Speaking Fluent Spirit

I spent a life-giving two weeks in the desert outside of Tucson studying to become a certified spiritual director at the Hesychia School For Spiritual Direction at the Redemptorist Renewal Center. Spiritual Direction is an ancient practice of companioning another person in their spiritual search and practice. One of the questions we ask a lot in spiritual direction is, “Where is God in all of this?”

Spiritual Direction is a different modality from therapy, which presumes a problem, issue, pathology or struggle to work through. SD is also different from pastoral counseling, which often involves advice-giving and religious guidance. Spiritual Direction is a practice of active listening where the director essentially holds a space for the directee to explore how the spirit is moving in their lives (or maybe not moving — and the directee wants to dedicate time to wonder about that, to question it, or to investigate their beliefs with a supportive person).  A spiritual director will not think you are having a nervous breakdown or psychotic break if you have a mystical experience. They might wind up referring you to a psychiatrist, but they will not react negatively or suspiciously at the outset of a report of hearing voices or seeing a vision or having a prophetic dream or other such phenomena that can trouble the modern soul and society.

For me, the beauty in Spiritual Direction is its foundational claim that God/Spirit/Higher Consciousness is real, that it can be trusted, and that dedicating a portion of our lives to pursuing time with it is a worthy and important endeavor. God is real. There is another dimension to our reality than what we can see and touch, and there’s a lot of meaning to be found there.

There were about twenty-five of us in the program, from all over the country and a wide selection of religious traditions, and we became a tight team. It was the most joyous imaginable thing to spend all day with a group of people who speak fluent Spirit! We were Catholic priests, Protestant pastors and ministers, Jewish chant musicians, lay people, Southern Baptist consultants, Unitarian Universalists, nuns, etc. — and what we shared in common was a belief that creation is holy, that people’s stories are sacred, that those in religious leadership must  protect the community’s spiritual mission from the the capitalist cult of production and busy-ness, and a passionate desire to connect to the divine on a regular basis.

Got a little rainbow for you.

There are lots of different methods of spiritual direction (many directors use the Ignatian Exercises, for example), but  I am being trained in the non-directive, or evocative method.  We started doing practicums in the second week of our intensive, and I found that I loved sitting in silence with my practice directee. I loved the silence so much that I was gently critiqued for leaving the directee feeling a bit vulnerable or emotionally abandoned after they had shared something deep. It’s a hard practice! Where I am tempted to jump in and actively enter into conversation, I know that is not my role. When I settle comfortably into the more contemplative listening mode, I can settle in there too deeply! Earth to Vicki.

But I loved it. The desert filled my well. I hate to be corny with the desert metaphors but having read a lot of the desert mothers and fathers, I was excited about studying spiritual direction in the environment they lived in all those centuries ago when they withdrew from Christian life in the city. I think it’s hilarious that as far back as the 4th century people were already like, “Ech, the Church is so corrupt.”

I mostly expressed my sense of reverence and awe in response to the desert landscape by walking around and saying things like, “Oh my God, what ARE you?” and “Holy s*%$, what even IS this?”

ouch! but yet …flowers

These darlings will literally attack you if you brush up against them. I saw hikers in Joshua Tree National Park yanking the spikes out of their arms and heels with pliers. Blood everywhere. The desert does not mess around!

We stayed in little rooms on a beautiful campus and ate breakfast at 8AM, started sessions at 9:30, worked until noon when we broke for lunch, went back for afternoon session at 1:30, worked until 4:30, and had dinner at 6PM.

We walked to breakfast in this kind of situation…

And did things on our breaks like hike, read or walk the labyrinth:

 

It’s like something out of Dr. Seuss

Loretta is a wonderful pastor from Wisconsin.

I am not really a group person. I’m a strong extrovert in some ways, but more than one day of structured programs with the same group of people usually chafes at me. The only time I remember loving a residential learning and retreat experience was when I got a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1993 and spent three weeks studying Emerson, Thoreau and the New England Transcendentalists at Oregon State University with Professor David Robinson.

