The Theology of Mary Oliver


Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver


Rev. Fred L Hammond
September 14 2008 ©
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, AL

Wise Ol’ King Solomon is credited with saying there is nothing new under the sun.  Little did I know that he also included as nothing new a discussion on the Theology of Mary Oliver.   I thought this was going to be a sermon rarely done before.  And then I discovered colleague Rev. Victoria Weinstein a.k.a. blogger Peacebang did a blog entry earlier this year on Unitarian Universalist’s fascination on Mary Oliver.  Then I discovered colleague Rev. Kathleen McTigue did a sermon in 2006 entitled “God of Dirt: The Theology of Mary Oliver.  And then I discovered her inspiration for her sermon was a text by Thomas W. Mann entitled “God of Dirt: Mary Oliver and the other Book of God.   So my hope in the light of these esteemed colleagues and scholars is to add to the conversation on Mary Oliver’s theology.

Mary Oliver has won the hearts of many Unitarian Universalists.  Her popularity among us gained her the esteemed and prestigious place of being a Ware Lecturer in 2006 at our General Assembly. She currently has six books listed in the top 30 best sellers list of poetry as reported by the Poetry Foundation and three of these are in the top five. 

One possibility to her being, as I have heard here and elsewhere, the unofficial poet laureate of Unitarian Universalists is Mary Oliver is not afraid of the questions.  Kathleen McTigue writes regarding Oliver’s theology, “By that word [theology] I mean not only what her poems reflect of her beliefs about God, but what they reflect about a host of other religious questions: What is holy? Who are we? What are we called to do with our lives? What is death, and how do we understand it when we turn our faces toward its inevitability? These questions matter to all of us. And the answers in Mary Oliver’s poems feel so resonant and so true…”

What is it about her poetry that resonates with so many of us?  This may be a rhetorical question.  So I will try to answer the question in the personal. 

I lived across the road from my paternal grandparents.  They owned sixty some acres that had reverted with an exception of a few fields back to its natural state of pines, oaks, and maples. My grandmother was trained as a botanist.  She had taught for a few years but then focused on her love of wild life as an avocation.  Every morning just as the sun was rising she would take a walk through her property, taking notice of the animals and of the various plants that grew on her land.  She knew every one by name and it seemed as if she was in intimate contact with them.  As a child, I was convinced that they confided in her their secrets because it seemed all of the birds and animals would visit at her back stoop.  The fields behind their house had a few apple trees that would be visited by black bears, deer and raccoons.  The chickadee and chipmunk would take sunflower seeds from her hands. There is even the coveted photograph of a chickadee taking seed from her lips as if she was receiving a kiss.   She had a connection.  And she would marvel at the arrival of flowers and ferns that would return each spring to her rock garden and along her walking paths. 

One of her greatest lessons to me came directly from her observations of nature.  On a walk with her in the woods, she pointed out to me a New York Fern.   On closer inspection she stated to me that there are always variations in life; ‘see how this frond ends in one point, but this one in a double point, and this one in three? The norm is one point but every species has variations and diversities within them; each a special creation.’   Years later, as I struggled with my sexuality, it was this lesson that came back to me and gave me new insight into my being.

Mary Oliver’s poems bring back these memories of my grandmother.  So when I read her poem, entitled, “Spring” I am flooded with memories and connections.  And these connections expand into new possibilities of understanding our world.

[Spring House of Light p6]

a black bear
has just risen from sleep
and is staring
down the mountain.
All night
in the brisk and shallow restlessness
of early spring
I think of her,
her four black fists
flicking the gravel,
her tongue
like a red fire
touching the grass,
the cold water.
There is only one question:
how to love this world. …

She captures for me that sense of the sacred that I experienced as a child watching the black bear knocking apples off the branches to feed her cubs.  We would watch from my grandmother’s kitchen window in hushed silence the bear caring for her young.  There was this sense of awe / this sense, as Mary Oliver later states in the poem, of also being “dazzling darkness” “breathing and tasting” all of life’s glory.   There is in her poetry a sense of communing with nature in a raw earthy sensual manner that our world at our fingertips of the computer age no longer has access to experiencing.

Yet, life is to be lived to the full and Mary Oliver’s poetry hints at how this could be.  There is an attitude one is to have towards life.  Thomas Mann in his book God of Dirt, quotes this passage from her essays in Winter Hours;  “Now I think there is only one subject worth my attention and that is the recognition of the spiritual side of the world and, within this recognition, the condition of my own spiritual state. I am not talking about having faith necessarily, although one hopes to.  What I mean by spirituality is not theology, but attitude.” 

