Monday, October 23, 2006

Mary Oliver's Prayers

"I don't know exactly what a prayer is," Mary Oliver wrote, in her poem, "A Summer's Day." It's the one about the grasshopper that ends, "And what do you plan to do with your/one wild and precious life?" UU's like that poem; we like her reminder to appreciate nature, her affimation of our choices, and, frankly, lots of UU's like the fact that Mary didn't, at that time, know exactly what a prayer is. We like to think that our appreciative attentiveness to nature is a kind of prayer...which, of course, it is.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention...

Mary Oliver has moved on in her spiritual journey. Her latest book, 'Thirst', written after the death of her life partner, is a set of poems about grief and grieving, and about finding God. She says this in one poem:

Pay attention, then patch
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.

If prayer is communication with mystery, then there's a level on which not a one of us "knows" what a prayer is; it's all hints and guesses and an experience so interior that we can't bring it out of ourselves without changing it profoundly. But some folks make more guesses and take more hints than others, and it is clear that Mary Oliver has had a new kind of experience in prayer. I hope she will someday write more directly about it, in the meantime, we've these new, much more specifically theological poems to read.

We UU's have great difficulty with the transition from wordy appreciation into silent listening for a divine voice, still and small or any other way. It's not that UU's don't pray, it's that the default theology around here precludes "another voice" and the folks who are comfortable with that default too often tend to be derisive. And it takes almost no derisiveness to end most UU's willingness to risk attempting to bring their interior spirituality into words. And so the default remains.

We like Mary Oliver, I've heard her claimed as one of us, which she might have once been, but she's clearly now been drawn into a liturgical Christian denomination. May she be blessed in her journey. My thanksgiving this evening for her exquisite and continuing poetics of prayer.


Turtle Mountain said...

My experience has been that most UUs pray - even many who are confirmed atheists, most of whom chuckle to themselves about the whimsical irony of it all. ("God damn it! I hate Alice when she does that!" can come so swiftly to one's lips.) It is really public prayer that most UU's seem to object to vigorously. Private prayers and public prayers are totally different phenomena, as different as marital sex and marriage ceremonies. One is intended to be private, the other public. They are completely different, with different motivations, with different politics, with different personae, with different ends.

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