Michelle Buhite, a Modified Residency Program student, delivered this homily at the final vespers of January 2011.
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?
–Mary Oliver, The Summer Day
I wonder how many of us remember how to fall down into the grass, to kneel there, and to be idle. Our lives are over-full with appointments, books to be read, and promises to keep. The world of instant communication and ready technology does not teach us how to be still, how to engage the intimacies of the natural world. Too often we awake and step into the torrent that is our lives, and like white-water rafters, we careen through our day until we find ourselves washed ashore amid the litter of plastic water bottles and the wrapper of the power bar we ate for lunch. Where is the time to connect with the Holy? How can we find the time or energy to put our principles into action when we are barely able to surface long enough to gasp for air? How can we possibly do one more thing?
The poem does not ask us what completed projects we will leave behind for others to admire. It does not ask us to provide a time card detailing our daily activities and dedication to our work. The poem asks us to fall to our knees in the grass in prayer and to stroll through fields and along paths, breathing in the scent of dying leaves and rotting apples; for everything dies too soon.
Who we are, together and to the world, will long outlive us. Our love – the unconditional acceptance that we put into motion – will ripple out from our immediate lives and circumstances to make the world a more loving and tolerant place. But this reflection is not just about our legacy, what we leave behind that is somehow quantifiable, although our impact on the world is certainly important. The question remains, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” The question, taken in the context of the rest of the poem, is not just a DO question – it is also a BE question. We are not asked to show an accounting of our accomplishments, nor are we asked to provide references to vouch for our spiritual resumé. We are challenged simply to be; to be fully present to the world as it is presented to us. We are challenged to enter the flow of our lives, with all of the changes that come with being fully alive and fully engaged.
What will I do with my one wild and precious life? That question cuts through my personal to-do list and gives me clarity. What will I do with this one life I’ve been gifted with? Will I try to make as much money as I can? Get all A’s? Get my name attached to as many worthy causes as I have energy for and get my picture in the paper? Or might I fall to my knees in the grass and learn to pray? Might I stroll through fields and breathe my gratitude for the gift that is my life?
What might this faith community do to be present to one another and to name the loss that is the ever-present specter in our engagement? I think we need to speak of a love that never dies; a connection that cannot be broken, though life and death conspire to make us feel disconnected and alone. This is my 4th and final January here in Chicago, and it’s been a tough one. I lost one of my best friends a week and a half ago – and I’m still kind of reeling at his death. I have been lovingly supported by this community. I don’t know about you, but I find that by the last week of intensives, that I’m pretty fragile; I start to get that fluttery, panicky feeling of anticipated loss and disconnection. In his poem, “A Little Piece of our Souls,” Steven Smith says that:
Everywhere we go we take our souls with us.
And every time we meet someone we wrap a little piece of our souls around them
and pass it through them.
All our lives, we weave our souls
around and through everyone we meet,
tying a complex, tangled web to the earth.
That is who we are to one another – a community, a tangled web of love and attachment. We serve Love and we serve one another in love. We keep the flame of memory and hope burning when the world all around us has gone dark. In this circle of hope we lose track of where one ends and another begins, as we weave our stories, our dreams, our hopes, our tears together into a single narrative about relationship, caring and love. Each one who steps into our circle of compassion is challenged and changed. Each one who steps into our circle of compassion reflects the image of those others who hold the rim of the circle now and those who have gone before us. Because “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” You have woven a piece of your soul around and through me, just as I have wrapped my soul around you. Let us speak of a love that never dies; a connection that cannot be broken – and let us offer that love and connection to ourselves, to each other, and to a world that aches for it. What else were you going to do with your one wild and precious life?
From this house / to the world / we will go / hand in hand.