“I Thirst”

“But suppose God didn’t quite finish by closing time of the afternoon of the sixth day? …Suppose that Creation, the process of replacing chaos with order, were still going on. What would that mean? In the biblical metaphor of the six days of Creation, we would find ourselves somewhere in the middle of Friday afternoon. Man was just created a few ‘hours’ ago.”
— Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People

The belief that it was an infinite and necessary God who created this finite and contingent universe, and not some stray spark igniting the primeval sludge, is not to say that the entire evolutionary process is bogus. Why can’t the one be the catalyst for the other? Why must they always remain at sword’s point? But while the two are perfectly harmonious, they each raise a very different question. What various theories of evolution seek to tell us is how the world was made, whereas the act and initiative of creation itself has to do with why it was made.

Concerning which no science is competent enough to provide an answer. That is because the answer stands essentially outside the whole time/space continuum. Indeed, the answer to the why of the world can only come from a point outside the world. “From nothing to being,” the philosopher William James tells us, “there is no logical bridge.” Only the Creator himself can satisfy on the score of why there is a world.

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And let’s not have any nonsense about whether or not there is a world. That particular silliness was wonderfully squashed over a century ago by Thomas Carlyle, who, on hearing that New England Transcendentalist twit Margaret Fuller exclaim once too often, “I accept the universe!” responded, “Gad, she’d better!”

All right, so there’s a world out there. The question is—Why does it exist? “What is it that breathes fire” as Stephen Hawking would say, juggling his clever equations in the air, “into the equations themselves, and makes a universe for them to describe? Why does the universe go through all the bother of existing?” And while it may be that we’re still a half-dozen Einsteins away from answering the question, perhaps I might, in the meantime, make my own modest suggestion.   Which may prove so spellbindingly simple that even non-Einsteins will grasp the point.

It is, quite simply, that God was in love and, not being able to keep the secret, went ahead and made a world, filling it with impossible people like you and me. We are the story God is telling. And the thing that drives the tale is nothing other than thirst. God is thirsting for us and—amid the “parched eviscerate soil” (T.S. Eliot) in which we live and move—we are thirsting for God.

As a deer pants for flowing streams, So pants my soul for you, O God (Psalm 42).

Of course, if it weren’t for Holy Week, none of us would know this. Or, put it this way. Without the eyewitness account of the apostle John, who was there with Mary at the foot of the cross, and so heard the strangled cry of the Son of God, how could any of us know that it is true?

After this, aware that everything was now finished, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I thirst’ (Jn 19:28).

For whom does Jesus thirst? The answer, at one level, is obvious. He is thirsting for the Father, who is his meat and drink. But whose presence, having for a time been withdrawn, has now become an absence so excruciating as to intensify that thirst to a point beyond bearing. As Adrienne von Speyr explains: “He has lived in God and from God. In his forsakenness he is expelled from his element, which is God. So he now experiences thirst: thirst of the body, but even more thirst of the spirit, thirst for presence.”

This is the Son’s darkest possible night, a sheer black hole of loneliness and loss, into which he freely enters for the world’s salvation. A darkness so deep, so impenetrable, in other words, can only be felt by one who has experienced the closest possible proximity to the light, to that intimacy and union with the Father which defines their relationship from all eternity. What else could account for so insistent a thirst but an experience of emptiness brought on by the sheer joy and blessedness of a life no longer felt?

“In his most extreme forsakenness,” continues von Speyr, “the Son is humiliated to the level of any beggar asking for the least thing imaginable—a glass of water.” Because the Father is the water he drinks, the emptiness of the glass leaves him in a state of intolerable thirst.

But it is precisely here that another and yet more amazing level opens up, one in which both Christ and creation are participants, protagonists even, in a drama that is both divine and human. Whose theme, once again, is thirst. For Christ in the very extremity of his longing, his thirst for God, is crying out to us also, in order that we might acknowledge the boundlessness of his desire, his unending thirst for us. “Nothing that you do or can do,” Christ tells Catherine of Siena, “pleases me as much as when you believe that I love you.”

In his longing for us, for the lost world he has come to save, for the least human being who suffers, he hopes that we might be so moved by the gesture as to wish to draw near to him. And why should we want to do that? To help assuage his great thirst for souls, that’s why. Which we do whenever we reach out to another human being, extending ourselves to allow Christ to use us to assuage their thirst.

This was the great discovery that a little Albanian nun by the name of Mother Teresa made on a train traveling to Darjeeling back in 1946, when she was just thirty-six years old. A town set in the foothills of the Himalayas, she had gone there for her annual retreat at the Loreto Convent, situated some four hundred miles from the teeming city of Calcutta, where the most destitute of all would await her future attentions (although neither she nor they could know this yet). What happened to her on that train was nothing short of a mystical encounter, profound and unmistakable, with Jesus Christ, who asked her to give up everything, in order to go looking for him in that “distressing disguise” he wore among the poorest of the poor.

It was on this day … that God gave me the call within a call to satiate the thirst of Jesus by serving him in the poorest of the poor.

As she would later and repeatedly remind her sisters—women who, in the words of Paul Claudel, longed for a life “worthy of the flame consuming them”—it was from the angle of the cross that Christ revealed his great thirst. That only amid circumstances of absolute pain and loss, of a dispossession and loneliness so profound as to strip him of everything, would he reveal the depth of his thirst for the Father—and for us. “Jesus was deprived of every consolation,” she tells us, “dying in absolute poverty, left alone, despised and broken in body and soul.” And it was there, she emphasized, that Christ, lifted on high, stretched between earth and ski, “spoke of his thirst—not for water—but for love, for sacrifice.”

How wonderfully far-reaching all this would prove to be in the coming years!

Years spent in ardent and unremitting thirst for any and all for whom Christ had first evinced his great and unquenchable thirst. “The aim of our society,” she told Jacqueline de Decker, a Belgian nurse and social worker who wished to become a Missionary of Charity, “is to satiate the thirst of Jesus on the Cross for love of souls by working for the salvation and sanctification of the poor in the slums.” And while her health kept her from joining, there were things she might do. “Your suffering and prayers will be the chalice in which we the working members will pour in the love of souls we gather round.”

And all were welcome, of course, to help make that chalice, causing it thereby to overflow with the sufferings and prayers of men and women whose generosity of soul led them, as she often put it, “to radiate God’s love among his poor.” This was, after all, the marching order of every Missionary of Charity, including those whose thirst for the least and the lost could only find expression on a bed of suffering. Fastened to the wall of every chapel were the words, “I THIRST,” to remind the sisters that to join with Jesus in his thirst was the dearest and deepest way to requite his thirst for them.

“Why does Jesus say, ‘I thirst’? What does it mean?” She would often ask that question, only to admit the difficulty of putting the thing into words. But it was, she would insist, “something much deeper than just Jesus saying ‘I love you.’ Until you know deep inside that Jesus thirsts for you—you can’t begin to know who he wants to be for you. Or who he wants you to be for him.”

I can think of no better way to end than with these lines from T.S. Eliot, which stand in such stark and dramatic contrast to the Kushner quote I began with—reminding us of what, finally, we are all thirsting for.

The dripping flesh our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food;
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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