Paying Attention to Death

The great American poet Mary Oliver died recently. Oliver wrote with clarity and simplicity. She did not need to be abstruse and convoluted to be profound. Many of her poems were written in the landscape of her longtime home in Provincetown, Massachusetts. In one of her most loved poems she moves from a string of large questions (“Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear?”) to a close observation of a grasshopper.

She would say of her life that someone observing it from the outside would assume nothing extraordinary was happening. She wandered in the fields and forests, browsed along the beaches and the sea. But all the time, she would insist, her mind was alive and teeming with observations, questions, and new ideas. The large, grand questions she began with called her to minute and particular ones. They called her to pay attention. “Tell me,” she asks at the end of the poem, “what else should I have done?”

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? / Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

It is perhaps commonplace to think of life as a blur. As we grow older we are prone to wonder how we got here. How did it pass so quickly? What have I been doing all this time? Perhaps our lives have been purposeless; perhaps they have been “purpose driven.” But in either case we can find ourselves wondering what we have missed along the way; what we have failed to observe, even to love. Lent asks us to slow down, to pay attention. It asks us to consider particular things, perhaps painful things. To repent is to raise the question of whether we have been going in the wrong direction and need to turn around. It is more than being sorry for particular sins and failures—although it is at least that. It is rather about the question of life’s direction, life’s purpose. Are we on the road to Jerusalem with Jesus or some other road? Lents asks us, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Lent also touches on death. Christians enter the Lenten season anticipating the death of Jesus. If we are on that road with him, we are traveling toward death. And of course, even if we try very hard to ignore the fact, we are on the road to death ourselves. As Jesus is preparing for his death, the Lenten season is asking us to prepare for ours. It does this by asking us not simply if we are prepared to die, but if we are prepared to live. What are you going to do with that one wild and precious life?

Lent also reminds us that we are heading with Jesus toward resurrection. In Christ our wild, precious life endures. In another poem Oliver ponders death after seeing an owl pounce on a hapless, small creature. Perhaps, she muses, death really isn’t darkness, loss, emptiness. Perhaps we are carried, weary, even resigned “to the river that is without the least dapple of shadow / that is nothing but light—scalding, aortal light— / in which we are washed and washed / out of our bones.”

This is the light of resurrection; the light of God’s glory; the light of hope. Lent speaks of death and resurrection. Lent promises forgiveness after sin, light after darkness, resurrection after destruction. But Lent also calls us to pay attention, to live our one precious life in love and joy and hope.

It is far too easy to get to the end of life and realize that you have barely noticed anything, rarely loved anyone, finally understood nothing. So we pause; we pay attention; we look, listen, and love.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *