Encounter—a religious naturalist “road to Damascus” experience

And as for ceremony, already the leaves have swirled over
Some of you may have heard that last week the poet Mary Oliver died, aged 83. As many of you will know, over the nineteen years of my ministry with you I have brought many of her poems before you for consideration because she is a contemporary poet whose work is of the greatest help to those of us trying to articulate a meaningful religious naturalism in an age and culture where belief in the metaphysical god (and gods) of old continues to leach slowly away.

I think her poetry operates as religious naturalist poetry because in her work as a whole — and often in single poems — she found ways to give us access to two vital, sacramental energies that used to be bound up indissolubly with belief in god and/or the gods. The first energy is that which can limit us in the face of hubris; the second is that which can transform us in the face of complacency and/or despair.

I’d like to try to illustrate this using her poem “Encounter” (which you can read in a moment) and to do this I feel it might be both helpful and appropriate to begin by telling you a personal story I haven’t told before about the moment when these two sacramental energies found in her poetry were first properly and powerfully earthed in and through my own religious life.

West front of Binham Priory church (Nov. 2018)
It is generally thought, and was thought by me for many years, that the ability to do theology — that is to say, to utter words (logos) about god (theos) — and to be a minister of religion, is necessarily connected to the ability to believe in god. The corollary of this, of course, is that if you stopped believing in god you couldn’t any longer meaningfully be either a theologian or continue to be a minister of religion. In the early 2000s, at the very start of my professional ministry, I had to start admitting to myself that simply I did not — could not in fact — any longer believe in anything like the god of monotheism. It will come as no surprise to admit that this was a somewhat discombobulating time for me and, symbolically, things came to a final head for me in November 2007 whilst Susanna and I were staying in Wells-next-the-Sea on the north Norfolk coast.

The old high altar is just beyond the pier behind the tree (Nov. 2018)
Bleak and solemn it was on the day I cycled over to Binham Priory to see the church and ruins of the Norman Benedictine priory founded in 1091. Those of you who know the site will recall that the original east-end of the church where the high-altar was once situated is now wholly exposed under the rounding dome of the sky and it was there I tried, one last time, to pray to god in the forlorn hope I might be able to recapture at least something of my earlier faith. My prayers failed and, as I stood there in the open ruins in a cold, cold winter wind, I certainly felt my inward religious heart to be at least as cold as were my extremities. Poignant doesn’t begin to describe it because standing there in those freezing cold ruins I could see clearly that my days as a theist were over and I was powerfully aware that an important ending had occurred.

It’s always a wise idea to sit down as soon as possible after an existentially important event like this. So found some shelter in the lee of one of the ruined walls of the priory and attempted to warm myself up a little with the help of a flask of tea and a whisky mac poured from my little hip flask.

When I felt sufficiently restored to face the chill wind once again I got back on my bicycle and headed home westwards where, at Westgate, I took the left hand fork which leads to Wighton across open fields along a long stretch of road bounded by hedges. I wasn’t cycling fast — the wind was too strong for that — and so I was easily able to see lying on the road ahead of me a small, still dark shape. I slowed down and stopped. It turned out to be a small brown mouse, obviously dead. He didn’t seem to have been run over so perhaps he’d simply died whist crossing the road or, what was more likely, had been accidentally dropped by a buzzard, a number of which were circling overhead. I quickly cycled on but had travelled only a few yards before I stopped and turned back. It simply didn’t seem right to leave him there out alone on that barren and cold road. So I picked him up and gently launched him into the leaf litter under the hedge and, as I did this, half remembered lines of Oliver’s poem suddenly flashed back into my consciousness and I can still remember — and feel, right now — an unexpected tingle of religious warmth and hope come back into my, by now, very cold being. Warmed by the thought that I done right by the small brown mouse I cycled on back to the cottage determined to walk up to the local hostelry later that evening, log on to their wifi — then a new luxury Wells — and read again the whole poem. Here it is:

by Mary Oliver (1935-2019)

I lift the small brown mouse
Out of the path and hold him.
He has no more to say,
No lilt of feet to run on.
He’s cold, still soft, but idle.
As though he were a stone
I launch him from my hand;
His body falls away
Into the shadowed wood
Where the crackling leaves rain down,
Where the year is mostly over.
“Poor creature,” I might say,
But what’s the use of that.
The clock in him is broken.
And as for ceremony,
Already the leaves have swirled
Over, the wind has spoken.

(New and Selected Poems Vol. 1)

Now, remember, what I think I could, and still can, feel in this poem are the two religious energies I mentioned earlier that used to be tied up with belief in the gods: the first energy is that which limits us in the face of hubris and the second energy is that which can transform us in the face of complacency and despair.

