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No More Lying About Mary

Advent 4 - Fra-Angelico-Annunciation-DetailIt’s Advent, and the same old lies about Mary are slipping over pulpits and out of parish letters, Christmas cards, public prayers, TV holiday movies, and late night comics’ jokes.

The subjugation of Mary, the maligning of her as meek, mild, and mindless, has been harmful to millionsAnnunication Dante Gabriel Rosetti B_FourthSundayofAdvent of women over many centuries.

Hiding within the wonder of Christmas are a thousand years of doctrinal female subjugation, doctrines that, like tinsel, are dripped all over the season of Christmas. In the midst of the celebration of Wonderful Life, these malicious ideas keep women from feeling empowered, invited to be strong, and urged by God to imagine new ways t live, as Mary of Nazareth did, who mothered God’s redemption of the human world.

Luke’s is the only gospel in which Mary’s story appears, and in his account there is nothing submissive nor immature about her.  According to Luke, the Angel approached her with words of great honor: Hail Mary, full of grace. Many artists paint the angel kneeling, in recognition of the honor given to her. The angel is explicit; the honor is for the grace that is distinctly hers. This is a courtship scene. the angel is wooing her, on bended knee, a suitor – not a constable bringing a decree.

It is Mary’s grace that has attracted God’s attention. And what is this grace? It is what Luke shows us in her conversation and her actions – courage, boldness, grit, ringing convictions about justice. Not submissive meekness.  Grace is not submission.  And the power of God is never meek.

Yes, she is startled by the presence of the angel.  So were Gideon, Jacob, Jonah, and the shepherds of Bethlehem, to name a few, they who, like Mary, questioned the angel in wonder, doubt, and even resistance.  They are noted for their reluctance.  Why not she?  What sort of greeting is this? she asked. And the angel obliged her with an explanation. Later, she challenged the angel: How shall this happen to me, when I have no husband? God chose a spunky woman.

advent 1 Angel  Edward Burne-JonesMany women in biblical stories appear in domestic settings.  Sarah is in her tent, baking cakes.  Rachel is drawing water at the well.  Bathsheba is taking a bath.  Martha is fussing around in the kitchen.  The woman who lost a coin is sweeping the house.  But with Mary, there is no evidence of any domestic work on her part.  We never find her cooking, cleaning, washing up.  The evidence offered us is her love of adventure.  What we find her doing, over and over, is traveling, in journeys that involve risks and an element of danger.

Her recitation of the Magnificat is a political manifesto, delivered fairly publicly, in the home of an official temple priest, who is married to her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant, with John the Baptist. In Mary’s manifesto there is evidence of deep thought, strong conviction, and a good deal of political savvy.

None of this gibes with the idea that she is a young teenage girl.  The Greek word Luke uses for virgin is an unusual one, a very specific word that means she has not yet born a child.  Its precise meaning does not indicate  sexual innocence. So let’s be clear:  the focus is on her uterus.  The state of her hymen is not at issue here.Christmas 2014  St Stanislaus College, Tullaberg Ireland by Evie Hone.

Luke does not assign her a specific age. And to insist she is under sixteen is to ascribe to God a pedophilic attraction to underage women. Such details  twist Mary’s story and burden Christian women with a sense of selfishness if they postpone childbearing, a psychic demand to put childbearing first in their hearts, for God who seems to want nothing from them but pregnancy.

Mary is unmarried when the angel comes. The angel’s invitation and her independent decision tell us Mary does not need permission of clergy – or her parents – to become pregnant.  God knows Mary owns her own body.  And there is no shame in her decision. Mary is good news for unwed mothers everywhere.

Mary, wanted by God, according to the angel, for her bold, independent, adventuresome spirit, decides to bear a holy child – for a bold agenda: to bring the mighty down from their thrones; to scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts, to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich empty away.  This is Mary: well-spoken, wise, gritty.

Christmas 2014  Taddeo Gaddi 1325Traveling alone, like every prophet before her, she sets out on her first journey, to her cousin Elizabeth’s house, to declare her agenda.  There will be more journeys: to Bethlehem; to Egypt and back; to Jerusalem when Jesus is twelve; to Jerusalem when he is crucified.

She gives birth in a barn, lies down animals, and welcomes weathered shepherds in the middle of the night. She is determined, not domestic; free, not foolish; holy, not helpless; strong, not submissive. She beckons women everywhere to speak out for God’s justice, which is waiting to be born into this world.

