St. Mary Oliver

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it

To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.

— Mary Oliver

The function of sainthood is to facilitate our relationship with the divine. And this was the supreme achievement of Mary Oliver as a poet.

As Saturn’s rings are stardust concentrated by the planet’s gravity, so Mary Oliver’s halo was formed by her focused attraction to nature and to the human condition. Her words drew us into her orbit. Her poems were deep, layered, reduced to essentials. They were heretical in the view of literary critics who could not accept that really good poetry could be so easily accessible to a popular audience. But she was in excellent company. Many of the mystics of Christianity and other world religions have been subjected to the same kind of accusation.

Not a formally religious person, she nonetheless grounded her life and work in a natural spirituality that resonated with the contemplative traditions of the world’s faiths. Her poetry had a scriptural quality, expressing universal truth in enduring language widely repeated. Her poems are profound but simple prayers, invocations, homilies, and benedictions, read aloud at sacred moments in people’s lives. Now, after her passing, we recognize the virtual sainthood she achieved among us long ago.

To be canonized in the Catholic church, one must be associated with one or more miracles. Mary Oliver passed this test. As a child, she was awestruck by what she saw in the woods by her house in Ohio. Mary Oliver paid attention. Open, curious, wonder-filled, slack-jawed attention. The kind of attention that is love. Through careful observation of everyday phenomena in nature, the door to the miraculous was opened to her, and through her poetry, to us. She was “married to amazement”, and her readers were transubstantiated into her bridesmaids and groomsmen whose job is to stand and watch with love.

Some might object to giving Mary Oliver sainthood so soon after her death. But if we’re doing the work that she called us to do, then time will fall away and we will enter into eternity in this life, rapt with awe. Mary Oliver’s poems invite us into the experience of timelessness. So in this eternal now, what would be gained by waiting to honor her saintliness?

By acclamation, by overwhelming consensus, let us canonize Mary Oliver. With every reading of her poetry, we brighten her halo, and let it illuminate more of the world around us.

Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, USC
Website: MINDFULCHRISTIANITY.ORG Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
See the GUIDE to my articles and books
Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

Review & Commentary