Thomas Merton quotes Vincent Van Gogh, who said, “There may be a great fire in our soul, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passersby only see a wisp of smoke coming through the chimney. . . Must one tend the inner fire. . . , wait patiently yet with how much impatience for the hour when somebody will come and sit down—maybe to stay?”
Eventually, many strangers were attracted to Van Gogh’s domain, paying outrageous prices for his sunflowers and starry nights. But that was long after his flame had sputtered out.
And I am left to wonder, must one keep that inner fire burning at all costs, resisting anything that might damp it down?
Suppose this is not just a cozy fire to warm and light a room that might shelter a guest. Suppose sometimes it flares up, out of bounds, to destroy that room and everything in it. Suppose inspiration runs rampant—without the focus or patience to bring ideas to fruition. Suppose tempers flare, friendships are sundered, property is destroyed. Suppose the blaze inspires a person to cut off his own ear—or to so enrage a roommate that he cuts off the ear and departs the next day for the South Seas.
Are there times when truly tending the inner fire means overcoming the stubborn will, accepting the terms of one’s human condition, listening to advice, and taking whatever measures are necessary to keep the flame steady—neither a dying ember nor a blazing inferno?