We are all called to be mothers of God – for God is always waiting to be born. – Meister Eckart, 13th c. German mystic.
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Illustrations:
1. Annuciation. by Fra Angelico. Detail. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
2. Annunciation, by Dante Gabriel Rosetti.  Vanderbilt Divinity school Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
3. Angel, by Edward Burne-Jones. Vanderbilt Divinity school Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
4.  Nativity, by Brian Kershisnik.  Utah Museum of Fine Arts.  Note:  The stable is crowded with sheep/angels, who surround Mary and her child.
5. Nativity, by Taddeo Gaddi, 1325, Florence, Italy. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.

1. Chor
Magnificat anima mea Dominum.
1. Chorus
My soul magnifies the Lord.
2. Arie S II
Et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo.
2. Aria S II
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
3. Arie S I
Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae.
Ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent
3. Aria S I
For He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaiden.
Behold, from henceforth, I will be called blessed
4. Chor
omnes generationes.
4. Chorus
by all generations.
5. Arie B
Quia fecit mihi magna,
qui potens est, et sanctum nomen eius.
5. Aria B
For the Mighty One has done
great things for me, and holy is His name.
6. Arie (Duett) A T
Et misericordia a progenie in progenies,
timentibus eum.
6. Aria (Duet) A T
His mercy is for those who fear Him
from generation to generation.
7. Chor
Fecit potentiam in bracchio suo,
dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.
7. Chor
He has shown strength with His arm,
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
8. Arie T
Deposuit potentes de sede et exaltavit humiles.
8. Aria T
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
9. Arie A
Esurientes implevit bonis,
et divites dimisit inanes.
9. Aria A
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
10. Terzett SI, SII, A
Suscepit Israel puerum suum
recordatus misericordie suae.
10. Trio SI, SII, A
He has helped His servant Israel
in remembrance of His mercy.
11. Chor
Sicut locutus est ad patres nostros,
Abraham et semini eius in saecula.
11. Chorus
According to the promise He made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to His descendants forever..
12. Chor
Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto,
sicut erat in principio
et nunc et in saecula saeculorum,
Amen.
12. Chorus
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning,
is now, and for ever and ever,
Amen.

spong

John Shelby Spong
An Open Letter to My Readers

This week, my column takes the form of a letter to my readers. It is an unusual format, but it speaks to the unusual occurrences in our nation this past week. I hope you will read it. I hope you will respond to it.

Dear Friends,

I am just back from a lecture tour of Europe with a focus on the launch of a French translation of my book: Born of a Woman: A Bishop Re-Thinks the Virgin Birth and the Place of Women in a Male-Dominated Church. It was an exciting and stretching trip about which I will be writing in future weeks.

I returned home, however, to one of the most extraordinary weeks in the life of our nation. So I wanted to use my column this week to reflect on these historic events.

First, there was the cruel murder of nine worshipers, including the pastor at an AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. This horrendous act, motivated as it was by overt racial hatred, seemed, in almost a miraculous way, to bring the latent racism present just beneath the surface of this nation’s life to a head. More than that this act even appeared to “lance’ that residual racism as one might do to a boil, allowing the infection to drain and assisting the healing process to begin. Perhaps it was the witness of the grieving members of that Charleston Christian congregation, who offered both their forgiveness and God’s forgiveness, to the willful killer of their loved ones that did it. In any event, across the South, politicians began to say that it is time to remove the Confederate flag from public places. It is time to stop efforts to make minority voting difficult. It is time to remove the remaining vestiges of slavery from our society. Perhaps this was best symbolized when South Carolina’s Republican State Senator, Paul Thurmond, who in calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol in Columbia said: “I want to be on the right side of history.” He is the son of former United States Senator Strom Thurmond, one of America’s most overt racial agitators and perpetrators in the previous generation, a fact that was not lost on his audience. President Obama, in his role as “pastor in chief,” then spoke to a grieving nation at the funeral in Charleston, in which he brought history and healing together. He never looked or acted more presidential, even as he led the congregation in the singing of “Amazing Grace.”

Second, there was the 6-3 decision by the Supreme Court of the United States to uphold the Affirmative Care Act, better known as “Obamacare.” Without endorsing every proviso of this now established law of the land, what the Court did was to make it clear for the first time, that health care in America is a right of citizenship, not a privilege for those who can afford it. It was an amazing moment. That principle finally aligns the United States with all of the other developed nations of the world. It was, thus, a signal victory for a caring society.

