Thirsting for Hope, Thirsting for God
Thirsting for Hope, Thirsting for God - Catechesis I of Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP for WYD13, Basilica da Imaculada Conceiçāo, Botefogo, Rio de Janiero, 24 July 2013
When was the last time you were really thirsty? Perhaps you’ve already had a long queue for drinks or thirsty-making walk at World Youth Day. Or you remember a serious thirst when you were working outdoors, playing sport, catching rays on the beach or doing some serious partying. Or when on the couch gorging on salty snacks while contemplating the electronic icon. Some people are more desperate for water than that. One billion people around the world lack access to reliable clean water. If the climate scientists are right, there’ll be a lot more thirsty people in the years ahead.
But there’s another kind of thirst. I used to live at the entrance to Sydney Harbour on a cliff called The Gap. It’s spectacularly beautiful, like the view many of us have seen these past few days from Corcovado under the statue of Cristo Redentor. But The Gap is also a favourite place for suicides. When I heard a helicopter hovering I would know someone had died. I would go to the bluff to say a prayer. Sometimes I saw the bodies. They were nearly always young people – young people who’d been thirsting for hope – young people who died of that thirst.
Many of us suffer depression or grief at some time, a kind of sickness or death in our hearts. It may be over the loss of a loved one, a relationship, a job or aspiration. Our problems seem too big, our resilience too small. We may despair of human goodness or of divine mercy. Our courage fails. Our optimism evaporates. While some aspects of our culture support our best hopes, other things undermine us. Most ‘news’ in our media is bad news, chosen to scare us. The random universe of secularism, with no transcendent power or redemption, says life is meaningless. People are left feeling they have no future. Some try to shore themselves up by maximising wealth, power or security. Others escape into some fantasy world. Some give up on life altogether. Quite apart from youth suicide, there are many ‘little suicides’, such as taking drugs that mess with the mind or doing things that abuse the body or dabbling in practices that damage the soul.
What’s going on here? What is this deep thirst modernity can’t quench? We’ve got psychiatrists, teachers, doctors, government, finance, technology, social media – everything imaginable to throw at our problems. Yet people are dissatisfied.
A songwriter named Davey Rex once wrote a hit called Thirsty. I’m not sure how well you know the pop charts from 1000BC, but you might know this one. It begins: “Like the deer that yearns for running streams, so my soul is thirsting.” A deer in the desert, a buck that’s been running, perhaps pursued by hunters or wolves: it’s panting, sweating, desperately thirsty: our lyricist feels like that. “My soul is thirsting … My tears run night and day … My spirit is downcast … Cries pierce me to the heart.”
It’s a great song, Thirsty, known as Psalm 41 in the Catholic Bible and Psalm 42 for Protestants. (For some reason Catholics and Protestants count psalms differently. In fact, the ‘next’ psalm is really part of this one and so the Jews point out we both get the numbering wrong.) Thirsty is the song of an exile, far away from home. He used to “lead the rejoicing crowd into the house of God,” he says. No more. His band was really popular back then, but now he’s a has-been, depressed, lonely, homesick. There’s a vacuum in his soul which all sorts of things might rush into, but they don’t satisfy.
2. Thirsting for God
Our songwriter guesses what he’s really thirsty for: God. “Like the deer that yearns for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you, my God. My soul is thirsting for God, the God of my life,” he sings. The world around him does not sympathise. We hear their refrain: Where is this God of yours? The Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, writes that people used to see themselves as part of something bigger, a cosmic order, a great chain of Being, including each of us and all the other human beings throughout time, the angels and the animals, the seas and skies and all they contain (The Ethics of Authenticity). But we no longer feel bound to some hierarchical order that restricts our opportunities and choices. We can be anything, do anything. We invent our own values, our own meaning. We can travel where we please, play our music loud, drink as much as we like …
But there’s a downside to this liberation from an ordered universe. The world can seem meaningless, without purpose, rules, responsibilities. We try to drown out the cries of the world and deep within us, with the thump-thump-thump of our music machines. We cultivate callouses on our hearts so they are almost impenetrable. But the doubts remain.