Thomas Mann then responds with, “The heart of natural spirituality is not what one thinks about God, but how one relates to the natural world as the realm of God.”  (p 11 God of Dirt: Mary Oliver and the Other Book of God)  And Mary Oliver’s poems are filled with how she relates to the realm of God.  Her poem “The Summer Day” expands this notion. 

[The Summer Day  House of Light p 60]

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. …

She asks a universal question.  But she answers with this: “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 her form of prayer within the realm of God called nature.  She defines prayer from this perspective in her poem entitled “Praying” [ Praying, Thirst, p 37

pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but a doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

For Mary Oliver all of nature speaks to her.  In her poem, “One or Two Things” (Dream Work p 50)  She writes: 

The god of dirt
came to me many times and said
so many wise and delectable things, I lay
on the grass listening
to his dog voice,
crow voice,
frog voice; now,
he said, and now,
and never once mentioned forever…

By paying attention she is able to perceive the world around her as the voices of creation.  Each plant, beast, bird has a message, a thought that will illuminate the heavens and the life we are living here.  It is from the dirt that all of life has sprung so it is not in any derogatory sense that Mary Oliver speaks of the god of dirt. In fact it is with highest praise and recognition that she is able to commune with nature and hear the voice of the god of dirt. 

Thomas Mann in his text, states Mary Oliver is saying “to attend to what is now, rather than pine for what is forever.”  She states later in the poem that she has longed just to love her life.  It is then the butterfly that appears earlier in the poem, who answers her, “The butterfly / rose, weightless, in the wind. / “Don’t love your life / too much,”…  Thomas Mann comments on this symbolism.  The butterfly loving its life too much would refer to the butterfly’s chrysalis stage.  If it remained there, it would never become a butterfly.  He states “It would never be ‘transformed’ … the same is true for humans who long for ‘forever’.  As a contemporary proverb puts it, ‘some people long for eternal life but don’t know what to do on a Sunday afternoon.’ The longing for ‘forever’ prevents an enjoyment of the ‘now.’ ”    Mary Oliver listens to the voice of nature in her being present to it.

The concept of nature speaking is not so heretical an idea. The Psalmist wrote:  “The heavens are telling the glory of god; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.  Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” (Psalm 19 v 1—4a)

This listening to the silence of the world and hearing its voice is a common theme in many religions.  I recently saw a short video clip of an American teacher by the name of Gangaji, who follows the teachings of a Hindu Maharshi, who spoke about being in silence.  She teaches that quieting the thoughts of our mind enables us to hear the essence of our being and not our thoughts about our being.  Doing so she claims will open the door ways to our authentic self, the self that uses no words.   Gangaji claims that when we have thoughts about ourselves we are no longer experiencing our selves directly but instead objectifying our relationship with our selves into an I-it instead of an I-thou relationship.  

Oliver alludes to this in her poem The Notebook (House of Light p 44),  “The turtle / doesn’t have a word for any of it—the silky water / or the enormous blue morning, or the curious affair of his own body.”   She is caught up in her scribbling and crossing out that she almost misses the moment of when the turtle leaves. She writes, “How much can the right word do?” 

Sometimes it is the silence that reveals the spirit.  Sometimes it is silence that reveals our relationship with nature, with the realm of God.  In her poem “Spring” she states that she goes about thinking about the bear with “her white teeth / her wordlessness / her perfect love.”    But there is no harsh rebuke if she misses a moment of this level of relationship with the world, with herself.  She closes the poem “Notebook,” with “There is still time / to let the last rose of the sunrise / float down/ into my uplifted eyes.”

Where does this take her when she listens in silence, when she pays attention to the natural world around her?   Her poem Mindful [ New and Selected Poems, Vol. Two, p90] offers us clues. 

Every day
I see or I hear
that more or less
kills me
with delight, …
It is what I was born for—
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world—
to instruct myself
over and over
in joy,
and acclamation…

She goes on and states these are not the exceptional things but rather the drab every day things that she is mindful of that brings her such delight.  The world is filled with wonders and it is her life long task to find them.  She states in other poems that this is her work, “which is standing still and learning to be astonished.”  (Messenger, Thirst p 1)

It is in the realm of God, nature, that she draws comfort and strength.  After the death of her spouse, Molly Malone Cook, she writes several poems on grieving.  In After Her Death, (Thirst p 16) she writes about feeling lost.  She adds, “…The trees keep whispering / peace, peace, and the birds / in the shallows are full of the / bodies of small fish and are / content.  They open their wings/ so easily, and fly.  So. It is still / possible.” 

