Thirst

“Thirst is the craving for fluids, resulting in the basic instinct to drink.”

In the Orphic theogonies Water together with Creation and Mud were the first things to emerge at the dawn of creation. This ‘trinity’ of elements is amazingly revealing in terms of the origins of humankind. Up to 60% of the human adult body is water and every living cell needs this chemical substance to keep functioning. We can survive for up to three weeks without food but die within days without water. What connects us even more than Poetics, or Music, or Art, or the collective amazement before any astounding marvel of human achievement, is water. And then there is thirst. At some point when we are starved of water, thirst will become more vital and desiring than all else. Thirst like blood which flows in our bodies is oblivious to creed, colour, or rank. “Of hunger and thirst, thirst is the greater imperative.” (Yann Martell, Life of Pi)

The most religious will thirst similarly to the most irreligious. The colour of our skin will not save us or deliver us from thirst. The greatest general will thirst in equal degrees to his lowliest foot soldier and he too would beg for water. There are some extraordinary exceptions, but these are unique and rare. Thirst like death makes us totally vulnerable. What is more in the account of Christ’s crucifixion in the gospels we find the incredible exclamation from the GodMan himself, “I thirst” (Jn 19:28 cf. Ps 69:21). The line which might run through biology and metaphysics and the understated difference between surviving and living becomes increasingly blurred during extreme times of mental and physical distress. Thirst is the great equaliser. It chastens and brings us to our knees in a hurry. With unrequited thirst there are no grey areas.

We can survive without our great poets and musicians and artists. But we cannot live without water. So when tempted to boast of our physical attributes or to flaunt our material successes, let us reflect on our grim condition three days from now without water. We first must quench our thirst and then afterwards we can create and build, but without water we can do nothing. Unsurprisingly, the first thing which the unfortunate figure dives from the well-known parable of “the rich man and Lazarus” asks is for a drop of water that he might “cool his tongue” (Lk 16:19-31). It was his thirst that he first sought to quench before all else, even before the warning to his closest kin of his horrible predicament. When we thirst the only thing which matters is water. If the powerful or godless have nothing else to contemplate upon, if memory of death is not enough, then let it be thirst, the need for water. Thirst humbles us. It brings us nearer to the soil. To the mud.

Thirst is a dominant metaphor in religious writings and is directly linked to the seeking after the divine, and of wisdom, and knowledge. In the Judaeo-Christian scriptures thirst amongst other things, such as the pursuit of righteousness symbolises the seeking after the living God and eternal life (Ps 63:1; Jn 4:14). In Islam where water is the source of all creation the Quran quenches the thirst for knowledge. In Buddhism spiritual thirst is quenched by the water of the Buddha’s teachings. In Hinduism where all water is held to be sacred there is the unquenchable thirst for the unknown. In Zoroastrianism the Supreme Being Ahuramazda creates water to defeat the demon of thirst. In many indigenous cultures water must not be polluted and all living beings must be relieved of their thirst.

Postscript: In this too robots will be ‘superior’ to us, not necessarily for their artificial intelligence, but for the fact they will not need water. Robots [or the biomechatronic organisms of the future] will not thirst. This alone will point to their inhumanity.

“Our dear God thank you for the blessing of water in our home, please do remind us daily that thirst connects us intimately to every other human being and that we should reflect upon this reality as we do upon our death, we pray too for all our brothers and sisters who at this very moment thirst and are without clean water.”

The Torment of Hypocrisy

“Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye” (Matt 7:5).

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A gnawing fear for many people is being “caught out”. That is, to be saying one thing, and to be found doing another. It is “the practice of claiming to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case.” Are we not all guilty of this offence, or have we not at least fallen prey to its lure. Is there anyone who has not wanted to appear to others in the best light and who afterwards did not feel the shame in speaking words to which there was little, if any, real substance. But is it so clear-cut and simple? We are all too human, let us not depress the spirit of others by expecting them to be what we ourselves cannot. And those few souls who have reached the state of dispassion, they see the potentiality of Christ moving in, and about, in everyone without exception.

An innumerable number of lives with lots of potential have been stunted or discouraged by those who have found it easy to judge. Younger people, whether religious or not, who are especially idealistic and lack the experience to know that life is full of surprises and shocks, are prone to becoming sad or even depressed at the thought that they do not live up to their best intentions or creeds. Older people, whether religious or not, though far more realistic when it comes to the frailty and weaknesses of the flesh, can still suffer if they perceive themselves to be falling short of their own expectations or religious convictions. This is the dreadful and interminable fear, that we are empty talk and full of humbug. But whether young or old we must not be discouraged and never allow for the realization of our brokenness to rob us of our beliefs and inmost  revelations. This does not mean that we do not chastise ourselves for falling short of our ideals nor that we do not hurt at the lost opportunities for the better man or woman. It is not to make easy excuses and certainly, above all, it is not a licence to draw others into our conflict. But it does mean that we make the distinction between hypocrisy as ordinarily understood and the ongoing and never-ending struggle against the “flesh”. It is good that our religious creeds are taller than ourselves. We should aim above and beyond our reach.

