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The Horizontal Sacred – The Theology of Mary Oliver’s Poems

By David Poultney in All Sorts

examples of poetry that allows new views and understandings of theological questions and the meaning of life

The Horizontal Sacred – The Theology of Mary Oliver’s Poems
One month ago the poet Mary Oliver died, I had ‘discovered‘ her in the last couple of years and found her poetry moving and enlightening and though without being overtly religious I found her poems theologically profound. They sneak in here and there into my services, I will use one this morning at Mosgiel.
Poetry is a natural companion to liturgy, indispensable to it. The same is true for theology, the truths of theology aren’t the objective verifiable truths of the laboratory, they are – as Wittgenstein said – poetic. A construction of words to draw one towards meaning.

Scripture begins and ends with poetry and contains swaths and snatches of it throughout its vast remainder. The rites of Christian worship across the centuries have endured in part because they are
poetry in the mouth, poetry in the ear, poetry to live by.
Accomplished poets with theological acumen have always helped to sustain the piety of the faithful: Ephrem the Syrian, Hildegard of Bingen, Dante Alighieri, George Herbert, Christina Rossetti, T. S. Eliot,
Gerard Manley Hopkins—to name only a few.
Debra Dean Murphy in her essay on Oliver’s poetry writes that our present age is in sore need of poetry. We live in a culture of propositions and prose, of dry cut facts, of alternative truths and fake news. Words bind us instead of liberating us.
Propositional speech and expository writing have always been limited in their power to move and convince, which is why the best orators and authors throughout history have won over their audiences with
poetic speech—language rife with image, metaphor, ambiguity, and lyricism and uninterested in didacticism and moralizing. For Christians who recognize the dreariness of staking one’s life solely on a list of propositions to be assented to, poetry turns out to be in Oliver’s words “like fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”
Oliver had no professed religion but Christian imagery emerges in some of her later work. She was a mystic of the natural world. Debra Dean Murphy identifies three reasons Christians should seek nurture
I n her work.
First, her way of regarding the created order can help inform a deeply theological vision of the world. A poem is a kind of dwelling place— intimate and durable—and Oliver constructs poems that invite us to dwell in other habitations more thoughtfully, more honorably, with more integrity and intentionality than we might otherwise.

Second, Oliver’s poetry witnesses to a deep love of neighbour. She writes mostly about the neighbourhoods of forests and fields, ponds and seashores, but some of her most poignant poems are about the work—and the giftedness—of seeking the well-being of others.
Finally, Oliver’s relative lack of theological sophistication can be surprisingly compelling. Although many of her recent poems employ a more explicit Christian vocabulary, they do so with a naïveté and wonder that challenge the cynicism of our times. It turns out that accessibility in the poems of Mary Oliver can lead to encounters for the argument-weary that are like fire, like ropes, like necessary bread. In celebration of her life and giftedness I conclude with her poem
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
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?
David Poultney