Usually though, I skip a lot of retreat programming and flee into solitude for my mental health. I find group process to be laborious and over-earnest and then I beat up on myself for being cranky and critical.  My own UUMA (the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association — a professional, dues-paying clergy organization and yes, UUs are the only denomination that has such an organization) has been in a horrific meltdown for a couple of years, culminating in a past 12 months of divisive, vicious, grace-denying, Spirit-ignoring, accusatory, vengeful, schismatic actions and reactions. We are ostensibly a covenantal organization but the covenant has been blown to smithereens and I doubt that there will be genuine collegial trust in my lifetime. I feel exceedingly grateful to have well-established friendships and decades of close working relationships and fellowship with many colleagues, so that I retain affection and loyalty even to those with whom I am in disagreement over the latest contretemps. I also serve a congregation that is stable, has strong and healthy lay and professional leadership, and is located in a beautiful location within a vibrant wider multifaith community of mutual care, concern and social justice commitments.  I have a very good and fulfilling life in ministry.

There is a lot of lip service paid to the notion of covenant in my collegial circles, but since there is no recognition of a greater reality, wisdom and grace beyond strong convictions held by various arguing groups,  “covenant” has been utterly degraded. In its current usage among the UUMA it is used in a punitive way; official documents speak of “being brought back into covenant,” as though covenants are strictly between groups of people and not initiated by a God who invites us to be in relationship with God and with each other, to become a people of God.  Covenant is always a vertical proposition, an Us-and-Thou; it is never “us versus them.”  The conversation among UU clergy has flat-lined.

And there is also a thing that New England religious progressives do that stymies deep spiritual conversation: we are really committed to seeming smart, educated and sophisticated.  My being GenX adds a layer of sardonic detachment to the rational smart reasonable people thing. We don’t go around talking about God. Even with my best friends, even with my parishioners, even with my closest colleagues, we keep our mystical experiences and promptings of the Spirit pretty private. We touch on the subject carefully, most often (I find) out of respect for other people’s time and tolerance for such religiosity.  We are careful not to assume that our ways of expressing how God/Spirit/Deeper Reality/Soul presents itself in our experience will be comprehended or accepted by others, and even those with whom we are in spiritual community.

That’s our way. I remember in Div School people would walk around asking each other about their prayer practice and say things in the hall to each other like “How is your walk with Jesus?” and I would flinch.  It felt so forced, and also invasive, and also like bragging. I wanted to yell out, “Be careful you don’t step on Jesus’ robe and trip him on your walk!” just to let the air out of the piety.

But at Hesychia, we sat in a lot of silence and heard from one another about how confusing, demanding, inspiring, frightening, exciting, upsetting, healing and disruptive the movement of the Spirit is in our lives today, right now, and in our pasts. We told stories about how, when we really attended to our souls, we felt guided, loved, led and supported through the most harrowing of times. We shared tears over recollections of suffering, times where we felt empty or abandoned, when our spiritual practices bore no fruit at all.

We listened to each other without interruption and without judgment. We brought insensitivities or mistakes to each other’s attention with care and respect. We trained and disciplined ourselves not to fix, not to project, not to say “I know just how you feel” or “You know, that reminds me of something…” or “there’s a book you should read.” We waited in silence for more truth to emerge. We protected each other’s privacy and honored each other’s feelings. We showed non-verbally that we cared, that we were paying close attention to every word in our practicum sessions, that we were intensely committed to being a companion in the work of going deeper.

I get to go back for the last two weeks at the end of April. I will write more later about some life insights I recorded while in the desert. They’re not radical or new, but they led me to make some interior shifts that have brought me more peace and equilibrium, and who doesn’t need that?

With love.

 

This was the February full moon. I was walking to the dining hall for dinner when I saw a group of my sister Hesychasts looking out to the mountains and I gasped. Almost missed it. 

