The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac by Mary Oliver — and other musings

This morning I found myself listening to Mary Oliver reading her poem ‘The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac,’ a four-part poem that ‘recalls the shadowy underworld of loss and survival.’  It discusses what Oliver calls ‘the cancer visit’ when, in 2012, she was diagnosed with lung cancer and death had ‘left its calling-card.’ She has since been given a clean bill of health.[1]

As I listened to the Mary Oliver’s distinct American accent read the four-part poem, I was particularly struck by the third part:

3.
I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you're in it all the same.

so why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it's happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.

I am struck by the connections to the creative and creating life force that underlies this section of the poem. We name that life force, ‘God’.  Oliver begins by telling the reader that although they never intended to be in the world, they are in it all the same.  In this, I hear echoes of the psalmist’s words: ‘For it was you who formed me in my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb…My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth’ (Psalm 139:13, 15).

Oliver points to an innate dignity in humanity, one that we must not take for granted; one we choose to actively belong to in order that we might ‘admire and weep over’ the fullness of human life and suffering.  Suffering is an inevitable part of life, but one that the Christian story tells us is never undertaken alone.  The God who suffered with the Son on the cross, and who raised Jesus to life again, is with us in our suffering, in our sadness, and in our joy, and in the love we give and receive. Indeed, suffering and death is not the end of God’s plan for us.

The focus of the poem moves from addressing ‘you’ to one who blesses. For us, the one who blesses is God who, as our baptismal liturgy says, ‘created and sustains all living things.’ In this, Oliver invokes a kind of blessing for each of the senses, beginning with the feet, sight, hearing, taste and touch.

There is an over-whelming sense in this poem of the incredibly fragile but blessed nature of human life.  As one who has had death ‘leave its calling-card,’ Mary Oliver is stirring the reader to a life of action and appreciation, to make the most of the precious life we have been given, indeed blessed with; the life we have, through no choice of our own.

Oliver also shows how moments of darkness, like the diagnosis of cancer, prod us to find the abundance of life.  She shows us as one ‘speaking from the fortunate platform of many years, none of which, I think, I ever wasted’ that even in the face of death, nothing is wasted when a life has been – and continues to be – well lived.

Parish ministry can sometimes be an over-whelming and daunting prospect for the ideological priest.  Sometimes, the funerals are relentless, and when you add the sad death of a young person, one can find one’s emotional and physical tank empty.  Ultimately, though, to pay attention to the workings of God in these moments of exhaustion and grief is to notice in these ‘thin’ spaces, that the veil between life and death is but sheer fabric.  The administering of the Last Rites, for example, is one such moment when the veil is particularly thin; a moment of sacramental grace when the priest and the dying person tread upon the holiest of holy ground, sharing a moment of divine communion.  These are moments when heaven and earth meet, and the perceived ‘split’ between the two is named for the false perception that it is. 

Each funeral confronts me with the certainty of my own death.  I am reminded that it is essential for me to live my life purposefully, ‘finding God in all things,’ and seeking what George Herbert calls ‘heaven in the ordinary’ for there is much, as Mary Oliver points out, to admire and weep over, and to write music and poems about.

This can be a challenge in the face of my own doubts and insecurities, when as a priest I am called on to give hope, comfort, consolation; to colour in God for others as I sit with a family whose son has been tragically killed in a cycling accident, or when a father of a five year old has died of an unexplained medical event behind the wheel of his truck and semi-trailer in a rural part of Victoria.  These are moments when my doubt pales into insignificance, and no amount of academic study can prepare me for the reality of human suffering.  It is the space to be authentic, open, and honest.

Because even where there is deep pain or inadequacy, God invites us to fully belong to this adventure of life, because there really is “so much to admire, to weep over. And to write music or poems about.”

[1] http://www.onbeing.org/blog/mary-olivers-cancer-poem/7277

Entering the Sublime

Terracotta Warriors & Cai Guo-Qiang Exhibition, National Gallery of Victoria

Audiences enter into a fluttering, wild bird-space created by contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang. His ceramic birds suspended in realistic flight patterns lead us through the exhibit of excavated Terracotta Warriors, ancient Chinese swords, pottery and bronze beasts, and the artist’s own surrounding gunpowder-generated massive paintings. There is a wildness to the space; visitors become a performed element, the human figure living momentarily within the swirling of swallows - a moment too complex to imagine.

photo by Catherine Schieve, 12 Aug 2019

photo by Catherine Schieve, 12 Aug 2019

Like a Tiger

You are like a tiger, compelling in your beauty,
yet terrifying in your strength.

You are like a honey-comb on the branch of a tree.
I can see the sweet honey, but the branch is too high for me to climb.

You are like a goldfish swimming in a pond.
Only an arm’s length from the bank: yet if I try to catch you in my hand,
you slip from my grasp.

You are like a snake.
your skin dazzling in its bright colours.
Yet your tongue able to destroy a person with a single prick.

be merciful to me, O Lord. Give me life, not death.
Reach out to me, and hold me in your arms.
Come down to me, and lift me to heaven.
Sustain my feeble soul with your power.

Manikka Vasahar (8th century), India.

From: Marcus Braybrooke, ed., The Bridge of Stars: 365 Prayers, Blessings, and Meditations from Around the World (London: Thorsons, 2001), p. 172.