If the environmental encyclical didn't change your heart or mind, maybe poetry can.

For me, one of the major questions coming out of the pope’s recent encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si’,” is how do we engender the sort of “ecological spirituality” that Pope Francis calls for, a way of life that is more deeply grounded in our relationships with God, one another and our world.  

There can be a ready (and welcome) impulse to immediate action—Let’s launch an emissions trading scheme! Let’s decrease our carbon footprint! Let’s unplug our lights at night! (I know, that last one always sounds crazy, doesn’t it. Do you know in Australia every socket actually has a little switch above it to render it live or dead? So when you leave a room there you really can cut your power usage without all the nonsense of which cord is which and aren’t I going to need that tomorrow.)

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But if we’re really going to change in a way that’s good and lasting, says Pope Francis, the biggest thing we’re going to have to do is to figure out how to change our minds and hearts.

And how do you do that?

I think one aspect is feeding our imaginations. We are in many ways limited only by our capacity to dream. If we want to reimagine our relationship with the world and our sense of self within it, we should turn to stories, music, artwork that sees what many of us on our own cannot.

With this in mind, I want to make a suggestion to everyone reading this and if I may be so bold to every bishop, too: go out and buy a book of poetry by Mary Oliver. And then once you've read it, buy some more for your friends, your staff and lots of other people.

If you’ve never heard of her, Mary Oliver is an American poet, winner of both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Eighty-years-old this September, she has spent her whole life writing beautiful poems that uncover simple but profound truths about God and us in sunflowers and pale afternoons, in dogs and ponds and the smell of the earth.

Like Pope Francis, Oliver’s poetry invites readers to let the distractions of our modern, constant motion, hyper-stimulated world fall away from time to time, to enter into that quiet place of contemplation and gratitude that waits in the world all around us. In nature she discovers not only beauty and an invitation to reverence, but truth—how the time of grief in our lives can also be gifts; the fact that we are somehow all both flawed and lovely beyond all telling; and that death will come for all of us likely too soon and unannounced. 

Because of copyrights and the Internet I can’t include in this article any poems by Ms. Oliver. Which probably makes this worst sales pitch ever.

But should you be interested, you might Google Ms. Oliver. Many of her poems are available online, often with permission—luminous, accessible poems like “The Summer Day,” which wonders where we’re headed and where this glorious world of ours came from; “Messenger,” which invites us to let ourselves be astonished by it all; “Wild Geese,” which calls readers to forgo goodness for love; “What Glorious Thing,” on the hope found in a bluebird; or “Thirst,” with its depiction of the slow, honest journey to letting go.

When we think of the changes we need to make as a world, the ground we have to cover can seem overwhelming, immense. It would be easy to think that what is required is to mortify all sense of satisfactions in favor of austerity and hardship.

And yet take a moment with a book of Mary Oliver poems like “Thirst” or “Why I Wake Early” (each of them just a few shekels over ten dollars) and you may discover that in fact it is in savoring all that lives and grows and dies around us that we are more able to allow the inessential things to fall away and get a purchase on that simpler, better world. 

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Sharon Blumenthal
3 years ago
I had never heard of Mary Oliver, and I usually don't read poetry, but after reading your post, I was curious. I went online and read "Why I Wake Early." It's beauty brought spontaneous tears to my eyes. I just ordered two of her books. Thank you, Father!
Marilyn Martin
3 years ago
Though I majored in English literature, I never liked poetry much; it seemed unnatural and forced compared to prose. But a few years ago a friend gave me a book of Mary Oliver's poems, and I found that reading them gives me a sense of peace and wholeness. I'm so glad that Mr. McDermott introduced her to readers of America.
G Miller
3 years ago
Mr. McDermott, you are so right! I take a volume or two of Ms. Oliver's work every time I go on retreat. Last year, I took "Thirst" it was perfect for my 8-day retreat. She has a new volume out called Blue Horses and it will be with me on my retreat this year!

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