The Universal Thirst for the Infinite
EVERY ONE OF US is a ceaseless seeker of infinity. Even the avowed atheist who knows what he is rejecting, and the person full of avarice, arrogance, and lust. The reason is that every man and woman is driven to fill the radical void within.
This is easy to prove because we all experience these endless yearnings in the choices we make every day. Nothing we experience of finite reality fills the endless thirsting of our souls, for by definition nothing material can satisfy us. Only the infinite can fill an immaterial being.
This is why the hedonistic, the avaricious, the lustful are incessantly seeking new thrills, new experiences, something to dull their inner ache due to not having God deep within themselves. The sinner is never filled, never at rest. Always he wants more. In between his diminishing “highs,” he is bored and hurting inside. He is headed for existential boredom-perhaps even worse.
Making idols out of mere things and worldly pleasures always leads to frustration. “Only in God is my soul at rest,” said the psalmist (Ps 62), and so we now ask why is all of this true? Why are mere animals content with material experiences whereas we never are?
Anything less than everything is not enough. For the human spirit, the only enough is the divine Enough. Spirit as such is universal. It can be filled with nothing particular. We do not want simply some happiness, some joy, some love. We assign no limits to our yearnings for happiness, love, and delight.
Because spirit is dynamically orientated to the absolute, it bursts beyond the cosmos. St. Augustine knew this only too well from his early life of sin, and he expressed it in his famous prayer: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
Feodor Dostoyevsky, probably the finest novelist of the 19th century, wrestled brilliantly with the question of God. On the lips of one of his characters in The Brothers Karamazov he targeted the heart of the matter:
“To live without God is nothing but torture.... Man cannot live without kneeling.... If he rejects God, he kneels before an idol of wood or of gold or an imaginary one.... They are all idolaters and not atheists. That's what they ought to be called.”
Everyone worships something. If it is not the real God, it will be something relative that has been made into an absolute, into an absorbing concern, the focus of one's aims and loves. Means have been turned into ends. Created realities have been made into idols.
This idea can be encapsulated into an expression often used in the history of philosophy: the one and the many, a formula that can serve a number of purposes. Here, one refers to God, while the many refers to things less than God. Simple reflection on the human situation makes it clear that everyone is either pursuing the real God, the supreme One, or inevitably is chasing after other things.
We humans differ in many ways- age, sex, race, nationality, talent, temperament, skills, political leanings- but the most radical and basic by far is that by which we make and choose our eternal destiny: the choices by which we cling to the real God, the supreme One, or by which we fashion little gods and pursue them. These free choices determine whether we shall have our infinite thirst quenched one day or whether we shall be frustrated for all eternity. Free decisions cannot be more crucial: either eternal ecstasy or eternal disaster. Once we admit human freedom, heaven and hell make complete sense. We need apologize for neither.
The most beautiful presentation of this thirsting and quenching theme is, not surprisingly, found in Scripture. Because the Holy Spirit has written the owner's manual for our race, he fully understands our concerns and he expresses them in most attractive language.
In Isaiah we are invited to come to the Fountain, all of us who are thirsty and seek to be quenched. Why do we spend our resources on what does not satisfy?, we are asked. Come to the fountain “and your soul will live” (55, 1–3).
The psalmist rightly responds: “As the deer long: for running waters, so my soul longs for you, O God. Athirst is my soul for God, the living God” (Ps 42, 1–2).
So what is holiness all about? Being quenched at the divine fountain is one way to describe it. Much more needs to be added, of course, and this we shall do in following articles. For example, we do not reach the summit through lukewarm efforts. Only men and women on fire become saints, a fire in the will if not in the feelings.
It is already clear that to pursue the one with an undivided heart, to avoid dissipating oneself in dead-end idols, is not only to love the Lord as he deserves, but also to do oneself the highest favor. The path to holiness is by no means to be conceived as an impersonal response to a list of dos and don'ts. Given the premise that we are pilgrims on this earth, and that we are on the way to an unspeakable destiny, we should not be surprised that the road is both challenging and magnificent. How else could it be, since Jesus is himself “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14, 6).
Next week-The divinely planned quenching: a contemplative immersion at the fountain.
Marist Father Thomas Dubay is a popular author and lecturer.
- November 30-December 6, 1997