Something Different Crosses the Threshold

Ivan Aivazovsky, "Jesus Walking on Water"

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Jesus Walking on Water”

Spiritual Sunday

I gave observed that, while I find many of Mary Oliver’s luminescent poems to be very Christian, she doesn’t make explicit references to the Bible. My friend Barbara Beliveau alerted me to an exception. It concerns today’s Gospel reading, which is the story of Jesus walking on the water and calming the storm.

Given Oliver’s interest in nature and in storms generally (see “Lightning”), it figures that she would be drawn to this episode. from Matthew (14:22-33):

Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Which part of the story do you think that Oliver finds the most frightening? Read on to find out.

Maybe

By Mary Oliver

Sweet Jesus, talking
his melancholy madness,
   stood up in the boat
      and the sea lay down,

silky and sorry.
So everybody was saved
   that night.
      But you know how it is

when something
different crosses
   the threshold—the uncles
      mutter together,

the women walk away,
the young brother begins
   to sharpen his knife.
      Nobody knows what the soul is.

It comes and goes
like the wind over the water—
   sometimes, for days,
      you don’t think of it.

Maybe, after the sermon,
after the multitude was fed,
   one or two of them felt
      the soul slip forth

like a tremor of pure sunlight
before exhaustion,
   that wants to swallow everything,
      gripped their bones and left them

miserable and sleepy,
as they are now, forgetting
   how the wind tore at the sails
      before he rose and talked to it—

tender and luminous and demanding
as he always was—
     a thousand times more frightening
         than the killer storm.

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  • sue

    Glad to be introduced to this poem, Robin. And I agree, soul, especially the soul of Jesus was indeed awe- and fear-inspiring, which is what made the cross inevitable, I believe. What a lovely trinity of adjectives “tender and luminous and demanding.” They seem to capture the contradictions one finds when looking at the story of Jesus.

    Glad the site is back up and running!

  • Barbara

    Glad the blog is back, Robin! Hope you’re enjoying your travels except for that little snafu.


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