For a moment, I was transfixed by the primordial sensation of being at home in the world, breathing in the out-breath of plants, the precious air. Just another animal shivering beneath the moon. Hungering for something hidden in the darkness. Inhabiting again the natural habitat of the human heart—the religion and poetry of nature.
“There is in everything around us / a calm and holy religion,” says John Ruskin, “…a meek and blessed influence/stealing in as it were unaware upon the heart /…It is the poetry of Nature. / It is that which uplifts the spirit within us…”
Way back in 1880, after Darwin’s publication of the theory of natural selection and the subsequent unraveling of the hegemony of religion in Victorian England, poet Matthew Arnold made this observation in his introduction to The English Poets: “More and more, humanity will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us…Most of what passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.”
I’m not sure his prognostication has come true, but for an increasing number of us, poetry rings with sacred overtones.
A hundred years after Arnold, Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon, editors of Earth Prayers (1991), write: “For many today, it is not religious prayer at all, but poetry, that they turn to in their search for spiritual nourishment.” Why? “Because so many conventional religious prayer books seem unable to consecrate the normal and the natural. Preoccupied with a world beyond this one, the revelatory power of the Earth goes unpraised.”
Mary Oliver, on the other hand, openly admits that she wants to make “a literature of praise.”
In her poetry in praise of nature, you find prayers made of grass. You hear, again, “the song you heard singing in the leaf / when you were a child.” You understand at last that “You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. / You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.”
In Beauty and The Soul (2009), Italian psychotherapist Piero Ferrucci says, “We are stressed, anxious, alienated, depressed, unhealthy, without really knowing why. What makes us sick is precisely our distance from nature…Deep down, we feel separated from a wisdom and a beauty which we cannot afford to lose, in fact from the source of all life…Nature is our home. To get back to it is to get in touch again with ourselves, to rediscover what we are made of.”
In Lectio Poetica, we let the words of poets like Mary Oliver’s words reconnect us with our true selves. Her poems are like natural habitats in which we immerse ourselves for a quiet hour. Like a walk in the woods or a stroll along the seashore, we experience the religion and poetry of nature. We find our place again in what she calls “the family of things.”
- Jay E. Valusek