“I Happened To Be Standing” A Poem About Prayer By Mary Oliver

I’ve been thinking a lot about prayers lately. About how to do it, where they go, and what they look like. I’ve been praying about praying, too. Is a prayer asking for help? Is it giving thanks? Is it saying, “Wow”? Anne Lammot would advise all three. Is a prayer a second or a mile? A blade of grass or a field of sunflowers? It’s it a whimper, a cry, a song, or a siren? A rainbow after the rainstorm, or the dark clouds before it? Sometimes like to think of prayers as both, and also each drop rain that falls in between.

What is a prayer to you? 

Ever since I’ve started praying about praying, lessons about prayers have been coming my way. I think this too is a prayer, and God’s clever way of answering all that I’m lifting up by whispering, “Go ahead dear one, I’m listening.”


“I Happened To Be Standing” by Mary Oliver

I don’t know where prayers go,
or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
of little importance, in full
self-attendance.  A condition I can’t really
call being alive.
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep.  Maybe not.

While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don’t know why.  And yet, why not.
I wouldn’t pursuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don’t.  That’s your business.
But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be
if it isn’t a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.

If you’d like to hear Mary read her poem, head here. It’s really lovely.

  • selma - I am a muslim but I believe we are praying to same God which we call him “Allah”…and praying to Allah means to me get closer to him and just let him know that we know there is One who is always taking care of us…ReplyCancel

  • Sarah - I love this poem. I’ve read it before, and it feels just about right, doesn’t it? Thanks for posting this.ReplyCancel

  • Elizabeth in Tennessee - Oh, this is just wonderful! Thank you for your timely blog post, which rather serendipitously answers a question I had asked you in your previous post about how do you pray? This is a very thoughtful, and thought-filled response. Personally, prayer has always started with gratitude for the things in my life. When I am stuck between two choices and I seek the way to go through prayer, I’ll either get a very strong inclination one way or the other…or no answer at all – which I think means that I’d be okay with either choice. One of the most interesting things I learned about praying for others – it doesn’t work if you pray for the other person to change. You pray for change to occur within yourself. More often than not, that means letting yourself be open to letting go of expectations of the other person. Many thanks!ReplyCancel

  • Notes from the 7th Floor Bedside, Day 15 – Bye Bye, Bulky - […] never be able to hear Mary Oliver’s “I Happened to Be Standing” without thinking about port-a-potties being lifted to heaven, and that chaplain will never […]ReplyCancel

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