In the poem entitled, Gethsemane (Thirst ,p 45), it is the stars, the grass, the crickets, and the lake far away, and the wind that stays awake and waited with Jesus on that night before his arrest.  Again there is this sense that nature is in communion with all of creation, including humans especially in our time of need.  In the poem, Heavy, (Thirst p 53) she closes with these words, “How I linger / to admire, admire, admire / the things of this world / that are kind, and maybe // also troubled—/ roses in the wind, / the sea geese on the steep waves, / a love, / to which there is no reply?”   Her grief is palpable and yet she is finding a way through it in the world she sees around her. 

There is much wisdom in her poetry.  Her contemplation of the natural world around her has enabled her to garner strength when experiences are difficult to handle.  This contemplation also gives her access to joy and praise as she observes the life of the fauna and flora of her world. 

Mary Oliver has two poems that allude to a specific verse in the Christian scriptures attributed to Jesus.   The verse is Matthew 6:28 and 29 which reads: “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.”

In Another Everyday Poem (Red Bird p 12) she writes: 

Every day
I consider
the lilies—
how they are dressed—
and the ravens—
how they are fed—
and how each of these
is a miracle
of Lord-love …

In the poem Lilies (House of Light p 12) she writes

I have been thinking
about living
like the lilies
that blow in the fields.
They rise and fall
in the wedge of the wind,
and have no shelter
from the tongues of the cattle,
and have no closets or cupboards,
and have no legs.
Still I would wait all day
for the green face
of the hummingbird
to touch me.
What I mean is,
could I forget myself
even in those feathery fields? …

Both of these poems speak of the lushness of life to supply every need.  The joy of life even in such brevity is a wonder to behold. “for the lilies / in their bright dresses /cannot last / but wrinkle fast / and fall…”  (Another Everyday Poem)  She adds,  “[W]hat a puzzle it is / that such brevity—/ the lavish clothes … / makes the world / so full, so good.”   Their length of days does not detract from the joy of living.  She offers a perspective on life that few acknowledge deeply.   It does not matter how long a life is lived to enable offering joy and love to others, making the world full and good.  In doing so she flips the sorrow of loss into recognition of gratitude for life and the experiences that life offers. 

Yet there is also awareness that something still separates her from this kind of life. She later speaks in the poem, Lilies; “I think I will always be lonely / in this world, … where ravishing lilies / melt, without protest, on their tongues— / where the hummingbird, whenever there is a fuss, / just rises and floats away.”   –It is the existential quest for wholeness and purpose in life. We are not always so self-assured as this.  We are more like the people that Jesus admonishes in the Christian scriptures worrying about having our needs fulfilled or protected from harm from this day to the next. Even at the end of life, the lilies without protest melt their existence into fodder for the cattle.   Mary Oliver captures this sentiment for us, letting us know that the flora and fauna in its wordless awareness has a peace and wholeness about life that we humans have somehow lost.

She asks, “Can anyone doubt that the lion of the Serengeti / is part of the idea of God?” (Serengeti p 61 House of Light)   She describes the frightening roar and the fear this animal displays as it too lives its life as both the “flower of life and the winch of death.” This notion of what we might call good and evil seems to have no duality within her poetry.   The animal is only displaying what it is created to do; it does not have a sense of any other way. We humans tend to see things in dualities.  The lion that seeks to feed its cubs by killing us is seen as an evil; something to be feared.  The lion that seeks out the lame and infirmed animals for food is seen as good.     Yet, in nature, it is both /and not either /or.    

She does not have an easy answer for this state of being.  In The Owl Who Comes (New and Selected Poems Vol. Two p 52) she writes:  “and if I wish the owl luck, / and I do, / what am I wishing for that other / soft life, /climbing through the snow?”    She suggests that we are “to hope the world /  keeps its balance.”  Beyond that she does not know “what we are to do… /  with our hearts.”    The question is still posed, “Can anyone doubt that the lion of the Serengeti / is part of the idea of God?”  The implications of the question are ones that all people of faith continue to struggle with in living their spiritual path. 

So back to our rhetorical question of what is it about Mary Oliver’s poetry that speaks to us as Unitarian Universalists?  Is it perhaps Mary Oliver is able to speak to our deep longing to be connected to this natural world and not separate from it?   Could it be that she is offering a corrective to our Judeo/Christian myth of being created to have dominion over the world?  That instead we are to be in partnership, dare I say as co-equals, in living on this planet.  That perhaps there is indeed wisdom in the flora and fauna of this earth that is more profound, more revealing about how we are to live and breathe our days here? “My work is loving the world,” (Messenger, Thirst, p 1) she states.   It is our work, too.  Blessed Be.




One Comment

  1. Fred,
    Thank you for sharing this wonderful sermon. Loving the world is our work – and Oliver’s poetry helps us in this work. Blessings to you…

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