In my homilies, many of you hear me quote the great spiritual writers Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, and David Steindl-Rast. Someone I rarely quote, but who is one of the great influences on my life, is the theologian Karl Rahner, a Jesuit priest-theologian. His writings and thinking had a great influence on my formation in seminary so many, many years ago.
He wrote an essay I will never forget reading, because it spoke to something deep in my heart. The article was about “priest as poet”. Now we think of priests in so many ways, perhaps teachers, preachers, counselors, administrators, confessors, ministers of sacraments, community leaders, youth ministers, children’s ministers, rectors, and associate rectors and so many more. But this essay was a tremendous “Yes” to what was deep in my heart. In seminary, as one is trying to discern if one actually has a vocation to the priesthood, this essay gave voice to my heart. I made many attempts to write poetry until I realized that priest as poet was not necessarily about writing poetry, but rather a way of seeing the world around us. I call it a poet’s eyes and ears. While parishes may not list “poet” as one of the things describing what is looked for in a rector, for me it has been the foundation of who I am as priest. Thank you to Karl Rahner for letting me own that in myself. While being rector of St. Paul’s these many years, and being about many things in that role, I live out this poetic side in my homilies.
So during these times in which we find ourselves, with all the anxiety and fear, I am drawn to the language of poetry. And my favorite poet is Mary Oliver, who spent most of her life living and writing in Provincetown, Massachusetts, located on my favorite place in the world, Cape Cod. Robert Cook, a wildlife ecologist for the Cape Cod National Seashore, says: “Most people think of Cape Cod as beaches and oceans, but quite a bit of it is forested, and there are all types of freshwater ponds.” Blackwater Pond was one where Mary Oliver spent much of her time on early morning walks. On my recent sabbatical I spent hours walking the paths and sitting by Blackwater Pond, where she wrote much of her poetry, breathing in her words. I’d like to share a poem of Mary Oliver below. It is not my role to tell you what it means but invite you to hear what it can mean to you.
The Summer Day
by Mary Oliver
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?
— Fr. George
(Above) Mary Oliver reads her poem, “The Summer Day” (1990). You can read more poetry by Mary Oliver at the Poetry Foundation.
For more parish resources and updates during the global pandemic, visit St. Paul’s Connects.Tags: From the Clergy, Hope for the Journey