Third, the next day the Supreme Court, this time by a 5-4 majority, confirmed the fact that every citizen in every state of this nation, regardless of their differences in sexual orientation, has the same guaranteed right to marriage and family life. No state can now deny either the privilege of marriage, or any of its obvious legal advantages, to any citizen. It was a decision that declared that from this moment on, before the law and the Constitution, there will be no second class citizenship.

When I heard the breaking news announcing this historic decision, tears literally flowed down my cheeks. Memories of a struggle long engaged flooded my mind. I hope you will indulge me as I share some of these with you.

When I was the Bishop of Newark from 1976-2000, I worked, together with the clergy and the people of that diocese, for this day to come. It was a long but tireless struggle. A task force in our Diocese, headed by the late Rev. Dr. Nelson Thayer, an Episcopal priest and a member of the faculty of the Theological School of Drew University, called for this step to be taken as long ago as 1985! After a year of study in our congregations our diocese then affirmed this step by majority vote of its clergy and lay people in our convention of 1986. Our clergy from that moment on were encouraged to “bless the sacred vows of gay and lesbian Christians,” at a time when the State of New Jersey would not allow that to be called marriage. That was also a time when the larger Episcopal Church still sought to discipline or remove those clergy who dared to take these steps. Those years were the context out of which I wrote my book on changing attitudes toward human sexuality, entitled: Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality. That book, commissioned by Abingdon Press of the United Methodist Church was then dropped under pressure from conservative Methodist sources just four weeks before its publication. It was subsequently picked up and published in September of 1988 by Harper/Collins. In the first six months of that book’s life it sold more copies than every book I had ever written before had done in their total published life. It also helped to fuel the debate that began to be engaged in all of America’s churches.

On December 16, 1989, I took the next step in what I believed was a prophetic witness. In a packed All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Hoboken, New Jersey, encouraged by the leaders of this diocese and on behalf of the clergy and people within it, I ordained the Rev. Robert Williams to the priesthood of my church. He was the first openly gay man, living in a publicly acknowledged and committed partnership, ever to be ordained in the Episcopal Church or in the Anglican Communion. It was a courageous and an obviously controversial decision. To conduct this ordination service we had to walk through lines of angry, shouting, placard-carrying picketers. The loudest and angriest of these picketers was a Pentecostal preacher. We also rode the storm of controversy in the aftermath of that ordination. It came from both ecclesiastical and political sources. The next day this action and our diocese were covered in front page newspaper stories across the land. This ordination played every thirty minutes on cable television’s Headline News channel for twenty-four hours. The next week it was the national religion “story of the week” in both Time and Newsweek. The presiding bishop of my church, the Right Reverend Edmund Browning, responded by writing me a condemning letter, despite the fact that I knew that he agreed with me on this action. From January until September of 1990 my wife and I crisscrossed this nation, appearing on every radio and television show to which we could secure an invitation and being interviewed by the print media wherever possible. It was a specific effort to build public support with which to counter the leadership of my church. I used every available political tactic to win this ecclesiastical battle.

In September of that year in a vote taken at a meeting of the Episcopal House of Bishops in Washington, D. C., my diocese and I as its bishop, were officially condemned for taking this action. The vote, however, was a startling one to those who were so deeply upset and angry and it was also a turning point. The resolution of the bishops “to disassociate themselves from the Bishop of Newark and his Diocese for carrying out this ‘irregular ordination” was only passed by a vote of 78-74 with two abstentions! That was far closer than anyone had believed possible. I was one of the two abstentions. I guess I did not know how to vote on whether I wanted to associate with myself or not! Following that vote, by a previous arrangement with the Presiding Bishop of my church, who had by now voted for me rather than against me, I was recognized to speak. I did so for forty-five minutes. It was purple-passionate oratory in which I traced my own changing attitudes from the overt homophobia taught to me by the church of my youth and undergirded by quotations from the Bible lifted primarily out of the book of Leviticus, to the place where I was willing to put my career on the line in order to be an advocate for the full inclusion of homosexual people in the life of both our nation and my church. I asserted my firm belief that the only “sin” of which homosexual people might be held to be guilty was that they were born with a sexual orientation different from the majority. Homosexuality, I informed my fellow bishops, had come to be newly understood by me, chiefly through the work and the friendship of Dr. Robert Lahita, a member of the faculty at the Cornell School of Medicine in New York City. I now saw it as a “given” not a “chosen.” Homosexuality, I continued, is something that one “is” not something that one “does.” Homosexuality thus was no different in its moral character from being left handed or having a particular skin pigmentation or a particular eye color. To discriminate against other human beings because of a “given” in their lives could never be moral. As a Christian I too sought to undergird my new attitude with biblical quotations. Jesus was quoted in the Bible as having said: “Come unto me all ye.” He did not say: “some of ye.” No one was ever portrayed in the Bible as rejected by him. Jesus was also quoted as having said: “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly.” No one can give life by being prejudiced against who or what a person is. The world might judge a person’s doing, but not a person’s being. No church should ever sing: “Just as I am without one plea, O Lamb of God, I come,” unless the members of that church are prepared to welcome those who presented themselves in response to this invitation. Anything else is sheer hypocrisy.

