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


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



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.

[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.

Nevertheless, She Persisted: A PeaceBang Love Letter To Miss Bette Midler As Dolly Levi

I saw Bette Midler play Dolly Gallagher Levi, the legendary leading role in Jerry Herman’s musical “Hello, Dolly!” on Wednesday night, June 14th. It was the twentieth anniversary of my ordination and I felt that this would be the perfect way to celebrate: a return to my first church and my original religion, the Broadway theatre.

I have said many times that “Dolly” is eternally popular because it’s a resurrection narrative. The irrepressible Dolly, primarily a matchmaker (the source material is Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker”) is “a woman who arranges things/ for the pleasure and the profit it derives.” Some of the things Dolly arranges are “furniture, and daffodils, and lives.” She is a force of nature, a keen social manager, and a brilliant finagler in the ways that all widows who are left without a comfortable fortune have to finagle if they’re to keep themselves in potatoes and striped stockings, let alone chicken and dumplings.

When we meet her, Dolly is tired of finagling. She has a goal which she shares with the audience early on in the show through the device of talking to her dead husband, Ephraim Levi: she is going to get the well-known “half a millionaire,” Horace Vandergelder, to marry her. She is going to marry well and rejoin the human race after many years away. As she sings in the title song, in a phrase with pathos that is easy to miss amid the jubilation of all those dancing waiters welcoming her back to her old Saturday night stamping ground, the Harmonia Gardens,

I went away from the lights of 14th Street/ and into my personal haze/ But now that I’m back in the lights of 14th Street, tomorrow will be brighter than the good old days!


Photos by Julieta Cervantes. Click to enlarge. 

If “Hello, Dolly!” is done even passably well (it’s a hard show to ruin), the audience will always burst into cheers when the trombone starts its well-known slide into the brassy trumpet chords that signal Dolly Levi’s endearingly garish, brave, be-plumed appearance at the top of the stairs at Harmonia Gardens. We weep because it is a resurrection moment, a theatrical Easter morning that thrills the same pagan soul that contrived the Orphic Mysteries and the Eleusinian Rites. “The lady… she’s here!” cries one young waiter, too much of a newbie to remember Dolly himself, but fully aware of how much she is loved and missed by the rest of the crew. The men gather around at the foot of the staircase in expectation, the curtain at the top parts, and here she comes, descending in joy, a touch of girlish trepidation, and beaming adoration down on the waiters below. She will serenade several of them by name,

“You’re lookin’ swell, Manny/I can tell Danny/you’re still glowing you’re still crowin’ you’re still/goin’ strong

You’re looking great, Stanley/lose some weight, Stanley?

On Wednesday night, June 14th at the Shubert Theatre, Miss Midler serenaded all of us, as I have no doubt she does to all her audiences every night. Midler has the most profound gift for intimacy I have ever seen in a performer, radiating warmth and her unique brand heartening humor and moxie to every row of the house. Midler’s genius is also in her inimitable sense of pacing: she never allows the tsunami of adoration coming to her from across the footlights to throw the show off its timing and manages to conduct the energy so that she uses it in the service of the work and not for personal egotistical gratification. I have seen the latter phenomenon many times from great divas (male and female), and while I too was cheering their irresistible charismatic force, a tiny part of me resented the frequent distractions and emotional manipulation. Bette Midler is an irresistible charismatic force for whom applause does not seem emotionally necessary as a salve for some original wound. She receives it graciously and with delight as someone who is as much in thrall to the gods of the theatre as we are to her. She has too much discipline as an artist to covet the applause or play to it for its own sake, and for that alone I will admire her forever.


Midler with the marvelous David Hyde Pierce, who manages to give the usually one-dimensional Horace Vandergelder an actual emotional arc. 

When Midler made her entrance, the audience simply roared with love and excitement. She had just won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress In A Musical on Sunday evening when she made headlines for shutting down the orchestra when it tried to play her off as her acceptance speech outran the allotted 90 seconds.  Since Broadway theatres are dark on Monday, and (Broadway star in her own right) Donna Murphy plays Dolly on Tuesdays, we were seeing Miss Midler in her first evening performance since the Tonys. It occurred to me later that evening, reflecting with my companion about the overwhelming thrill of Midler’s presence and the audience’s monumental reaction to her entrance, that part of what we were cheering for was not only the brilliance of her performance but for her “nevertheless, she persisted” moment at the Tony Awards.

In a 2008 Vanity Fair article, Bette presciently remarked that her greatest fear is that her country’s greatest years are behind it. She has been a scathing critic of the idiocy of the Trump regime, and I am not the only one who regularly hoots with appreciation at her public remarks on his and his cronies’ thieving and lying.

Miss Midler has persisted. She has been speaking her mind with a deathly combination of wit, truth and keen intelligence for a long time, and she has, thank God, never stopped. She has had a long career that defies categorization: she is singer, actress, cabaret chanteuse, performance artist, old-school vaudevillian, movie star, Broadway diva, comic. She is a mermaid, a mogul, a matchmaker. She persists. No orchestra can silence her, no role can daunt her, no audience member can resist her. Dear Miss Midler, I see what you did there, every brilliant choice of interpretation and communication and generosity to your fellow actors and the love and life force you brought to every minute of it.

I am so glad that you persist. You were right — in these terrible times, we need Dolly. And we need you.







Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette:” A PeaceBang Review

I saw The Met’s Encore beautiful production of Gounod’s opera at the Revere Cinema last night. The singing was exquisite, and although I didn’t totally like Bartlett Scher’s directorial decisions (muddling the focus in the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio, for instance), the leads Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo sang gorgeously. I didn’t see much “white hot” chemistry between them, as Grigolo is a bit of a ham bone, but I sit in total awe of these artists. It’s very hard to calibrate a performance for the live Met audience that won’t come across as too bold for the HD cameras. I adore the Met; it is a temple of the gods to me, and I am grateful to be able to be a Met audience from the comfort of my local movie theatre for $28.

What I want to focus on is not the music of the opera (not my favorite, sorry Monsieur Gounod) but the devastating tragedy of the libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré.

You thought Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juiet” was tragic? Believe it or not, it GETS WORSE in this adaptation, and I haven’t seen any critics mention how or why, and I feel the need to talk about it.

We all know that lovers die at the end of the play. R+ J fall in love, secretly wed, and then got caught up in the violence dividing their families. In a rage following Tybalt’s murder of his dear friend Mercutio, Romeo drives a blade into the young Capulet (Juliet’s cousin) and is banished for his crime (he could have been put to death, but the Prince of Verona is a good guy).

Romeo and Juliet have one night of conjugal bliss before Romeo has to flee. Juliet’s parents (Lady Capulet has no role in the opera — such a shame, too) muscle her into marrying their choice, Paris (a guy, not the city). Juliet understandably freaks out (she’s already married! And yuck, Paris!) and runs to Friar Lawrence, the good but in-over-his-head cleric who married the two lovers. He has a plan. She can drink a dangerous potion that will put her into a coma for 24 hours or so. She’ll be interred in the Capulet’s family crypt. Meanwhile, Friar Larry will send a message to Romeo to meet her in the tomb, where they’ll be reunited and can escape together.

All goes according to plan until Romeo finds out about Juliet’s death before Friar Lawrence can get to him. Romeo buys poison, rushes to the Capulet’s tomb to hold his darling one last time, sees Juliet there on her bier and kills himself. Juliet wakes with a panicky Friar Lawrence hovering around realizing his plan has taken a horrible turn. The friar, tending to the barely awake girl, hears Capulets approaching the crypt outside and runs away (And who can forget Milo O’Shea in the 1960 Zeffirelli film bleating, “I dare no longer stay! I dare no longer stay!”). Juliet fully wakes, sees Romeo there dead, and stabs herself to death. It’s horrible. Just horrible.

However, there are witnesses. The family busts into the tomb and finds the bodies of the star-crossed lovers there and they are chagrined. They are brought to their senses by grief. We are left to understand that the centuries old enmity between the Capulets and the Montagues ends with this final senseless destruction of two of their beautiful kids. Presumably Friar Lawrence does a lot of pastoral care and everyone is instructed by this tragedy. The death of Juliet and Romeo has some redeeming purpose.

In the opera, however, there is no redemption, and I was not ready for Barbier and Carrés different ending.

In the opera, Juliet drinks the potion, goes into the tomb (and Scher’s staging of her entombment as a wedding night ritual with ladies-in-waiting, including Lady Death, was deeply upsetting and effective) and Romeo bursts in as  per Shakespeare. He drinks the poison and then Juliet wakes before the poison takes effect. This is so the two of them can sing together, of course, and you’re grateful for it. But if you’ve been paying close attention, you can’t help but notice how, when Romeo entered the crypt, he carefully closed the door most of the way behind him. I was thinking, “Romeo, crack that door, bro! Friar Lawrence and the Prince and the chorus need to come busting in in a few minutes to find you guys dead!”

But Friar Lawrence does not come. No one comes. More devastating than you can imagine, Romeo begins to die and Juliet takes his dagger and sings about how beautiful it will be for the two of them to be able to die together, and the two of them — how else can I say this? — insert the blade into her solar plexus. Throughout the entire heartbreaking scene the two have been kissing and caressing each other in desparation, and as they die they are totally entwined in one another’s arms. Their last words are to God, and they sing, “Forgive us.”

I am so haunted by this. In Shakespeare’s play, the lovers do not ask for forgiveness: it is their stupid parents and the naive Friar Lawrence and the petty citizens of Verona who have taken sides in the long Capulet-Montague feud who are chastened and stand in need of mercy.

As I walked out of the theatre, totally gutted, I thougt, “Jesus, Gounod’s opera manages to make one of the saddest tragedies of all time even more damn tragic.” Romeo and Juliet’s bodies might not be found for decades. By then, they might be nothing but bones. Because of Romeo’s banishment, no one would think to look for him. His mother would never hear from him and never know if he was alive in another land. Friar Lawrence, probably hoping to hear from the two but accepting that it might not be safe or possible for them to contact him, would pray his fruitless prayers to a God who had already received both the lovers’ final confession. The Prince and the townspeople wouldn’t learn anything. The enmity would continue as stupidly as before. Paris would marry someone else and Juliet’s parents would never have reason to question the custom of forcing daughters to marry a man she didn’t want to marry.

No one learns anything.

I appreciate the glorious singing. I appreciate the catharsis that I experience through all great performances.

But I wasn’t ready for a twist in Shakespeare’s story that would leave two beautiful and innocent young people dead by their own hands with no witnesses and no community of accountability to get some hard-won wisdom by their actions, holding only themselves accountable to their God.

I’m grateful to the guy sitting next to me who sat with me while I absorbed the shock. He thought I was just blown away by the singing. I was waiting for everyone actually responsible for those two dead bodies to come bursting through the crypt door and see what they had caused.

I am still not over it.

Never tell me that art isn’t essential to the human endeavor.