Poets and artists are among our best companions in the life of faith. They come at things from unique angles and expose things about us and the world and God that we’d never seen or heard or felt before.
But not all art is true. Sometimes the artist lies. And just because the sounds and words and colors are pleasing, a sweet lie does not become the truth.
Mary Oliver is a powerful poet. Her words are evocative and she sells more poetry than any other living poet. But in her poem Wild Geese, I call foul. Or fowl? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
Here is the text (click here for a video of her reading it):
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
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.
In the wild geese migrating across many miles of varying landscapes, Oliver sees an image of how to live in the world. By instinct. By bodily urge. By sheer response to the world that offers itself to us.
I love her call to exchange with one another what lies deep within us, as you “Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” This is deep calling to deep. This is the friendship of sharing the chaos that brims within us.
This is, in fact, why we spend time on our knees. This is why we pray and why some of our praying is repenting. We need companionship in our chaos and despair. We need God.
But Oliver rejects this. And she also rejects the restraint of goodness out of hand in her opening line, preferring to give in to physical urges. “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
She could have simply yelled, “YOLO!” The effect would have been the same. Follow your instincts, your urges, whatever the world offers to your imagination.
Where Oliver makes her mistake is in setting up this absurd dichotomy between a hyper asceticism of walking a hundred miles on our knees, repenting in an attempt to be good, and giving in to bodily and surrounding urges. There is such a wide space in between these two options that their either/or is simply ridiculous.
It’s the Wild Goose we should follow, not Mary Oliver’s wild geese.
Ancient Celtic Christians imaged the Holy Spirit not just as the dove, but as the Wild Goose. Some have made too much of this, but I think a simple point can be made here.
As the Wild Goose, the Holy Spirit is untamed and unpredictable, just as Jesus said: The Wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. (John 3:8)
Like the wind, the Spirit is not subject to our control, our whims. The reverse is true.
Oliver is suggesting the exact opposite of Jesus. Oliver is suggesting that our spirits be subject to our whims and not by God’s Spirit.
The real choice isn’t between being wild geese and being bloody-kneed penitents. The real choice is between being wild geese and being followers of the Wild Goose.
Whose impulses will I follow? My body’s or my Lord’s?
Yes, there are plenty of times when the two impulses lead to the same action. There are many times when our bodies lead us true. But there are times when our bodies lead us falsely. Consider the alcoholic’s urge toward alcohol. Consider the bulimic’s urge toward food. Consider the philanderer’s urge toward sex. Each of these physical urges has its place. But none of them should be submitted to as an always-good natural instinct.
As Paul writes to Titus, it’s not extreme efforts to be good that guide us to say NO to what’s wrong, but God’s grace: For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age (Titus 2:11-12).
I find it disturbing that Auburn Seminary spent its faculty retreat meditating on Mary Oliver’s poem and especially the opening line: “You do not have to be good.” I think they would have spent their time to far better effect if they’d meditated on the oft-repeated biblical call: “Be holy as I am holy.” That way they’d have followed the Holy and holy-making Spirit, the only Wild Goose worthy of being followed.