You have to learn how to be thirsty. And until you’re thirsty, you cannot really have a spiritual life. This is the lesson that I don’t know how to teach. I only know that the reason I have tasted heaven is because I was desperately thirsty for it. And I’m surrounded by college students who aren’t thirsty at all. Because everybody drinks.
I’m speaking partly in metaphor and partly not. No, not every Tulane and Loyola student drinks alcohol. But so many of them seem utterly uninterested in pursuing the divine because they’re quenching their thirst with other things. Because everything is spiritual, right?
They’ve got their gym routines. They’ve got their Netflix. They’ve got their favorite bands. They’ve got their parties. That’s how they do self-care. So when I talk to them about spiritual self-care, they say thank you so much, I’ve already got that covered.
In my journey, I’ve discovered that what I need more than anything is to rest in God. The best way that I’ve found to rest is lying facedown in front of a fountain at the Notre Dame Seminary on Carrollton Avenue where I pray at night. The fountain has a sculpture of Jesus sitting with the woman at the well whom he told in John 4 about the eternal living water he came to offer.
No matter how shitty my life is going, when I’m facedown in front of the fountain, I receive the living water of eternal life. In fact, I drink more deeply of God’s presence there the more desperate I am. The more that I fail at campus ministry, the more God embraces me when I throw myself down before him.
I don’t know how to explain what happens when I encounter the eternal, except to steal Metallica’s words: “Nothing else matters.” It’s an indescribable mode of being, and it’s pure joy. I don’t know how to teach other people to see and taste what I’ve seen and tasted. I do know that it’s been a long journey for me. And I know that most of my life continues to be spent in the misery of self-obsession which I probably wouldn’t recognize as misery had I never gotten thirsty for eternal things. I live for the moments when God’s light smothers everything else.
As I was walking around at Tulane two years ago, God said make me a monastery. And I’ve pretty well failed to do that so far. We have started to build a community. I just don’t know how to teach the thirst that seems to be a prerequisite to any spiritual guidance I could offer. I’m overjoyed every time I get to talk to a student who’s already thirsty and wants to know how to go deeper.
But I can’t make anyone thirsty who isn’t already. There are so many people in our churches who aren’t thirsty at all. They see value in coming and participating but they don’t have an aching in their bones for communion with God.
People who have never encountered the mystical side of religion tend to think religion is all about moralism, whether it’s the moralism of “social justice” or the moralism of “family values.” The “social justice” moralists will write blog posts about how our “prayer” should be marching in the street and doing justice. The idea of seeking divine communion seems like it’s not on their radar screens.
In my naivete, I believe that people who thirst for God will inevitably thirst for justice. Their longing will come from a deeply burning love that God has sown into their hearts. If you’re “woke” without being thirsty, then your “wokeness” turns into self-righteous scorn.
Psalm 42 is my story: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?'”
This is the journey that I walk, ministering on the most secular campus in the Deep South. I’m not a fire and brimstone preacher. I’m not a moralist. I’m a simple mystic whose only real gift is a desperate thirst for God. And that’s basically uninteresting to most of the students on my campus. But God is not done sowing seeds.