The Ohio born poet Mary Oliver recently passed away and the world lost a writer who was sensitive to the beauty of Nature.
I used her poetry as prayer in class quite often and relished her ability to set a sacred tone in a few words and images. Oliver focused on the minimal activities of day-to-day experiences, thus directing readers to the beauty of our own Nature. Great poets remind us to see beauty in the happenings we take for granted that are integrated into the very fiber of existence.
I think of her piece “Song of the Workers”. She writes:
“On a summer morning
I sat down
on a hillside
to think about God –
a worthy pastime.
Near me, I saw
a single cricket;
it was moving the grains of the hillside
this way and that way.
How great was its energy,
how humble its effort.
Let us hope
it will always be like this,
each of us going on
in our inexplicable ways
building the universe”.
Boom! The image of something seemingly insignificant is made majestic. A single cricket moving grains pays homage to a treasured action of life. Being with creation. Building. Experiencing. Pondering.
One of Oliver’s last books, “Felicity”, speaks to this presence of sacred energy. In her poem “Leaves and Blossoms Along the Way” she writes, “God, or the gods, are invisible, quite understandable, but holiness is visible, entirely. Some words will never leave God’s mouth, no matter how hard you listen”. Later in the same poem she writes, “Beauty can both shout and whisper and still it explains nothing”.
In her poem “I Wake Close To Morning” she writes, “Why do people need to see God’s identity papers when the darkness opening into the morning is more than enough”?
Oliver considered herself a “praise poet”. Poets, like saints, gather an elevated consciousness into words.
I often sit in awe of writers who can identify a sacred expression through descriptions that point to the Mystery that is God. It is in the simple, subtle expressions and interplay of words using the shadows of darkness and the pulsating radiance of light that elevates the tension of our life’s play with something aesthetically pleasing.
The elements of beauty – integrity, harmony and clarity – can touch the inner planes of understanding for us and attune us to a resonant chord of solemnity. Throughout our lives, we can all point to a piece of beauty, but try to express it, and we sound like an inarticulate bumbling fool. Even Einstein could sound like a dufus in the presence of magnificence, but in the care of Mary Oliver beauty was pure and dynamic as it quietly implored us to recognize elegance in simplicity.
I wonder how often the average person honestly seeks beauty in a day? I would venture to guess, for the most part, we don’t consciously seek it, but we should.
Beauty bears witness to truth. Beauty’s genius holds us in the spell of her gaze. Who has not looked at a sunset and not been dazzled by the palate of color that illumines awe in stillness? Beauty is witness to seeing something deeper within us. When we place a frame around a beautiful thing – a moment with a loved one, a piece of music, a piece of art, a peaceful setting in nature, we are capturing a glimpse of perfection and participating in something eternal.
I consider the most precious expressions of beauty that have touched my soul and well up with inspiration. I can still recall my initial encounter with something beautiful and know that I had been changed – that the atoms of my existence had been stirred and my soul had relished a moment of Godliness.
Sitting with my Mom and Dad at the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena and exploring art in palatial surroundings on a perfectly clear summer day – a day where I felt like I could walk into another dimension of understanding. A smile settles in my heart, as I recall the encounter of manicured greens, white trellised vines and dappled colors of roses; strawberry and velvet reds, maroons, lemon yellows, snow whites, oranges and lavenders forming an elixir of serenity in a landscape aligned with a penetrating blue sky and architecture that is designed to please the mind.
That day billions of creatures built the “universe in their own way”, but all I could see was the beauty I wanted to see – the beauty of being present to others in their appreciation for something more. It was the experience I needed. I knew in the moment that I was being blessed and witness to truth: my parents’ enjoyment of the moments, their attention to my enjoyment and our mutual admiration for something gifted to us. Poetry teaches this.
I have also learned in life that a mind in the right frame can capture perfection in imperfection. It can help us appreciate the power of transcendence. A friend who was dying helped me to see this. In her numbered days, she reminded me to sit still and be present to the gift of a day and look for splendor even in a cluttered office. She said she “saw it. It was around there a minute ago, but I must have lost it”. We sat and laughed as we looked at the ridiculous bland and banal items that surrounded us. The laughter culled the scene and elicited the charm of a precious moment.
Sitting with the poetry of Mary Oliver, I am reminded that beauty lives quietly and needs to be sought. It is waiting to be noticed all around us. Our lives become messy with obligation, but as we move through our days, I realize it is important to cultivate our desire to be present to beauty every day. Just one glimpse of something beautiful can make a day.
In the words of Mary Oliver in her poem “The World I Live In”, “You wouldn’t believe what once or twice I have seen. I’ll just tell you this: only with angels in your head, will you ever possibly be able to see one”.