Loud Lady At The Monastery

I was up on Montserrat today visiting the beautiful monastery nestled in the crazy mountains of Catalunya about an hour outside of Barcelona.

I girded my loins and took the little cable car/funicular thingy, reasoning that five minutes of potential terror would be easier to endure than twenty minutes  white-knuckling on a train sliding around hairpin turns with a death-drop view. I am known to be a bit dramatic when I get terrified, as in I have actually flattened myself on the floor of vans, trains and airplanes (“Ma’am, PLEASE TAKE YOUR SEAT”) when animal fear overcomes me on dangerous or tubulent trips. Don’t ask me about my drive down coastal highway 101 in Oregon – I was the passenger on the floor hugging the front seat.

 

Montserrat is truly beautiful and has a museum, a basilica, a hotel, a monastery, a cafeteria and some lodgings for those who live there full time. It is best known as the shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat, or The Black Madonna, the patron saint of Catalonia. Many people had obviously come to the shrine for healing, and I lit a candle and prayed for the many people and animals in my life who need healing and compassion.

While I was there moving in and out of crowds of tourists, I heard an English-speaking woman hollering for her daughter. The girl wasn’t very young and she wasn’t lost — this was just someone being loud. I have noticed that Americans are often the loudest in tourist spaces. They are inevitably talking about how many steps they’ve taken that day, what other sights they’ve “done” ( not seen; done, as in “we did Madrid and then we did the Dali museum in Figueros), how irritated they are by the spotty wi-fi connection, or how much things cost. It is always shocking to me when I am in an international setting to realize how aggressive and competitive Americans are by nature.  We take up so much space and air in the room.

So this woman was hollering and another woman in her party kind of shushed her with an embarrassed laugh, and I heard them murmuring and then the loud lady said in an earnest way, “I’m not religious. I didn’t know!”

This is so interesting to me. I’m going to be thinking about this for awhile. My parents raised me to be considerate in all public environments and to keep my voice down (I was frequently admonished to “turn it down, Vicki,” which I actually regard  just as much an attempt to diminish and feminize a naturally strong little girl as it was to instill appropriate social conditioning and good manners), and it must have been my grandparents who taught us church etiquette – hushed voices, standing and kneeling on command, opening and holding a hymnal or prayerbook even if you can’t read from it. We did not make the sign of the cross or genuflect; we drew the line at such expressions of faith, and we did not receive the Eucharist. But we learned how to be a good guest in someone else’s religious home.

So I got to thinking about howtraditional religious spaces contribute to what we might call “cultural literacy” or, flipping the framework around, how they contribute to patriarchal control and/or white supremacy culture.

I conclude that I am grateful for all the spaces that contribute to a shared human experience of REVERENCE. General reverence transcends nation, race, religion, political party, gender and class.  What I would hope for the shouting women is not that she move through the world fearful and embarrassed that she will do the wrong thing at the wrong volume in a sacred space and insult “the faithful,” but that she will develop a happy attentiveness to her environment (especially while traveling) that leads her to naturally adopt a gentler presence when she is in houses of worship or their environs.

When hundreds of us from many lands and many or no faiths gathered at 1PM this afternoon to hear the famous Escolania de Montserrat Boy’s Choir, the monk leading the service was very clear in his gestures, inviting in his words and inclusive in his language. It was clear to me that he knew that it was not just Catholics who were there, and not even a variety of Christians, but a wide variety of human beings who wanted to hear angelic voices in a glorious setting. To me, that is a religious instinct. It isn’t adherence to a doctrine that makes someone religious, it is a hunger to be in relationship with God (by whatever name) and those who also seek to live deeply from the soul.

If I could, I would draw the loud lady aside and say, “Did you make an effort to get up this mountain and visit this lovely place out of respect, interest and perhaps a longing to be touched by something deeper than the daily news and the quotidian concerns of your life? Then you are religious. You are a legitimate part of this community of pilgrims. If you turn down the volume on the voices in your head telling you how religious you aren’t, you may be able to hear your spirit better.”

