The Great Thirst

In The Range of Reason, Jacques Maritain wrote: “The world is prey to a great thirst, an immense mystical yearning which does not even know itself and which, because it remains without objective, turns to despair or neurosis.” Most people easily comprehend the notion of a great “thirst.” Thirst concentrates our attention. If thirst is great, we do not ask: “What quenches our thirst?” We know. The “object” of our physical need is “water, cool clear water,” as the Sons of the Pioneers used to sing.

Other beverages, like lemonade, can also subdue our dry throats. Chesterton said that people, after a long, hot, walk on a dusty English road, do not drink beer because of its alcohol. Beer is a drink. We are thirsty. In normal thirst, what we most want is simply water. It is because beer is mostly water that it can do the trick. A martini or a brandy, in the same circumstances, would not do the trick. Indeed, either would probably increase our thirst for water. We might wonder: “Why is there both water and thirst in the universe?”

What is interesting about Maritain’s remarks is the analogy to another kind of “thirst,” one for something other than water. This is not an argument from desire to existence, but from existence to desire. This “mystical yearning” does not know itself. Unlike normal thirst, this deeper thirst does not know its object straightaway. What is it that will satisfy us?

If I am dying of thirst, no one has any doubt about what it is that I want and need. We are judged in the Gospels by whether we give a cup of water to someone in need. But the need and what satisfies it are so obvious that no further explanation is necessary. If someone is really thirsty, we do not inquire of him: “Why do you keep talking about water?” We know what he needs. We still may not give it to him. The latter problem is not that we do not know what he needs.

Maritain’s comment contains two points: 1) we have a longing for something that we are not quite able fully to identify, and 2) this “object” we seek is rather like water to thirst. That is, it is something very real, something that responds to the “thirst” that we experience in our souls. These reflections are very Augustinian.

Living water: Christ And The Samaritan Woman At The Well by Angelica Kauffman, 1796 [Neue Pinakothek, Munich]
Living water: Christ And The Samaritan Woman At The Well by Angelica Kauffman, 1796 [Neue Pinakothek, Munich]

But notice how Maritain used the verb “prey.” Since we do not know the exact object of this search, “face-to-face,” as it were, we go off in all sorts of strange directions searching for it in places where it cannot be found. Augustine said that we confuse beautiful things for Beauty itself.

But when we do not find what we are thirsting for, “despair and neurosis” can result. Many thinkers suspect that the disordered souls that we see everywhere around us are caused by this “despair and neurosis” that result from not knowing – or not wanting to know – the real object that can transform our search the way water transforms a thirsty man. Are we then left with no light here, no knowledge of the object of this ultimate thirst that we all experience in ourselves whether we admit it or not?

The problem arises, I think, from what we are created to be. We simply are not created for any other purpose but that of being invited to live, yes, forever, the inner life of the Triune God. No one, nowhere is created for any other purpose. Everything we encounter in existence, including ourselves, has an immediate purpose to be what it is. We are human beings, not turtles. That mountain is a mountain, not a redwood tree, even if redwood trees grow on mountains.

The “thirst” that we all carry about in our very being will not leave us alone. We will search, test, and try everything we run into. We find out that each finite thing is good, all right. But it does not fully settle us down. “Why?” we ask. If we are made to find that “object” that does satisfy us, why were we not informed about it in more detail?

The fact is that we were and are informed about it, and in pretty vivid detail. The drama of our “despair and neurosis” is not that we were neglected by the source of our being. We weren’t. The problem is that we have to come to the final “object” of our thirst in the way that was handed down to us. We make up many alternatives, mostly odd projections of our own minds. But somehow they do not “work.”

Without the “thirst” we could not be what we are. With it, we can only be satisfied by the divine life after the manner it was given to us to receive.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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