Friday, January 18, 2019

Celebrating Mary Oliver & Asking: Do We Want to Be the Kind of People Celebrating Mary Oliver, or the Kind Celebrating Karen Pence & John Finnis?

That's the big question, the one the world throws at you each morning, "Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?" 
     ~ Mary Oliver, Long Life (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2004), p. xiv. 
This is called happiness. This is called: stay away from me with your inches, and your savings accounts, and your plums in a jar. Your definitive anything. And if life is so various, so shifting, what could we possibly say of death, that black leaf, that has in it any believable finality? 
     ~ Mary Oliver, Winter Hours (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), p. 78. 
And who will care, who will chide you if you wander away from wherever you are, to look for your soul?  
     ~ Mary Oliver, "Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches?" in West Wind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), p. 61. 
I believe everything has a soul. 
     ~ Mary Oliver, Blue Pastures (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1995), p. 63. 
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing—that the light is everything—that it is more than the sum of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do. 
     ~ Mary Oliver, "The Ponds," in House of Light (Boston: Beacon, 1990), pp. 58- 9. 
Of course! The path to heaven doesn't lie down in flat miles. It's in the imagination with which you perceive this world, and the gestures with which you honor it. Oh, what will I do, what will I say when those white wings touch the shore? 
     ~ Mary Oliver, "The Swan," in House of Light (Boston: Beacon, 1990), pp. 16-7.

We might think about what this means: Mary Oliver, one of our most celebrated poets, who pointed out to us the many reasons to celebrate soul inside ourselves and all living, breathing, ensouled things, spent most of her adult life living in a loving, committed relationship with Molly Malone Cook. Tributes to Oliver today are pointing out that the lifelong, loving relationship of Oliver and Cook is a matrix of her creative life.

As these tributes are being written, we read in the news that the wife of our vice-president, Karen aka "Mother" Pence, has taken a job as an art teacher at a Christian school with a policy permitting it to ban students and teachers who are LGBT. 

There's controversy at Oxford University at the same time about a Catholic law professor John Finnis, who characterizes same-sex relationships as "evil" (and it's very much worth asking: can you call someone's relationship evil and not imply that the person herself is also evil?). Finnis argues that homosexuality is "never a valid, humanly acceptable choice and form of life" and is "destructive of human character and relationships." The legal doctrines he proposes would willingly and gladly treat LGBT human beings as second-class human beings deserving of fewer rights and less respect than those accorded to heterosexual human beings. 

He proposes, for instance, that though contraceptive use is morally wrong, married heterosexual couples should be allowed access to contraceptives — but no one else should. This proposal allows Finnis to square the circle of upholding Catholic magisterial teaching forbidding all sexual acts other than marital ones open to the possibility of procreation, while recognizing that heterosexual Catholic couples have long since rejected this teaching. This is to say, it allows him to uphold magisterial teaching in a way that adamantly excludes homosexual people from walking through the very same door that heterosexual couples have walked through, as they note that in their experience, marital sexuality is about more than procreation: it's also about love, intimacy, communion with one's spouse. It allows him to grant a moral mulligan to heterosexual people like himself while insisting that the teaching from which people like himself deserve a dispensation must apply — no dispensations given ever — in an ironclad, non-negotiable way to other human beings unlike himself, to homosexual ones.

Finnis' doctrine frankly argues that he and his sort of human beings should be permitted rights, privileges, and exceptions that should be denied to other sorts of human beings whom he regards as second-class human beings. Just because. Because he believes this should be the case, and proposes that his religious belief be enshrined in law.

None of this is esoteric. This is a position defended by several leading U.S. Catholic "centrist" journalists who are heterosexually married and have refused to admit the moral possibility of same-sex marriage. It bears asking, What kind of moral system produces people whose thought is so seriously stunted that, even as they profess to uphold the highest moral values, they end up espousing conclusions so obviously self-serving and cruel? Jesus never said a word about homosexuality (or contraception). But he said much about self-righteous cruelty and lack of compassion to those on the margins of society.

So we have in front of us today two important cultural texts, both speaking loudly and clearly: on the one hand, we have Mary Oliver, who has bequeathed to us a rich body of poems and essays celebrating the soul breathing in all creation — urging us to see, to worship, to love, to dare.

On the other hand, we have a Christian school, the wife of a U.S. vice-president, and a major Christian intellectual implicitly treating the kind of human being Mary Oliver was — and her loving relationship of over 40 years — as deplorable. Despicable. Evil. Not worthy of celebration. We have a Christian art teacher married to a powerful Christian man, an art teacher who ostensibly celebrates the kind of rich creativity that many of us find Mary Oliver embodying superbly, who implicity tells us by her choice of a school in which to teach art that the source of Mary Oliver's creativity — her loving, committed relationship with Molly Malone Cook — tainted her life and work so that Mary Oliver has nothing of significance to offer us.

These two texts present us with an important question: Who do we want to be as a human community? Do we want to be the kind of people who turn our backs on someone like Mary Oliver and treat her and her legacy as neglible, horrendous, to be ridiculed — because she was a lesbian who lived over 40 years in a loving relationship with another woman?

Or do we want to be a different sort of human being than this?

And it's worth asking: What's in God's holy name is wrong with Christianity today?! How has it ended up in this stifling, cruel (yes, that word again: children are listening), self-parodying little prison that shrivels hearts and minds, as Christians deal with the portion of the human race God has made queer? 

The photo of Mary Oliver and Molly Malone Cook by Barbara Savage Cheresh is from their collaborative book of text and photographs entitled Our World (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007). Since I see this photo being circulated by various blogs, I'm assuming it may be shared for one-time non-commercial use in a blog posting. If anyone has information to the contrary, I'll welcome receiving it.

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