Ultimately that is what I devoutly wish for us all.

Those little boys sure could sing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Poetry Of Mary Oliver In Unitarian Universalist Liturgy

[This was originally a paper I wrote for my doctoral program in 2008. – Victoria Weinstein]

There’s Something About Mary: The Poetry Of Mary Oliver Among Unitarian Universalists

There are three poems by Mary Oliver in the most recent Unitarian Universalist hymn book, Singing the Living Tradition.  To put her prominence in context, there are six readings in the hymnal by Ralph Waldo Emerson, one by Henry David Thoreau, seven by Rabindranath Tagore, and eleven from the Book of Isaiah. She is therefore not overly-represented in the hymn book, but is unquestionably the poet of choice in Unitarian Universalist congregations all over the country and was chosen to give the prestigious Ware Lecture at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 2007. If any secular literary source can be said to have achieved the status of “sacred scripture” within a religious movement, it is safe to say this of Mary Oliver’s poetry among the Unitarian Universalists.

As a woman named Marcia wrote recently on a blog posting asking Unitarian Universalists to comment about the prevalence of Mary Oliver poetry in their worship services, “All I know is that when people ask me if we read from the bible during worship services, i say ‘Yes, but not as often as we read mary oliver.’[1]  On the same post a woman named Terri comments, “The very first UU service I attended featured a Mary Oliver poem…and the very first UU small group session I attended on Prayer used her poem “Morning Poem”[2]

Unitarian Universlist minister Judy Welles writes,

I use Mary Oliver a LOT. . . I love the simplicity of her poetry; I respect the art of saying something very rich and nuanced with just a very few words. She is a MASTER at that. And she loves life so much. And she is so grateful. She takes great pleasure in simple things, notices things to be grateful for that most of us would miss. To put it simply: she knocks my socks off.[3]

 

So what is this about? What about Mary Oliver’s poetry speaks so powerfully to members of this small religious movement? I have two key theories, one positive and one more cynical, that I want to explore more fully in this paper:

  1. Oliver writes poetry that is imbued with theology that is particularly resonant with the Transcendentalist, neo-pagan and ambiguously Theistic strands of Unitarian Universalism (I use the term “ambiguously Theistic” to refer to those who do not identify as traditional Theists, but who may be agnostic with a strong mystical bent, or atheistic with a sense of immanent divinity that, for personal reasons, they refuse to name as God). Oliver’s talent for capturing theophany and immanence in a few verses or images is breathtaking. She is the Muse of choice for many who have trouble articulating the holiness in everyday things and events, but who strongly feel its presence.
  2. Oliver writes poetry that is almost entirely interior; preoccupied with private thoughts, feelings and reactions to her immediate natural surroundings. It is the rare poem that takes Oliver into an urban or even suburban setting or finds her among a group of other human beings. In her poetic persona, she prefers the company of her dog, irises, otters or grasshoppers to that of people (save her beloved partner Molly Malone Cook who appears unnamed in many of her poems).  “Oliver worship” within Unitarian Universalism in the current era may represent, therefore, a holding onto rampant individualism and self-absorption that is currently being challenged by 21st century proponents of a far stronger community ethos in the denomination.

Speaking as an individual, I am a sincere fan of Mary Oliver’s poetry. Speaking as a minister and liturgist, I believe that her prevalence in Unitarian Universalist worship is a mixed blessing, and that her poetry should be more intentionally balanced with other poetic voices; especially those that lift up the importance of seeking transcendence truths in community.

 

The first reading by Mary Oliver that appears in Singing the Living Tradition is her poem “Wild Geese,” (from Dream Work, 1986).  It is reprinted in its entirety but made into a responsive reading, as the italics will indicate:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 

Imagine the reaction of the newcomer to Unitarian Universalist worship hearing a minister or liturgist intone that first line, “You do not have to be good.”

