A central part of the daily ministry of the life of any priest is ministry to those who have little or no contact with the Church. The most inspiring of these encounters are with people who are no longer satisfied with what relationships, possessions and projects can provide. The secular world of ambition and advertising aims to prove that a new product or adventure can bring us the happiness that we long for. We become irrationally convinced that financial security has the power to bring us real security. Such faulty thinking is tragically as commonplace in the lives of Christians as in any other group. But the healthy and mature person has woken up to the reality that the deep level of peace and joy that we yearn for is never a human achievement, and can never be adequately delivered by money, assets, relationships or even with a combination of all three.
We know this to be true in our own experience. We can all remember times when we felt as though our happiness was on hold until we passed an exam or got a new job or friend. But then, a few hours or days after passing the exam or finding the new job or friend we begin to desire something more. Not even the loving relationship seems to satisfy our hungry hearts.
This week I spent some time with a group who are discerning a call to ministry. One of the central themes of these discernment days was a growing awareness of the fact that discernment is not primarily about what I want (which is often easily satisfied by a fleeting success or thrill). The discerning person knows that they are made for something much greater. This “something” is actually the “someONE”, Christ who comes to us as gift when we do little more than wait in the agony of our hunger and thirst.
One of the quotations I used with the group was from an inspiring little book that I first read a number of years ago: The Holy Longing by Ronald Rolheiser.
“It is no easy task to walk this earth and find peace. Inside of us, it would seem, something is at odds with the very rhythm of things and we are forever restless, dissatisfied, frustrated, and aching. We are so overcharged with desire that it is hard to come to simple rest. Desire is always stronger than satisfaction.
“Put more simply, there is within us a fundamental dis-ease, an unquenchable fire that renders us incapable, in this life, of ever coming to full peace. This desire lies at the centre of our lives, in the marrow of our bones, and in the deep recesses of the soul. We are not easeful human beings who occasionally get restless, serene persons who once in a while are obsessed by desire. The reverse is true. We are driven persons, forever obsessed, congenitally dis-eased. Desire is the straw that stirs the drink.
Most people relate easily to these couple of paragraphs. Rolheiser goes on to reflect that this desire or unquenchable thirst is not a sign that there is something wrong with us. It is THE sign that something is very RIGHT with us! Fifteen hundred years ago St. Augustine wrote this in his Confessions: “you have made us for yourself O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
Humans by design design are beings who are filled with desire, longing, hunger, yearning, restlessness (refer George Herbert’s The Pulley). If we do not feel this deep and insatiable thirst then there is something wrong with us since we are out of touch with the heart of our humanity.
Imagine you buy a new laptop computer, take it home and use it for a few hours. Imagine then that it just stops and the screen goes black. You take it back to the store and ask for a replacement since it no longer works. If the store assistant then connects it to a power supply and discovers there is no problem, what would she think if you responded that you paid good money for the computer and did not want any product that had to be connected to an external power source? You can see where I am going with this. The fact that a new laptop computer needs an external power supply is not a design flaw. Sure a battery supply might work for a few hours, and I might even find a supply of batteries, but much easier to just plug it in to a stable and reliable power supply.
This leads us to the heart of the mission of Christ in the world. The goal of life with Christ, and therefore the goal of all human existence, is not to use our work and relationships to achieve happiness. While there seems to be a logic in this, an honest person gets to the point where they realise that they are powerless to make themselves healthy and happy. The healthy person is one who looks outside themselves, and who acknowledges that the regular beating of their pulse is a gift that we have not created, deserved or achieved. Every moment’s gift of life is a reminder that we are not making ourselves. It is Christ who is making us, and our human happiness comes only when we relax into this gifted life.
The primary goal of a Christian parish (or any Christian community) is not to build a community or to maintain our buildings or balance our books. These things are not unimportant, but they are not our primary task. Our first mission is to be aware of our personal reality as helpless sinners, and to turn to Christ aware that He is the only one who can satisfy our longing.
This is the heart of the encounter in last Sunday’s gospel where Jesus crosses boundaries of race, prejudice, fear and even sin to reach out to a tired Samaritan woman who is knows that well water is powerless to quench her thirst. In this encounter Jesus offers her “living water” which she is delighted to receive, and by which her thirst is quenched.
This same offer of living water is made by Jesus to each of us. Let’s spend today accepting this gift.