I don’t know where prayers go, or what they do. Do cats pray, while they sleep half-asleep in the sun? Does the opossum pray as it crosses the street? The sunflowers? The old black oak growing older every year? I know I can walk through the world, along the shore or under the trees, with my mind filled with things of little importance, in full self-attendance. A condition I can’t really call being alive. Is a prayer a gift, or a petition, or does it matter? The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way. Maybe the cats are sound asleep. Maybe not.
While I was thinking this I happened to be standing just outside my door, with my notebook open, which is the way I begin every morning. Then a wren in the privet began to sing. He was positively drenched in enthusiasm, I don’t know why. And yet, why not. I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe or whatever you don’t. That’s your business. But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be if it isn’t a prayer? So I just listened, my pen in the air.
-Mary Oliver, “I happened to be Standing”
This is one of my favorite poems written by one of my favorite poets—the late Mary Oliver, who passed away last Thursday.
Mary Oliver’s life was definitely not the unexamined life. And her poetry reflects her lifelong examination of life’s deepest questions and yearnings. While she usually wrote in first-person singular, the “I” for her was less reflective of her personal experience, and more an invitation to the reader into deeper self-examination, encouraging the reader him or herself to become “I”.
So when I read this poem, I feel as if I am being invited to explore my notion of prayer. It is something only done in a place of worship? Is it a combination of words written by few and memorized by many? It is found in nature? Is it of my own making?
Mary Oliver doesn’t tell us what prayer is, but from the poem’s title, we are given some clue as to where or how she thinks we might find our answer. Perhaps, if we stop for one moment, and take in all that is in our midst, we might find that prayer is an unfolding, constantly evolving conversation with life itself. So maybe next time you happen to be standing, you might take in all that life is communicating to you, and lean in, and be ruthlessly curious.