I like to think of the late poet Mary Oliver as the patron saint of paying attention. She taught us to not take any interactions for granted — that attention, if you offer it tenderly, generously, can be a gift to those on both sides of the exchange. Her poems spelled it out: A grasshopper, if you look at it long enough, might teach you something about prayer. Go to the river enough times, and it might start talking to you about theodicy.
Mary Oliver often explored big existential questions with the unlikeliest of philosophical partners: moss, roses, geese, dogs, waves. They all had interesting things to say to her. In a 2015 interview with Krista Tippett, Oliver explained that there is nothing more interesting to her than spirituality. “So I cling to it,” she said. “I have no answers, but have some suggestions.” Her poems are riddled with those suggestions. Here are some of my favorites.
Instructions for living a life: / Pay attention. / Be astonished. / Tell about it.
— from “Sometimes”
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting — / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things.
— from “Wild Geese”
If God exists he isn’t just churches and mathematics. / He’s the forest, He’s the desert. / He’s the ice caps, that are dying. / He’s the ghetto and the Museum of Fine Arts.
— from “At the River Clarion”
Joy is not made to be a crumb.
— from “Don’t Hesitate”
The song you heard singing in the leaf when you / were a child / is singing still.
— from “What Can I Say?”
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. / I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down / into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, / how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, / which is what I’ve been doing all day. / Tell me, what else should I have done?
— from “The Summer Day”
Let me keep my distance, always, from those / who think they have the answers. / Let me keep company always with those who say / “Look!” and laugh in astonishment, / and bow their heads.
— from “Mysteries, Yes”
[I]t will always be like this, / each of us going on / in our inexplicable ways / building the universe.
— from “Song of the Builders”
I have refused to live / locked in the orderly house of / reasons and proofs. / The world I live in and believe in / is wider than that. And anyway, / what’s wrong with Maybe? … [O]nly if there are angels in your head will you / ever, possibly, see one.
— from “The World I Live In”
Another morning and I wake with thirst /for the goodness I do not have. I walk / out to the pond and all the way God has /given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord, / I was never a quick scholar but sulked / and hunched over my books past the hour / and the bell; grant me, in your mercy, / a little more time. Love for the earth / and love for you are having such a long / conversation in my heart.
— from “Thirst”
Editor’s note: What quotes should we add to this list? Let us know your favorite Mary Oliver quotes on faith and spirituality by sending us a comment via the button below.