I posted a Mary Oliver inspired Sabbath painting on Instagram recently, along with the first line of her poem “Thirst” and my comment “Thanks be to God for grace that does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.” Quite a few friends “liked” it along with several “Amen” comments and a “Thanks. I needed that today.”

Mary Oliver Inspired

Mary Oliver Inspired

One social media friend responded “I wake with a thirst for the goodness I have!” followed by a party hat emoji. Something about that struck my heart. It evoked my curiosity about the distinction between the goodness we have just by being “good” human beings with positive attitudes and the goodness we do not have.

Ordinary human goodness has to do with reliability, competence, strength, behavior, thoroughness, morality, enjoyment, attractiveness, freshness, worthiness, desirability, promise and so on. We say things like:

“He’s a good person.”

“She’s good looking.”

“It was a good party.”

But what is the goodness we do not have and why does it matter?

It is the goodness of a world where we love our neighbors as ourselves, where every child has clean water, nutritious food, access to health care and education. It’s the goodness of an earth that isn’t being destroyed by toxins and depleted of resources because of greed. It’s the goodness of communities where women receive equal access to education and hold equal earning power to men. It’s the goodness of nations where all lives matter and no one is pulled over by law enforcement just because of the color of their skin.

It matters because many people wake up each morning unable to find any goodness within them or around them. Depression, anxiety, abuse, neglect, trauma, addiction, poverty, violence and the social injustice that underlies much human suffering are among the afflictions that leave some of us to wake thirsting for goodness we do not have. Like dear Mary Oliver,  who suffered a painful childhood, we too long for something more than merely human goodness.

Mary Oliver became a Pulitzer Prize winner and was declared by the NY Times “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet.” I don’t think it was her thirst for the goodness she already had that nourished her creative capacity.  As author and teacher Pat Schneider writes in How the Light Gets In: writing as a spiritual practice, by naming “the bottom of the night within myself…I can begin to understand the darkness of the world” (my paraphrase). I suspect Mary Oliver cultivated her remarkable capacity to hold the tension of the dark and the light by working with her shadow – the goodness she does not have. She is beloved not because she paints the world with a rosy hue, but because she lives in the in-between of the goodness that is and that which is not yet. And that’s the place most of us live – in that tension between owning all that is good, true, beautiful and worthy about us and acknowledging how far short we fall.

I went to mass this morning at my neighborhood Catholic church. I watched a long line of the ordinary “good” people process up for Eucharist, their humble acknowledgement of thirst for the goodness they do not have.  A simple but powerful receptivity to the grace that does for us and through us what we cannot do ourselves.

I am grateful for the goodness I have. But I’m even more grateful for the grace that enables me to acknowledge the goodness I have, forgive the goodness I lack and live with the tensions and sufferings of a world where we do not love as we ought!

“Another morning and I wake with thirst for the goodness I do not have.”

Thanks be to God.