In an upcoming issue of The Christian Century I say a few things about Mary Oliver’s poem “Gethsemane.” It appears in her book Thirst, the first collection of poems published after the death of her long-time partner, Molly Malone Cook. These poems speak of grief and loss and gratitude, and many also reveal the theological and liturgical edges of Oliver’s work during this period of her life.
She writes about worship with both whimsy and seriousness, and always in her exploration of scriptural theology is the natural world–trees and bees and oceans and honey locusts taking their necessary place in the cosmic story of redemption and restoration.
And because Oliver is not an academic theologian, not even, I would say, a conventional church-going Christian, she brings surprising insight to familiar stories. In “Gethsemane,” for instance, she notes briefly what is always highlighted, often tediously, about this incident recorded in the gospels according to Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke: Jesus asks the disciples to stay awake while he prays in a garden yet they soon fall asleep. Oliver, though, imagines that while humans might have let Jesus down in his moment of crisis and uncertainty, the rest of creation did not.
The “wild awake” world she conjures is arresting, jarring, especially on Good Friday. And on this Good Friday, when it becomes clearer with each passing day that we have neither a president nor a collective public will interested in seeing to the health of a planet in peril, Oliver’s poem is a kind of lament.
Yesterday the United States dropped the “mother of all bombs” in a faraway place on mother earth. How can we “hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (Laudato Si’) in the midst of such Holy Week destruction and blasphemy? The destruction of our world, after all, as Wendell Berry has said, is “not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy. It is flinging God’s gifts into His face, as if they were of no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them.”
Jesus prays in a garden. We are asleep. But the precarious earth, beloved of God, suffering unspeakably at our hands, is wild awake.
by Mary Oliver
The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.
The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.
Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe
the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move,
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
lay still and waited, wild awake.
Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.