Mary Oliver's poetry and the spiritual quest

Mary Oliver’s poetry and the spiritual quest

Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit. Rainer Maria Rilke, the Bohemian-Austrian mystic. John Donne’s love poems to God. T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land” and “Ash Wednesday.” Think of famous Catholic or nearly Catholic poets (Eliot and Donne were Anglicans). These four come immediately to mind. But another favorite of the Jesuits,

Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit. Rainer Maria Rilke, the Bohemian-Austrian mystic. John Donne’s love poems to God. T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land” and “Ash Wednesday.”

Think of famous Catholic or nearly Catholic poets (Eliot and Donne were Anglicans). These four come immediately to mind.

But another favorite of the Jesuits, I have learned, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mary Oliver, 80 this year, who is of no declared religion, but whose poems are all about the spiritual quest. She lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and she is gay.

Here are excerpts of poems I’ve heard read, cited, or reprinted and handed out to pray with at various retreats and in Catholic books, including Jesuit Kevin O’Brien’s “The Ignatian Adventure.” If you do not know Oliver’s work, these quoted lines may entice you to read more.

“Praying”

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

“Messenger”

…am I no longer young and still not half perfect?
Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work,
Which is mostly standing still and learning to be
Astonished.

Both of those come from her collection, “Thirst.”

Then, from “A Thousand Mornings,” here is part of “The Gardener.”

Have I lived enough?
Have I loved enough?
Have I considered Right Action enough, have I
come to any conclusion?
Have I experienced happiness with sufficient gratitude?
Have I endured loneliness with grace?

Finally, here’s an excerpt from “The Summer Day” in “New and Selected Poems.”

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, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

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