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?