Today is the fourth anniversary of Mary Oliver’s death.  She died January 17, 2019.  She did not die before her work was finished, her work of paying attention–what she rightly called “prayer”– and poetry, her sharing of what paying attention accomplishes.   

Mary Oliver reads her poem “Why I Wake Early.” Beacon Press

She is a prime example of a creation-centered mystic and artist, a lover and observer of life and nature’s great fecundity and holiness.

When I heard her speak to a large audience shortly before she died, she ended the evening with this message intended “especially to the young”, that summarized “all she had learned” about life: “1. Pay attention. 2. Be astonished 3. Share your astonishment.”

And share it she did.  Near the end of her life, she gathered her favorite poems in a volume called Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver.  Webster’s Dictionary defines “devotion” as “a religious exercise” or “prayer.” 

Jolene Moffatt reads Mary Oliver’s poem, “This Morning.” Roberts Park UMC Indianapolis

Her first poem in the 442-page collection, from 2015, begins with a question: “Why do people keep asking to see God’s identity papers…?”

Her second poem, called “This Morning,” dwells on new chicks hatched nearby—the chicks are so new they don’t see anything and don’t even know they have wings. This simple neighborhood event she calls “a miracle”.

Her fifth poem, called “Storage,” tells the story of all the stuff she put in a storage space and how eventually she just called the trash man to take it all away.  She felt like a small donkey relieved when things on his back are removed.  She urges us to get rid of things, to “burn them!”–this is why birds who own nothing can fly.

Maite Isabel Burt reads Mary Oliver’s poem “The Gift.”

The final poem in the first section of eleven pages, called “The Gift,” closes with the advice to let God and the world know we are grateful, grateful “that the gift has been given.”  

Otto Rank defines the artist as one who wants to leave behind a gift.  So many gifts Mary Oliver leaves us, including a reminder to leave behind our own.

See Matthew Fox, “Living Words and the Cosmic Christ: Hildegard Meets Mary Oliver” in Fox, Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint For Our Times: Unleashing Her Power in the 21st Century, pp. 11-24.

And Fox, Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality.   

And Fox, Creativity: Where the Divine and the Human Meet.

Banner Image: “Willing to Be Dazzled.” Photo by Cam Miller on Flickr, honoring and citing Mary Oliver’s poem by the same name.

Queries for Contemplation

Which of these teachings from Mary Oliver reveal the most to you about the presence of the Divine in our everyday lives?  Why is that so?  How grateful are you that “the gift has been given”?

Recommended Reading

Hildegard of Bingen, A Saint for Our Times: Unleashing Her Power in the 21st Century

Matthew Fox writes in Hildegard of Bingen about this amazing woman and what we can learn from her.
In an era when women were marginalized, Hildegard was an outspoken, controversial figure. Yet so visionary was her insight that she was sought out by kings, popes, abbots, and bishops for advice.
“This book gives strong, sterling, and unvarnished evidence that everything – everything – we ourselves become will affect what women after us may also become….This is a truly marvelous, useful, profound, and creative book.” ~~ Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism.

Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality

Matthew Fox lays out a whole new direction for Christianity—a direction that is in fact very ancient and very grounded in Jewish thinking (the fact that Jesus was a Jew is often neglected by Christian theology): the Four Paths of Creation Spirituality, the Vias Positiva, Negativa, Creativa and Transformativa in an extended and deeply developed way.
Original Blessing makes available to the Christian world and to the human community a radical cure for all dark and derogatory views of the natural world wherever these may have originated.” –Thomas Berry, author, The Dream of the Earth; The Great Work; co-author, The Universe Story

Creativity: Where the Divine and Human Meet

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.
“Matt Fox is a pilgrim who seeks a path into the church of tomorrow.  Countless numbers will be happy to follow his lead.” –Bishop John Shelby Spong, author, Rescuing the Bible from FundamentalismLiving in Sin

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3 thoughts on “Gifts Given: In Gratitude to Mary Oliver”

  1. Avatar

    Thank you Matthew for re-introducing Mary Oliver to us and her poems in today’s DM. I loved your description of her: “She is a prime example of a creation-centered mystic and artist, a lover and observer of life and nature’s great fecundity and holiness.”
    Even though my education and experience has unfortunately been lacking in appreciation for poetry, you’re inspiring me to get Mary Oliver’s last book, “Devotions: The Selected Poem’s…”
    Her poetry is indeed mystical in helping us develop more our awareness and sensitivity to our Loving Divine Nature within us and among us, especially in our intimate relationships to the Beauty and Sacredness of All Our ongoing Co-Creation, including Our Mother Nature and all Her creatures and graceful abundance, within Our LOVING DIVERSE ONENESS in the Sacred Process of the ETERNAL PRESENT MOMENT….

  2. Avatar

    I think of Mary Oliver, and she’s an old or older woman. The older sage. But always, I remember the young girl wandering alone in the woods with Whitman in her backpack, small notebook and pencil. In a magazine interview, she said it saved her life, and that she couldn’t stand the “enclosure of buildings” – namely her father’s home, “of her very bad childhood” and the “very dark and broken house” into which she was born. She escaped that “enclosure” of rage and found home in the world outside, her imagination inside meeting with Nature, Spirit, Cosmos, Love…Gratitude. I love this image of the little child going to the Trees, and finding protection and the Universe there.

  3. Avatar

    The teachings of Mary Oliver, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and so many others, are eternal and remind us of the divinity within us and in our daily lives. This is a gift that no despot can ever take away.

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