Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
Last year at this time, our Lenten devotional was entitled, “The Poetry of Lent: A Lenten Companion to Mary Oliver’s Devotions.” It was then that many of us immersed ourselves deeply into Mary Oliver’s writings, opening our hearts to wonder and mystery.
Little did we know that between last Lent and this Lent, Mary Oliver would pass from life to Life. On January 17th, the world lost one of the greatest poets and human beings of our time. Her poems whispered their way into the hearts of millions around the world who would not have otherwise considered themselves lovers of poetry. On January 17th, upon the news of her death, my Facebook feed was full of poems and tributes by Mary Oliver, many of them contributed by you. It seemed fitting that we take a Sunday to honor her remarkable life.
Who is Mary Oliver? Mary Oliver was born during the depression in 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio. She had a very bad childhood: a sexually abusive father and a neglectful mother. “It was a very dark and broken house that I came from. I escaped it barely” said Mary. And it was the woods that saved her. Nature was her salvation. “I don’t care for buildings and being confined to the indoors,” says Mary. Every morning she would go into the woods between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m. It was a daily discipline. And she would write while she walked. Carrying a notebook with her. Listening deeply to the world. She said that she once found herself walking in the woods with no pen and later hid pencils in the trees so she would not be stuck in that place again. Her early morning walks inspired her poem, “Why I Wake Early,” as you heard sung by the choir this morning. “Hello, sun in my face. Hello, you who made the morning and spread it over the fields… Watch now, how I start the day in happiness and in kindness.”
At the age of 18, she left home and never looked back. She went to college at Ohio State University, but dropped out. Mary met Molly Malone Cook, who would become her partner for over forty years. Mary later wrote: “I took one look and fell, hook and tumble.” Until Molly died in 2005, the two lived together in Provincetown and Molly was Mary’s literary agent. Almost every book she wrote Mary dedicated to Molly.
Her first poetry collection was published in 1963 when she was 28. Since then, 21 more books of poems, plus six books of prose have followed. However, she did not become famous until 1983 when she won the Pulitzer Prize for her book, American Primitive. She did not like fame and she didn’t give many interviews. When editors called their house for Oliver, her partner would answer, announce that she was going to get Oliver, fake footsteps, and then get back on the phone and pretend to be the poet – all so that Oliver didn’t have to talk on the phone to strangers.
Mary Oliver was a profound creation centered mystic. She called herself a “praise poet.” In our scripture passage this morning, Isaiah writes, “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” Like Isaiah, Mary Oliver awakens us to the healing powers of nature. Mary Oliver writes,
There is only one question: how to love the world.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves and call out, Stay awhile.
Where does the temple begin and where does it end?
Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.
Her instructions for living a life so clear that I used those three instructions: pay attention, be astonished and tell about it as part of a Women’s retreat that I led for Irvine United Church of Christ last May. After the retreat, many of the women who had not heard of Mary Oliver before became great enthusiasts of her work.
Pay attention, says Mary. Attention is the beginning of devotion. Like Rumi, a favorite poet of Oliver, Oliver uses nature as a spring board to the sacred. In her poem, “Summer Day,” she writes,
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
How to be idle and blessed,
Paying attention is Mary’s form of prayer. In her poem, “Praying,” Mary Oliver describes prayer this way:
It doesn’t have to be the blue iris. It could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones. Just pay attention. Then patch a few words together – and don’t try to make them elaborate. This isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks…
Pay attention is the first instruction. The second, “Be astonished.” Of astonishment, she says this:
…let me keep company with those say ‘look!’ and laugh in astonishment and bow their heads.
Still, what I want in my life is to be willing to be dazzled – To cast aside the weight of facts.
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it…Don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.”
And for dog lovers, she affirms this, Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift, It is not the least reason why we should honor as well as love the dog of our own life, and the dog down the street, and all the dogs yet to be born. What would the word be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs?
Like Mary Oliver, our dogs astonish us!
And she writes about astonishment, When it’s all 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.
Her three instructions for living: Pay attention. Be astonished. And tell about it.
And tell about it, she did. I would like to share one of my favorite Mary Oliver poems with you this morning. A poem that has literally saved lives. You can find it on your insert. “Wild Geese.”
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 know what? You don’t have to be good. You really don’t. You can put that burden down. You can stop beating yourself up, stop punishing yourself in the hope that some ritual acts of self-inflicted repentance will transform you. You do not have to be good.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Such pure grace to be given permission to love who I love. That line alone has saved the lives of LGBTQ folks. 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.
She teaches us to sit in darkness—“tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine”—until it yields, not to answers but to mystery. To beauty. We may be broken again and again, but new life emerges tenderly once again.
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,
Life continues – the sun and the rain, the mountains and the rivers. And the geese. The geese don’t have to be good. They can just be geese. Just being who they are, they belong. And that means you do, too. “You have the undeniable authority of geese vouching for your belonging, documenting your citizenship in this world, revealing that the family of all things has a place for you… Because you have that guarantee, you don’t have to earn it. You really don’t have to be good. You just have to be you. Love what you love. Love who you love. That is all that is asked” (Meredith Garman, “Poems, Prayers, and Mary Oliver).
On January 17th at the age of 83, we said goodbye to a great poet, an even greater human being, a friend, a lover, a prophet and a spiritual companion – leaving us with these words, 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. Mary Oliver, we let you go, but your words of wisdom will continue to live on in our hearts. Amen.