How do you feel about almonds? Personally, I love them in every single form, from the marzipan that covered the wedding cake my husband shockingly made us to the milk in my cereal this morning. The thing about almonds is that they come from very thirsty trees.
The thirsty nature of these delicious, life-giving nuts featured in a years-long drought plaguing California, where 80% of the world’s almonds are produced. Successive years of insufficient rain and aggressive industrial agriculture shrank the aquifers California depended on. But it wasn’t just almond trees that needed the receding wellsprings; so did the thousands of people living in rural communities across California who depended on household wells to supply water to their homes. As the rain stopped falling and the agriculture industry sucked up what was left, California wells ran dry. Although industrial farmers could afford the heavy machinery to drill down deep enough to keep the world’s almond supply afloat, your average person could not.
Before hearing this story, I didn’t fully understand the metaphor “to plumb the depths.” A cursory understanding of the way plumbing works doesn’t capture the total desperation of a dry well. A ton of effort and money is expended to dig wells deep enough to sustain households indefinitely, then uncontrollable circumstances come along and dry them up. No matter how far you dig, you can’t quite tap the water deep in the depths. The thing that once sustained you is out of reach.
Last spring, California’s drought came to an end, for the time being; Instagram feeds filled with super-bloom selfies as evidence. Yet, as her wells began to replenish, 3,000 miles away, mine were beginning to run dry. There was no shortage of water in New York City; our taps were predictably delivering copious amounts of fresh Catskills water into glasses and bathtubs and the dough for the best bagels in the world. Rather, it was the wellspring of my spirit that was quickly draining her reserves.
“My soul thirsts for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” Scripture is full of metaphors of thirst and drought; the people who wrote it knew what it meant to live in an arid place. Yet, I found myself asking, how does the river of life promised to Christians become a dry and barren place?
I was raised in a Pentecostal church, where songs of ever-flowing springs were sung with raucous praise and congregants would dance in circular loops around the sanctuary like Hassids on a holy day. There, the favor of the Lord resulted in material wealth and a victorious life, a reward for obedience. In this theology, if your springs were running dry, you were probably being punished or tested. For a young girl prone to anxiety, the nearness of hellfire was ever-present. My fail-safe was to serve the church relentlessly and remove any temptation to sin. Because of this, immense guilt followed benign things, such as enjoying a ‘secular’ song or having a crush. Some parents worried about their children rebelling…my parents pleaded with me to go to a party sometime.
Those intense years of Christian perfection were a struggle; I felt like a dry riverbed that reflected a verdant mirage to others. Even worse, I believed the emptiness and sadness I held proved a lack of faith, and I was terrified someone might find out. All the pretense and effort caused that little 17 year-old girl to burn out, and my mother encouraged me to take a step back from serving. I experienced my first panic attack while resigning from my posts, the guilt of disappointing the church and God was so strong. I lived in that shame until one July day the following year. I was at a Christian festival I didn’t want to attend, sitting alone in a field far from the throngs. I don’t remember my exact thoughts, but I remember the heat, the long grass, the ridgeline of trees in the distance, and the sudden voice of God speaking to my heart…“ You can stop trying, you never needed to try. I love you as you are, regardless of what you do.”
It is one of the moments in my life I am most grateful for. Whereas many of my Christian friends spun out from the legalistic clutches of our culture into chaos, I fell into the arms of a God of love, who saw me as I was and found it to be enough. For the first time in my life, I had my own well of fresh, living water flowing within me.
A few months later, I headed across the country to Los Angeles to attend a non-denominational Christian college; It was as far from home as I could get on the continental United States, and a place where I’d experience another kind of Christianity. A staunchly evangelical institution, the Spirit of Love often rebelled within me against the strictures some of my classmates and professors imposed on the faith. Whereas I had once been taught a dry well was a sign of sin, I was now taught that dry and weary seasons were anticipated as a normal course of the Christian life. It was not what one ‘felt’ that made them Christian, it was the right beliefs they clung to, regardless of feeling. One simply travelled through the desert place and trusted.
It didn’t take long for me to head down a spiritual road less travelled by many of my fellow evangelicals, finding solace in liturgy and centuries old texts, exploring alternate methods of biblical interpretation, finding beauty in other traditions, and questioning assumptions. The path I walked became a genuinely verdant one. While my ever-expanding view of God’s love occasionally came into conflict with American evangelical orthodoxy, I always seemed to find my people along the way- fellow travellers not afraid of big questions or satisfied with easy answers. Early on, a mentor told me that “sometimes you have to come up to the cliff of what people think is heresy and look over.” I took on a view that a genuinely seeking heart would always be caught and that God was not threatened by ideas. My perspective mirrored what Thomas Merton called “a submarine life in which faith sometimes mysteriously takes on the aspect of doubt, when, in fact, one has to doubt and reject the conventional and superstitious surrogates that have taken the place of faith.” For nearly two decades, this approach to a life of faith has served me well.
However, something that stuck was this sense that one had to muscle through dry seasons in faith. I thought I’d done it, from time to time in a low point here or there. But you see, I had only experienced a temporary lowering of water levels in my well; the rain always came to refill it, until for too many days it didn’t. My theology explained the obvious; a faithful life was not necessarily a pain-free life; in life struggle was often par for the course. The thing it did not explain was how one could get so bone-dry in the first place.
In this arid place, I looked around my interior landscape and saw a metaphor in the almond trees. I saw how, in a season of little rain, something that otherwise might bring joy and life could suck your reservoir dry. There were so many thirsty things in my life drawing from my spiritual reserves; challenges in my spouse’s ministry, constant change, and the toxic spiritual and political climate in the home country I had only just returned to. It feels like, right now in America, there is no safe space for people of faith. From every corner, some vested political interest is co-opting ‘god’ for their own ends, damming up the rivers of life with special interests and campaign slogans.
I realized I had been knuckling down, trying to bore deeper and deeper through the bedrock, while all the noise was leeching the water out from every level. All I could do was put aside the drills and wait for the rain that just wouldn’t seem to come. Meanwhile, I was hoarding my reserves, cautiously sipping from the remaining canteens, resentful of anyone who asked to share for fear I would run out.
Can you guess how the residents of rural California survived the drought? Government agencies and nonprofits provided a steady supply of water, carried in from outside sources. Bottles, jugs, and big water tanks that could be replenished at filling stations. Reflecting on this has been a revelation; when my spiritual well is empty and the rain is not falling, I can find God in the filling stations, in the gifted bottles, in the water tanks.
More explicitly, the lesson I have taken is: humble yourself, and fill up where you can. Just like I have balked against someone presenting a political litmus test for membership in the Christian community, I have realized I must not present a spiritual litmus test for others, but instead find God where I can in their midst. I have learned my thirst can be quenched in a catholic mass or a mega-church or a podcast or a conversation with a fellow traveller, no matter which road they’ve come from. I’ve learned that I don’t need to sign up to all the particulars to realize that in each place there is something they’ve got right about God’s nature and what it means to be human. So, I fill up my tank, and a couple extra bottles to share and I continue to wait for the rain, but I do it less alone.
In the opening pages of the Universal Christ,Richard Rohr references “..the Full and Big Tradition, by which I mean the perennial tradition, the Wisdom of the entire body of Christ…” In some ways, it seems that figuring out what this is has been the great lesson of my life so far. I know I am not done learning it, and I have no idea where it will take me. But I think I see some rain clouds in the horizon…and maybe, was that perhaps a little drizzle?