I've just returned from co-leading a weeklong conference at the Cathedral College on "Approaching God through Poetry". It was wonderful for me to work with Esther de Waal, Bonnie Thurston, and Dana Greene. And it was an exciting time -- 30-some participants, from a variety of denominations and faiths, gathered to hear talks on important poets whose work opens the way into prayer. We spent our days listening, sharing some writing, and participating in beautiful liturgy and enjoying the quiet of the Cathedral College's wonderfully "prayed in" space. It really seemed as if there was a hunger among the participants for the kind of freedom of expression in prayer that poetry opens up -- and for the community between praying persons that happens when we read a poet whose work speaks to our heart. The energy in the group was really wonderful, profoundly prayerful and grounded. A wonderful response, and a wonderful experience to be part of.
My presentation was on Mary Oliver, focusing on her new and quite compelling book, Thirst, in which her already deeply contemplative nature poetry takes on a new dimension as she begins to connect that vision more explicitly to a newly emerging Christian faith, apparently born out of her grief over the death of her partner of 40 years. I really recommend this book of poems. Quoting a poem or two doesn't do it justice because the way the poems in the volume go together is really an important part of the spiritual journey they record. Speaking to God in the title poem, Oliver writes "Love for the earth and love for you are having such a long conversation in my heart." It seemed as if we entered that conversation in a lot of our sessions during this week. The conversation between the love of this bodied life, and of the earth to which we belong, and the love of our Creator, incarnate and transfiguring. It seemed to me that many of the connections we were making in this retreat are summed up in her wonderful poem, "Praying"
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak. (Thirst. Beacon Press, 2006, p. 37)
"A doorway into thanks" -- I feel as if I've been through that doorway this week, together with the participants, and I am deeply thankful.