It has been my privilege to teach Mary Oliver’s poetry in the context of courses on spirituality. She is a champion within the creation spirituality lineage, of that there can be no doubt. Consider just a few of her giftings.
Franz Marc was a painter who died a young man in the First World War. Oliver wrote a poem on his painting of Blue Horses, “Franz Marc’s Blue Horses” in which she writes:
“I would rather die than try to explain to the blue horses
what war is”
Here she is contrasting human acceptance of war—the tragedy that cut Franz Marc’s life so short–to the innocence of other creatures.
“Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually.
Maybe the desire to make something beautiful
is the piece of God that is inside each of us.” (21)
This appears to be a loud affirmation indeed of the Via Creativa—and the image of God, that piece of God, we all carry within us.
In speaking of her own vocation as a poet she tells us:
“And I am thinking: maybe just looking and listening
is the real work.
Maybe the world, without us,
is the real poem.” (234).
Oliver was very committed to looking and listening, indeed she writes often of prayer and tends to define it as paying close attention.
“I don’t know exactly what 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, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.” (316)
Notice: falling down into the earth, the grass, kneeling there, being idle, being present to blessing, strolling in the fields—is all this prayer? It is reverent and it celebrates the importance of being fully present. Yes, that is the prayer of the via positiva and the via negativa, stillness and listening deeply.
How precious is learning to pay attention? “Imagination is better than a sharp instrument. To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” (264) Again,
“I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
as though with your arms open.” (186)
Standing around with an attitude—an attitude of welcoming and embracing and greeting. This is prayer too, isn’t it?
All the citations of Mary Oliver’s poems here are from Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver (NY: Putnam, 2017), a volume she put together before she died in January, 2019.
Queries for Contemplation
Mary Oliver tells us that “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” This underscores her commitment to Paying Attention. No doubt this is behind her carefully chosen title for the final collection of her poems. Do you agree with her? What difference does this definition of attention and devotion mean in the way you look at the world? In the way you pray?
Because creativity is the key to both our genius and beauty as a species but also to our capacity for evil, we need to teach creativity and to teach ways of steering this God-like power in directions that promote love of life (biophilia) and not love of death (necrophilia). Pushing well beyond the bounds of conventional Christian doctrine, Fox’s focus on creativity attempts nothing less than to shape a new ethic.