You do not have to be good!?? What kind of religion is this, anyway?  Read in a private context, I find this poem to be a beautiful statement of spiritual freedom, rejection of the efficacy of religious guilt to effect healing and wholeness (“you do not have to walk on your knees …repenting”) and a celebration of the interdependence of all life and each person’s special place in it.  Read in a corporate context, however, this poem makes me cringe.  Phrases like, “You do not have to be good” and “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves” – so hospitable to the individual reader’s soul, sound to my ear very weak and permissive theology when read responsively in a worship setting.  Do worshipers hear these words differently in the privacy of home versus the public space of the religious meetinghouse?  Are preachers being entirely responsible when they use them and then do not exegete them somewhere in the service? Or do worshipers have an instinctive understanding that poetry within the context of worship is not, in fact, literally sacred scripture but one possible illumination among many of the preacher’s message and the community’s values?

One Unitarian Universalist wrote, “[Oliver’s] poem ‘Wild Geese’ is sort of like a creed to me (and I share this in common with a minister friend of mine, who also committed the poem to heart).[4]  Given that Unitarian Universalists reject creeds, such a comment is surprisingly fervent. Another active Unitarian Universalist gave the poem even higher prominence in her spiritual life, writing,

I love Mary Oliver because her poems “West Wind #2,” “Wild Geese,” and “The Journey” saved my life–literally. They gave me the strength and courage to do some hard things–basically to get out of a life that was killing me, and into one that is full of love and joy. Oliver will always hold a special place in my heart for that.[5]

In a religious tradition that has largely abandoned language of salvation in the 21st century (emphasizing, if anything, that humanity has to save itself), it is perhaps inevitable that its adherents will seek salvific messages where they can find them in other, extra-congregational sources.

The second Mary Oliver poem which appears in the Unitarian Universalist hymnbook (also from Dream Work) is “Morning Poem.”  Again, italicized portions indicate the intention that this be used as an antiphonal or responsive reading:

Every morning the world is

created.

Under the orange sticks of the

sun the heaped ashes of the

night turn into leaves again.

And fasten themselves to the high

branches – and the ponds appear

like black cloth on which are

painted islands of summer lilies.

 

If it is your nature to be happy

you will swim away along

the soft trails for hours, your

imagination alighting

everywhere.

 

And if you spirit carries within it

the thorn that is heavier than

lead – if it’s all you can do to keep on trudging –

 

There is still somewhere deep

within you a beast shouting

that the earth is exactly what

it wanted –

 

Each ponds with its blazing lilies is

a prayer heard and answered

lavishly, every morning,

 

Whether or not you have ever

dared to be happy,

whether or not you have ever

dared to pray.

Like “Wild Geese,” “Morning Poem” addresses the suffering individual (“the spirit that carries the thorn that is heavier than lead”), claims that the individual is in the right place (Nature or Earth) and affirms that that place is inherently sacred.  There are resonances with the Book of Genesis in the first line (“Each morning the world is created”), and again, the human is affectionately reduced to the most creaturely of beings (“soft animal” in “Wild Geese” and “a beast” in “Morning Poem”).  As in “Wild Geese,” “Morning Poem” claims that whether or not the human being is particularly religious (“whether or not you have ever dared to pray”), the natural world invites each person to actively participate in the immanent, divine order of things.  It is a reading which, when I ventured to try it with a congregation during worship, did not flow very well, but it contains some memorably beautiful images (the orange sticks of the sun/the pond with the blazing lilies) and a comforting theological message that traditional spiritual practices are not necessary to commune with the “answered prayer” that is Nature.

Emerson and Thoreau said much the same thing in far more prosaic language in the 19th century, of course, unintentionally striking a nearly-fatal blow to the nascent Unitarian movement and leaving a legacy of anti-institutionalism and sporadic church-going that has not abated since their time.  Oliver is a worthy heir to this strand of the Transcendentalist tradition, enthusiastically exhorting the reader to throw themselves down in the grass and worship in that manner, or to do so by floating in a pond, or by spending a summer’s day savoring blackberries on one’s “happy tongue.”

