Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Absence and Presence

Today a poem from Mary Oliver was on Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac, and I'm going to copy and paste it here and then say a few things.

The Summer Day
by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, 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?

I heard this poem on my way to therapy today. I love my therapist. She is a Gestalt therapist and the wife of a retired Presbyterian minister, so it's the closest I've come to spiritual direction. She leaves a lot of space for questions about meaning and purpose and death and God.

So today I asked my therapist if she believes in God, and then quickly told her I wasn't sure I want to know. I had been telling her how difficult and painful it is not to believe in God and yet to care so much about the pain and suffering of others. I had received an email about legislation to help grandparents who raise their grandchildren, and a second about the lack of access to basic healthcare services if you are on Medicaid and live in our community. And doing the work that I do, it's hard not to feel despair about the ways we fail to invest in families and in children in the interest of building healthier and more just communities.

She asked me what it feels like not to believe in God. "Empty?" she asked. "Dark," I replied. I told her that I imagine death as being like a light goes out. It is difficult and sad to realize how hard life can be--to witness the pain of others and then imagine a person suffering... and then the light goes out.

Then I remembered reading about the new biography of Mother Theresa, which apparently describes a "dark night of the soul" that she experienced for most of her life. According to this article, Mother Theresa felt abandoned by God and spent most of her life doubting that God even exists. But she apparently also felt that this feeling of abandonment helped her experience a greater sense of connection to the despair of the people she served.

My therapist responded, "Isn't that amazing that she felt abandoned, when she brought God into the world?"

"I KNEW you believed in God," I said, and then laughed and thanked her for saying that, because it meant a lot to me.

Maybe we don't get to know God's presence all the time. Maybe it would make us too secure or fanatical. Maybe feeling abandoned teaches us compassion. Maybe it would be like when you think too much about breathing and begin to feel like you are suffocating--if you felt God's presence all the time and really concentrated on it, how could you get anything else done?

I love the poem by Mary Oliver and the question she asks at the end. I am also very far from a place in my life where I could spend the day walking through a field and examining grasshoppers. If I had that time, I think I would feel God's presence, or the presence of whatever "God" represents.

But for now I'm raising my children and doing my work. Maybe that is enough.