Spiritual Practice with Jesus & Mary Oliver

One of the perennial dangers of the phrase ‘spiritual practice’ is the assumption that in order to be ‘spiritual’, an activity has to be complicated, rarefied, or otherwise transcendental, to qualify.  Such presumed exoticism either confuses the seeker with the thousand colours of religious therapeutics, or else renders an already nervous inquirer deeply depressed about the state of their soul. People in this latter camp are liable to mutter: ‘But I haven’t got time’, ‘I lack the discipline’, or more commonly, ‘I wouldn’t know where to begin’. But these reactions all assume a weighty complexity, which, when one looks at the most sublime spiritual teachers, is neither essential, nor helpful. One doesn’t have to undertake grand pilgrimages, find a special place ‘to feel spiritual’, or adopt any special postures. In the final analysis, even the Quaker Meeting House is a device, a contrivance for Worship. It has no inherent significance in itself. What matters is our openness to the Spirit, in the world, and one another. ‘Bring the whole of your life under the ordering of the spirit of Christ’ (QF&P 1.02), exhorts Advices and Queries. But what is the character of this ‘ordering spirit’? What does a life refracted through its personality look like? Advices and Queries itself gives us a clue with its question: ‘Are you following Jesus’ example of love in action?’ (QF&P 1.02). If Jesus is the model we should have in mind, what do the Gospels tell us about him? What kind of practical action did he favour? Principally, Christlike action begins, not with an esoteric notion of spiritual practice, but with attentiveness. The shape of Jesus heart was coloured by the fields and villages of his home. He spoke in the accent of its joys and intimate tragedies, its little happenings, and its considerable scarcities. He was present for feasts and mourning. He saw weddings and dyings, bright faith, and dark despair. He was soaked in every deep structure of the human experience, not by transcending his time and place, but by sinking down into it. Begin at home, he seems to say. You cannot find love and grace through novelty or travel. Only stillness and rootedness will do.

Mary Oliver, Who Believed Poetry 'Mustn't Be Fancy,' Dies At 83 : NPRThis reading of Christ’s spiritual practice can be gleaned from the character of his Parables. Jesus’ stories were littered with the daily things of his world; the birds, the grain upon the threshing floor, the baking of bread, and the making of wine. His sense of the Spirit was always universal, encompassing Jew, Roman, Samaritan and Greek, but his attention never strayed from the sphere of ordinary experience. Yet, in our world of twenty-four-hour news and twenty-four-hour advertising, Jesus’ simple posture of ‘just being present’ feels as alien to us as the arcane rituals of Tantric Yoga. Our minds are constantly diverted, scattered, and propelled. The notion of the future is so large in our society, (locked into the very structure of the media, economics, and politics), it is sometimes difficult to ‘centre down’, and just look about us, unmediated by opinions, commentary, or in our own time, fear. Often we need a voice or personality to interrupt our habitual, disjointed flow.  Recently, I’ve found such a force of pause in the work of the American poet Mary Oliver, (1935 –2019). She is of course famous the literary world over for her beautiful poem  ‘Wild Geese’, containing the evocative lines:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,/the world offers itself to your imagination, /calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting/over and over announcing your place/in the family of things.

In many ways these sentences express the purpose of Oliver’s poetry, to root us in the world, even if we feel isolated and alone. Oliver accomplishes this rich mode of belonging, not through a tidy system of beliefs or platitudes, but an ongoing process of observation, listening, and questioning. Centuries of dogma have caused many to think of Jesus as an espouser of systematic answers to life’s mysteries. But this is not how Jesus taught at all. Instead of handing down thoughts fully formed, he would play with diverse images, tell stories, illustrate with little acts. In short, he used the material of the ordinary world to help his followers into its depths. His end was not a system, but a posture of worship and a kindling of reverence. When he ate with his friends that was worship. When he healed the sick, that was worship. When he loved and sorrowed, there was worship also. How his followers responded to the world was more important to Christ than what they could grandly say about it. Thus, he did not close down questions. He invited them. This is similarly Oliver’s method of poetic inquiry. Everything in Oliver is a new opportunity to go deeper into the beauty and complexity of things. By stopping to look and listen, to learn a kind of sacred ‘being there’, one discovers the indispensable ground of deep prayer. For, as we Friends know, prayer is impossible without listening. One Oliver poem keeps on gently haunting me, ‘The Summer Day’. In it, I find an expression of the holy questioning and holy attention that lies at the heart of Christ-shaped spiritual practice.

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?

Here spiritual practice is held up by two indispensable pillars. Firstly, holy things are discovered in questions and not answers. Secondly, sacredness is sustained by ‘just being there’. Think of Jesus’ frequent posture in the Gospel of Matthew, his exhortation to ‘Look at the birds of the air’, or ‘consider the lilies’. We are being urged to stop abstracting, stop diverting, and hold the little shard of existence we occupy in the scope of our attention. Open the world up to tender inquisition, says this method, and you will grasp the richness of life, the spirit behind things, or in Jesus’ language, the expansive home belonging to the Father. As Jesus tells his skeptical hearers in Luke: “the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21). Indeed, where else should we expect it to be? At Meeting? On a Sunday morning we’ve set aside? At a moment of sublime spiritual experience? No. In the ordinary things of life. The world is our Meeting House, and each person is potentially a door keeper. The worries and upheavals of life must always be glanced through this lens. The one who keeps this reality sufficiently in view will understand the truth of Jesus’ reassurance:

Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (Matt.6: 31-32).

Marianne Stokes Candlemas Day.jpgMost of us find it hard to live out this assurance with anything like sure-footed authenticity. Even without the immediate tremour of the pandemic, we live in a world of piling worries, that frequently sweep us along like the wind. The present situation of global quarantine and restriction has felt particularly disturbing because it has struck at the heart of the many social connections we use to dissipate our fears. A pronounced inwardness and physical distance, caused by necessity, has brought an intensification of anxiety, sorrow and restlessness for many. This sense of gloom has been compounded by widespread job-losses and the spectre of material hardship. Moreover we are daily confronted with the frailty and vulnerability of those close to us, and of course the reality of death. But the first lesson of Christ-like love is that we should not be discouraged by our situation. As Jesus gently suggests: ‘Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matt 7:20). Whatever we face, there is always the sanctuary of the heart. No matter how small the beginning, our honest attention will lead to fullness. Midst the clouds of uncertainty and fear, we can always discover the world anew. No moment of attention is wasted, no hurried minute of prayer is ever superfluous. The smallness of the faith required should also reassure us that we need not measure up to some high standard. We can be unsteady, inadequate in our commitment, wholly untested in the Alchemist’s workshop of contemplation. Our failings will never undo the progress we make. As Oliver tells us movingly in ‘Wild Geese’:

You do not have to be good./You do not have to walk on your knees/for a hundred miles through the desert repenting./You only have to let the soft animal of your body/love what it loves.

The message seems clear. Begin where you are. Love what is around you. Attend to every moment. Spiritual practice commences, not in the heights of mastery, not in a profusion of book wisdom, or any qualification busy human beings could dream up. It arises when we grasp hold of ordinary things with a thirst to find the Eternal. When we seek to find the bottomless meaning in every moment: in a spider’s web caught by the sun, in the face of another, the deep grey of the sky; there is the Kingdom. We need not leave home to be spiritually at home. We need not go far to be in the arms of love.

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