In the last of her contributions to the Unitarian Universalist hymn book, Oliver’s poem “In Blackwater Woods”[6] is excerpted as follows:

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

This is a fitting final verse of a poem that juxtaposes satisfaction and goodness (trees turning their own bodies “into pillars of light”) with sadness and even nihilistic imagery (“every pond/no matter what its name is/is nameless now”), but it seems a startlingly inappropriate message for a church to perpetuate.

For one thing, Oliver makes a definitive pastoral statement that works beautifully for her poem but that has no place in a institution whose founder advised us not to love what is mortal as though our lives depended on it, but to love God in that manner, because our lives do depend on it. Similarly, this poem strikes me as a questionable inclusion in a hymn book because, taken out of context of the larger poem, the phrases read as a therapeutic sound bite for “getting over” losses one might have suffered.  Who is to say when the time is to “let it go?” Mary Oliver doesn’t say, but grieving worshipers hearing this on a Sunday morning might legitimately wonder if they are being in some way admonished for not being able to “live in this world” appropriately.  This might be an overly-sensitive concern, but if people are listening carefully for images of God that may offend them (as they often are in a Unitarian Universalist congregation where the vast majority are “come-outers” from more conservative faith traditions– or who come unchurched and critical of traditional religion), are they not listening especially carefully also for words that may spiritually guide and advise them?

Mary Oliver is at her best and most theologically inspiring when writing about theophanies in ordinary life. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection American Primitive contains what are for me her finest poems in that vein.  In one poem, “The Kitten,” Oliver describes taking a stillborn kitten with one eye from her house cat’s bed and burying it in a field behind her house.

I suppose I could have given it

to a museum,

I could have called the local newspaper.

But instead I took it out into the field

and opened the earth

and put it back

saying, it was real,

saying, life is infinitely inventive. . .

The poet is saying that even this tiny dead being that would have been regarded as grotesque by most people is part of what is natural, and is therefore to be marveled at as evidence of an infinitely creative Creator.  It is her constant refrain; to render the unremarkable remarkable, and the ugly or even treacherous aspects of creation worthy of attention and reverence.  Oliver invites us into solidarity and fellowship with all of life.  She is the anti-Annie Dillard, who so delights in dashing sentimental or anthropomorphized notions of the natural world against the rocks of gleefully clinical descriptions of the horrors of Nature, “red in tooth and claw.”

Oliver’s magnificent poem “Humpbacks,” around which I once designed an entire worship service, is a glorious revelation of the theophany of the humpback whale (see Appendix B) as it “smashes through the surface” of the ocean and hangs “for some unbelievable part of a moment against the sky/like nothing you’ve ever imagined/ like the myth of the fifth morning galloping out of darkness/pouring heavenward.”  As in many of Oliver’s poems, this one is also about the relationship between the human body and the other embodied aspects of creation.  It begins as a creation story, evoking a “country of original fire” in which we live and move and have our being, and later echoes Genesis as it connects the magnificent appearance of the whales to “the myth of the fifth morning galloping out of [the primordial] darkness.”

 

As she often does, Oliver ends her poem with an exhortation to the reader, saying,

Listen, whatever it is you try

to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you

like the dreams of your body –

It is these exhortations, these evangelical moments in Oliver’s poems that are most treasured by those who hear her within the context of worship.  “Don’t love your life too much,” she says in the voice of a butterfly at the end of her poem[7] “One Or Two Things.” And this treasured phrase that appears at the end of “The Summer Day,” a poem I have read at half a dozen memorial services, asks her ultimate question:  “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” [8] Her theology is broad and humanistic, “incantations drawing us forward to a more authentic life.”[9]

What, then, will Unitarian Universalists make of Oliver’s development as a poet of distinctly Earth-based, broadly humanistic spirituality (with a smattering of Christian images and references sprinkled throughout), to a grieving woman hungering and thirsting after the God of Christian faith in her recent collection, Thirst?

