There was a sailing vessel off the coast of Brazil, out of sight of land. The crew had run out of fresh water, and when they spotted another vessel they called to them in their distress. "We need water,” they signalled; “we'll send over some boats with barrels to collect it." They got back a signal, "Let down your buckets where you are!" They were shocked, thinking that the other sailors were only making fun of them. But one of the deck-hands - a very simple man, almost a simpleton - let down a bucket, and when he drew it up again he began to drink the water greedily. The others watched, expecting him to spew it out. When he didn’t, one of them tasted the water and found to his amazement that it was fresh.

Although they were out of sight of land, they were where the Amazon River empties into the ocean. It is such a massive river that even a hundred miles from land there is still fresh water. So, "put down your buckets where you are," was not a cynical joke; it was the best of advice.

How many people have ever told us that we are missing nothing in our life, that we already have everything we need? Very few, I think. We have an ingrained habit of admonishing one another to change, to move, to acquire something we don’t have, to be something we are not…. If we were to stop all that, even just for one day, what a strange experience it would be!  Meister Eckhart said, “In truth there is not a cent’s worth of difference between my actual condition and the best I could imagine for myself.” This was not an expression of smugness; it was an expression of his “taking everything evenly from the hand of God.”  

I remember being fascinated by some small monkeys in a zoo, and I would often go back to watch them. At feeding-time they nearly went berserk: a monkey would grab a piece of banana, and just as he was about to eat it he would spot a piece of apple; he would drop the banana and grab the apple, but just as he was about to eat it he would see something else…. For several minutes they would be incapable of eating anything at all. Then one day I saw clearly that I was that monkey! (and that's why I was fascinated by them).  It is our very eagerness for things that makes us overrun them, it is our searching for things that hides them from us, it is our restlessness that conceals the truth. The truth (the saints assure us) is always right here. “Let down your buckets where you are!”

There’s another trick we have too (I’ve seen it many times in myself, and in other people). Very often when we go for something we’re not really seeking it, we’re only running away from something else. What is the energy that makes us run? Fear. Fear doesn’t have to look like fear. Your face doesn’t need to be white, your knees knocking, your whole body trembling. You may look quite calm, relaxed; you have the short-lived peace of someone who has turned aside from a duty or a challenge. How hard it is to stay where we are and not be tossed around by fear and desire! Desire makes us jump forward, fear makes us jump back. Both are ways of avoiding the patch of ground we are on.

We are always telling ourselves how restless these times are, how fast everything moves. But there’s evidence that we’re not the only unsatisfied people the world has ever known. Writing in the first century to the Christians of Corinth, St Clement of Rome said, “There was a time when you were... satisfied with the provisions of Christ.” Evidently that day was gone. They used to be satisfied with what Christ provides for the journey…. Now they were looking for something else: something that would distract them from their lives. “Why are you people of Galilee standing here looking into the sky?” said the mysterious presences to the disciples when Jesus was taken out of their sight (Acts 1:11). They might have added, “Let down your buckets where you are!”

Donagh O'Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.