Mary Oliver as Spiritual Theologian, Part I

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. 

“The Large Blue Horses” Painting by Franz Marc

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)

“Art at Sunset” by Jinali Parikh, Pixabay

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. 

“Meadow walk at Sunset” Photo by Leon Seierlein on Unsplash


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? 

Recommended Reading

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.

Responses are welcomed. To add your comment, please click HERE or scroll to the bottom of the page.

Share this meditation


Daily Meditations with Matthew Fox is made possible through the generosity of donors. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation

Search Meditations





Receive our daily meditations

13 thoughts on “Mary Oliver as Spiritual Theologian, Part I”

  1. Avatar

    Thank you for your daily meditations. They are beautiful and so inclusive . Today I read about what is prayer. I often wondered about that because prayer is more that words, maybe not even words. Mary Oliver has the right attitude that to pray is to be silent and to look. It is not easy for those of us who have been brought up catholic, but I am working on that . Today in my prayer I read, ” Art comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable.” I will pray with the blue horses.
    Blessings and peace.

    1. Gail Sofia Ransom

      Dear Theresa,
      Thank you for juxtaposing the way we have been taught to pray – with words, with our heads down, body curled inward, and eyes closed. (Yes, prayer was taught to Protestants that way, too.) Here, we have an invitation to lift our heads, open our eyes, open our bodies wide, take a good appreciative look at what’s around us and revel in God’s presence – for an entire day if we want to! I have high hopes for what your prayer with the blue horses will reveal to you.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

  2. Avatar
    Anne Marie Raftery

    Mary Oliver’s “Paying Attention” leaves me with an attitude of:
    Stillness, Connected, Peaceful, One with the trees and grass!
    Oneness – it’s creeping in on me and it’s very wholesome!
    Thank you!

    1. Gail Sofia Ransom

      Dear Anne Marie,
      Thank you for sharing your response to Matt’s meditation and Mary Oliver’s. It’s notable, isn’t it, that her suggestion of opening our eyes and paying attention can inspire us and re-direct our prayers even before we can get out the door and into the fields. This paying attention must be wired deep within us. May you follow Mary’s lead and get out into nature often!
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team.

  3. Avatar

    If only Humanity could have resonated with stillness, awe, curiosity, oneness and mystery, from the beginning, and held that golden thread. Where might Life have taken us.

    Thank you, Mathew for holding out to us the beauty of creation and creativity

    1. Gail Sofia Ransom

      Dear Jen-Beth,
      In your response to this meditation, I felt longing, grief, frustration, reverence, regret, and hope. It is curious how exquisite and imperfect we humans are. Messy. Mystical. Mean. And yet, magnificent. In these meditations, Matt is encouraging us to open ourselves to grow in our appreciation, and intentionally choose to claim our divinity. As we do, awe, curiosity, oneness, stillness, and mystery increase exponentially.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

  4. Avatar

    I have long adored Mary Oliver and her poems. Here is a poem I wrote about her a few years ago:

    Mary Oliver––”Devotions”

    She came among us
    like a wild creature
    fresh from the forest,
    wearing a tunic of green,
    tiara of flowers in her hair.

    Orpheus returned,
    she sang to us of mysteries
    long lost,
    secrets of the animals
    and trees,
    how these were
    our ancestors,
    beloved precursors
    of our souls.

    Bears, frogs, garden snakes––
    all received her blessing.

    We listened in awe
    to her sacred melodies,
    in trance and yearning
    for what we had forgotten,
    our lost songs of spirit,
    ceremonies of connection,
    the place where we began.

    Dorothy Walters
    March 14, 2014

    (now published in “Some Kiss We Want”: Poems Selected and New.”

    1. Gail Sofia Ransom

      Dear Dorothy,
      Thank you for sharing your beautiful poem with us. Some of Mary Oliver’s lines are like scripture to many of us. I encourage you to submit your poem to the Creation Spirituality Communities newsletter to publish it wider. To submit, send it to:
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

  5. Avatar

    It is ironic that I discovered Mary Oliver from her obituary in the New York Times. A few of her poems were included, and as I read them, I found a genuine friend. I purchased the Pulitzer book, and the exquisite Devotions. I can’t express enough how her poetry has entered my life.

    1. Gail Sofia Ransom

      Dear Carol,
      Welcome to the brilliance, beauty, truth, and tender reverence of Mary Oliver. She opens our eyes to the divine presence in the “harsh and exciting call of wild geese, in the white caps of the ocean “tipping their hats’, and a “snail’s pale horns extending and waving this way and that”. I am so glad that you have discovered her work. No doubt, your world will be warmed.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

  6. Avatar
    Margaret Burnett

    I was just reading Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Gardener. “ It seems a perfect metaphor for centering prayer. We are invited to leave our tangled thinking behind and go into the “garden,” where we can meet the “gardener, “ who is a simple man, tending his roses, his children.

Leave a Comment

To help moderate the volume of responses, the Comment field is limited to 1500 characters (roughly 300 words), with one comment per person per day.

Please keep your comments focused on the topic of the day's Meditation.

As always, we look forward to your comments!!
The Daily Meditation Team

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join us in meditation that supports your compassionate action

Receive Matthew Fox's Daily Meditation by subscribing below: