I’m often asked the question, “Who is your Spiritual Director?” While I do have someone with whom I talk on a regular basis about every aspect of my life, my longings and my dreams, I wouldn’t necessarily say that he is my Spiritual Director. Actually on one level, he is that and so much more. Truthfully, being “so much more” is what makes my relationship with him so meaningful. He listens with great skill, offers insight that leads to growth and change and is just a genuinely kind and supportive person. Yet, my true and primary Spiritual Director is not a singular person, nor a theologian in the traditional sense. They are, rather, three poets who enrich my soul whenever I read their work.
As I’ve changed over the course of my life, those who inspire me to deeper faith, hope, honesty, integral living and compassionate loving have changed. They have always been persons of depth and of various faith traditions. As a younger woman, I’d have written about Schubert Ogden (a seminary professor who I will always remember with deep gratitude), Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, St. Therese, or Matthew Fox among others. As I think about who my companions are at this moment in my life, I find that I am no longer drawn to the great theologians and social justice crusaders who are known more for their public work and their own individuation processes. At this moment in my life, I am drawn to a different kind of theologian, to three women, who through their work and their struggles, speak with incredible depth to my own human condition and my place in the world as a woman. They are all poets. My primary spiritual directors are Denise Levertov, Mary Oliver and Sharon Olds, and I am drawn to each of them for different reasons. Denise Levertov has taught me about the depth of prayer and the beauty of living a life of faith. Mary Oliver continues to teach me about the necessity to see, to look deeply at the natural world and into my own depths. She teaches me to embrace joy in the simplest of things. Sharon Olds keeps me honest; she is a truth-teller. When I read Olds’ poetry, I am reminded of the power of simply being honest about and telling the stories of our lives. Olds calls me to live without fear and to dive headfirst into every moment of life by either experiencing the moment or entering into deep introspection about a lived event. I can relate to all of these women and their unique experiences they have written of with such beauty. When I read their work, I feel a range of emotions – comforted, disturbed, challenged, joyful, frustrated, grateful and moved, to name just a few. My responses can be visceral and lasting. These women and their words live in the marrow of my bones. They call me to live life honestly with all of my senses wide open, ready to give and receive, and to claim my place in the great Mystery.
Denise Levertov (1923-1927) was born in England and died in Seattle, Washington. Her father was a Hasidic Jew who converted to Christianity while teaching in Leipzig, Germany. After moving the family to England, he became an Anglican priest. Levertov never received a formal education; she was educated at home. By the age of 5, she knew she wanted to be a writer. Her first poem was published at the age of 17. She married and moved to the United States where she later became the poetry editor for The Nation and Mother Jones. During the Vietnam War, her poetry focused on activism and peace-making. After the war and in her later years, she converted to Roman Catholicism, and it was at this juncture that her poetry changed. Never a poet to be tied to fixed forms of writing, she continued to write in an open and experimental style, but now with a different emphasis. Her themes changed from feminism and activism to those of suffering, pilgrimage, the spiritual journey, doubt and struggle. She wrote extensively of her experience of God and the paradox of living a life of faith without knowing any answers. Of her father’s influence on her life and work, Levertov had these words to say, “my father’s Hasidic ancestry, his being steeped in Jewish and Christian scholarship and mysticism, his fervor and eloquence as a preacher, were factors built into my cells” (Contemporary Women Poets). The scholarship and mysticism, the questioning of everything and the pondering of great mystery is Levertov’s gift to my life.
Mary Oliver (b. 1935) is a daughter of the midwest, but now makes her home in New England. She attended both Ohio State University and Vassar but did not graduate from either institution. Oliver spent most of her life with her longtime partner, Molly Malone Cook, who was photographer by training and later became Oliver’s literary agent. Of Cook’s death, Oliver writes beautifully of her deep grief. Mary Oliver is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet having won the prize in 1984 for her collection titled American Primitive. She is a superb observer of the natural world, and her themes reflect her love for nature and creation. She is also concerned with introspection, wonder, joy and the wisdom of nature. In a recent NPR interview, she revealed that prayer has become a new theme in her poetry and in her later life. “I think one thing is that prayer has become more useful, interesting, fruitful and almost involuntary in my life. And when I talk about prayer, I mean really what Rumi says in that wonderful line, ‘there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.’ I’m not theological, specifically, I might pick a flower for Shiva as well as say the hundredth prayer [psalm]. The name of the God doesn’t interest me so much as the fact that there are so many names of that Mystery.” Her keen observation skills, wisdom and compassion are Oliver’s gifts to me.
Sharon Olds (b. 1942) was born in San Francisco and makes her home in New York. Olds was educated at Stanford and then received a PhD at Columbia where her work focused on the prose of Emerson. A lifelong poet and teacher, she has been recognized as the Poet Laureate of New York. Olds’ early life fills the pages of her poetry. She was raised a “hellfire Calvinist” by strict and abusive parents. As a child, she was told that she was going to hell, so understandably, Olds describes herself as an atheist. Like Levertov, she left behind fixed forms of writing poetry and focused more on an open and experimental style. She writes eloquently and forcefully of family, abuse, sexuality, relationships, love and birth. Her poems are full of raw honesty and candor. What I find most appealing about Olds’ poetry is her fearlessness as she writes about and celebrates both our sexuality and our animal nature as human beings. Her poetry brims with raw beauty and honesty. She also writes about taboo subjects such as abuse and rape. Poet Alicia Ostriker writes the following of Olds’ work: “in later collections, Olds writes of an abusive childhood, in which miserably married parents bully, punish and silence her. She writes too, of her mother’s apology after 37 years, a moment when ‘the sky seemed to be splintering, like a window/someone is bursting into or out of.’” The Guardian writes of her work as follows, “She has always confronted the personal details of her life with remarkable directness and honesty, but the key to her success is the way this material is lit up by a range of finely judged shifts in scale and perspective. Her poems are vivid morality plays, wresting with ideas of right and wrong, full of symbolic echoes and possibilities.” Her deep honesty and candor about her life are Olds’ gifts to me as she inspires me to do the same.
The following are some examples of their poetry, words I love so fiercely –
On the Mystery of the Incarnation
It’s when we face for a moment the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know the taint in our own selves, that awe cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart: not to a flower, not to a dolphin, to no innocent form but to this creature vainly sure it and no other is god-like, God (out of compassion for our ugly failure to evolve) entrusts, as guest, as brother, the Word.
I Happened to be Standing
I don’t know where prayers go, or what they do. Do cats pray, while they sleep half-asleep in the sun? Does the opossum pray as it crosses the street? The sunflowers? The old black oak growing older every year? I know I can walk through the world, along the shore or under the trees, with my mind filled with things of little importance, in full self-attendance. A condition I can’t really call being alive. Is a prayer a gift, or a petition, or does it matter? The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way. Maybe the cats are sound asleep. Maybe not.
While I was thinking this I happened to be standing just outside my door, with my notebook open, which is the way I begin every morning. Then a wren in the privet began to sing. He was positively drenched in enthusiasm, I don’t know why. And yet, why not. I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe or whatever you don’t. That’s your business. But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be if it isn’t a prayer? So I just listened, my pen in the air.
We played dolls in that house where Father staggered with the Thanksgiving knife, where Mother wept at noon into her one ounce of cottage cheese, praying for the strength not to kill herself. We kneeled over the rubber bodies, gave them baths carefully, scrubbed their little orange hands, wrapped them up tight, said goodnight, never spoke of the woman like a gaping wound weeping on the stairs, the man like a stuck buffalo, baffled, stunned, dragging arrows in his side. As if we had made a pact of silence and safety, we kneeled and dressed those tiny torsos with their elegant belly-buttons and minuscule holes high on the buttock to pee through and all that darkness in their open mouths, so that I have not been able to forgive you for giving your daughter away, letting her go at eight as if you took Molly Ann or Tiny Tears and held her head under the water in the bathinette until no bubbles rose, or threw her dark rosy body on the fire that burned in that house where you and I barely survived, sister, where we swore to be protectors.
Reprinted from the author’s blog © Charlise Hill-Larson and Discovering Fire ~ Waking Up ~ Musings on the Mystery, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Charlise Hill-Larson and Discovering Fire ~ Waking Up ~ Musings on the Mystery with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.