Blessed are They that Hunger and Thirst after Justice for They Shall have Their Fill, by Father Basil William Maturin

photograph of an unnamed Nigerian man in deep prayer; photographed on 23 April 2021 by Theindigochxid; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsThe Catholic faith unquestionably develops in the soul that is true to its teaching a sense of sin and the need of penitence and self-sacrifice such as is known in no other form of Christianity. She holds up in her great religious orders the highest standard of virtue and consecration, and in her doctrine of Purgatory and Indulgences she keeps before the minds of her children the consequences of sin even to the penitent. Forgiveness does not restore the penitent to the same position as the innocent; the temporal consequences of sin must be endured either in this life or the next before the soul can be admitted to the vision of God. The life of man on earth must be the life of penitence. And yet there is no religion so full of joyousness and brightness as the Catholic Church. All who witness its effects upon her children feel this; many wonder at, many are even disedified by it. It is one of the first things that strikes those who have entered it after experiencing some other imperfect form of Christianity. Every other religion, at least in the Western world, is overshadowed by a more or less developed form of the dark creed of Calvin. Life is dark enough and hard enough as it is; the Catholic faith floods it with light and joy and hope. It impresses at once to the full the sterner side of religion, and its power of bringing joyousness and peace.

It is the enemy of morbidness and scruple, which haunt the footsteps of so many who are striving to be good.

Now the first three Beatitudes which we have been considering have, undoubtedly, taken simply as they were uttered, a tendency to produce morbidness and introspection. There does not seem to be much light or brightness in a life based upon the spirit of poverty, meekness and mourning. Take them as they are meant to be, the foundations of the spiritual life, and take them alone, and what could the result be but a piteously sad and disconsolate character, uncongenial, morbid and joyless.

Therefore they have to be tested, to make quite sure before the soul goes farther on its way and can fulfill its work as the teacher of mercy, the peacemaker, the one who can rightly and healthily endure persecution, whether these first Beatitudes have produced any taint of morbidness or an unhealthy view of life and the world.

And the test is the fourth Beatitude – “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice”, Has the soul preserved a good healthy appetite for spiritual things? Till it has passed this test it cannot go on; there is something amiss in its poverty or meekness or mourning, and it cannot develop under the laws of the other Beatitudes. A man cannot be very seriously ill, physically, who has a healthy appetite for his food, neither can one be spiritually far wrong whose appetite for spiritual things is normal and healthy; and on the other hand, if the spiritual appetite fail, or is in any way abnormal, it may be taken for granted that something is amiss.

Now it is worth noticing that in that compendium of the devotional life given by our Lord, the Lord’s Prayer, there is a petition which corresponds both in its character and position with this Beatitude.

There are first the three petitions which turn the soul directly to God and place it in the right attitude to receive His gifts – “Hallowed be Thy name,” “Thy Kingdom come,” “Thy will be done”. Then there are the last three petitions for the three great needs of the soul itself, forgiveness, protection and deliverance, and the fourth, like the fourth Beatitude, has to do with food – ‘”Give us this day our daily bread”. It is the central petition, balancing the other three on either side. It is in the devotional life what the Beatitude is in the spiritual. The test of the soul’s health, the prayer that it may receive its food from the Hand of God, and consequently that it may not feed upon any food which does not come from His Hand. So with the Beatitude, Blessed are they whose spiritual appetite has not been destroyed by overfeeding upon earthly or heavenly things, or whose spiritual efforts have not been so unwisely or unhealthily made as to interfere with its hunger and thirst after God. It, in fact, as we shall see, controls and regulates the feeding of man’s whole nature, body and soul, in such a manner that the spiritual life takes its proper place and has room for its due and healthy development.

Now God did not leave man to discover for himself the law that was to control him in the choice of his food, and in the order in which he was to feed the different parts of his complex nature. His nature is threefold, body, soul and mind, or at least it may be so considered for practical purposes, and the life and health of each of these depends upon its feeding upon healthy food, and the health of the whole person depends upon these different parts being fed in due order and with proper consideration for the rest. The body will die if it be not fed, and mind and soul equally need nourishment; if the mind never studies or disciplines itself to think, its powers soon die of atrophy, and if the soul takes no spiritual food, never turns to God in prayer and faith, it will die.

