet in Florida on January 17 has spurred tributes from far and wide. In addition to the appreciation expressed in obituaries and journalistic commentaries, there has been an avalanche of thanks and sorrow from her everyday readers, some of them stunningly personal. Just from the responses to the obituary in the New York Times came stories such as these:
I came to Mary Oliver only recently and it was through her essays in her latest book “Upstream”. At a difficult time in my life her words, essays and poems, were like lamps in a dark night showing me the way out of sadness and back to full engagement with this wonderful world. What a gift she had and what a gift she left for us all….
I was about three weeks sober, dead cold to the world and everything in it. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to live. A friend handed me a book of Mary Oliver poems and the first line of hers I ever read was ” Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I wept like a baby, steadied myself, and started down the long walk toward home….
Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Wild Geese” kept me from killing myself during a deep depression in 1997. I still carry an extremely tattered copy of it, carefully folded up like a talisman in my wallet even though I know it by heart. During the depths of my depression I must have repeated “The Wild Geese” to myself 20 times a day. I figured that as long as I knew it to be true, I would stick around to be alive – even if I didn’t know why to bother. I wish I had had the chance to meet Ms. Oliver and thank her for saving my life….
That people in pain and darkness responded to her is no surprise; they recognized a kindred spirit. She grew up in an abusive household and left home after high school, never to return. “For years and years I struggled just to love my life,” she said. Poetry became a way to recreate herself. “I made a world out of words. And it was my salvation.”
The world she made grew out of a simple yet profound behavior she believed was essential to a full life: paying attention. She loved nature and wrote knowledgably about the behavior and characteristics of animals, birds, insects, flowers, grass, and trees. She believed that the awareness that grew out of such careful observation leads to a deep intuition of life’s meaning and value.
Theologian Matthew Fox describes her as a “profound creation centered mystic who awakens us all to the healing powers of nature.” And the New York Times said, “Ms. Oliver often described her vocation as the observation of life, and it is clear from her texts that she considered the vocation a quasi-religious one. Her poems — those about nature as well as those on other subjects — are suffused with a pulsating, almost mystical spirituality.”
I would remove the word “almost.” For Oliver clearly knew what is only now being rediscovered by traditional Christianity, that the sacred infuses the world—if we only we open our eyes, ears, and heart to see it. Whistling Swans is one of later poems:
Do you bow your head when you pray or do you look
up into that blue space?
Take your choice, prayers fly from all directions.
And don’t worry about what language you use,
God no doubt understands them all.
Even when the swans are flying north and making
such a ruckus of noise, God is surely listening
Rumi said, There is no proof of the soul.
But isn’t the return of spring and how it
springs up in our hearts a pretty good hint?
Yes, I know, God’s silence never breaks, but is
that really a problem?
There are thousands of voices, after all.
And furthermore, don’t you imagine (I just suggest it)
that the swans know about as much as we do about
the whole business?
So listen to them and watch them, singing as they fly.
Take from it what you can.
After a painful beginning, Oliver came to love life—her own and all that was around her. But she couldn’t love it like an object on a shelf. One loved life by taking it all in and living your own life to the full. As she concludes one of her best-known poems, When Death Comes:
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
Mary Oliver did not just “visit” this world. She changed it, and for the better, by changing the lives of the countless people she touched, and all with her words.
Blessings in your life and ministry.