This week, a saint died. Mary Oliver, the patron saint of paying compassionate attention. Her poetry is the art of bearing witness to our world. She invited us to put our lips to the sacred present in the ordinary. She reminded us that life is not about playing the right notes. It is about recovering the questions that allow us to hear the music. And about the inevitable, Oliver wrote,
“When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.”
And I say, count me in.
We are wired to be replenished and nourished. And Mary’s poetry blesses me, walking with me through my internal struggles, filling my heart with uncontainable gratitude.
“There is a paradoxical urgency at this time in history to slowing down,” poet Kim Rosen writes, “focusing on what matters, looking into each other’s eyes and speaking the truth.”
Okay. I’ll start. Fear, shame and exhaustion no longer serve me. They diminish me. And when I give them credence, amazement and gratitude languish. I’m not sure why I bought their narrative for so long. If it was security I needed, they fabricated entirely the opposite.
I’m not talking about a program to add to our life. This is an invitation to reclaim a self, that has been lost or buried in the debris of frenzied upside-down world.
This is why I love Mary Oliver’s poetry…
“…and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.”
Mary Oliver (The Journey)
To reclaim the self and hydrate our soul, requires a paradigm shift. After all, we’re not wired to live this way, self-compassionate.
Thomas Merton, well-known Trappist monk and activist, tells about a revelation he had while sitting alone in the woods with his Coleman lantern. He is confronted with the fact that Coleman has constructed its lantern with a pragmatic intention over and above the simple provision of light. The packing box declares that the lantern, “stretches days to give more hours of fun.”
Merton asks rhetorically, “Can’t I just be in the woods without any special reason?”
He goes on to say that, in fact, “We are not having fun, we are not ‘having’ anything, we are not ‘stretching our days,’ and if we had fun, it would not be measured by hours. Though as a matter of fact that is what fun seems to be: a state of diffuse excitation that can be measured by the clock and ‘stretched by an appliance.'”
This story makes me smile real big. And perhaps Merton is on to something here. The possibilities are limitless: Fun-inducing appliances, coupled with an industry which helps us justify our time. Our pockets filled with gadgets designed to do just that. Don’t tell Apple or Microsoft or Google that you heard it here first.
What is it about our insidious need to assign value to every act or expenditure of time? As in, “Did you get anything done this morning?” Or, upon returning from any vacation, or even a sanctuary at a retreat center, we are quizzed, “How was it? What did you do?” Lord have mercy. And we lump anything not of value into that great compost bin contrived to amass our wasted time.
But it’s deeper than all of that, isn’t it? It seems that our perception of what is “real” (and of value) is distorted.
Real becomes anything “of use.” In other words, that which has market value, or is of pragmatic significance. The afternoon then, can no longer be “just” celebrated. It has to be “used judiciously.” Which takes some mental gymnastics when these are our instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it. (Mary Oliver)
A father is concerned about his son’s education at the new public school. They are a “back woods” family, far away from civilization and without any formal education. Still, the father wonders about this new school and its curriculum. “What will they learn you?” he asks his son, “Will they learn you why the river makes that singing sound when the moon is right?”
My dear friend Fr. Lee Jaster found a love of gardening later in life. He told me, “One day I went to my garden to walk and pray. But I was so enamored with it all I couldn’t focus on prayer. The fragrance of the lilies… I felt horribly guilty, until it hit me that this infatuation was my prayer.”
In other words, will they learn you, in the words of Thomas Merton that “Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through us all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God, forget ourselves, we see it.”
I’ve been asked, too often, what I believe. My favorite variation is any inquiry about my doctrinal statement. This begins a volley of theological catch phrases, which become de facto passwords for many religious organizations. It’s the way we tell who’s in and who’s out.
Here’s the odd part; I’m not asked about what nourishes my soul. Or for stories about what amazes me, warms my blood, makes my heart soft, sends gooseflesh up my arms, makes me want to dance, makes me love life, or laugh and cry at the same time. I’ve been asked about what is appropriate, but never about what is important.
Here’s the deal: once you’ve tasted and married amazement, you get the sense that the medicine is itself blessedly fatal, so instead of fighting it with some stern and dour sounding work-ethic-inner-voice, we might just as well plop down on a garden bench and squander a few minutes (or even a day) and give this sacrament of the present vaccine a whirl.
There is a time, perhaps dusk on the back deck, cheered by the finches as they vie for seed and ambushed by a spiced pungency from indistinct winter blooms of the evergreen shrub Sarcococca, conjuring memories of Grandmother’s kitchen and hugs that don’t quit—when, for reasons not yet fully realized, you start to take back what has been disowned. And maybe, just maybe, you start to slowly embrace what is there, rather than to pine away for tomorrow.
It is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Day. A day to celebrate spilling the light, remembering his reassurance, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” And, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
I learned a new word this week. Fika (fee-ka), Swedish, meaning a moment to slow down and enjoy the good things in life.
And I read a lot of poetry that feeds my soul. RIP Mary Oliver.
Quotes for your week…
I was running past the high: hurrying past the very transcendent moments I was seeking. John Jerome
Coming in March, a new eCourse, Sacred Necessities: gifts for living with passion purpose, heart and grace. Stay tuned.
A shout out to Maria Popova, for her comments on Mary Oliver in Brainpickings
POEMS AND PRAYERS
I dream of a quiet man
who explains nothing and defends
nothing, but only knows
where the rarest wildflowers
are blooming, and who goes,
and finds that he is smiling
not by his own will.
Mornings at Blackwater
For years, every morning, I drank
from Blackwater Pond.
It was flavored with oak leaves and also, no doubt,
the feet of ducks.
And always it assuaged me
from the dry bowl of the very far past.
What I want to say is
that the past is the past,
and the present is what your life is,
and you are capable
of choosing what that will be,
So come to the pond,
or the river of your imagination,
or the harbor of your longing,
and put your lips to the world.
For love in a time of conflict
When the gentleness between you hardens
And you fall out of your belonging with each other,
May the depths you have reached hold you still.
When no true word can be said, or heard,
And you mirror each other in the script of hurt,
When even the silence has become raw and torn,
May you hear again an echo of your first music.
When the weave of affection starts to unravel
And anger begins to sear the ground between you,
Before this weather of grief invites
The black seed of bitterness to find root,
May your souls come to kiss.
Now is the time for one of you to be gracious,
To allow a kindness beyond thought and hurt,
Reach out with sure hands
To take the chalice of your love,
And carry it carefully through this echoless waste
Until this winter pilgrimage leads you
Towards the gateway to spring.
A Book of Blessings, John O’Donohue