Thomas Merton

“The heart of man can be full of so much pain, even when things are exteriorly “all right”. It becomes all the more difficult because today we are used to thinking that there are explanations for everything. But there is no explanation of most of what goes on in our own hearts, and we cannot account for it all. No use resorting to the kind of mental tranquillizers that even religious explanations sometimes offer. Faith must be deeper than that, rooted in the unknown and in the abyss of darkness that is the ground of our being. No use teasing the darkness to try to make answers grow out of it. But if we learn how to have a deep inner patience, things solve themselves, or God solves them if you prefer: but do not expect to see how. Just learn to wait, and do what you can and help other people. Often it is in helping someone else we find the best way to bear our own trouble.”


Rabindranath Tagore

Obstinate Are the Shackles

Obstinate are the shackles, and my
heart aches when I try to break them.

Freedom is all I want; but to hope fore it,
I feel ashamed.

I am certain that priceless wealth is in You
and that You are my best friend, but I
have not the heart to sweep away the tinsel
that fills my room.

The shroud that covers me is a shroud
of dust and death; I hate it, yet hug it in love.

My debts are large, my failures great,
my shame secret and heavy; yet when
I come to ask for my good, I quake
in fear lest my prayer be granted.

The Paltry Dregs

The paltry dregs.
Scrape the bottom with the bucket
and sip carefully, not losing a precious drop.
What will remain for tomorrow’s thirst?

I remember the days of sweet rain,
of rivers filled to the banks
pushing through my soul
carrying me along deep into the night
of each day.
Now my eyes droop.
To carry my head is the day’s victory.

I could dig another well.
Perhaps that one would flow,
and my bucket would be heavy.
I would share the water with all around.

A lateral move.

Each and every well runs dry.
Why keep shoving sand?

Do not scrape the bottom.
Break the surface.

Yes, the dregs will drain.
And your throat will burn.
That is the risk

To discover the Mainspring.

Where you will discard your bucket.
Stand reverently at the bank.
Whisper your gratefulness,
and dive.

Thomas Merton

Certainly our life is full of real problems, some of them perhaps without solution. It would be an impertinence to suggest that all our problems are fabricated. And yet we are so obsessed with the idea that we are supposed to possess “answers” and “solutions” for everything that we evade the difficult problems, which are all too real, by raising other less real problems to which we think we have the answer.

The naked faith that enables us to bear the apparent futilities and failures of ordinary life is not made stronger or more pure when it is clothed in facile explanations. Pious rationalizations which pretend to justify “the ways of God to men” often generate more doubt than courage and distract our hearts from the difficult labor of freely accepting what we actually are.”


The Question

One dervish to another, What was your vision of God’s presence?
I haven’t seen anything.
But for the sake of conversation, I’ll tell you a story.

God’s presence is there in front of me, a fire on the left,
a lovely stream on the right.
One group walks toward the fire, into the fire, another
toward the sweet flowing water.
No one knows which are blessed and which not.
Whoever walks into the fire appears suddenly in the stream.
A head goes under on the water surface, that head
pokes out of the fire.
Most people guard against going into the fire,
and so end up in it.
Those who love the water of pleasure and make it their devotion
are cheated with this reversal.
The trickery goes further.
The voice of the fire tells the truth saying, I am not fire.
I am fountainhead. Come into me and don’t mind the sparks.

If you are a friend of God, fire is your water.
You should wish to have a hundred thousand sets of mothwings,
so you could burn them away, one set a night.
The moth sees light and goes into fire. You should see fire
and go toward light. Fire is what of God is world-consuming.
Water, world-protecting.
Somehow each gives the appearance of the other. To these eyes
you have now, what looks like water
burns. What looks like fire
is a great relief to be inside.
You’ve seen a magician make a bowl of rice
seem a dish full of tiny, live worms.
Before an assembly with one breath he made the floor swarm
with scorpions that weren’t there.
How much more amazing God’s tricks.
Generation after generation lies down, defeated, they think,
but they’re like a woman underneath a man, circling him.
One molecule-mote-second thinking of God’s reversal
of comfort and pain is better
than any attending ritual. That splinter
of intelligence is substance.

The fire and water themselves:
accidental, done with mirrors.

*translated by Coleman Barks