And so we will fall. But we get up again. Growing up is not easy.

I must not despair or consign myself to the outer darkness if I cannot live the life of a saint. For instance, I might be waging war against an addiction, and to believe whole heartedly this addiction to be wrong. I fight against it; I bleed against it; I judge it to be wrong; I might even write essays exposing its pitfalls; and yet sometimes I am caught up in its terrorizing and unrelenting grip. I pray for redemption. And my chest burns on account of my tears. Am I then a hypocrite if I speak out against this vice? But who knows better the horrors of this addiction than the addict who is waging war against it? Who can be a truer teacher than the one who is “trying”? It is a different matter to stand up on the pulpit, for example, to preach against the evils of adultery when you reckon it normal and healthy. Hypocrisy is to deceive consciously by not ‘boxing’ the self about the ears. Victory might be late in the coming, but it is always around the corner for it is the sum total of all other little victories.

And so do not destroy the pallet on which your colours have been set because you have given up on the vision you have seen during your brightest moments, when you were picked up by the scruff of the neck and given a glimpse of the horizon. Do not allow for anyone to disfigure the image which illuminates your soul because you are all too human. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Are we not, all of us, engaged in our own secret battles? Are we not beset with a multitude of contradictions? And yet, as hopeless or far remote as it might appear, holiness is still possible and indeed, expected of us.

“Father, speaking Your name is enough to convict me of my powerlessness to keep steadfast to the truths which You have placed in my heart. But what is it that refuses to let me give up and to despair completely? I confess to what You already know… I am a hypocrite and heavy are these chains about my neck… And yet, Lord, thank You, I must not forget that however small my steps or dissembling in the eyes of others, it is these small steps which have brought me here, in this place, before You, day and night.”

Why go to the trouble of writing?

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor 13:12).

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The title to this post is not in reference to the great literature which can realize marvellous responses in us and in many instances also have a marked effect on our culture; rather the question is directly addressed to spiritual writings. So why go to the trouble of writing?  If it is a case of the author trying to convince his or her readers of a religious truth then the effort is largely doomed from the beginning. Language which is a tool of communication, and itself the subject of many definitions, is more limiting rather than revealing. As a result it is a notoriously difficult instrument to share or to express spiritual beliefs which are in themselves typically opaque. For this reason some religious have chosen either to not speak at all or to communicate their theology largely in ‘negative’ or apophatic terms (i.e. what God is not rather than what God is). We need not be adherents of philosophical schools which argue that meaning cannot be reduced to “ultimate simples” to recognize the traps should we reckon our voice possesses some unique clarity outside of the rest. Yet, even universally recognized spiritual writers would not suggest that religious language can capture the underlying essence of their subject, or the motivating desire of their contemplation. What is crucial, however, is to be clear on what we want to say and to have had some experience with the subject. If we are writing on prayer, for example, to at least have made the effort to pray. It is also helpful to remember that often enough it is how we practice our religion which determines our spirituality.

A great poet might ask of their work, “Is this beautiful?” An author on matters of the spirit is not too concerned with technique, he or she will ask, “Is this useful?” Then there are those, like Saint Symeon the New Theologian and the Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross whose tongues have been set aflame, who might write both beautiful and useful. So when a writer who is fascinated by the ‘tremendous mystery’ and risks speaking on the great topics of God, Love, Faith, and Death, for instance, what do they hope to have achieved? Let us assume that outside unavoidable clichés the effort is genuine and sincere (and that the goal is not self-aggrandizement), what then is the point? Certainly, there are diverse answers, but hopefully the aim of all who engage in this quest will be distinguished by a common goal. That is, to lay out an honest reflection of the soul’s journey and to have been inspired by the need to partake of this spiritual pilgrimage with travellers on a similar path. If these efforts help to guide others with alike intuitions, revealing to them some of the received ways of entering the kingdom of God which is “within” (Lk 17:21), then it is good the risk was taken to write. This is a prime motivation for one of the most beloved books of the Bible, the Book of Psalms, which appeals not only to the congregation but also to the human will with its continuing encouragement: “These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival” (Ps 42:4).