Monday, July 13, 2015

365 True Things: 106/Questing

A little over ten years ago, as my friend Annie's sixtieth birthday party was winding down, I found myself sitting next to a mutual friend, Wendy, who also happens to be an Episcopalian priest. She asked if I go to church. I told her no. She said, "That's too bad. I was thinking of inviting you to join a prayer group I'm starting up." I said, "Oh, but that sounds interesting. Sure, count me in."

Soon thereafter, when Wendy told Annie that I'd agreed to join the group, Annie guffawed! She thought that was hysterical.

I call myself the group's token pagan. Necessary counterbalance to those Episcopalians.

Wendy on the left, Annie on the right

But we've been at it now for a decade, meeting—with great gratitude and joy—more or less monthly. We started out a foursome, but Wendy's old old friend Jane left the group several years ago because of family responsibilities and geographical challenges (she lives halftime in California's Central Valley, halftime in Pacific Grove). So now it's Wendy, Annie, and me.

We begin by "checking in": talking about recent personal highs and lows. Then we do what we call "African Bible Study," which as I understand it is based on how missionaries in Africa would teach the Bible to illiterate converts. Yes, we often do read a Bible passage, but me, pagan that I am, I have a very hard time finding anything in the Bible that speaks to me. Of course, I don't really know the Bible, so my search for something inspiring tends to be pretty hit-or-miss.

Usually, instead, I offer a poem: Denise Levertov, Hafiz, Rumi, or—very often—Mary Oliver, who combines a spiritual depth (especially lately) with passion for the world. I identify with both those traits.

Today, I had decided on a poem by Fernando Pessoa I saw yesterday on Facebook and liked pretty well (and it mentioned God—"Thank God there's imperfection in the World"—always a plus). But at the last minute I switched, to a Mary Oliver poem we've done before, possibly more than once: "Wild Geese." It turned out to be an inspired last-minute change, because what did two of us talk about in our check-ins but, essentially, not wanting to be good anymore, in the sense of maintaining personal obligations that have now become burdens, plain and simple.

And as always, we all found something resonant. Our lives keep changing and we keep growing, and a new reading brings different insight. Without fail.

Here's how the process goes:

African Bible Study
  1. Read the passage aloud. Silence. Name a word or phrase that struck you. 
  2. Read the passage aloud a second time. Silence. Reflect on what themes or concerns are raised for you, using “I” language. 
  3. Read the passage aloud a final time. Silence. What insights or challenges have come to you? How is God calling you to change, serve, or celebrate? 
"Wild Geese"
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.


  1. so glad i took the time to check in with your post this morning ( i mentioned that I am behind ) . . this really struck a chord with me! . .
    love that you joined the group ( pagan an all. ) and how you were able to participate and make it meaningful and I happen to be a fan of Mary Oliver so that was a great way to start my morning.
    I can tell by that picture that everyone involved has gotten much joy out of being together. I would love something like this, at least i think i would... something with the spiritual/mystical side of Judaism of course.

  2. beautiful "Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
    the world offers itself to your imagination,
    calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—"