Justin Gentry ~ Finding Myself in the Poetry of Mary Oliver
For Jesus doesn’t change—yesterday, today, tomorrow, he’s always totally himself.
Hebrews 13:8, The Message
For as long as I can remember I have loved words. I read short novels at a young age and have always been comfortable expressing myself in front of people. I am an odd combination of bookish yet outgoing. It is the power of words that fascinates me. This combination of symbols on a page, or a screen in this case, can move you to feel any number of emotions, take you to any place in the past, or to worlds that have yet to exist. Words are lightning in a bottle.
This fascination may be why I was drawn to the pastoral vocation. Whether in a sermon, blog post or conversation, as a pastor I am required to use my words to create new worlds for people to walk into. It is an art and a delight when it works well.
Lately my interest has turned to reading poetry. I think I am drawn so much to poetry these days because over and above anything else poets are themselves. They speak from a raw, sometimes scandalous place that many of us don’t have access to. As a pastor it can be very hard to be yourself, yet it is essential if you want to have anything of value to communicate.
Over the years there are dozens of poems that have shaped my inner life, but today I want to share two from self-titled “praise poet” Mary Oliver. I love that it feels like she has lived what she has written about. When she writes about forgiveness or venturing out into the unknown, you get the sense that she writes from experience. As I use my words to bring more of Jesus’ Kingdom into the world I don’t want it to seem like I am faking it for effect. I want to have lived to tell the tale I am telling you too.
I invite you to read both poems and sit with them for a bit before moving to my commentary. Maybe they have something to teach you that I have not yet thought of.
“The Uses of Sorrow”
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
This very short poem, almost a quote really, sums up my work as a pastor. I am tasked with peering into the darkness in myself and somehow by the grace of God finding a redemptive perspective to it. For years I thought of my work as helping others do this, but I have learned that I must be the one to go first. If I cannot do this with my greatest tragedies, how can I lead others to do the same?
I love that Mary Oliver doesn’t minimize the darkness or throw up her hands and say it is God’s plan too early. People who haven’t dealt with their pain tend to do this. She lets it stay darkness but transforms her relationship to it from victim to victor. It is in this act that we become more than conquerors.
If someone has given you a “box full of darkness” I am truly sorry. It is a painful, terrible thing to deal with. I cannot offer a quick fix, but if you sit with it and learn what it has to teach you, things will get better in time. This process often comes at night when we aren’t looking for it; when we have stopped hoping for it. You realize that the thing you thought would destroy you forever has made you into a better person. That is good news indeed.
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice-
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
I read this poem about once a week. Over the last year it has spoken to me in a way the Scriptures haven’t, which can happen when your business is the Bible. The dry, professional nature the Scriptures can take on when you have studied them for years used to bother me. I would wonder what was wrong with me. I realize now that sometimes God delights in speaking through poets and prophets.
Back to the poem, I find that as a pastor it is easy to get caught up in someone else’s drama. Each person’s need is so great that I forget God has a unique part for me to play too. Mary Oliver reminds me that the voice I am called to listen to isn’t speaking to someone else. It is speaking to me and me alone. It is for me and me alone.
That could sound incredibly selfish, but most good advice does. Yes, I am called to save many lives, but at the end of the day I can really only know if one is actually saved. I am responsible for shepherding and cultivating this one wild life that I have been given.
In Christian circles we talk a lot about selling our souls. We can sell them to success, money, or even the devil. We rarely talk about selling our souls to people. When those voices cry out to you, “mend my life!” what deeper voices are they drowning out?
This poem builds on a theme in Mary Oliver’s poetry that I have seen in my life – that of sudden revelation. One day you just know what you have to do. It is never the right time. It always feels too late. There are always other obligations to tie up or make right. Yet there is still this thing you know you have to do. Maybe it is a relationship that needs mended or broken off, a new career path that is unknown or uncertain, a new vision that you know will meet resistance. All you know is that there is something you must do.
All I can say is begin. Start. Go. That deep down voice is there for a reason. It is the place where we meet God. Don’t be afraid of it.
This is what I love about Mary Oliver’s poetry. It encourages me to follow my inner voice. This has always been the Jesus tradition. Where does God speak to Elijah? A still small voice. Where does the Spirit of God reside? In the hearts of people. Where does Jesus encourage us to pray? Not in front of others but in a lonely, quiet closet. In the quiet moments God speaks suddenly and inconveniently, telling us exactly where we need to go.
There is a line in Hebrews that Eugene Peterson translates so well. It says this about Jesus, “For Jesus doesn’t change—yesterday, today, tomorrow, he’s always totally himself.” That is a kind of confidence that I only have when I am in touch with my deepest self, the one hidden in God. When I can operate from that space I am dynamite, on fire, full of grace and truth. My words change lives. I lose it when I put on the mask, when I hide from that voice, and mend everyone else’s pain but my own. I become just another codependent minister, of some use but ultimately forgettable.
So where are you? Have you lost your inner voice? Have you managed others’ pain at the expense of your own healing? How can poetry, art, or quiet get you back to the place where you can always be totally yourself?