Mary, Maya, Maria

Rev. Douglas Taylor


Poetry has a way of revealing life to us in indirect ways. Poetry is like truth with shades and flavors. Through syntax and rhythm, it reveals a way of seeing the world we don’t usually notice. Emily Dickenson advised us to “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” Poetry comes at us from the side and reveals life. So today we honor the poetry common to our Unitarian Universalist worship life.

I have selected three poets, none of whom are Unitarian Universalist, whose poetry is so aligned with our way of worship that they have become part of our canon, (if such a thing could be.) And, of course, I don’t mean to imply that only these three are fit poets for our hearts and minds. Simply, these are three whose names have a poetic ring when I say them together. Mary, Maya, and Maria.

Maria is for Rainer Maria Rilke (RY-ner maREE-a RIL-ka.) In his biography on The Poetry Foundation website, he is described as “one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets.” Rilke’s work spans the turn of the previous century into the 1900’s. Quintessentially, his work is about life and death; it is a striving for the “deeper meaning in life through art.” One piece from Rilke that has likely been spoken multiple times in nearly every UU sanctuary is the bit about ‘loving the questions themselves.’ It is from the collection, Letters to a Young Poet. It is exactly what it seems to be. A young poet asked Rilke for advice and received several letters in response. The recipient then published them as a collection shortly after Rilke’s death.

From “Letter 4” in Letters to a Young Poet, translated by Stephen Mitchell

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves

as if they were locked rooms
or books written in a very foreign language.

Don’t search for the answers,
which could not be given to you now,
because you would not be able to live them.

And the point is, to live everything.

Live the questions now.

Perhaps then, someday far in the future,

you will gradually, without even noticing it,
live your way into the answer.

Oh, we UUs do love the questions. And so, this piece has become a central tenet among us. It was Rilke, in this same collection who said: “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

Rilke’s work has a great deal of Christian imagery. But the God he writes about is not the traditional deity. Rilke was more of a pantheist, seeing God as a life-force. One interesting analysis (again from the biography on the Poetry Foundation website) says that “Rilke arrives at the paradoxical conception of God as the final result instead of the first cause of the cosmic process.”

Listen to this piece from his earliest work The Book of Hours:

All will come again into its strength:
the fields undivided, the waters undammed,
the trees towering and the walls built low.
And in the valleys, people as strong and varied as the land.

And no churches where God
is imprisoned and lamented
like a trapped and wounded animal.
The houses welcoming all who knock
and a sense of boundless offering
in all relations, and in you and me.

No yearning for an afterlife, no looking beyond,
no belittling of death,
but only longing for what belongs to us
and serving earth, lest we remain unused.

It offers a striking image of a beloved community such as we strive to accomplish together each week in our Unitarian Universalist gathering.

Another poet who worked from within the compelling imagery of Beloved Community is Maya Angelou. Angelou comes into the concept, as many Americans have, through the civil rights movement in America during the 1960’s. She was, among many things, a civil rights activist who worked with both Dr. King and Malcolm X.

Her biography on the Poetry Foundation website lists her as a poet, a playwright, and performer of dance and song. She was an actress, an activist, and an autobiographer. And forget not, also a composer, a director, an editor, and an essayist. And at heart, she was a storyteller.

Keeping in mind that image of beloved community, she offered this poem, published when she was in her 60’s but harkening back to her youth in the 1930’s and 40’s.

“These Yet to Be United States” – Maya Angelou

Tremors of your network

cause kings to disappear.

Your open mouth in anger

makes nations bow in fear.

Your bombs can change the seasons,

obliterate the spring.

What more do you long for?

Why are you suffering?

You control the human lives

in Rome and Timbuktu.

Lonely nomads wandering

owe Telstar to you.

Seas shift at your bidding,

your mushrooms fill the sky.

Why are you unhappy?

Why do your children cry?

They kneel alone in terror

with dread in every glance.

Their nights are threatened daily

by a grim inheritance.

You dwell in whitened castles

with deep and poisoned moats

and cannot hear the curses

which fill your children’s throats.

I usually connect Angelou with the uplifting poetry and language I love, like when she said: “If you’re always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.” And “Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away.”

But she is also the person who said, in her poem, ‘On Working White Liberals,’ “I’ll believe in Liberal’s aid for us when I see a White man load a Black man’s gun.” Maya had an edge, best to not forget that. But life has an edge as well, so we still have much to learn from Dr. Angelou.

