Jul 21 2019

Mechthild of Magdeburg – A fish cannot drown in water

Published by at 7:16 pm under Poetry

A fish cannot drown in water
by Mechthild of Magdeburg

English version by Jane Hirshfield

A fish cannot drown in water,
A bird does not fall in air.
In the fire of creation,
God doesn’t vanish:
The fire brightens.
Each creature God made
must live in its own true nature;
How could I resist my nature,
That lives for oneness with God?

— from The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, by Stephen Mitchell


/ Image by kopita /

I missed sending a poem last week. I have been especially busy with my day job. I am actively editing a new book which Poetry Chaikhana will publish soon (and thinking a lot about haiku and enlightened awareness). And there was even a question for several weeks as to whether we would be moving. Life has been full! But when I go for more than a week without connecting with the Poetry Chaikhana community I feel I am missing something essential. I refer to the Poetry Chaikhana as a community because that’s what you are to me — a community, my community. Collectively, you are my home. Is that an odd thing to say? I have had the most wonderful correspondence with several of you. With others we share the occasional short, friendly note sent back and forth. But it’s not entirely about communication on that level. Even with those of you who quietly receive my poem emails without direct correspondence, I feel a connection, a shared exchange. I find nourishment in my time with all of you. I feel something vital and meaningful, a special energy shared in all directions through these poem emails and blog posts. I hope you feel it too.

I didn’t want to wait until the end of the new week to reconnect, so here’s a Monday poem…

A fish cannot drown in water,
A bird does not fall in air.

Variations on this metaphor are used in every culture. It’s simple, but such an important reminder. We are inherently in our element. Notice how some part of our mind instinctively comes to rest and uncoils at this reminder?

In the fire of creation,
God doesn’t vanish:
The fire brightens.

We have a tendency to be overwhelmed by the intensity of life… the “fire of creation.” In that overwhelm we often have a self-protective psychic reflex to wall out the things and experiences we label as painful. We create a mental separation and tell ourselves, “This is me. And that out there is the pain.” That’s natural, right? In extreme cases, maybe it’s even necessary — in the moment.

The problem with that in the long term is that, over time, as we live and experience more, we wall off more and more until we inhabit a fragmented psychic landscape. And, in that fragmentation, we lose the vision of unity. This is how God seems to “vanish” in the fire of creation. This is how we lose our connection with the fundamental ground of being and forget our true nature.

BUT- through spiritual practice, through profound self-acceptance, through fearless observation, those psychic walls come tumbling down. And then, all at once, the vision comes, and we are filled with its light!

Like a fish in water and a bird in the air, the Eternal lives and moves through all of creation. Material reality is the medium of expression for the Immaterial. It is That, and nothing less, which is the all-pervading animating warmth and life of all things. When we rediscover it, all of creation shines.

How could I resist my nature,
That lives for oneness with God?

So often spiritual seekers struggle with the question of how to find God, how to get to heaven, how to attain salvation, or enlightenment, or union… What are they really? Do they even have value in ‘real life’? But Mechthild reminds us that it is our very nature to seek that unity. The real key is to simply stop resisting our nature. Seekers strive, but saints get out of the way.


Recommended Books: Mechthild of Magdeburg

Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women Poetry for the Spirit: Poems of Universal Wisdom and Beauty The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry German Mystical Writings: Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, Jacob Boehme, and others The Mystic in Love: A Treasury of Mystical Poetry
More Books >>


Mechthild of Magdeburg, Mechthild of Magdeburg poetry, Christian poetry Mechthild of Magdeburg

Germany (1207 – 1297) Timeline
Christian : Catholic

Mechthild of Magdeburg was born around the year 1207, probably into a noble family in northern Germany.

She had a defining ecstatic experience at the age of twelve, where she saw “all things in God and God in all things.”

In 1235, when Mechthild was in her twenties, she joined the Beguine sisterhood, as many women mystics of the time did in Germany and the Low Countries. As a Beguine she led a life of simplicity, service, and spiritual practice.

Her confessor, Heinrich of Halle, convinced her to write down her ongoing mystical visions. This project took many years as it was interrupted by periods of sickness and also attacks by religious critics. She finally completed the work in about 1282, a few years before her death, and just after she joined an order of Cistercian nuns at Helfta.

Her book, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, describes experiences of unio mystica (mystical union) as the sacred marriage, with the soul as the Bride and Christ as the Bridegroom. Her poetry stands out as among the most elevated mystical love poetry in the German language, drawing comparisons to the Sufi poets of the Middle East and the Bhakti poets of India.

The great Italian poet Dante is said to have been greatly inspired by Mechthild’s writing, and some have suggested that that he based his character Matilda in his Divine Comedy on her.

More poetry by Mechthild of Magdeburg

5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Mechthild of Magdeburg – A fish cannot drown in water”

  1. Olga T.on 22 Jul 2019 at 2:10 pm

    It is important to know if one is a fish or a bird, to begin with.

  2. mariaon 23 Jul 2019 at 3:24 am

    Dear Ivan, I am as touched by your comments on the Chaikhana community as by ‘A fish
    cannot drown in water’ today. Yes, although one of the ‘quiet’ ones, I share that sense of inclusion, a tea house gathering
    without walls, more to do with matters of the heart & soul – your choice of poems & comments often seem to arrive when I most need to hear them. Uncanny?
    Who knows?
    I’d like to wish you more quiet support for the haiku project & send heartfelt gratitude that through busy times, troubled times, you have kept the Chaikhana Poetry circle
    gracefully, peacefully, lovingly alive. May grace, peace, love, abide.

  3. Elaon 23 Jul 2019 at 8:45 pm

    Thanks Ivan for creating Poetry Chaikhana

  4. Elaon 25 Jul 2019 at 9:21 am

    souls speak to Supreme Soul:
    we call you as our dearest Baba
    Baba, you made us perfect as your self
    you sent us here from the souls world to play
    we didn’t remember you when we were happy
    we started calling you when we started getting hurt
    when we the souls began to play dirty
    we cried and tried to be happy again
    You sent some great souls to teach us but
    we didn’t mend our wrong ways
    we read good books and forgot
    we were confused more and more
    Baba Only You Can re-fill us with
    Your Godly Qualities.

  5. Elaon 28 Jul 2019 at 6:06 pm

    the whole drama has two parts, like
    first half is day time and
    the second half is dark night, like that
    first half of the kalpa it is day time
    we souls remain conscious of
    our true identity, hence
    there is happiness,
    in the second half begins
    forgetfulness of our true identity.
    we souls are now at the darkest hour and
    soon it will be dawn.
    when there is forgetfulness
    some pure souls try to find out
    the causes of unhappiness, though
    no one could stop the night to
    spread its shadow and also
    no one can stop the dawn to smile again,
    kalpa after kalpa it keeps
    repeating itself similarly, as
    it’s a cyclic phenomena.

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