Celebrating Mary Oliver… and the “Means of Grace” Which is Poetry

Celebrating Mary Oliver…
and the “Means of Grace” Which is Poetry

Remembering the life and legacy of Mary Oliver this week (on the anniversary of her death on January 17, 2019) has me celebrating the means of grace which is poetry. 

Mary is just one of the poetic muses  I have encountered through the years – thanks, in large part to Jerry Webber, a friend and spiritual director-teacher whose use of poetry in his work is most meaningful. In addition to Oliver, Jerry has introduced me to William Stafford, Wendall Berry, David Whyte, and Rainer Maria Rilke – to name just a few.

Lattimore, Mary Oliver Icon

The power of poetry – indeed, all art including paintings or music or cinema – is captured for me in words of Emily Dickinson:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Brilliant as it is, Dickinson tells me, Truth needs to be delivered and caught indirectly (or slant) – say, from the corner of our eyes — lest it blind and overwhelm us in a direct, unfiltered, frontal assault.

Art does that for me.

Truth sneaks up on me in a movie – catching me, surprising me. 

Poetry, too – where a few words can stir profound truths and questions at my core.

“Tell me,” writes Mary Oliver, for example in the closing lines of “The Summer Day”…

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

My first encounter with Mary pre-dates poetry sessions with Jerry.  Ten years ago, in a season of real exhaustion, disorientation, and beleaguerment, I found myself engaged in work with Parker Palmer’s “Center for Courage and Renewal.”  During one of the retreats that constituted that work, the slant and not-so-slant words of “The Journey” were – and still are — a call to courage and a basis of renewed life and living and ministry.

They were among the seeds that encouraged my taking a new path in life and ministry — even as they serve to convey a sense of our hope and mission in that ministry (now entering its fifth year), Zoe-Life Explorations.


The Journey
by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
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.

Vincent van Gogh, Avenue of Poplars in Autumn

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