Following that speech, between ten and twelve bishops crowded around my desk to tell me that if they had heard what I had to say before they voted, they would have changed their vote. At that moment in September of 1990, I knew that the majority of the Episcopal bishops had now walked beyond this dying cultural prejudice. That majority has never been lost in the House of Bishops from that day to this. Later that night, two bishops came out of the closet to me. Both of them were married. One had voted to disassociate from me. The other had voted against doing so.

When I retired as the bishop of this diocese in 2000, I had thirty-five out of the closet, ordained gay and lesbian clergy serving in the ranks of our priesthood. Thirty-one of them lived openly with their partners. They were wonderful, effective, loving priests and pastors. I was proud to be their bishop. I still am. They helped to make me whole.

So, on June 26, 2015, by a majority vote of the highest court of this land, the struggle for full equality for the LGBT community has now been established. The question is now asked as to whether clergy will be “forced” to do gay marriages. In the diocese I once represented but which is now under the leadership of our bishop, and my close friend, the Rt. Rev. Mark Beckwith, I think the world can be certain that the Episcopal clergy there are ready, willing and able to offer the sacrament of Holy Matrimony and all of the other ministries of the church to all our people without exception. The Christian Church is and must always be a “Come as you are” party. This prejudice of the ages has now been thrown onto the scrapheap of history.

It was a very good week for our nation. I rejoice in it, welcome it and give thanks to God for it. The world and the church have the opportunity today to be more profoundly Christian than we were able to be just last week. That is a powerful and a welcomed realization.

John Shelby Spong

The Fix
This was the best week of Obama’s presidency

By Chris Cillizza June 26 at 4:38 PM

When President Obama neared the end of his eulogy Friday for the late South Carolina state Sen. Clementa Pinckney (D), a victim of the shootings at a Charleston church last week, he paused. A long pause. It was a moment of genuine drama. Had he lost his place? Were his emotions getting to him?

Then, he started to sing — the opening bars to “Amazing Grace.” Soon, the entire congregation at the AME Emanuel Church joined him in song.

President Obama brought mourners to their feet during his eulogy of South Carolina state Sen. Clementa Pinckney as he sang a verse from the song “Amazing Grace.”

It was a moment of considerable weight and significance: A black president leading a congregation in song at a place where nine black people were murdered by a man with the apparent goal of starting a race war.

And, it served as the coda to Obama’s single best week as president — a week filled with developments, both practical and symbolic, that will reverberate well beyond not only this week or month but his entire presidency.

The week began with Obama winning a trade fight over fast-track negotiating authority that looked to be on thin ice even a week ago. He did so by pulling off something even more remarkable and unlikely: successfully collaborating with Republican congressional leaders to find a path to passage of a rare shared priority.

While fast-track authority for Obama is not the same thing as a successfully negotiated Trans Pacific Partnership (get smart on all the trade deals here) it preserves the possibility of that 12-nation deal coming to fruition and provides Obama a bit of momentum stateside as well. If Obama is able to help make TPP happen, that will be a major foreign policy achievement with consequences lasting well beyond his presidency.

Then came the Supreme Court’s ruling Thursday that upheld the subsidies for low- and middle-income Americans using the federal marketplace under the Affordable Care Act. That judgment, the second time the court had upheld a provision of Obamacare, ended perhaps the last major hope of anti-ACA forces to defund or discredit the bill.

Obama did everything he could to avoid spiking the football in a statement following the court’s decision. But whether he came out and said it or not, the court’s ruling on Obamacare validated what is, without question, the defining policy accomplishment of Obama’s time in office. Had the court decided the other way, the legacy of Obamacare would have been deeply muddled — and it might not have even survived in anything close to a recognizable form. Given how much Obama and his party had lost in the fight for the law, that would have been disastrous. Winning, on the other hand, was a massive affirmation.

