Finding Mary Oliver

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    March 12, 2023

No worries, she was never truly lost, just left behind. I was sitting in my car after leading a Lenten retreat day in Ocean Grove, NJ, calling my sister to let her know when I would arrive at her house. Just then, Jean, one of the volunteers who helped with the virtual aspects of the retreat, came running out of the house, waving a book. Apparently, after I read Oliver’s “Rice” during the retreat, I put the book to the side and missed it when I was packing up. When Jean returned the book to me (thank you, Jean!), I remember thinking, “I didn’t even know Mary was lost, but I’m so grateful she has been found.”

If I had lost my 1992 copy of New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver, I could easily have bought another. But with that new copy, I would have lost all the words and images highlighted, all the notes scribbled on dog-eared pages, all the remembrances of where I was and how I was and why that particular phrase grabbed my soul. I would have lost a bit of the story of who I was becoming.

For you see, over the years poets became some of my dearest and most intimate friends. We met each other thanks to my teachers and my parents who had a love affair with words. Poets sat with me in the company of apple trees in our yard, whispered to me under the covers at night as my flashlight illuminated new worlds, consoled and comforted me on my worst days, emboldened me to believe that I, too, carried a bit of their magic within me.

Often during retreats, I share poems that resonate with the theme of a day or the reality of a person I’m companioning. Few comments make me happier than hearing, “I was never really into poetry. But these poems touched me. I got them.” Oh, sayer of those words, your life will never be the same! You have tasted and been fed and you will now always be hungry for more. You have discovered words that Mary Oliver describes as “fires for the cold, ropes let down for the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”

May you also discover, if you haven’t yet met them, some of the cherished friends with whom I’ve sat and conversed: Mary Oliver, Naomi Shihab Nye, Jessica Powers, Rumi, Hafiz, Rainer Maria Rilke, Wendell Berry, Joy Harjo, May Sarton, Denise Levertov, Lynn Ungar, Rosemary Wahtola Trommer, Alison Luterman, Gregory Orr, Jeanne Lohmann, and so many more than this partial listing. Their words are rich, deep, and accessible, and will fill your soul. Feel free to comment and share the names of other friends you’ve met along the way.

I have worn out my copy of Healing the Divide, Poems of Kindness & Connection, edited by James Crews, and Poetry of Presence, An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems, edited by Phyllis Cole-Dai and Ruby B. Wilson. Every morning when I pray, I read aloud one poem from Love Poems from God, Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West, edited by Daniel Ladinsky.

I hope you will join me in feasting each day on a poem of your choice, reading every word out loud as it was meant to be spoken. Bring your breath and attentiveness to each syllable that the soul of the poet has struggled over. Taste the words. Let them linger on your tongue. Savor their rhythm, their cadence. Notice their fierce strength and their soft sweetness. Devour, devour, devour. And share.

I leave you with “On How to Pick and Eat Poems” by the luminous Phyllis Cole-Dai.

Stop whatever it is you’re doing.
Come down from the attic.
Grab a bucket or basket and head for light.
That’s where the best poems grow, and in the dappled dark.

Go slow. Watch out for thorns and bears.
When you find a good bush, bow
to it, or take off your shoes.

Pluck. This poem. That poem. Any poem.
It should slip off the stem easy, just a little tickle.
No need to sniff first, judge the color, test the firmness—
you can only know it’s ripe if you taste.

So put a poem upon your lips. Chew its pulp.
Let its juice spill over your tongue.
Let your reading of it teach you
what sort of creature you are
and the nature of the ground you walk upon.
Bring your whole life out loud to this one poem.
Eating one poem can save you, if you’re hungry enough.

Take companions poem-picking when you can.
Visit wild and lovely and forgotten places, broken
and hidden and walled up spaces. Reach into brambles,
stain your skin, mash words against your teeth, for love.
And always leave some poems within easy reach for
the next picker, in kinship with the unknown.

Yulia Khlebnikova, Unsplash

If you ever carry away more poems than you need,
Go on home to your kitchen, and make good jam.
Don’t be in a rush, they’re sure to keep.
Some will even taste better with age,
a rich batch of preserves.
Store up jars and jars of jam. Plenty for friends.
Plenty for the long, howling winter. Plenty for strangers.
Plenty for all the bread in this broken world.


Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
You may want to place before you a jar of jam or a piece of bread.
Read Phyllis Cole-Dai’s poem aloud, as you would a prayer.
Feast on her words.
If you wish, taste the jam or slather it on a crust of bread, and eat it slowly.
Offer deep thanks for this poet and for all who offer us “fires for the cold, ropes let down for the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”

Featured Photo: Mario Mendez, Unsplash


Thank you for your prayerful support of all who were part of the Lenten retreat day at the Sisters of St. Joseph Spirituality Center in Ocean Grove, NJ. In many ways, the day was a homecoming of sorts, reuniting me with dear friends from my years of spirituality work, and welcoming new friends into my life. I’m deeply grateful!

On another personal note, I’ve lost track of the number of times a person has asked me, “Do you write poetry?” The short answer is, yes, I do, but I don’t call myself a poet. I simply love words and I care for them. And when I write prose, such as this blog, I’m aware that I write with the ear of a poet, tending to sound and cadence and reading my words out loud before I send them to you. It’s a side effect of a steady diet of poetry since childhood, a practice that helps me to notice and listen to my longing.

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7 thoughts on “Finding Mary Oliver”

  1. I am going on retreat to Ocean Grove NJ. In August.
    Can’t wait to see what God has planned!
    In 4th grade. I had a thin yellow poem book and every day Sister and the class would read a poem
    Stopping by the Woods On a Snowy Evening and The Night before Christmas
    And so many more. Some we memorized
    The Good Old Days I attempt to write poetry. It’s fun!

  2. Your writing today gave me all the “feels”! It was lovely, tender and clever. I love your monthly “pep talks”. Thank you

  3. Again, Chris, thank you for wetting my appetite for the spiritual. Luke in Rochester NY

  4. Dear Chris! Oh yes, you are a poet and a heart touching wordsmith! I am so thankful for you….I found you by way of my Living Faith devotion and shared your words with my daughter among many. Thank you!!! Your reference to MO brought back memories….I was lucky to attend a poetry reading by her in Sanibel…she was also heart touching. I was struggling with a health issue and just brooding about it. I bought her newest book and opened it up while I waited for her. First poem was “I go down to the shore”

    I go down to the shore in the morning
    And depending on the hour, the waves
    Are rolling in or moving out,
    And I say, oh,I am miserable
    What shall-
    What should I do? And the sea says
    In it’s lovely voice
    Excuse me, I have work to do.

    I laughed with delight!!!! It was just what I needed to hear! Saltwater and Mary Oliver cure everything!

    I still have my issues….but my spirit sure is a lot lighter!

    Keep on writing dear one! Blessings!

  5. I am not into poetry either, but I do love Mary Oliver`s “Thirst” I will have to investigate “Love Porems from God” Gracias!

  6. I haven’t thought of reading poetry for, well…years I suppose. But was intrigued by your endorsement so looked into Love Poems From God and Healing The Divide. Both will be at my door by Monday. Growing older just took a deep breath and happy sigh. Thank you.

  7. Chris, what an overflow of the gift of the retreat day. I get drawn in and feel at one with your words. Yes, poetry takes us to a whole new depth. Thank you. You scatter seeds and spread God’s love wherever you are. Kay

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