A Strange Thirst


Jill Carattini shares her research on the lifestyles of the early Christian saints, mystics and martyrs to help explain our persistent thirst for satisfaction.

If you have ever read anything of Saint Simeon the Stylite, undoubtedly, you have not forgotten him. Simeon was the first of a long succession of “pillar hermits” who held a great reputation for holiness in Eastern Christendom. Practicing a rather peculiar form of asceticism, Simeon sat atop a freestanding, fifty-foot column for 36 years. Upon his pillar, Simeon devoted himself to silence, prayer, fasting, and the writing of letters.

Saint Francis of Assisi lived his life on land, but like Simeon, with his heart firmly planted in the heavens. He is celebrated as the gentle saint with the all-embracing love of nature. He ate with lepers, sang to flowers, and preached entire sermons to birds. Saint Francis served Christ passionately, giving away everything—his wealth, his clothes, his rights. Even his asceticism was clothed with a sort of divine romance; he often referred to “Lady Poverty” as his wife of surpassing beauty.

There is something within the lifestyles of the early Christian saints, mystics, and martyrs that make me wonder about the comfortable slumber of my soul. Their stories are filled with a curious intensity, so far from the Laodicean neutrality around me; the synonym of laziness that describes my own church as much as it described the Laodiceans that made it an adjective. Many of the early Christians lived lives full of visions of Christ’s suffering, others spent months or years in caves wholly devoted to prayer and fasting in pursuit of God. In each story, however extreme or strange the expression of faith, evident is the incredible thirst of a soul, the passionate pursuit of God, and the delight of a life lived in the presence of Christ. At a time when one can look around and see so much thirst for novelty, for thrill or for security, such lives depict a deep well of hope—a well these men and women drank deeply of themselves—indeed, living their lives solely to pursue.

To two men who were once following him, Jesus turned and asked point-blankly: “What do you want?” What if it is a question he still wants us to answer? What is it you want? What are you looking for? What is it you’d call your deepest desire? What would it take to make you feel alive? We find ourselves in a world filled with many tempting waters said to satisfy any thirst. And yet, our chorus seems to be closer to the old song: “I can’t get no satisfaction.”

Yet the pull of heart and mind for satisfaction is persistent. Saint Augustine famously wrote that our hearts are only satisfied when they are satisfied with God. King David pursued many things passionately, including women, kingdoms, and power. But his thirst was not touched until he fell to his knees and admitted that his longing was for the touch of God. He writes in Psalm 63, “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you, my soul thirsts for you.”  When God is seen clearly, the seeming promises of the world come into focus. “My soul longs for you,” writes David, “in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”

Jesus once said to anyone who would listen, “If anyone is thirsty, let them come to me and drink.” Generations of thirsting pilgrims have prayed that all would find their way to these real waters: “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (1) If you know the longing is real, what might become of it if you turned that restless thirst toward God? What if we lived as if truly knowing that anything that is not eternal is eternally unable to satisfy our deepest thirsts? With joy perhaps we, too, might draw deeply and be satisfied by Christ the King.

(1) Ephesians 3:17-19.



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