Twenty four hours later, the court was back at it — legalizing same sex marriage nationwide. Obama was a late-arriver on the issue, without question. He supported only civil unions during his 2008 campaign and it wasn’t until May 2012 — as his race for reelection neared — that Obama finally came out in support of gay marriage.

But even prior to Obama’s own public statement in support of same-sex marriage, his administration was taking actions that led to Friday’s ruling. In 2011, the Justice Department announced it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act; in June 2013, the Court struck DOMA — a decision that set things in motion for Friday’s ruling.

And Obama carved out time in his second inaugural address to express his belief that allowing gays and lesbians to marry was part of the greater American movement to freedom and equality. “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well,” he said that day.

On Friday, in remarks delivered after the marriage ruling, Obama returned to that theme. “Today we can say, in no uncertain terms, that we have made our union a little more perfect,” Obama declared.

Then Obama got on a plane bound for Charleston where, nine days earlier, the latest in a string of mass shooting during his time in office had been committed in the basement of a famous African American church.

The speech Obama delivered, easily one of his best few as president, was a stirring appeal to the redemptive power of grace. It was about how finding grace — even in tragedies like those visited on the church where he spoke — was at the essence of who we all are. Obama touched on gun control, on race relations, on how what divides us is dwarfed by what unites us.

And then be broke into song. It was a genuine moment that will be remembered long after the 2016 election decides who will follow Obama into office. The most powerful person in the country, singing the words “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…that saved a wretch like me” with the eyes of the country on him. It was deeply stirring and emotional — not just for Democrats or African Americans but for Americans, period.

This was a week that will define not only Obama’s second term and his presidency. This is a week that will leave profound implications on our society, setting off ripples that we may not fully grasp for years if not decades.

Obama ran as a change agent. For better or worse, this is the week he realized that destiny most fully during his time in office.

Mary Oliver on What Attention Really Means and Her Moving Eulogy to Her Soul Mate

by

“Attention without feeling … is only a report.”

Mary Oliver is one of our era’s most beloved and prolific poets — a sage ofwisdom on the craft of poetry and a master of its magic; a woman as unafraid to be witty as she is to wise. For more than forty years, Oliver lived on Cape Cod with the love of her life, the remarkable photographer Molly Malone Cook — one of the first staff photographers for The Village Voice, with subjects like Walker Evans and Eleanor Roosevelt, and a visionary gallerist who opened the first photography gallery on the East Coast, exhibited such icons as Ansel Adams and Berenice Abbott, and recognized rising talent like William Clift. (She was also, living up to her reputation as “a great Bohemian American,” the owner of a bookshop frequented by Norman Mailer and occasionally staffed by the filmmaker John Waters.)

Mary Oliver (b. 1935, right) with Molly Malone Cook (1925–2005) at the couple’s home in Provincetown, Massachusetts

When Cook died in 2005 at the age of eighty, Oliver looked for a light, however faint, to shine through the thickness of bereavement. She spent a year making her way through thousands of her spouse’s photographs and undeveloped negatives, mostly from around the time they met, which Oliver then enveloped in her own reflections to bring to life Our World (public library) — part memoir, deeply moving eulogy to a departed soul mate, part celebration of their love for one another through their individual creative loves. Embraced in Oliver’s poetry and prose, Cook’s photographs reveal the intimate thread that brought these two extraordinary women together — a shared sense of deep aliveness and attention to the world, a devotion to making life’s invisibles visible, and above all a profound kindness to everything that exists, within and without.

Oliver — who refers to Cook simply as M. in most of her writings — reflects in the opening essay:

Though you have known someone for more than forty years, though you have worked with them and lived with them, you do not know everything. I do not know everything — but a few things, which I will tell. M. had will and wit and probably too much empathy for others; she was quick in speech and she did not suffer fools. When you knew her she was unconditionally kind. But also, as our friend the Bishop Tom Shaw said at her memorial service, you had to be brave to get to know her.

[…]

She was style, and she was an old loneliness that nothing could quite wipe away; she was vastly knowledgeable about people, about books, about the mind’s emotions and the heart’s. She lived sometimes in a black box of memories and unanswerable questions, and then would come out and frolic — be feisty, and bold.

Amish schoolroom, late 1950s (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

Oliver writes of the affair Cook had in the late 1950s, shortly before they met:

She had … an affair that struck deeply; I believe she loved totally and was loved totally. I know about it, and I am glad… This love, and the ensuing emptiness of its ending, changed her. Of such events we are always changed — not necessarily badly, but changed. Who doesn’t know this doesn’t know much.

