The Journey

During a particularly challenging time about fifteen years ago a friend shared a copy of Mary Oliver’s The Journey. It was a time of pain, brokenness and grief.  I read The Journey daily, if not numerous times a day, for months.  Not surprisingly it remains one of my all-time favorite poems, certainly the one that has had the most profound impact on my life.  Rather than providing a diversionary link, here is the poem in all its poignancy:

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Many others, perhaps you, love this poem as well.  Do a Google search for “Mary Oliver poems” and it will pop up first along with another terrific piece, The Summer Day. Those of us who eagerly await release of every new volume from this National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize winner are almost cult-like in our adulation. The New York Times once described her as “far and away, [America’s] best-selling poet”.

It seems unthinkable, if not inexcusable, to suggest that Oliver’s poetry may in any way be deficient.  Yesterday I entertained the unthinkable!  Here is my excuse: If I were a poet, I would propose The Journey as the warmth, security and intimacy of base-camp after hiking.  Yesterday was like breaking camp early to resume the hike and suddenly happening upon breathtakingly lush valleys and expansive vistas.

Why?  Yesterday Pope Francis referred to “the journey” when installing nineteen new Cardinals. In his homily Pope Franics referred to Mark 10.

“Jesus was walking…”. This is something striking about the Gospels: Jesus is often walking and he teaches his disciples along the way. This is important. Jesus did not come to teach a philosophy, an ideology… but rather “a way”, a journey to be undertaken with him, and we learn the way as we go, by walking. Yes, dear brothers, this is our joy: to walk with Jesus. And this is not easy, or comfortable, because the way that Jesus chooses is the way of the Cross.

After a momentary wince at “dear brothers” – but, all 19 new Cardinals are male – I recognized the inclusivity of his very human exhortation.  I felt a sudden refreshment much like happening upon a lush, expansive vista:

Jesus did not come to teach a philosophy, an ideology… but rather “a way”, a journey to be undertaken with him, and we learn the way as we go, by walking.

I settle into the consolation Mary Oliver offers when I am feeling spent, exhausted, empty – the sort of times that come after a long sometimes treacherous hike through mountain terrain. Base camp can’t come soon enough.  After rest, nourishment and intimacy only base camp can provide we again hear the call to resume our walking.

Yes, …this is our joy: to walk with Jesus. And this is not easy, or comfortable, because the way that Jesus chooses is the way of the Cross.

Any who have received love, found love or attempt love know the persistent call of this journey, aware of our frailty and needs but ever expectant of what lies ahead because of all we have seen and those with whom we travel.

___________________________

“The Journey,” by Mary Oliver, from Dreamwork (Atlantic Monthly Press).

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