Exploring Tradition: Praying with Mary Oliver

A person holding a purple flower

In the depths of the winter blues, my friend and I decided to refocus and center ourselves by creating a two-day retreat – inclusive of yummy homemade dinners and nature walks. While we agreed that I would take care of the spiritual planning, the task quickly became a creative challenge, seeing as our religious backgrounds and identities are a mixture of Eastern and Western practices and cultures. Thinking back to tools from my JVC retreats, I remembered meditating with different non-Christian specific materials, such as objects, music, and poetry. In the midst of spending days wracking my brain to create a spiritual resource that is interfaith based, I woke up to the sad news that Mary Oliver, poet of the natural world, had passed away. That day I took a few moments of silence to read a few of her poems—to thank her for her immediacy and presence to environmental beauty and awareness of creation—and it suddenly dawned on me that her text, in many ways, could be considered sacred and spiritual.

Reverting to the Catholic practices I am familiar with, I decided to apply the tools of Lectio Divina to a few different Mary Oliver poems, treating them as texts open to spiritual contemplation and personal reflection. When practicing Lectio Divina in the traditional sense, you would be asked to listen to a Scripture passage multiple times and eventually meditate on key phrases or words that jump out to you. Instead of using a classic Lectio Divina passage (like the Road to Emmaus), I used The Journey and Wild Geese by Mary Oliver. In addition to this adaptation, I used the FOCUS Three Step Guide to praying with Lectio Divina to allow for a more intimate and focused practice. By making small adjustments to this widely accepted practice, I was able to access an intersection between religious differences, faith and non-faith practices, and spirituality and literature. Needless to say, meditating on Mary Oliver while taking a brisk walk in the morning air did wonders for our awareness, mental health, and well-being.

Anyone on a spiritual journey understands the struggle that comes with finding places and practices that fit your needs, so I would like to share my small adaptation of a Catholic practice as a means of opening the bigger conversation on the use and integration of interfaith spirituality. Praying with (or meditating with, or reflecting on) Mary Oliver gave my friend and me an opportunity to practice awareness and discuss ideas of God without a clash in religious ideas or concepts. Most importantly, it helped both of us feel a sense of groundedness and connection to the Earth and to God, which, in my opinion, is the foundation for a healthy relationship with yourself, others, and the world.

Praying with Mary Oliver: An (Alternative) Guide to Lectio Divina

*adapted from FOCUS

Use the text (or any text of your choice) below as the ‘passage’ referenced in the guide below

The Journey by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice –

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do –

determined to save

the only life you could save.

(Taken from The Poetry Exchange)

1. Take a moment of silence to be present and aware.

2. Read the passage

  • General reading, just listening.

3. Read passage again

  • Be on the lookout for a word or phrase that jumps out at you. What is God highlighting for you today? What from this passage strikes you?
  • Spend time in silence.
  • Take a little time and sit with the word or phrase God has shown you. Mull it over a bit.

4. Read passage for a third time

  • Be on the lookout for what God is telling you through the passage. This could very well build on top of the word of phrase from the first step.
  • Spend time in silence, talking with God.
  • ‘So you’re telling me_____?’ ‘You mean to tell me that______?’
  • Have a small conversation with God about what God is telling you and how you can allow yourself to go deeper and hear more.

5. Read passage for a fourth time

  • Be on lookout for what changes God is asking you to make. This could very well build on top of the world or phrase from the first two steps.
  • Spend time in silence.
  • What is God inviting you to change? Where are you being asked to take a step closer to God? Ask God questions about what this change means for you?

6. End in a moment of silence/stillness.

Photo by Emily Win

About Emily

Emily Win (she/her/hers) — Regular Contributor, Editor — She is currently earning her MA in Creative Writing and Critical Life from the University of Leeds in Leeds, England, but she embraces Toledo, Ohio as her hometown. Her passion for faith and justice led her to Saint Louis University, where she continued to explore issues of poverty and homelessness through tutoring, mentoring, companionship, and outreach. During her year as a Case Manager at a teen crisis shelter she learned that she loves working with teenagers and hopes to continue this work in some capacity in the future. Emily’s personal and professional interests exist in the intersection of writing, literature, and activism, specifically in regards to sexuality and gender. She is currently working on a collection of poetry/creative non-fiction that exposes, complicates, and affirms the relationship between womanhood, queerness, and Christianity. (Tucson 2017-2018)