I attended the Installation of a new Unitarian Universalist minister in March of 2008 which used Thirst’s first poem, “Messenger” as an antiphonal benediction read by several of the new minister’s colleagues. The poem begins, “My work is loving the world,” and proceeds with the usual Oliver specificity of reverence — the inevitable lists of aspects of creation she wants to be sure we will not overlook in our hasty pace of life (“Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird/Here the quickening yeast/there the blue plums/Here is the clam deep in the speckled sand”).  But at the last line, a surprise. Rather than her customary reminder that life is brief and therefore must be savored, Oliver ends her poem with a reference to eternal life:

A mouth with which to give shouts of joy

to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,

telling them all, over and over, how it is,

that we live forever.[10]

For close readers of Oliver, this phrase is a shift, a hint that something is changing in the poet’s spiritual orientation.  Later in the collection (“Musical Notation: 1”) we find Oliver referring to all of creation as God’s works – more specifically, in traditionally gendered language as “His works.”  Another surprise.

“Have you noticed?” she asks.  Yes, in Thirst, we have noticed for the first time in this collection that Mary Oliver is a faithful Christian woman, weaving glorious poetry out of an all-too human struggle with meaning in the aftermath of a shattering loss.  “Dear Lord,” she begins one poem, and later in that same poem affirms, “Still I believe you will come, Lord: you will…”[11]

Will wounded ex-Christians, agnostics, humanistic, Jewish or Buddhist-oriented Unitarian Universalists who love Mary Oliver’s poetry so much that they take her words as personal creeds and commit them to memory feel betrayed by their Muse’s new direction? Will they accept it and follow where she leads with literary appreciation and healthy self-differentiation? Will they dismiss her devotion to the Christian Way as the disappointing, if understandable, reaction to losing her partner of forty years (a kind of regression, if you will)?  It will be interesting to see how frequently, if at all, poems from Thirst are included in Unitarian Universalist worship services, meditation circles and retreats.

I personally find Thirst to be Oliver’s most mature and powerful collection in a long time, as I had begun to find her work vapid and formulaic.  It is not only the details of her Christian life that I find beautiful and resonant (a description of trying to remember the lectionary lesson when one is depressed, disoriented and grieving; a simple report of attending church and then walking the dog; the plea for God to still our pounding, anxious hearts and bring us to the peace that passeth understanding; the mystery of Eucharistic transformation of bread, wine, self and community), it is the new sense of deep relationality which I find in these poems that inspires and moves me. Oliver’s shift from a poetic voice of such total interiority that it bordered, for me, on irritating self-absorption (no matter how literarily beautiful) to a voice that recognizes and even, in a bittersweet and poignant way, celebrates dependency, inter-dependency and community is, to this admirer, a great literary fulfillment.

 

[1] Commenter Marcia on “There’s Something About Mary,” PeaceBang blog, May 1, 2008. Spelling original.

[2] Commenter Terri, ibid.

[3] Commenter Judy Welles, ibid.

[4] Commenter Terri on “There’s Something About Mary,” PeaceBang blog, May 1, 2008.

[5] Commenter Doxy, ibid.

[6] Mary Oliver, American Primitive (Little, Brown & Company, New York: 1983), 82-83. See appendix A for complete poem.

[7] Mary Oliver, New And Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 120-122.

[8] Ibid, 94.

[9] Rev. Jen Crow, “This Wild And Precious Life,” Sermon given at First Unitarian Church of Rochester, NY, July 16, 2006.  http://www.rochesterunitarian.org/2005-06/20060716.html

[10] Mary Oliver, Thirst (Beacon Press: Boston, 2006), 1.

[11] Mary Oliver, “Making The House Ready For the Lord,” Thirst (Boston, Beacon Press, 2006), 13.