Thomas Merton & Mary Oliver: Contemplative Poets on Choosing to Love the World

December 14, 2014

I had the privilege of assisting Jonathan Montaldo in his workshop, "Thomas Merton & Mary Oliver:  Contemplative Poets on Choosing to Love the World," at the Kripalu Center, Dec. 5-7, 2014. 

 

Central to Jonathan's message was Merton's notion of the "speech a day makes."  It was through listening to the primal - and ordinary - language of nature, that we were able to nestle into the wintry frost-bitten hills of the surrounding landscape, and from there, make an embodied pilgrimmage into the contemplative silence of our own heart's wild spaces.  Merton's prose, and Oliver's poetry, inspired us to seek the Sacred within the ordinary, even mundane, aspects that a "normal" day might offer to those who stand in "attention."  

 

As Oliver writes in her poem "When I Am Among the Trees":

 

When I am among the trees,

especially the willows and the honey locust,

equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,

they give off such hints of gladness.

I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

 

I am so distant from the hope of myself,

in which I have goodness, and discernment,

and never hurry through the world

   but walk slowly, and bow often.

 

Around me the trees stir in their leaves

and call out, "Stay awhile."

The light flows from their branches.

 

And they call again, "It's simple," they say,

"and you too have come

into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled

with light, and to shine."

 

(Thirst:  4)

 

Oliver's poetry reminded us again and again to return to the small, silent voice within, in order to discern the call of the soul from the old voices "shouting / their bad advice" ("The Journey").  The prophetic, contemplative voice of Merton called us to ecological awareness, and a return to the natural world as a dialogue with the Sacred, while Oliver asked us, "are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?" ("Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches") and urged us onward with her question, "What is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?" ("The Summer Day").

 

My role was to "embody" the work, and assist participants in not only locating and landing Merton's prose and Oliver's poetry in the body, but also to guide retreatants in discovering the poetry of their own bodies.  Through a gentle led flow, I encouraged participants to dialogue with their own embodied awareness, to allow any images, symbols, or sounds to arise, and to allow those "gifts" of the body's unconscious to enter into the movement itself.  This form of an embodied lectio divina, or sacred reading, invited a contemplative dialogue and dance between body and spirit, and uncovered for participants the ways in which the soul or spirit hides and wishes to emerge from within our physical form.  

 

As Oliver reminds us, "the soul, after all, is only a window," and the body is the opening. A contemplative approach to embodied spiritual practices can open us to the voice of our soul, and invite a response in ways we might never have imagined possible.  It is, after all, "no more difficult / than the wakening from a little sleep" ("Have You Ever Tried to Enter...").  

 

Jonathan and I plan to offer additional work on Merton's prose and Oliver's poetry in 2015.  We hope you'll join us on this exciting and embodied pilgrimmage to awakening into the ordinary "speech a day makes."

 

photograph by Thomas Merton

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