In the Garden of Eden God laid down for man, at the very start of his life, the law of food; and history shows us that upon obedience to that law depends his well-being.

For his body there were all the trees of the garden of which he might freely eat; for his soul there was the tree of life in the midst of the garden. But there was another tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and of this God said to him, “Thou shalt not touch it or eat it, for in the day in which thou eatest of it thou shalt die the death”. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil appealed to the mind, the intellect. It contained a mystery which could be solved by partaking of its fruits. Hitherto man only knew good; the fruit of this tree would give him the knowledge of good and evil. At the base of the human mind there lies the desire to know, the source of all progress, lashing the mental powers on to probe and search and examine. It may sink down to the mere curiosity of the village gossip; it may rise to the longing of the saint to know God; it may be used or abused, but there it is, the force that sets the powers of the mind working and keeps them awake. And needless to say this desire is not in itself wrong; on the contrary, it is God-given and good, part of the equipment of man’s nature for life.

In this desire to know lay the danger to man in his unfallen state, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil objectively appealed to him to gratify the desire in a way that was forbidden by God. This constituted his temptation. And we know the result. He plucked of the fruit and ate. He overturned the order of nature and fed the mind to the detriment of his highest spiritual interests. He put the satisfaction of his intellectual hunger and thirst after knowledge before the hunger and thirst of his soul for God, He sacrificed himself and his best interests to the desires of one part of his nature. The intellect and mental powers have their office and place in the development of man’s personal life, but it is the height of folly to sacrifice his personal welfare to any part of himself, and this he did. He was ready to feed his intellect and satisfy his desire to know at all costs. He found, alas! too late, that the cost was heavier than he had anticipated. It was the loss of the indwelling Presence of God, and the loss of that interior union and co-operation of all his powers to lead him to God. He was no longer at one with God, nor at one with himself. The flesh began to lust against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh, The Divine order of his nature was overthrown and the lower parts began to assert their demands against the higher. The powers and passions, broken loose from the restraining presence of God, seemed as it were to gain a life of their own, and to live for their own ends, not for the well-being of the person who possessed them, Fallen man found himself no longer able to control or hold together the manifold powers that once co-operated throughout the vast empire of his being. He had by his own act broken up this inner unity, never in this life to regain it again in its fullness.

And this, which has laid human nature open to all sorts of degrading vices, and made it oftentimes the slave of ungoverned passions, was the result, not of some gross carnal sin, but of failing to exercise the law of self-restraint in the matter of feeding the mind. The intellectual life considered as the only real life and separated from the rest of man’s nature as if it were the whole of it, a thing to live for and sacrifice everything else for, may lead to the most unexpected and humiliating results, The intellectual life, as truly as the physical life, must be lived in subordination to man’s highest interest and true end, which is that of a spiritual being living for God. To consider mental growth and development, in the ordinary meaning of the terms, as the end and aim of man’s life, is to overturn the order of Nature. He who feeds his mind at the expense of his spirit must abide by the consequences, and the consequences will not be that he shall be filled, but that he, his truest self, shall find too late a hunger of his nature that no earthly knowledge can satisfy.

The law of food then laid down by God at the beginning of human life, even before the fall, was that man must practise self-denial and self-restraint in the feeding of that part of his nature whose appetites are most strongly felt and which if left to itself would feed itself at the expense of his higher nature, in fact at the expense of the welfare of the person.

The danger to unfallen man lay, not in the body, but in the mind. The body had not yet broken loose from the government of reason and conscience, the indwelling presence of God held body and soul in perfect balance. But the longing of the mind to know more and more, which, as we have seen, is an integral part of our nature and in itself good, laid man open to the temptation to search for knowledge where it was forbidden, and to refuse to accept the limitations placed upon it by the Divine command. That which is indeed one of the greatest sources of man’s strength, considered merely as an intellectual being, became the source of all his weakness as a moral and spiritual being.

And that primary law given in Eden before the fall remains the law of man’s food throughout his whole earthly life. Every one must practise self-denial in feeding some part of his nature, often indeed not merely self-denial but a rigorous fast, if he would duly develop his whole person. Each one knows for himself where that self-denial needs to be practised. What is a danger to one is no danger at all to another. One needs strict self-denial with the body, another with the mind, another with the heart.

But since the fall and the consequent loss of union and co-operation of all the parts of our nature working together for the development and perfection of the person, the law of fasting and self-denial reaches still further.

It is impossible to satisfy all the desires of our nature, for they run in different, often in directly opposite ways. To satisfy the desires of one part necessitates the refusal to satisfy those of another. “The flesh lusts against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh, so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.” Consequently, even apart from religion, there is no man living who sets himself to do anything with his life, even if it be merely to live for the enjoyment of the body, except he is prepared to fast. Each of us must choose for ourselves what we shall live for, and with that choice there necessarily follows the law of fasting and self-denial. One man decides that the intellectual life is the only life worth living, he will live the life of thought and study, and forthwith he finds that there are within him desires that reach upward and downward that stand in his way. He must refuse to yield to them if he will live wholly and to the full the life he has chosen. There are desires of the flesh which if satisfied cloud the intellect. There are desires of the spirit which curb and check him in many ways. He learns quickly that he cannot live the life he has chosen unless he is prepared to practise a rigorous self-denial both of the body and of the spirit.

Or another ridicules the idea of all self-denial, and says the only thing worth living for is the enjoyment that comes through the indulgence of the senses and of the flesh. But he forgets that he is not a mere animal, Other desires rise and clamour for satisfaction whether he will it or not. There are moments when the flesh palls and conscience cries aloud for better things, or the mind, drugged and stupefied, awakens and craves for food. Indeed there is no life that is lived under stricter and more exacting rules of self-denial than that of the sensualist or pleasure seeker, albeit the fasting is a fast from all that is best worth having and against all the laws of reason.

The Christian law of fasting thus merely sets before the world that, fasting being a necessary law of our nature under its present conditions, reason and conscience demand that the fasting should be reasonable, the denial to satisfy the desires of any part of our nature whose demands are in antagonism to our truest, that is our personal and spiritual, development, It is folly to sacrifice a life-long advantage for a moment’s pleasure, It is greater folly to sacrifice eternal enjoyment for temporary pleasures, It is folly to sacrifice the enjoyments of the mind for those of the body, still greater to sacrifice spiritual joys and the power of entering into them for either. The Christian law of food therefore merely bids us live according to the dictates of reason. And the Beatitude formulates this law in assuring us of the happiness it ensures – “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice, for they shall have their fill”.

But again. No sooner had Adam fallen than he was driven forth from the Paradise of Peace into a world of conflict and struggle. Indeed he could no longer have stayed there. The environment suited to the development of unfallen man was in no way suited to him in his fallen condition. His nature in a state of inner conflict and strife needed to meet the difficulties of the outer world, that in fighting them he might gain power over himself, in conquering them he might gain the victory over himself.

Yet so great was the contrast, both inward and outward, with the past, that there was the danger of despair. He had failed in the days of his innocence, what hope could he have for the future now that he had fallen. The light that shone within was as the dimmest twilight compared with the radiant glory that illuminated every faculty of his soul from the indwelling presence of God; and the loss of that clear light within changed the appearance of external things – they deceived him. He no longer possessed that intuitive knowledge of their meaning and their end that once was his. This poor exile at war with himself found himself amidst surroundings and forces that seemed arrayed against him for his ruin. No wonder then if filled with despair he cried, “It is better for me to die than to live”. But then the cravings of hunger came upon him, and the instinct of self-preservation bid him arise and struggle for food, and the kindly earth responded to his touch. And as he worked his nature woke from its stupor and despair, he saw possibilities within himself and in the world around him unfolding before him, and as he beheld the fruits of his labour in a changing world and a kindling mind, he would recall those words of God ere he was cast out of Eden, words that seemed harsh and that spoke as of a penalty, but which now he knew to be the remedy against listlessness and despair, the power that alone could give him interest and hope in the hour of darkness, God had said, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread”. Knowing man better than he knew himself, and the dangers that beset him on all sides, God bound together for fallen man the law of food and of labour – If you will not work you cannot eat, if you do not eat you must die.

