We lost a real saint this month. The Pulitzer prize-winning poet, Mary Oliver, died at the age of 83 on January 17 after living with lymphoma for the past three years.
I call her a saint not because she received the official designation from the Roman Catholic Church, but because she, along with the Sufi mystic, Rumi, seemed to be the most quoted poet among clergy types and those eternally curious Presbyterians that I tend to hang out with on a regular basis.
Oliver had a way of writing that reminded us that the natural world was as spiritual as it was physical and that if you opened your eyes and observed you might discover that the line between humanity and divinity is very thin.
I feel that I might be taking a slight risk in calling Oliver a saint even though I say it with the full conviction of my being. Oliver very rarely mentioned God in her poems. In fact, when she did it was often a reference to mystery (“Some words will never leave God’s mouth, no matter how hard you listen”) or a reminder how much the experience of God is rooted in our experience of nature (“It must be a great disappointment to God if we are not dazzled at least ten times a day”).
No, Oliver didn’t mention God all that much. But every poem seemed to be an invitation into the deep lived experience of God. She didn’t say God out loud, except rarely. Yet God always seemed to be peeking between the words of her poems and present in the pauses between verses.
I remember when I embarked on a 4,000-mile cycling pilgrimage through the western states in 2011. Twice while riding, Christian friends sent me Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Journey” that provided just the right words (“One day you finally knew what you had to do…”) to guide me as I listened for God’s voice during a particularly vulnerable personal and vocational crossroads.
Curious that Christian friends first thought of a poem that was never sold as Christian writing to guide me and inspire me on my cycling adventure and spiritual pilgrimage.
I am calling Mary Oliver a saint today not because our tradition has taken steps to officially recognize her work or her contribution to thousands of well-crafted sermons. I am calling Mary Oliver a saint because so many of the people I know, both lay and clergy alike, have folded her writing into their spiritual disciplines, into their prayer lives and into their ever deepening and growing faith. I am calling her a saint because so many people I know long ago started treating her like a saint.
I write this post today to simply say, “I think we need to pay attention to this.” Something is happening. I don’t know how many thousands of times preachers have quoted her poems (lacking all reference to God) as a way of gaining deeper insight into a Biblical narrative and into the heart of God.
Something is happening. People are wising up and they know when they can feel God even if G-O-D isn’t even mentioned on the printed page.
Something is happening. God is showing up in surprising places and in unorthodox ways.
There are saints who point a direct path to God. And then there a saints who point to the earth we stand on, the flower we gaze at, the bird we envy and the person we love. Mary Oliver was the latter kind of saint.
I say with full conviction that we lost a real saint this month. We lost one whose every poem pointed to God without ever mentioning the name.
We are eternally grateful for you, Mary Oliver.