SPIRITUAL THIRST

Fr Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983)

The following is an extract from Fr Alexander Schmemann's book, "I Believe" (the first book in his series "Celebration of Faith.") This is really a collection of talks that were beamed into the Soviet Union through Radio Liberty, well before the Iron Curtain fell. As such they are addressed to people who struggle with an imposed "official" atheism. Fr Schmemman's simple yet profound way of putting things is so helpful these days in the west, when in its own way our culture is trying to do the same thing to us.

With spiritual thirst longing,
Wearily I wandered in a desolate desert waste,
And a six-winged seraph
Appeared to me at the crossing of the ways . . .

- from "The Prophet"
by Alexander Pushkin (1799 - 1837)

Years and centuries have passed since Alexander Pushkin wrote the remarkable words of his poem, yet they remain an appropriate inscription to man's destiny on earth: "With spiritual thirst longing..." Civilizations have followed one after another, the external forms of human life have changed, the face of the earth has changed, but this spiritual thirst remains ever indestructible, ever unquenchable. It is a gift, given to human beings alone as the sign and essence of their very humanity, and it is both precious and tormenting: precious because it always draws men and women upward, not allowing them to find peace in the exclusive pursuit of animal pleasure, and enabling them to taste communion with transcendent joys that cannot be compared to anything else; tormenting because it so often contradicts their earthly instincts, and transforms their entire life into struggle, search, restlessness.

Almost everything in this world seems to tell us: give up this spiritual thirst, renounce it and you will be full and satisfied, healthy and happy. "Just be satisfied with your life, be meek and mild ... " wrote Alexander Btok (1880 - 1921) in one of his darkest poems at this century's dawn. And sure enough, complete ideologies have sprung up, based on the rejection and renunciation of spiritual thirst, on hatred toward it-ideologies striving with all their might to get us to suppress within ourselves the very source of this thirst, to admit its delusion and self-deception, and then to join in building a life now purified of all searching whatsoever. If anything sets apart our 20th century from all previous centuries-fundamentally and not just on the surface-then above all it is the extreme sharpening of two opposing, antithetical understandings of human life and of man himself. One view affirms that man is man precisely because of the spiritual thirst within him, a searching, a restlessness for transcendence. For the other, man begins his human destiny only after having killed this thirst. In this battle everything else, all that is occurring in the contemporary world, is ultimately secondary. For everything else flows from the depths of this primary question: politics, economics. culture, everything people argue about so passionately, and in the name of which they fight each other.

Thus, whether we like it or not, whether we realize it or not, the religious question is at the heart and very centre of contemporary life. For religion, by its very nature, is in fact the sign and presence in this world of spiritual thirst. Just as the smell of smoke tells us there is a fire nearby even if we do not see it. so religion's presence in the world, whatever its forms, is reliable testimony that man's spiritual thirst, spiritual search. has not ceased to live within him.

True, there are those who try to prove to us that religion is a comforting escape, a refusal to struggle, man's self-betrayal, dead and immovable dogmatism leading us away from hard questions and searching. However, those who make such claims invariably suppress words which describe the very heart of religious experience and religious faith: "'Blessed are those who hunger and thirst ... " (Matthew 6:6); "Seek and you will find..." (Matthew 7:7); "1 came not to bring peace, but a sword..."(Matthew10:34). It is significant that those who hate religion always base their attack on this crude and elementary deception, for without this lie their assault on religion would be impossible to sustain for even a single day. This deception is so obvious today, that perhaps speaking about it no longer serves any purpose. What we do need to speak about is the spiritual thirst itself. What is it a thirst for? What is its longing about? With what search is it filled? It is these questions we need to address because at this moment in the world there is no subject more important. The world now stands at the very "crossing of the ways"9 of which Pushkin spoke. Today, the various appeals directed to man collide with each other in the world with unprecedented force; the various "ways" constantly intertwine, cross and then diverge. And above them all, looming ever more terrible and striking. is the spectre of unimaginable catastrophes, unprecedented upheavals. "If anyone has an ear to hear, let him hear..."(Revelation 13:9).

It is already too late for us to resolve all this by partial measures, by patching material that is now threadbare and rotting. Again we begin to understand why the Gospel proclaims salvation-precisely salvation-and why it is directed to those who are perishing. Christ says: "I came to cast fire upon the earth, and how 1 long that it were already kindled" (see Luke 12:49). Religion is truly religion only when it concerns what is most essential, when it reveals simultaneously both man's spiritual thirst and the response to that thirst; when it is fire, a fire that both purifies and transforms our weak and shameful life. We do not have the strength of the to six-winged seraph who revealed himself to the prophet at "the crossing of the ways." But each of us, according to the measure of his strength. is called today to be a witness to that "One thing needful" (Luke 10:42).

The New Testament ends with these terrifying, yet joyful words: "Let the evildoer still do evil and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy. Behold I am coming soon . . . Let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price . . . " (Revelation 22:11,17). If only we would not betray this gift of spiritual thirst and exchange it for something else. if only we would open our eyes and open our ears to that shower of light, love and beauty pouring on us eternally. May God help all of us to be truthful and steadfast, humble and loving, for then it will he impossible to hide the ever-shining light, the salvation given to the world.