And the necessity to work for one’s living has been the remedy for many an evil, the means of revealing to multitudes dormant powers and unknown gifts – a veritable blessing to the human race, For God’s punishments here on earth are never merely penal, they are remedial, and many who have murmured against the lot that forced them to work so hard to keep body and soul together little knew how necessary the lash of hunger was, to discover to themselves their powers and make them give them to the world. It is under the stimulating influence of work that timidity and morbid self-distrust are overcome and the cloud of dark despair lifts and rolls away. No one knows what is in him till he tries, and many would never try if they were not forced to.

But the law, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,” applies not merely to the food of the body, but to the food of mind and spirit. You cannot feed your mind, in the true sense of the word, without labour, nor can you feed your soul.

What labour it has cost the human mind to separate the true from the false in that mixed condition of things consequent upon eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Truth seems often entangled in a mesh of falsehood. The wheat wrapped up in the chaff, light and darkness so mingled that we live in a land of twilight, through which here and there some bright points of truth make themselves seen, The outward appearance of things deceives us. What labour it has cost us to learn to know things as they are, instead of as they seem. And not one atom of truth has been given the human race to feed upon save at the cost of long and wearisome mental labour, and in obedience to the law, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread”. It is as true of the mind as of the body, “If a man will not work neither shall he eat”. Only that knowledge which we have gained for ourselves or made our own by hard mental work can really feed so as to nourish and develop the mind.

And it is true equally of the spirit. We cannot feed our souls with spiritual food save at the cost of labour. The Divine authority with which the Church teaches us the Truths of Revelation is not meant to save us the trouble of thinking for ourselves, those truths will only have a life-giving power of nourishment for the individual in so far as he has made them his own by painstaking thought and by the spiritual exercise of faith. He who labours hardest and exercises himself most in the spiritual conflict will feed with most satisfaction on the Bread of Life. Often no doubt the failure to receive grace proportionate to our frequent communions results from lack of appetite, through lack of exercise. Even, therefore, in regard to the Heavenly food of our Lord’s Body, the law laid down in Eden for fallen men applies, “In the sweat of Thy face shalt thou eat bread”.

These two laws then in regard to food were laid down for man by God Himself, the first at the very beginning of his life – the law of self-denial, The second at the beginning of his new life, and as he entered upon all those conditions both outward and inward which resulted from the fall – the law of labour.

But there was yet another. As the human race spread and developed, “God seeing that the wickedness of men was great in the earth, and that all the thoughts of their hearts were bent upon evil continually, it repented Him that He had made man,” and He sent the flood to punish and to purify the earth. And as Noe came forth upon the new world, God said to him: “Increase, and multiply, and fill the earth, And let the fear of you, and the dread of you, be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moves upon the earth: all the fishes of the sea are delivered into your hand. Every thing that moves and lives shall be meat for you: even as the green herb have I delivered them all to you: saving that flesh with blood ye shall not eat.” “The blood ye shall pour out upon the earth like water.”

By the act of disobedience man had fallen under the penalty of which God had forewarned him, “In the day ye eat thereof ye shall die the death”. He had lost that great gift, the crown of original justice – the indwelling Presence of God. Compared with what he had been, even in the long years of his life of penance, he was dead. The glory of his life had departed from him. And he was reminded of this in the new life which he was about to start after the flood. “The blood which is the life thou shalt not eat.” He must never forget his loss, he must wait and pray for the restoration of the gift which he had forfeited through eating what was forbidden. He must not eat the blood which is the life, and as he poured it out upon the earth he would be reminded of his sin and punishment, “In the day that ye eat thereof ye shall die the death”. It does not always follow that people understand the meaning and reason of God’s commands; some of them we shall perhaps never understand. But God’s commands, we may feel sure, are not only reasonable, but have the power of effecting their purpose in those who devoutly and humbly obey them, even though they do not understand them. The law was the pedagogue to bring men unto Christ. Those who obeyed it in the spirit of faith were trained, unconsciously to themselves, in methods of life and thought which led them in fact to Christ, They did not understand its purpose, nor could they possibly understand it as yet, but God knew His own purpose and the best way to effect it, and He placed them under these commands that they might be trained.

