Don’t end up simply having visited this world.

wild-and-precious

Today, we say goodbye to beloved poet, Mary Oliver, but her poems remain to inspire and awaken us, to uplift us and call us to task. She had a gift for seeing the holy in the mundane and for helping each of us open our eyes a bit wider, to see. Who among us doesn’t pause to consider deeply her question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

We are all on a one-way conveyor belt from birth to grave, but along the way we have opportunities to seize. Today, cherish these words from Mary and make sure to live:

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

With gratitude to those who serve.

sisters

Today, in the United States, we honor our veterans and thank them for their service defending this country and its principles of equality, freedom, and justice for all. Our understanding of those concepts has evolved over time, and taken some steps back, but today let us be grateful for how far we’ve come and consider the steps that we each might take today and every day to make this country move closer to the ideals for which it stands.

Open to surprise.

surprise

How much do our expectations get in the way of our gratefulness? If we were expecting nothing, would our eyes open more to all the gifts we receive each day. Brother David Steindhal-Rast explores just this link between surprise and gratitude:

Have you ever noticed how your eyes open a bit wider when you are surprised? It is as if you had been asleep, merely day-dreaming or sleepwalking through some routine activity, and you hear your favorite tune on the radio, or look up from the puddles on the parking lot and see a rainbow, or the telephone rings and it’s the voice of an old friend, and all of a sudden you’re awake. Even an unwelcome surprise shakes us out of complacency and makes us come alive. We may not like it at first, but looking back, we can always recognize it as a gift. Humdrum equals deadness; surprise equals life. In fact, my favorite name for the One I worship in wonder – the only name that does not limit God – is Surprise.

Right this moment, as I remember spiritual giants I have been privileged to meet – Mother Teresa, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, His Holiness the Dalai Lama – I can still feel the life energy they radiated. But how did they come by this vitality? There is no lack of surprises in this world, but such radiant aliveness is rare. What I observed was that these people were all profoundly grateful, and then I understood the secret.

Surprise is a seed. Gratefulness sprouts when we rise to the challenge of surprise

A surprise does not make us automatically alive. Aliveness is a matter of give-and-take, of response. If we allow surprise to merely baffle us, it will stun us and stunt our growth. Instead, every surprise is a challenge to trust in life and so to grow. Surprise is a seed. Gratefulness sprouts when we rise to the challenge of surprise. The great ones in the realm of Spirit are so intensely alive because they are so deeply grateful.

Gratefulness can be improved by practice. But where shall beginners begin? The obvious starting point is surprise. You will find that you can grow the seeds of gratefulness just by making room. If surprise happens when something unexpected shows up, let’s not expect anything at all. Let’s follow Alice Walker’s advice. “Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise.”

To expect nothing may mean not taking for granted that your car will start when you turn the key. Try this and you will be surprised by a marvel of technology worthy of sincere gratitude. Or you may not be thrilled by your job, but if for a moment you can stop taking it for granted, you will taste the surprise of having a job at all, while millions are unemployed. If this makes you feel a flicker of gratefulness, you’ll be a little more joyful all day, a little more alive.

Once we stop taking things for granted our own bodies become some of the most surprising things of all.

Once we stop taking things for granted our own bodies become some of the most surprising things of all. It never ceases to amaze me that my body both produces and destroys 15 million red blood cells every second. Fifteen million! That’s nearly twice the census figure for New York City. I am told that the blood vessels in my body, if lined up end to end, would reach around the world. Yet my heart needs only one minute to pump my blood through this filigree network and back again. It has been doing so minute by minute, day by day, for the past 75 years and still keeps pumping away at 100,000 heartbeats every 24 hours. Obviously this is a matter of life and death for me, yet I have no idea how it works and it seems to work amazingly well in spite of my ignorance.

I do not know how my eyes adapt, yet when I chant by candlelight they are 100,000 times more sensitive to light than when I read outdoors on the porch at noon. I wouldn’t know how to give instructions to the 35 million digestive glands in my stomach for digesting one single strawberry; fortunately, they know how to do their job without my advice. When I think of this as I sit down to eat, my heart brims with gratefulness.

From the humble starting point of daily surprises, the practice of gratefulness leads to these transcendent heights.

In those moments, I can identify with the Psalmist who cried out in amazement, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Ps.139:14) From there it is only a small step to seeing the whole universe and every smallest part of it as surprising. From the humble starting point of daily surprises, the practice of gratefulness leads to these transcendent heights. Thomas Carlyle pointed to these peaks of spiritual awareness when he wrote, “Worship is transcendent wonder” – transcendent surprise.

Surprise is a seed; let it sprout and blossom today to color your life with gratitude.