Finding the Divine in Nature with Mary Oliver

A photo of poet Mary Oliver with the words Mary Oliver: The Divine in Nature

Between now and January, Naomi and I will be looking at three broad themes in our Faith in Action work. One of these is ‘Finding the Divine’.

For me, finding the divine is about seeing God in all of their many forms and faces, and in spaces and at times that aren’t ‘religious’. It’s about realising how small you are, and how beautiful the world is, and restoring some of the wonder of childhood.

The role of wonder in Christian faith is one that often feels overlooked. Wonder is associated with children, with innocence and with ignorance. Children wonder at soap bubbles, but adults know about surface tension. And when children grow up, their wonder—like those bubbles—slowly dissolves away, replaced by knowledge of the world.

As an adult, to wonder is on some level to admit to ignorance or doubt. To acknowledge that you don’t have everything figured out. Especially now, when we have answers to almost all our questions at our fingertips, admitting that there is something you don’t know can be very difficult, particularly when you are young and trying to prove yourself in the adult world. And in faith, having unanswered questions can be difficult to make your peace with. It feels like doubt, or weakness. I sometimes think that if I just believed harder or was better, I wouldn’t have these questions, and my mind skitters away from them.

But in running away from wonder and all the questions that come with it, I think we also leave behind the chance to experience God through awe and mystery and uncertainty.

My favourite poet is the American writer Mary Oliver. Her poetry is dreamy, naturalistic free verse exploring life, death, love, and the divine through the landscapes of North America. In her poem ‘Some Questions You Might Ask’, Oliver begins with a question about the soul.

“Is the soul solid, like iron?

Or is it tender and breakable, like

The wings of a moth in the beak of the owl?”

This is followed with further questions, all of them childlike in their simplicity. “Who has it and who doesn’t?” “Does it have a shape? Like an iceberg?” “Does it have one lung, like the snake and the scallop?” By invoking comparisons to the natural world in her questions, Oliver encourages the reader to think of the soul as something other than uniquely human. After all, as she points out, “the face of the moose is as sad/as the face of Jesus.” And then she asks her central question: “Why should I have it, and not the anteater/who loves her children?” Why should only a human being have a soul when Oliver can see evidence all around her of animals and plants, even icebergs and stones, being equally created in the image of the divine?

In this poem, Oliver challenges the reader to consider the entire world as created in God’s image, and thus to expand our conceptions of what the divine looks like. God is not only found in traditional religious spaces, in purpose-built buildings or the company of other believers. God is found in the peace of rustling leaves and the intelligence of crows and the satisfying perfection of smooth beach pebbles. In some ways, this poem is reminiscent of Psalm 104, with its lists of animals, plants, and geographical features that reflect God’s care for each tiny aspect of creation. While the Bible does not comment directly on whether animals have souls, this psalm does say “when you send forth your breath, they are created,” (Psalms 104:30, NRSV), in language that is very similar to that found in Genesis’s account of the creation of human beings.

And whatever your opinion on whether animals have souls, this is definitely a reminder that if divinity can be found in an anteater, it can definitely be found in every human being you encounter, even the ones you ignore, or avoid, or argue with.

Wherever life takes you this November, consider taking some time to find divinity in your surroundings, whether it’s in moths or autumn leaves or people you’re arguing with on Twitter, and try to capture some of the wonder of childhood, that the God who made you could make all of this too.