I have a thirsty fish in me
that can never find enough
of what it’s thirsty for!
Show me the way to the ocean!
Break these half-measures,
these small containers.
We are a composite of personalities, a composite of viewpoints that we had at earlier points in our life. When I was in high school I was a fundamentalist Christian, already a “hell fire and damnation” Baptist preacher who interpreted the Bible and everything very literally. So, when I came across literature in high school…poetry in particular…and was asked to understand and even interpret it, I was so frustrated and often angry as it made no sense to me. “There is nothing to interpret,” I would exclaim, “It means what it says” and often I could not understand it in the least. And Shakespeare, who I now love passionately and quote obsessively, was the worst of the offenders back then.
So, when I approach this beautiful poem by Rumi in the depths of my heart I can still feel that old high school Lew approach the poem with concrete thinking and remember my frustration and anger. But, that is only a faint memory for now there is another Lew, “literarylew”, and I grasp the metaphor and the imagery and am deeply moved by his wisdom. But I can always imagine how it must grab some people who might have the misfortune of stumbling across this blog. I’m sure they read this poem and, with furrowed brow and bewilderment, replay, “Huh?” And that is okay as our world needs all types of thinkers. This poem, and most poetry, is just not for them.
Now what happened between my high school days and this poetic awakening in my mid-thirties is another story for another time. Let me just briefly say, my life began to “come apart” (but in a good way) and the concrete thinking began to fracture and words began to come to life for me. To summarize, a spiritual awakening began which continues today three decades later.
Rumi’s poem reflects the passion of the Infinite that is always seeking expression in our life. To be more precise, we are Infinite in that we are an expression of our Source, the Divine, but we are trapped in this time-space continuum and often feel a longing to make our way back to the “Ocean.”
So, how do we get there? Well, we don’t want to go the Jim Morrison route of drugs and alcohol as it cost him his life at an early age. I think through spiritual practice, mature religious devotion, including prayer and meditation, we can occasionally get glimpses of that Ocean which we will swim in freely only when we “cross over” and return to our Source, the “Ocean” in this poem. And, I do think there are gifted souls such as Rumi who can “take a swim” occasionally or even quite often while still trapped in this time-space continuum.
But most of us must take the advice of T.S. Eliot who advised that spiritual practice is patient and humble, “prayer, discipline, thought, and action.” And, I like the observation of W. H. Auden who noted:
In the desert of my heart,
Let the healing fountain start.
In the prison of my days,
Teach this poor man how to praise.