What did Mary Oliver read to inspire her? According to an article I read in a recent issue of Parabola, she read a poem by Rumi every day. The touching piece, written by Tricia Spoto, a woman who was one of Oliver’s caretakers during the last weeks of her life, told me a few things about Oliver that I didn’t know. Her extravagant generosity, for instance. She kept an envelope of money in a desk drawer, her “floating money” and used it to pay rent for a few families, braces for girl whose teeth needed straightening, gave it to a friend who needed a car and a place to stay, and on and on. I didn’t know either that her death was extremely difficult as she battled a series of cancers for years that brought pain, indignities, endless hours of chemo, and, finally, the loss of words and phrases for poems that once came to her with ease and frequency. After Oliver’s death, Spoto is cleaning out her friend’s sparse bedroom and picks up a Sufi begging bowl that the poet Coleman Barks gave Oliver. In it she finds “confetti like” pieces of paper, each containing a Rumi quote. Spoto writes:
“Day after day after day, she pulled one out and thought about it, and hoped the words would come. Astonishing enough—the intention and the discipline. But what strikes me now is her fearless determination to keep finding the new thought, to find the words that said the world a little better, the ones that saved my life, and yours. All of this in the last three years of her life, when language was leaving her. Despite the anguish that it brought her to see the words slip a little further away daily, she never gave up. And the thing is, it was an act of love for each of us, for she didn’t need her poems nearly as much as we do.”
After reading the article, it doesn’t take too much of a brain to know what I did. Yes, I went out and bought Rumi, Day by Day by Maryam Mafi and A Year with Rumi by Coleman Barks. Old Monk is starting late—Mary Oliver died in January—but I will mourn her passing by reading Rumi every day for a year. That’s as good a prayer as I can offer in gratitude for her light.
“Without vision the people perish,” the Book of Proverbs tells us. Never have I applied that quote to the scripture story of Martha and Mary. You know, the one where Jesus goes to visit his friends and Martha does all the hospitable things while Mary sits at his feet and listens. When Martha complains that Mary is not doing her share, Jesus responds, “She has chosen the best part and it shall not be taken from her.” How many times have I heard that story and a commentary on it from the pulpit? I never bought the most common insight into the story: Mary the contemplative vs Martha the activist and we all know that prayer is better than work because Jesus just said so. Well, not all of us know that. Me? I think they’re equally sacred, just as is all the rest of the stuff we do this side of the coffin.
Then I read a commentary by Geoff Wood and silently screamed, “Yes, yes, yes!” In the gospel according to Wood, this story is about rekindling the vision. Jesus applauds Mary because she is still spellbound by his message of human possibility and splendor. Jesus chastises Martha because she, like most of us, has compromised the vision and settled for duty and doing “good things.” This is a flashing red light story warning all followers of the grave danger of “muting the message, lowering the aim, and putting all our marbles into becoming virtuous instead of marvelous.” As Wood points out, Jesus did not come to teach us about virtue and responsibility and duty. There was enough of that from the Hebrew scribes, the Greek and Roman philosophers, and the Stoics. No, Jesus, was not a boring moralist. He was a caster of spells, a dreamer of all things new. And Mary sat at his feet, choosing the “best part,” reminding us to listen and never let go of Jesus’ vision of largess and the beautiful.
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A blog by Mary Lou Kownacki
A personal journal captures what’s in the heart. Most of my adult life I’ve recorded my notes, brief reflections, poems, reactions to daily events in a journal. It is an ongoing source of monastic formation; the rich and raw material of life that helps shape my Monastery of the Heart. About a year ago, Old Monk began to appear on my journal’s pages. Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB, is the Monasteries of the Heart coordinator.
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