Sermon 1/20/2019 at Day House Catholic Worker
By Lydia Wylie-Kellermann
Isaiah begins “For Zion’s sake I will not be silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet.”
I believe in refusing to be silent. But I also believe in silence and quiet. I believe that we need to still ourselves long enough to hear those words when we are each called “my delight” and listen for “our new name pronounced by the mouth of the Lord.” God calls us by name, but it is so easy to miss when we aren’t paying attention.
It is not easy in our culture to find total silence or to stay in one place long enough to see what is right in front of us.
This week I am thinking a lot about Mary Oliver who died on Thursday. She is a poet who always had the gift of helping me to be quiet and altered my way of seeing the simplicity of life around me.
I have found myself struck with gratitude and grief realizing that there was something steadying to know that Mary Oliver was out in the woods somewhere paying attention to the beetles and the dew drops. So, my reflections tonight are filled with words from Mary Oliver tonight.
She could ask questions like this:
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 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? (A Summer’s Day)
And she could encourage you like this:
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. (Wild Geese)
Mary Oliver knew how to be silent, to be still, to pay attention, she could hear when God would utter a new name and call her into the family of things.
I believe that once you’ve listened that deeply, it is then that you cannot be silent and you will not be quiet for the sake of what you see.
Like when Mary Oliver writes this…..
From This River, When I was a Child, I Used to Drink
But when I came back I found
That the body of the river was dying.
“Did it speak?”
Yes, it sang out the old songs, but faintly.
“What will you do?”
I will grieve of course, but that’s nothing.
“What, precisely, will you grieve for?”
For the river. For myself, my lost
Joyfullness. For the children who will not
Know what a river can me- a friend, a
Companion, a hint of heaven.
But to speak out of grief, to speak out of rage is hard and risky work. There are prophets I hear that summon me to that risky work of speech, they include Isaiah, Mary Oliver, Audre Lorde, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Audre Lorde spoke these words in a speech shortly after she was diagnosed with cancer.
“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood…
I was going to die, if not sooner than later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.
What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am a woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself — a Black woman warrior poet doing my work — come to ask you, are you doing yours?”
And then in this season, when we remember Martin Luther King, Jr, I hear his words from A Time to Break Silence.
“And some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak…” He goes on to talk about the young men he has met in the ghettos of New York. “But they ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”
For Zion’s sake
For the sake of those boys
For the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under violence
For the sake of the rivers
For whose sake, can you no longer be silent?
For me, I know what I’ve been silencing with the noise and chaos of life. It’s the realities and horrors of climate change.
I hear friends in my generation agonizing over the decision of whether they should have children because of what life might be like for their children and grandchildren as climate catastrophe comes quick.
I hear the UN say with certainty that we have 12 years to make drastic changes if we hope to slow the effects of climate change (reversing them is no longer an option).
I hear my 5 year old whisper to my 3 year old that they have to figure out a way to get Mommy to stop driving because it puts pollution in the air.
Mary Oliver writes a poem called “Watching a Documentary about Polar bears Trying to Survive on the Melting Ice Floes”
That God had a plan, I do not doubt.
But what if His plan was, that we would be better?
The Isaiah reading says that God is married to the land. If the land is God’s spouse, how reckless have we been with that love?
The Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum suggested over fifty years ago that the root of our problem is a crisis of affection. He said “We won’t save places we do not love, we cannot love places we do not know, and we do not know places we have not learned.”
I do believe we have a crisis of affection and here in the text it is evident that God has no such affection problem with the earth.
Rev Vikki Marie who is a Catholic Woman Priest at the Catholic Worker in Vancouver looks at this text and writes:
“Like the Israelites of the first reading, the post-contact history of our Indigenous sisters and brothers, includes exile from their lands. …
It is time for us to look deep in our hearts and see that Indigenous Peoples are being true to God’s wishes when they assert that they are forever married to this land. As a true spouse, their desire is to protect their beloved…
Our Indigenous relatives are the knowledge-keepers about the places where we live. Imagine the difference it would make to climate justice, if we would follow their example and learn about the lands we call home and begin to love it. When we love someone, we notice when something is wrong. For example, we could learn to listen to the songs of the various birds of our region. Through that listening, we could notice when one of those songs is missing and ask, “why?””
I have not made time to learn the land or listen to the birds. I know the crisis is there, but I haven’t let it in.
Our of fear
Of being overwhelmed
For my children
For the places and people I love
Of the fear
Of knowing, that if I am still long enough
I won’t be able to be silent any more
And that it will change my life.
Mary Oliver once again gives us an invitation in.
Invitation, By Mary Oliver
Oh do you have time
for just a little while
out of your busy
and very important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles
for a musical battle,
to see who can sing
the highest note,
or the lowest,
or the most expressive of mirth,
or the most tender?
Their strong, blunt beaks
drink the air
as they strive
not for your sake
and not for mine
and not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude –
believe us, they say,
it is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
I beg of you,
do not walk by
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.
It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.
Mary Oliver would have noticed when one of the bird songs went missing and ask why?
Now it is up to us to listen and to break the silences,
for who’s sake will you speak?
One thought on “Sermon 2- Poets and Prophets of Silence and Speech”
Hi Sister Lydia,
Not only am I grateful & moved deeply by your sermon, especially that glorious dialectic between “shouting” and “silence” but also for introducing me to Mary Oliver’s gift of poetry.
Many THANKS w. Shalom & Solidarity,