The Thirsty Soul That Longed for Christ
by Very Rev. Chrysostom Baer, O.Praem.
The communion antiphon we’ll hear later at Mass today says, “Let them thank the Lord for His mercy, His wonders for the children of men, for He satisfies the thirsty soul, and the hungry He fills with good things.” This line is a refrain taken from Psalm 107, which systematically recounts how God purifies the human soul by delivering it from one kind of tribulation after another, starting from the most extreme separation from God and ending with the refining and purification of even our good works.
But why? Why does God do this? Why the cycle of distress and deliverance? He’s trying to lead us somewhere, and not just back to another tribulation. “He satisfies the thirsty soul, and the hungry He fills with good things.” How thirsty are you? How hungry? God has made our souls to be infinitely thirsty, infinitely hungry. Aristotle says in the first line of the Metaphysics, “Man by nature desires to know.” No matter how much truth we pour into our minds, we’re never full. There’s always more to learn, more to discover, more to know. And no matter how many good things surround us, no matter how good we ourselves become, we yearn for something greater. We are restless.
Yes, we are restless, as St. Augustine says, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in Thee.” It is in our very nature, our intellect and will, that we expand out to the unlimited, and nothing less will satisfy. But only God is Truth Itself, the Supreme Good. We call this therefore the “natural desire to see God”—not that we necessarily know that’s what it is, but in fact the desire for God is there inside us; faith puts a name to it.
The famous quote, falsely ascribed to G.K. Chesterton, says, “The young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God.” He’s looking for happiness, for fulfillment. What little he finds there is not it; it won’t last long. And the hollowness left over is just a loud cry for the completion that only comes from the divine fountain. Uncle Screwtape admits demons have never made a single pleasure; each one of them is a sliver of God’s joy, even the ones we use badly. They are meant to remind us of Him. And the shame and self-loathing that follows hard on the heels of sin is God’s love underscoring our infinite desires disappointed by all too limited pleasure. Yes, this too is a great mercy.
So deeply is this instinctive desire embedded in our nature that it can never be lost or effaced, not even by repeated bad choices. In the saints above this desire is finally fulfilled, but in the souls of the lost this natural need for God still exists in all its raw power, but coupled with a loathing for Him which they’ve made for themselves. Enduring that interior contradiction is their eternal misery.
Jesus in the Gospel today cures Peter’s mother-in-law and exorcizes innumerable Galileans. What she suffered in body they suffered in soul. Infirmity, restriction in love and joy, was the result for both, but Christ is the definitive answer. His cures of body and soul, His liberation from enemies both pestilential and infernal was a sign of what He alone would accomplish through the power of His cross. Mankind was not meant to be fettered in its quest for surpassing happiness. Worse than covid-19, worse even than demonic possession, is sin, separation from God’s grace.
Notice in the case of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law the progression that we too have to follow. Intercession comes before healing, and after it comes service. The prayers of the saints, of you and me, for the conversion of sinners, of you and me, draws down the mercy of the Good Shepherd. The thirsty soul that longed for Christ, and finally found Him in the sacraments, must serve Him in loving mercy shown to other sinners. There is a strange satisfaction, prescient of eternal joy, that accompanies works of charity, almost like we’ve touched here and now the infinite joy we’re seeking in heaven. And then the soul cries out, “Let them thank the Lord for His mercy, His wonders for the children of men, for He satisfies the thirsty soul, and the hungry He fills with good things.”
Queen Esther was a uniquely pleasing person to behold. We hear this repeatedly throughout her story and, ultimately, are told that she “found grace and favor in the eyes of all who saw her.”
The first Sunday of Lent offers one of the shortest texts for a Gospel in the whole liturgical year. It is only sixty-four words. St. Mark’s account of the Temptation in the Desert takes just two verses and is about as succinct as one can be. Now, I am not the evangelist Mark. So don’t expect a short sermon. Settle in. And listen in.
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