Indeed, the best part of what I learn from her is that through the struggle, we survive. Her critique is always weighted with the reality that the story is not done, there is more still to say. Her most famous work is her autobiography from 1969, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, telling the story of her childhood. Her poem, “Caged Bird” reveals, poetically, much the same truth as the autobiography.

Caged Bird      BY MAYA ANGELOU

A free bird leaps

on the back of the wind   

and floats downstream   

till the current ends

and dips his wing

in the orange sun rays

and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks

down his narrow cage

can seldom see through

his bars of rage

his wings are clipped and   

his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings   

with a fearful trill   

of things unknown   

but longed for still   

and his tune is heard   

on the distant hill   

for the caged bird   

sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze

and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees

and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn

and he names the sky his own

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams   

his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream   

his wings are clipped and his feet are tied   

so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings   

with a fearful trill   

of things unknown   

but longed for still   

and his tune is heard   

on the distant hill   

for the caged bird   

sings of freedom.

But far above all that her poem “Still I Rise,” as we heard at the Time for All Ages, is the ringing anthem of resilience for our time. She speaks in both the particular as a Black woman in America’s 20th century as well as for all women, for all Americans, for all people… but no mistake – mostly for black women! Because when Black women rise, we all benefit.

And now, we shift our attention to the best known of the three I sing for today in our UU circles. Many is the joke about creating a generic UU service that shall include “your favorite Mary Oliver poem.” A year ago, with the big January snow storm that hit Binghamton, we cancelled services; but I left an ‘in case of emergency’ worship service in the Fireside Room that consisted of a Jason Shelton CD and about a dozen Mary Oliver Poems.

The Summer Day by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

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.

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?

Oliver was a guest among the Unitarian Universalists at our General Assembly a few years back and I had the honor to be in the room for her poetry reading. It was remarkable. The way she mixes the nature world with basic human searching is elegant. Even her little poems about her dog Percy accomplish this.


He puts his cheek against mine

and makes small, expressive sounds.

And when I’m awake, or awake enough

he turns upside down, his four paws

in the air

and his eyes dark and fervent.

“Tell me you love me,” he says.

“Tell me again.”

Could there be a sweeter arrangement? Over and over

he gets to ask.

I get to tell.

I’m not a dog person, but I love that little poem. In her biography on the Poetry Foundation, they say her poetry is “Known for its clear and poignant observations and evocative use of the natural world.” Evocative, yes. That’s the word for her body of work. In her amazing poem “When Death Comes,” she writes: “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.” She has this way of bringing wonder into our way of seeing the world. Many Unitarian Universalists find their spirituality enriched by her words, by her way of saying it.

I close with her poem “Wild Geese,” so rich with wisdom and power offered into our longing hearts.

Wild Geese –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.

Mary, Maya, and Maria. These three poets from outside Unitarian Universalism have done much to help us articulate what is at the heart of our faith. Their poetry reveals life to us and feeds us truth with shades and flavors. We give thanks for the gift of their words and their influence among us. May we ever heed the wisdom of poets in matters of truth and faith.

In a world without end, may it be so.

Opening Words                     #536                “Morning Poem” by Mary Oliver

Time for All Ages                   Still I Rise                  BY MAYA ANGELOU

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells

Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops,

Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?

Don’t you take it awful hard

’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines

Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame

I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain

I rise

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,

Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.


Sonnets to Orpheus, Part Two, XXIX                       ~ Rainer Maria Rilke ~

Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell.  As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

Reading          by Liddy Wilks (poet)

. . . poetry is a bridge. An immediate path to becoming better people and being the change in the world. Creating a world less about tearing each other down and apart, and more about coming together. Helping us to realize that we’re not as different as we think. And despite our differences, we are not alone in our grief, pain, joy or happiness.

Reading and writing poetry is the greater good. Whose benefits are the rebuilding and forging a more connected and caring world.

Benediction                CONTINUE                           By Maya Angelou

My wish for you
Is that you continue


To be who and how you are
To astonish a mean world
With your acts of kindness


To allow humor to lighten the burden
Of your tender heart


In a society dark with cruelty
To let the people hear the grandeur
Of God in the peals of your laughter


To let your eloquence
Elevate the people to heights
They had only imagined


To remind the people that
Each is as good as the other
And that no one is beneath
Nor above you

        Continue  …

To dare to love deeply
And risk everything
For the good thing


To float
Happily in the sea of infinite substance
Which set aside riches for you
Before you had a name


And by doing so
You and your work
Will be able to continue