So with the command to pour out the blood upon the earth. No doubt in time the reason for the command would be forgotten, if it was ever understood, but taken with the system of the law, entering as it did into their daily life as a Divine command, it would create, or at least help to preserve, the impression of a life lost that was to be restored, and to stimulate their hope for the coming of the Messias who should restore all things.

These three laws with the moral and spiritual principles that underlay them, and which were to be produced by them, were laid down by God for His people from the Fall to the Incarnation.

Then on the eve of the Passion as He sat with His disciples at the last supper, He took bread and broke it and said, “This is My Body,” and He took wine and poured it out saying, “This is My Blood of the new Covenant which shall be shed for you and for many unto the remission of sins; drink ye all of it”. And His disciples, brought up as they had been under the law, would have looked amazed. Drink the Blood. Why, the Blood is the life, and the law forbade them to drink it. But the time had come; the years of waiting were at an end. The woman’s seed was there to give back in all its fulness the life that had been forfeited by disobedience. “For this is the testimony that God hath given unto us eternal life, and this Life is in His Son; He that hath the Son hath Life, and He that hath not the Son hath not Life.” “Except therefore ye eat My flesh and drink My blood, ye have no life in you.” Regenerate man received that indwelling Presence of God to heal the wounds and mend the disorders consequent upon the Fall, and the blood of the second Adam shed and given to him was at once to nourish and remind him of that new life.

O wondrous Love, that Flesh and Blood
  Which did in Adam fail,
Should strive afresh against the foe,
  Should strive and should prevail.
And that a greater gift than grace
  Should flesh and blood refine –
God’s Presence and His very Self
  And Essence all Divine.

Thus, in Christ, man received in its fulness the life that he had lost, and he had the Bread from Heaven for his spiritual food, and found on earth the food for mind and body.

But the feeding of this threefold nature still remained, as we know well, under the two laws of self-denial and labour.

Now the bodily, mental and spiritual life is the life of one and the same person. It is my body, my mind, my spirit. The food enters into and nourishes or injures the person through any one of these channels. The food of the body does not affect merely the body, it affects the whole Being; and so with that of mind and spirit. The material food which I take upon my lips can cloud my mind, dethrone my reason, dishonour and degrade my soul. How strange it seems that a material thing entering as food into one’s system can have such effects upon that part of our nature which is not material. Here is one who has become utterly unreliable, whose word or promise no one can depend upon, whose moral sense is warped, through the habit of taking drugs. It has run right through every department of the life of the whole person, leaving the stamp of dishonour and shame on all, degrading the whole man’s life.

Or again, the food upon which the mind is fed affects not only the mind but the body and the soul. What more evanescent and immaterial than thought? Yet thought can affect the bodily health. A healthy mind will produce a healthy body – at least it tends to do so – and unhealthy thought can ruin the bodily health. Many a man with shattered nerves and weakened frame has been told by his physician that the cause of his disease and its remedy lies in his own hands, he can do nothing for him unless he can learn to discipline his mind and not to allow it to feed upon unhealthy food. The thoughts of the mind run, as it were, upward and downward, and strengthen or relax the fibre of the spiritual and physical life. Indeed the very flesh of a man of middle life is stamped and seamed and furrowed by his habits of thought, more perhaps even than by physical acts. Often even the carriage and bearing of the bodily frame indicates the character of the thoughts.

And again, the food of the spiritual life affects both body and mind; unhealthy spiritual food has not rarely led to a morbid spiritual life, and an overstrain of mind and body, scruples, morbidness, despair. Many when they have been led by a wise spiritual guide to change their spiritual food to a more bracing and nourishing diet, have found that it has given them a more vigorous life of body and of mind. False or imperfect religious systems are not unknown to have ruined the health, both mental and physical, of nota few. For untruth must always have bad results upon a nature constructed in every fibre of its being for truth. And he who feeds himself in the highest department of his being upon anything that is not true, or fails to feed upon what is true, must expect to find that the results are evil and harmful to his whole being. The revelation given by Jesus Christ to His Church, when He bid her teach men “to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you,” is enough, and only enough, to ensure our welfare on our earthly journey. If, therefore, any part of that revelation be withheld or tampered with, the result must be loss of perfect health and vigour to those who are fed upon insufficient or unhealthy food.