In the late 4th and early 5th Centuries AD there was a really cool Afro-Roman dude called Gus. He had it all: good family, the best education, girlfriends, plenty of career opportunities. He dabbled in New Age religion, sex, astrology, drink, you name it. He was decadent. But he was also a searcher. In his blog called Confessions of St Augustine he wrote about his thirst and his personal journey from concupiscence to holiness. You get his great line “O God, You have formed us for Yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” (Confessions 1.1) But there’s much more for restless hearts in Gus’ Confessions. He discovers that it wasn’t just him searching for God and looking in all the wrong places: God was searching for him. “You called, You shouted, and You finally broke through my deafness,” he blogged. “You flashed, You shone, and You finally dispelled my blindness. I breathed in your air and now I pant for You. I tasted You and now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burn for Your peace.” (Confessions 27.30)
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said in his encyclical On Christian Hope: “Augustine is describing the fundamental human situation that gives rise to all our contradictions and hopes. In some way we want life itself, true life, untouched even by death; yet at the same time we don’t know what it is we feel driven towards. We cannot stop reaching out for it, and yet all we experience or accomplish is not what we yearn for. This unknown thing is the true hope that drives us … The fact that it is unknown is the cause both of despair and also of all our positive efforts … ‘Eternal life’ is the name we give to this known ‘unknown’ … life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy… [This is] the object of Christian hope.” (Spe Salvi 12)
It was only in this quest for ‘life in the full sense’ that Gus was eventually able to understand himself. As Charles Taylor observes we can only define our own identity only against a background of things that matter. If the universe is meaningless so are we and all our endeavours. The search for meaning, the thirst for hope, is essential if we are to plot our own future, write our own autobiography, a narrative with a character and a plot and, hopefully, a really great beginning and middle. Above all, we must write a really great end to our story – and a new beginning!
3. God thirsts too
Back to my number one hit from 1000BC. Palestrina, Handel, Bach, Mendelssohn all had their versions of Sicut cervus. Psalm 62(63) reprised it. It’s been sung by some great bands. But the most famous soloist to sing Thirsty was Jesus. The stage He sang from was the most important in history: the cross. “These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I led the rejoicing crowd into the house of God,” the song says. Only a few days before His execution Jesus had led the people into Jerusalem all the way to the Temple, singing Hosanna and waving palms.
But now they’ve turned on Him. Now they crucify Him. “With cries that pierce me to the heart, my enemies revile me, saying to me all the day long: Where is your God?” Jesus hears those taunts from the crowd, the soldiers, even the guy on the cross beside Him. His soul is downcast within Him. Jesus enters the depths of human misery so that where we are, even at our worst, He will always be too. He is there to accompany and redeem us. The song goes on: “I will say to God, my rock: Why have you forgotten me?” And sure enough, we hear Him cry out towards the end: “My God, why have you forgotten me?” Just in case you’re still not convinced this song was on Jesus’ mind as He was dying, remember the opening words: “Like the deer that yearns for running streams, so … my soul is thirsting for the living God.” What does Jesus cry out from the cross at the end? I thirst.
For what does Jesus thirst? Someone bleeding to death will thirst for water, sure. The soldiers offer Him vinegar as a kind of anaesthetic. But His real thirst is for His Father-God. And for us. This was a great insight of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. God is perfect; He has no needs; He never hungers or thirsts, suffers or changes. Yet Jesus thirsts. And because Jesus is God that means God is thirsting. If it is God who is thirsting, the thirst is infinite. For what does He infinitely thirst? Not water, obviously. God thirsts for our love. When the dying Jesus cries from the cross “I thirst” it is God crying out for relationship with us, with you. So God Himself puts the thirst in our hearts. The 14th Century Dominican mystic of the Rhineland, Johannes Tauler, wrote that the source of our longing is “quite simply this: when the Holy Spirit comes into the soul He kindles there a fire of love, and the blazing sparks cause in us a great thirst, a longing for God.”
Today’s world tries to quench that thirst with various stop-gap measures. It distracts us from asking and answering the big questions. It robs us of hope by first robbing us of curiosity. It says the big questions have no answers or that young people aren’t interested in such things and should stick to “sex ’n’ drugs ’n’ rock ’n’ roll”. And so sometimes we forget to drink. We are having such a good time on the dance floor or the sports field or the beach that we end up with spiritual sun-stroke or dehydration. When we finally get around to drinking, our soul like a sponge absorbs all it can get.
Don’t let the world dehydrate you. Don’t let it rob you of curiosity. You might just miss the answer of a lifetime, the spring of living water that is Christ (Jn 4:7-15). In our ancient pop-song the lyricist has an epiphany, an inspiration, a turn-around moment. He’s moaning about all his difficulties. He feels like he’s drowning. “Deep is calling on deep, in the roar of waters: your waves and breakers crash over me.” But then he realises whose torrents, whose waves these are. Even in the bad bits of life his God is there somewhere. “By day the Lord will send His loving kindness; by night I will sing to Him, praise the God of my life.” And so we get the refrain, the chorus of that great song: “Why so downcast, my soul, why groan within me? Hope in God; I will praise Him still, my Saviour and my God.”
On Palm Sunday Pope Francis met with young people and said this to them, to you: “We accompany, we follow Jesus, but above all we know that He accompanies us and carries us on His shoulders. This is our joy, this is the hope that we must bring to this world. Please, please, don’t let yourselves be robbed of hope! [Never let go of] the hope that Jesus gives us.” Amen! I say.
You must have hope – and faith and love – you must be the hope for our world. You are called to be the GMD generation, the go-make-disciples generation. Let Christ quench your thirst so that each of you can be a go-make-discipler. Do that and what a world we’ll have!
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