Mary Oliver: Prayer

Guest Writer: Larry Burton

Mary Oliver: Prayer 

“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.” Mary Oliver


“I can’t seem to focus,” the person sitting across from me said.  “I mean, my mind keeps tracking backwards and all I can think about is all the bad things.”

My friend had many “bad things” she could recall, and she was working on them in therapy.  And she was looking for a way to reconnect with God.  That was why we had been talking.  My friend was a regular at worship.  She even told me that was what “held things together.”  Still, she felt her prayer life was empty.  “I don’t think I even know what it is to pray…really pray,” she confessed.

 Like the poet Mary Oliver, I don’t know exactly what prayer is, either.  But I do know—if I may be just a bit anthropomorphic—that God’s ears are attuned to the conversation of our spirits more than we usually think.  That is why Oliver’s, perhaps one of the best poets of deep spirituality I know, simple claim to know “how to pay attention” is so helpful.  I suggested to my friend that when she found herself fretting, worrying, troubled by things in her past, that she might stop and look around.  “What do you see, smell, feel as you look around.  Notice and name those sensations, then say nothing more than ‘Thank you, Lord.’”

To tell you the truth, I learned this simple spiritual practice because I learned it from my Spiritual Director, and I was privileged and grateful to pass it along.  It may not matter what we think prayer is, so long as we can pause for a moment and notice and can say “thank you.”

Larry Burton