Mormons and Wild Geese

The first line of Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” seems as at odds with Mormonism as anything can be. “You do not have to be good,” she states.

What’s that? It sounds an awfully lot like sacrilege. Of course we have to be good. Jesus admonished us to become perfect, and not only do we have the 10 commandments of other Bible-believers, we have a strict health code, a tithing requirement, and obligatory church attendance. A Latter-day Saint’s entire identity can be wrapped up in the necessity of being good. From choosing baptism and choosing the right in Primary, to serving a mission and serving our fellow man as a young adult, to marrying the right person at the right time in the right place — doing good is in our genes, and necessary for our salvation.

Nonetheless. “You do not have to be good,” Mary Oliver insists.

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.

This poem appeals to me, even as I distrust its message. My sins, misdeeds, and foibles seem so present, so difficult to discard. Surely I must walk on my knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting, to shed their sticky influence.

I came of age in a works-oriented Church. A seminary video showed spiritual crocodiles lying in wait, ready to snatch the unwary in their powerful jaws. In another, a stern taskmaster into whose debt the profligate had fallen was paid off by a mediator who gave slightly less impossible terms for forgiveness.  Truly we are redeemed by the atoning blood of the Savior of the world, my leaders taught, but only after each person has done all he can to work out his own salvation.

Indeed, what would happen if I let the soft animal of my body love what it loves? Wouldn’t it love too many candy bars? Would it love expensive clothing over helping the poor? What if it loved sleeping in more than teaching my primary class or holding down a responsible job?

Meanwhile, wild geese fly home in the clear sky. Meanwhile, Mormon revisionist theologians recast our key scriptures into something resembling evangelical Christianity. 2 Nephi 25:23 can now be understood to mean that grace is offered in spite of all the conditions that we can’t fulfill. But do we dare soften our doctrine so much? Do we risk stepping out of the heat of the blistering desert sun under the watchful eyes of our stoic pioneer ancestors?

Mary Oliver: Yes, I am lonely. Yes, I have my despair to tell. And yes, this proposition calls to me, like the insistent sound of the wild geese. What if I do not have to be good? If I really didn’t have to…

would I choose to be good anyway, just for the love of it?

10 Replies to “Mormons and Wild Geese”

  1. BIV
    You’ve asked some hard questions. Obviously the world goes along better if everyone is good–if everyone shares–if everyone works and respects others.

    Religionists teach that goodness is not innate–it must be taught by churches and family–reinforced by society. We must be motivated by punishments and rewards.

    Some social scientists believe in an evolutionary gene for social responsibility–that early peoples with this gene flourished because caring for others promotes survival of the group.

    Mary Oliver seems to side with those who believe that nature, including people, survives because of following an innate sense of right.

  2. The chasm between “good” and “love” is as wide as the street that the Levite and the priest crossed to avoid their wounded brother (Luke 10). Following all the rules of Mormonism for the sake of a completed checklist will leave us tired and empty. We can waste decades. But if we are filled with love, then those “good” works will follow naturally.

    What does the “soft animal of our body” love? He or she loves peace, security, compassion, connection, health,warmth, the assurance that we matter. We may momentarily crave chocolate bars or expensive clothes, but all we truly want is a “place in the family of things”.

    I think that this poem describes the core of Mormonism.

  3. Angie and Miri, interesting. Please expand! How do you feel the poem describes Mormonism? I love the poem, but find in it the antithesis to Mormonism.. unless we’ve already made the transition to revisionist theology!

  4. Well, I’ve been a member of the Church for 30 years. Some 15 years ago, when my wife had a severe depression in which she was ready to leave the church, I got down on my knees and had a long and honest 1 on 1 with Heavenly Father. I got up with the impression that I should not only study the Scriptures but also what latter-day prophets have been teaching about works, faith, grace and love. I started with Joseph Smith, and a year later I ended with President Hinckley. It was a fascinating journey.

    Basically, there have been “swings of the pendulum”: Times, where our personal responsibilities where emphasized, and times when the love of God was emphasized. Those swings coincide with our non-Mormon surroundings. In a time, where “confess Christ with your lips and be saved” seemed to be enough for “christians”, our personal responsibility gets more emphasized (think of Kimball and McConkie). But when the people of the Church got too deep into this idea, so that they started to think that they would only be admitted to the Celestial kingdom if God could not keep them out any longer, teachings by the prophets changed, and relying on Christ got emphasized more.

    For the last 12 years or so, General Conference adresses tell us to lighten up. to do good, not because we are commanded, but because it is who we are. And when the people of God become lax, the prophets again will talk about obedience as an expression of our love for God. Just as the interpretation of 2Ne25 is nothing new but originated with John Taylor, only to be rejected, when it was overused by the members to commit evil.

  5. I’ll try to explain what I mean:

    You do not have to be good –
    because perfect Jesus is enough

    You do not have to walk on your knees…repenting –
    Jesus’ yoke is easy, and his burden is light; it’s
    Ike the children of Israel who would not look at the serpent on the staff (Alma 33:19-20), we do not have to go through a rigorous set of “works” to be acceptable to God

    You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves –
    there are plenty of false prophets and marketing firms who will tell us what we love (sex, youth, attractiveness, wealth, envy, and more and more and more). But if we are still and listen internally to what we as humans REALLY love, then we will find the things that are the fruits of the Gospel: connection to our families, participation in work that is of great value, peace of mind, continual progress and self-improvement, health.

    The rest of the poem emphasizes and illustrates what it’s like to tap into our natural love of God and the things we can learn about God’s nature.

    One of my favorite scriptures is Jacob 4:7 (I’m going on memory – I hope the reference is right). It says that the Holy Spirit helps us see things as they really are. When we feel pressure to do, do, do at church, then we aren’t seeing things as they really are. Moses’ people didn’t need to complete their VT/HT, genealogy, daily scripture study, monthly fasting, magnifying their callings, regular temple attendance, getting an education, having and teaching children, dating their spouse, doing missionary work, and lengthening their strides in order to be healed and saved. All they had to do was look up at the serpent on the staff. Miraculously, looking to God changes our natures (Mosiah 5). And then we WANT to do our VT/HT, we crave the scriptures, we want to be sealed to our families, we cannot be restrained from proclaiming the Gospel, we pray for strength to lengthen our stride, and we are grateful to the Source of the energy that lets us work for Him.

    I’d love to know what you think – am I expressing this clearly? What do you think of my understanding of the poem?

  6. That was poetic.

    Though, if like the wild geese you were true to your essential, eternal, nature, what would you do? Chauncy Riddle used to teach at BYU (in the 70s) that mortality really just let us sort out our enduring, eternal natures.

    An interesting approach.

    Angie — you need to look to Jesus, all the rest only helps give you a framework and direction. Remembrances.

  7. Justin, sorry if we lost it. We had to reload the database to fix some author attributions. We thought we had all the comments saved, but we may have lost some. Apologies.

  8. Angie: I think your interpretation is spot on. I am reminded of an essay by Hugh Nibley in Approaching Zion if memory serves where he says work we must but the lunch is free. Not quite as beautifully put, but the same idea.

    I especially liked what you said about Jesus’ yoke being light. Most often when we talk about that yoke we think of a huge heavy yoke that is laid across the backs of two oxen. That seems way too much for a human or two to bear, but a yoke can also be made for just one person and its purpose is the same; that is to distribute the load evenly and make it easier to carry. So I like to think that the Lord’s burden is a burden of love that he lets us carry in place of our burden of sin. In comparison to the the latter the former is easy.

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