The poem below, Mary Oliver's Wild Geese, never fails to recalibrate my compass, adjust my altimeter, or guage my inner barometer. And at this time of the year there are large skeins of migrating geese flying over Aberdeenshire, so plenty of reminders of the urgency, movement and impulsion of life.
I've become increasingly unconvinced by that category of reading called 'spiritual reading', if by that is meant reading that is overtly, designedly and determinedly devotional, or tending towards affecting the affections by self consciously spiritual writing. More and more I am moved by writing that is authentic, alert to human longing and the elusiveness of joy to those who set out to capture it. Oh yes, I still read Julian of Norwich, George Herbert, The Cloud of Unknowing, the Hymns of Charles Wesley - but also the poems of Emily Dickinson, R S Thomas, Denise Levertov, Elizabeth Jennings, Seamus Heaney, and yes, Mary Oliver. And though I've read Jonathan Edwards Charity and its Fruits regularly for some of the most searching sermons on Paul's theology of the transforming love divine, and try to go swimming in Karl Barth without wearing armbands, and have recently added Augustine's Homilies on the Gospel and First Letter of John to my personal canon of writing worth reading slowly, I'm aware of the limitations of even such deep water theological writing.
Poetry more than makes up the shortfall of spiritual writing. More often poetry exposes the tendency to religious cliche, reveals the lazy unreality of sentiment run to seed, confronts the religious sins of world evasiveness, challenges contentment with banalityu or manufactured guilt, and most of all requires ruthless honesty in facing up to our own capacity for self-delusion, defensiveness and giving the hard truth a body swerve.
That's some of why I love poetry.
Wild Geese, Mary Oliver
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 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.