The following year, Cook met Oliver and they remained together, inseparable, for more than four decades. That encounter — which calls to mind the fateful first meetings that occasioned such iconic literary couples as Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas or Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes — took place at Steepletop, the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay, where Oliver had landed the day after her high school graduation at the age of seventeen and stayed for several years.

Inside the library at Steepletop, the home of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, late 1950s (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

One evening in 1959, when Oliver was twenty-four and Cook thirty-four, the young poet returned to the house and found the photographer sitting at the kitchen table with a friend. She describes their encounter with her signature elegance of unpeeling the mundane to reveal the momentous:

I took one look and fell, hook and tumble. M. took one look at me, and put on her dark glasses, along with an obvious dose of reserve. She denied this to her dying day, but it was true.

Isn’t it wonderful the way the world holds both the deeply serious, and the unexpectedly mirthful?

Mary Oliver in 1964 (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

It turned out that Oliver and Cook, in their regular lives beyond Steepletop, lived right across the street from each other in New York’s East Village. So they began to see one another “little by little,” and so their great love story began.

Chess players, Washington Square, New York City, late 1950s (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

But perhaps the greatest gift of their union was the way in which they shaped each other’s way of seeing and being with the world — the mutually ennobling dialogue between their two capacities for presence:

It has frequently been remarked, about my own writings, that I emphasize the notion of attention. This began simply enough: to see that the way the flicker flies is greatly different from the way the swallow plays in the golden air of summer. It was my pleasure to notice such things, it was a good first step. But later, watching M. when she was taking photographs, and watching her in the darkroom, and no less watching the intensity and openness with which she dealt with friends, and strangers too, taught me what real attention is about. Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter. Such openness and empathy M. had in abundance, and gave away freely… I was in my late twenties and early thirties, and well filled with a sense of my own thoughts, my own presence. I was eager to address the world of words — to address the world with words. Then M. instilled in me this deeper level of looking and working, of seeing through the heavenly visibles to the heavenly invisibles. I think of this always when I look at her photographs, the images of vitality, hopefulness, endurance, kindness, vulnerability… We each had our separate natures; yet our ideas, our influences upon each other became a reach and abiding confluence.

[…]

I don’t think I was wrong to be in the world I was in, it was my salvation from my own darkness. Nor have I ever abandoned it — those early signs that so surely lead toward epiphanies. And yet, and yet, she wanted me to enter more fully into the human world also, and to embrace it, as I believe I have. And what a gift [that she] never expressed impatience with my reports of the natural world, the blue and green happiness I found there. Our love was so tight.

‘My first clam,’ 1964 (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

To lose the love of one’s life is something few have dared to live in public — the most memorable such bravery being Joan Didion’s — but Oliver brings to death’s darkness her familiar touch of emboldening light:

The end of life has its own nature, also worth our attention. I don’t say this without reckoning in the sorrow, the worry, the many diminishments. But surely it is then that a person’s character shines or glooms.

Oliver ends with a breath-stopping prose poem that brings full-circle her opening reflections on never fully knowing even those nearest to us — a beautiful testament to what another wise woman once wrote: “You can never know anyone as completely as you want. But that’s okay, love is better.”

THE WHISTLER

All of a sudden she began to whistle. By all of a sudden
I mean that for more than thirty years she had not
whistled. It was thrilling. At first I wondered, who was
in the house, what stranger? I was upstairs reading, and
she was downstairs. As from the throat of a wild and
cheerful bird, not caught but visiting, the sounds war-
bled and slid and doubled back and larked and soared.

Finally I said, Is that you? Is that you whistling? Yes, she
said. I used to whistle, a long time ago. Now I see I can
still whistle. And cadence after cadence she strolled
through the house, whistling.

I know her so well, I think. I thought. Elbow and an-
kle. Mood and desire. Anguish and frolic. Anger too.
And the devotions. And for all that, do we even begin
to know each other? Who is this I’ve been living with
for thirty years?

This clear, dark, lovely whistler?

Boy with telescope, New York Cruises, late 1950s (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

Our World is a sublime read in its entirety — the kind that enters the soul like a deep breath and remains there as an eternal exhale. Complement it with Oliver on how rhythm sweetens life and her beautiful reading of her poem “Wild Geese.”

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Joan of Arc

I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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October 2021
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Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory