Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, "Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?" Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, "If you will, you can become all flame."Mary Oliver uses this passage from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers as epigraph for her 2006 collection of poems Thirst. The volume followed the death of her longtime partner Molly Malone Cook. Many of the poems are more frankly religious than her previous work, or her subsequent volume, in the sense that they embrace traditional religious language of celebration, sorrow, and amazement. "Oh, feed me this day, Holy Spirit, with/the fragrance of the fields and the/freshness of the oceans which you have/ made..." she writes.
The words she employs do not come easily to my lips. I have lived too long in the here and now -- in the joyous embrace of things -- to use language that carries an historical connotation of helplessness, servitude, longing for release. To cry out "Lord!" -- as Oliver does -- seems to me an admission that the grace of thisness is inadequate, even as the grace of thisness ebbs and flows in every cell of my body, in every leaf and stone and puddle along my path, in that huge orange disk, the Sun, that comes up now -- yes, just now -- like a fiery reminder that "Lord" is just a word, a marker, a placeholder for all we don't understand.
But I would not gainsay Oliver in her bereavement the use of language that has been for millennia the vessel of our wonderment. The Psalmist had a poet's tongue. The author of the Song of Songs knew more accurately than I the depth and breadth and height a soul can reach when feeling out of sight. "Oh, Lord,/ what a lesson/ you send me/ as I stand/ listening," Oliver writes, and I know exactly what she means.
And as for that epigraph. I love the modesty with which Abba Joseph confesses his piety. As far as I can. What else can I do? And the simplicity of Abba Lot's advice. Burn! Let each of your fingertips be alive to the world, he says. Let each of your words be as a votive flame, expressing your heart's desire for a fullness we can only dimly perceive, even as it engulfs us on every side. "Lord, I will learn also to kneel down/ into the world of the invisible,/ the inscrutable and the everlasting," writes Mary Oliver. And in my robust agnosticism, I say Amen.