Thank You for Paying Attention

The poet Mary Oliver died yesterday at the age of eighty-three. As people share their gratitude for how she embraced the sacrament of existence, poetry is flooding the internet.

I got to know some of my friends from the inside out. Because of various circumstances, I learned about their interior lives—their emotions, their spiritual struggles and joys—before I knew their external details, such as where they worked or grew up.

Mary Oliver was an inside-out poet. She gave few interviews, but her poems generously offered her interior being to her readers in a way few do. I heard her read once, and she was delightfully human—both fallible, as she wondered out loud where she had put the next poem, and divine in her presence and her words.

She had the uncanny ability to marvel at nature and life in a way that revealed the beauty of it all but did not deny the harsh realities of the world. Her vision avoided getting tangled in how things should be and instead revealed the sacred nature of things as they are.

It’s hard to choose which of her poems to share, but here are a few that have meant a lot to me and so many others over the years.

May you rest in curiosity and continuing discovery, oh observer of and participant in the eternal. To whatever it is that happens after this life, you are surely now paying singular and exquisite attention.

The Journey

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.

 

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 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.

 

Messenger

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
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.

 

 

Radiating Love

“Beloved: See what love the Father has bestowed on us.” That’s the first line of the second reading for the Solemnity of All Saints in the Catholic church this year, from John’s first letter. It’s also what anyone might have said upon meeting Fr. Joseph Boyle, abbot of St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado.

To stand in Joseph’s presence was to receive an outpouring of strong and gentle love. You felt the love he radiated. It warmed you, and your heart opened in response the way a flower unfurls its petals to catch the sun’s rays and so becomes ready to welcome whatever visitors bring it life.

I grew up going on retreat at St. Benedict’s with my mom and a group of women around her age. Joseph entered my life in the way that people sometimes do when you’re a kid—effortlessly with no questions asked. As I got older, my appreciation and gratitude for the gift of this remarkable, kind, and generous human being grew.

I didn’t realize that I thought Joseph would live forever until he was gone. I haven’t seen him for many years, but without knowing it, I held this belief that whenever I returned to St. Benedict’s, his steady and loving presence would be there. I simply couldn’t imagine the world without him.

On my bookshelf waiting to be read is a book titled Humility Matters: Toward Purity of Heart. Joseph had a depth of humility, a pureness of heart that few people do. Perhaps I’m so surprised by the strength of pain and loss I’m experiencing because he manifested and offered God’s love so freely and purely that one received the gift without completely realizing its immensity.

Once after mass, he and I were talking when he saw someone across the room and said, oh I can’t let this person leave without receiving some of my love. It was a revelation to me that one could deeply respect the value of one’s own love and know the importance of sharing it without a trace of self-importance. Joseph always knew that the source of his love was God and didn’t feel it necessary to get in the way of God’s love flowing through him and out to the rest of us.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God,” reads one of the lines in the Beatitudes, the Gospel reading for All Saints. They will see God, as Joseph did, in their fellow human beings, in all creation, and in themselves. And now that he has passed on from this world to whatever communion awaits, surely he is seeing the fullness of God; surely he is continuing to become the beautiful love he shared with anyone fortunate enough to meet him.

Love Everyone

Phil Bailey is a lot like Jesus—if Jesus had to have a rum and Coke and half a ham sandwich on white bread every day. I don’t know whether Phil, who has little interest in religion, will appreciate being compared to Jesus, but he’ll surely let me know if he doesn’t.

How can I explain that I thoroughly admire and respect a boss with whom my main mode of communication is an exchange of insults? Perhaps with another question—how many people in high ranking positions are secure enough with who they are to welcome such a relationship?

Phil more than lives up to his responsibilities as dean of the college without considering himself more important than anyone else. While working with him has sharpened my tongue, it has also taught me humility. Phil knows who he is and knows that both is and isn’t a big deal. Jesus knew he was the son of God and he washed the disciples’ feet.

Which brings us to the second way Phil is like Jesus—he is first and foremost a servant. Though in a position of power, he uses every ounce of his privilege on behalf of the powerless. He and his wife, Tina, have invited many students in dire financial need to live with them. He mentioned to the university’s top donors that some students can’t afford to eat, and now we have a meal voucher program and a food bank. Though I don’t know whether I’ll ever have the capacity to emulate what Phil and Tina do, simply knowing someone does it has enlarged my view of what is possible in this world.

Jesus came to show us the divinity of our humanity, our own incarnate nature. Though Phil will undoubtedly find that last sentence too high-falutin’ (he’s from Texas), he, too, delights in his humanity and the humanity of those around him. Whether playing penny ante poker, watching football, or reporting with glee on some particularly stupid comment he heard on the news, he enjoys this world and enters fully into life rather than trying to escape from it.

And finally, Phil loves everyone, without exception and with incomparable generosity, which is really all Jesus ever asked us to do. I would gladly follow both of these men, not—as Phil will be the first to tell you—in blind obedience but rather in hopes of learning to live as they do.