Again, what more spiritual than that bread from Heaven provided by our Lord for His people, His own sacred Flesh and Blood. Yet many feeding upon it unwisely or unworthily, too seldom or too frequently, or while in a state of sin, have gained from it not health but sickness, Saint Paul warns his Corinthian converts that because of their unworthy communions “many are infirm and weak amongst you, and many sleep”. And on the other hand, what. multitudes that no man can number have gained through it vigour of mind and even of body.

Thus the food of the spiritual or mental or physical nature affects in greater or less degree the whole man. For however complex his being, however great the inner conflict of one part against the other, man is essentially one.

Now, the great struggle for each of us begins when one part of our nature cries out for food that will injure the rest. When body or mind hungers and thirsts for that which the spirit forbids, We are free to feed ourselves as we will, but we must abide by the results.

Who does not know, which of us has not experienced, the terrible struggle. Hunger and thirst are the strongest expressions of want. The starving man or the man parched with thirst in his frenzy will do anything to satisfy himself. Under such circumstances men will do deeds which are contrary to every instinct of humanity from which in saner moments they would recoil with horror and disgust. And in whatever part of their being this hunger and thirst is raging it zs hunger and thirst, and corresponds with the craving of the body for food and drink. It is the extreme expression of want. It seems as if without this food or drink they must die, They crave for it as for life. And yet to partake of the forbidden food is to poison and kill what is highest in them. Some bodily passion alive, astir like a hungry beast in the night, cries out for food, and the calm voice of conscience forbids it. The heart, the mind, is faint and athirst with wild desire for that which it cannot have save at the terrible cost of spiritual death. Many a man outwardly calm, passing through the great thoroughfares of life, taking part in its business or pleasures, is torn and tossed and maddened by this fierce conflict within his nature. Will he yield and throw the food for which it craves to this wild beast within him, or will he starve it into submission and feed his higher nature till it gains the mastery? That is the question. That is the question which each must answer for himself to God and his conscience. Upon the answer depends the results whether he will sink or rise.

It was the first temptation of our Lord in the wilderness ere He entered upon His public ministry; the question put by the Tempter to test Him whether He had anything to fear from Him or not – “If Thou be the Son of God turn these stones into bread and feed Thy starving body”. And our Lord’s answer came calm and clear and strong: “Not by bread alone doth man live, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God”. He takes no heed of the Tempter’s challenge, “If Thou be the Son of God”. He links Himself on to the human race into which He had condescended to enter. Jan shall not live by bread alone. No man can. There are higher needs than those of the flesh, and there are times when it were better to let the body starve to death than feed it by disobeying any word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.

For there is a hunger of the soul. “My soul thirsts for Thee, my flesh also longs after Thee,” cried the Psalmist. “Like as the hart pants after the water brooks, so longs my soul after Thee, O God.” Any food given to any lower part of our nature that for the moment deadens this hunger, or makes the soul incapable of satisfying it, subverts the whole order of our nature and works its ruin. It is the truest mercy to be stern with ourselves, to sacrifice what is lowest in us for what is highest. For as the lower nature is constantly refused the food it demands, in obedience to the higher, its demands become less insistent, its hunger less ravenous. It yields at last in submission, and the rebellious slave becomes an obedient servant. But if the demands of the higher nature be refused and it be sacrificed to the lower, though the hunger and thirst for God becomes more and more deadened and seems at last to die, it never really does die. It is the essential need of our being, and it will waken at last to wreak its vengeance, A terrible vengeance, When – it may be in old age – men find their great mistake, and as earthly things pass from their grasp the hungry soul knows too late that it can never be satisfied, and the cry for God is not the cry of devotion but of despair: “My soul is athirst for God, but can nowhere find Him”.

Therefore our Lord lays down the true law of man’s life on earth: “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice, for they shall have their fill.”