The Missionaries of Charity, the community founded by Blessed Theresa of Calcutta, now serve in over 130 countries with more than 4,500 sisters ministering to the poor. Most of them have learned multiple languages and skills in order to serve the needs of those they “meet in the street” on a daily basis. In all of their chapels throughout the world two words are inscribed next to the crucifix of Our Lord: “I thirst.” These words of Christ, exclaimed in agony just prior to expiring, perfectly describe the state of spiritual malaise that much of our culture seems to currently find itself in. Suffering largely from a moral schizophrenia, whereby the “spiritual but not religious” zeitgeist has amputated the person of Christ from one’s “spirituality,” the culture nonetheless “thirsts” for meaning, though is, perhaps, not quite sure where to find it. As a concept, “religion” tends to leave a bad taste in the mouths of many in the West, as it is often forgotten, as St. Paul has noted, that the Church herself is an “organism” more than an “organization” (Eph 5; Rm 12:5). While it does contain organizational bodies (e.g. Dioceses, pastoral councils, etc.), the Church remains the living, breathing, body of Jesus Christ at work in the world today carrying out his mission of evangelization. If by “religion,” then, some tend to be allergic to all things “organized” or structured, “spirituality,” conversely, tends to fit like a glove for many seeking to create an “experience” of god which makes no moral demands on them whatsoever, and yet ultimately leaves them unsatisfied.
The “thirsting” felt by many for meaning today is akin to the hunger they likewise feel for community, though often can’t quite bring themselves to participate in, substituting instead virtual “friends” and chat-rooms. The phrase, “I’m not being fed,” now largely cliché, is indicative of a culture that tends to perceive “spirituality” in terms of a product purchased, thus an expectation of being spoon-fed “god,” or at times as a bazar amalgamation of “spiritualties” (e.g. New Age), most of which are reactionary to what they understand as “organized religion.” It is often forgotten by these people that “being fed” also means bringing the spiritual spoon to one’s mouth him/herself as well, rather that expecting others to do the work. Simply put, effort is needed to both learn one’s faith and pray one’s faith. Nonetheless, the quicksand of moral relativism seems to leave modern man gasping for something authentic, though again, he is not quite sure where to find it. A “spirituality,” then, is often formed based largely around one’s ego and understanding of what truth is or, more frequently, is not. As a priest, one sometimes gets the sense when speaking to these people they are somewhat akin to the Magi traveling great distances in search of the child Jesus; a culture adrift in search of meaning, not quite sure where to look, how to be “fed,” or how to quench a spiritual “thirst,” though still awaiting a star to guide them.
In 2 Kings, the prophet Elisha feeds the poor with food from heaven and in John’s gospel we hear of Jesus doing the same with the feeding of the five thousand (Jn 6:10). Elisha’s act prefigures that of Christ and points to it. Jesus, as the ‘living bread’, is, in fact, he who satiates the human desire for meaning, as the Second Vatican Council attests: “Christ, the final Adam…fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 22). Earlier in the Johannine text the audience hears of the apostle Andrew who follows Jesus from a distance, only to have Christ turn around and ask him directly: “What are you looking for?” (Jn 1:38). The Lord’s question to Andrew is one which he asks every human being. In essence, he asks the probing questions, “What is it that you are looking for in life?” “What is going to make you truly happy?” “How will you be fed spiritually and have meaning?” The irony, of course, in the question of Jesus to Andrew is that Jesus himself is “what” Andrew is ‘looking for’ and yet the apostle does not yet realize it. He gazes face-to-face with the spiritual “food” he seeks and yet is largely blind to it at this point in the journey. One can also sense this desire for meaning later in the Johannine text in the question posed to Jesus by Pontius Pilate: “What is truth?” (Jn 18:38). The irony here is apparent given that Pilate is standing face-to-face with the embodiment of truth itself and, again, is blind to it. Pilate’s blindness is analogous to our culture which adopts this spiritual blindness by what Jewish scholar Joseph Weiler has termed simply, “Christophobia,” or a fear of all things Christian. The solution of which has become the creation of personalized “spirituality,” often void of authentic “spiritual food,” and yet convenient to one’s chosen lifestyle or ego. There is a rub that remains, however, between the heart’s search for union in Christ, as St. Augustine notes in his Confessions, and the seeming inability of modern man to definitively commit himself to anything, let alone “religion.”
As the spiritual “food” that satiates the “thirst” for meaning and the hunger for depth, the encounter with Jesus Christ is not simply a “spirituality,” though it does involve the soul. The thirst is the “ache” for God implanted in all our hearts by God. It is the same ache or thirst Adam felt for communion when he gazed upon Eve before the Fall. St. John Paul II reminds us of this thirst or ache for God before the Fall in Theology of the Body, but unfortunately we often take this ache and direct it to the material world, which is the cause of our sin. This thirst or desire is not simply physical, though we do receive the physical body of the person of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Rather, it is a full encounter with the living God at work in the Church and in each of us. While one is being “fed” by the Body and Blood of Christ, one is also being ‘fed’ by the community of believers. 350-400 years before the birth of Christ, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle noted that man is social by nature, and therefore needs others in order to foster virtue and encounter authentic happiness. To the Greeks, then, this point was common-sensical, though modern man tends to amputate happiness from community and equate it will personal autonomy and space from others, the nuclear fallout of which can be traced to the Enlightenment thinkers. Jesus, however, boldly proclaims that he is the spiritual “food” we seek and the “living water” (Jn 4:10) who quenches our “thirst” for meaning; the depths of which never cease or be exhausted. All of creation is groaning and all of God’s children are awaiting the redemption of our bodies. This is the real thirst or ache we have, a thirst for the infinite, a real relationship with the Trinity now which He can only satisfy!
Fr. Ben Bradshaw, STL is a priest of the Diocese of Memphis. Fr. Ben holds a Licentiate degree in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C. He also holds a Masters of Arts and Masters of Divinity in Sacred Theology. His Licentiate dissertation focused on the response of the Catholic Church to the issue of Same-Sex attraction. Fr. Ben has attended courses at TOBI and has served TOBI as a course chaplain. He also consults on the development of TOBI’s Clergy Enrichment Program.