As I sat with Susanna in front of the fire in the cosy Globe Inn, it struck me that the first sacramental energy — that which limits us in the face of hubris — is accessed through the poem in a number of ways. The first was through the simple example of the poet herself in the careful and attentive way she walks through the world observing the many things that presence before her — as Oliver says elsewhere “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” She does not charge across the world thinking she has some privileged status above it, but always moves carefully and attentively through or within the world. In doing this she exemplifies a profound lack of hubris and so presents me with a model of being that is powerful enough to make someone like me — and perhaps you, too — strongly desirous of following her example; I simply felt and still feel it would be good to be like that myself. There is no extrinsic reason for this feeling (i.e. no order from the gods/God on high), rather I’m simply brought face to face with a way of being in the world that speaks for me (as a late twentieth, early twenty-first century Westerner) with real authority. I saw and still see in Oliver something like what it seems the crowds saw in Jesus two millennia ago, namely, someone who “taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:29).

I think the first energy is also revealed by the way Oliver alerted me to the transitory quality of life, not only for the small brown mouse but also, in a gently implied way, for me. In speaking of a broken clock she offers an image which reminded me that it is a condition of the gift of life that we will all break in time and can never simply be rewound or fixed - not by human craftsmanship nor, in the absence of the gods/God of old, even by divine craftsmanship. The world is the way it is and this truth must simply be acknowledged, embraced and celebrated as best one can. This recognition of human frailty and limitation clearly challenges human hubris.

Now, years of traditional religious language use tied up with the imagined perfection of the gods/God often tempt us on first seeing a dead brown mouse (or any other dead being for that matter) to utter words like “poor creature”, implying that something has gone wrong — something which can only made right in heaven or the world beyond — but today I think for many of us such an utterance feels increasingly futile and/or use-less — death and dying is not something going wrong, it’s nature simply doing what nature does in this neck of the woods (universe).

However, although the words “poor creature” and the like no longer seem to attach to anything metaphysically meaningful, the impulse to utter them reminds me of the, perhaps, always existent need to offer some appropriate, immediate, prayerful response to death and here I can begin to turn to the second energy, that which can transform us in the face of complacency and despair.

Again it seems to me that the poet reveals this herself with great natural authority. Her immediate, prayerful response (in addition to beginning to formulate the poem in her mind) is, as we see, to act positively and purposefully as part of the world and not apart from the world by picking up the brown mouse, observing its present state (and so her and our own present state) with an attentive detachment and then launching the mouse into the forest, a prayerful response born not of disgust, despair or disrespect to what she sees but as a beautiful example of her empathetic co-working and co-mingling in the “same” natural fluxes and flows that are evoked in the image of the wind swirling the leaves over the dead mouse, a process which returns (indeed, all things) to the dark, mysterious maternal material of the world which will, in some way and at some later time, be recycled again in the fungus, a tree, a worm, a bird, a deer or in another poet who will see another dead mouse and respond to it in their own way with attentive, prayerful empathy. In short I found Oliver inviting me to see how we are always able to play a positive, purposeful, meaningful and prayerful part in the fluxes and flows of nature out of which we are ourselves made and it is in being able to see this that we can be transformed in the face of complacency and/or despair.

On that cold winter’s day twelve years ago, and every day since — but especially at times like this when we in this community are reflecting on the death of two members, Luisa and Shirley — I continue to find great religious solace in Oliver’s prayerful response to the death of the brown mouse in which she gave, and endlessly gives me, access to the two powerful religious that used to require belief in god.

Twelve years ago, at the altar of Binham Priory, I finally acknowledged I had lost my old metaphysical theistic religion. Yet, astonishingly, only half an hour later and a couple of miles away on an open road, doing the right, prayerful thing by a dead, small, brown mouse, aiding the fluxes and flows of nature by casting him into gently the leaves, I took my first, baby steps, as a genuine religious naturalist. It was not so much a grand road to Damascus experience but a more modest and gentle experience had on the road to Wighton.

Once-upon-a-time I might have said of all this that “God moves in a mysterious way / His wonders to perform” but today, I feel more minded to say instead “Nature moves in a mysterious way / Its wonders to perform.” But as Spinoza suggests in his project to divinize nature and naturalize the divine, perhaps deus sive natura, god is nature and nature is god . . . but unfolding that thought is for another occasion.

Anyway, from the bottom of my still warmed religious naturalist heart, thank you Mary Oliver for giving me access to those two, vital sacramental religious energies at a vital moment in my life when they could so easily have been lost.

Dear sister, may you rest in peace.


Chris said…
This is nicely worded, Andrew, and reflects some of my thoughts and feelings as well.
I would have liked to be there for your presentation, but there's a rather large pond between us.
Oliver, like so many naturalists, had her finger on the pulse of Nature.
Your encounter with the mouse reminded me of stories from my favorite secular saint, John Muir.
Attentive to the smallest things, there are great lessons to be learned!
Thank you Chris. Much appreciated.

As ever,