Twice at least I was in Madras (Chennai), south India, in the spring and summer, before the rains came. As was too often the case, the rains were delayed, and water supplies were dwindling. Water was being rationed; people who could afford it purchased smaller and larger quantities from private companies that brought in water from afar. The poor and even many in the middle class lined up with buckets, waiting for a city water truck to come by, to dole out a day’s supply. I lived both times in a Jesuit house, and we had our own water tank on the roof. But we were urged to save water – wash yourself from a bucket, and use what was left to wash your clothes. No drop could be wasted. Do not take water for granted.
Global warming comes in many guises – including fires and floods — but perhaps the most eerie phenomenon is when it simply stops raining: what does not happen becomes deadly.
Like you, I have read about droughts across the world, read the stories and seen the terrifying pictures of dried-up lakes, empty riverbeds, shriveled crops – and farmers made destitute, families going hungry or priced out of the market as the price of food soars, animals and humans dying of thirst. Half of Europe is drought-stricken. China is suffering major droughts, and as always, parts of the Middle East. Somalia seems to always be afflicted with a lack of rain. The American West seems to be running out of water entirely; large sections of Europe are suffering unprecedented droughts this summer.
Nor is all this just someone else’s problem. I never expected us to be facing the same here in New England, which is normally a fairly wet, well-rained environment. Yet over the past three months at least, we have had hardly any rain at all, instead of the usual nine inches or so. The situation is not desperate yet, though farmers are struggling to grow crops with limited water, and are of necessity choosing to water some fields and leave others to perish, if not saved by rains that might still come. If we pay attention, even in urban neighborhoods like Cambridge, MA, we can see trees and plants drooping, then beginning to shrivel, leaves brown and falling even in August. We have the Charles River between Boston and Cambridge; otherwise, I do not see even how birds and animals could survive, assuming they do.
That rain is a mysterious gift that simply comes and falls upon us, most often as the indispensable source of life, is a well-known theme. It is a gift, which we desperately need, cannot make happen, but depend on. If you look around, passages on rain are fairly frequent in the Bible. The Psalms put it simply,
He covers the sky with clouds;
he supplies the earth with rain
and makes grass grow on the hills.
He provides food for the cattle
and for the young ravens when they call. (Psalm 147)
Elijah lives through a terrible drought which kills many and leaves even him near to death:
Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” The word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” So he went and did according to the word of the Lord; he went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the wadi. But after a while the wadi dried up because there was no rain in the land. (I Kings 17)
At the end of the next chapter, through Elijah, God brings back the rains.
Isaiah 55 marvels over the mystery of God, and the fruitfulness of God’s word — which can be compared to the rains that fall and gives life:
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55)
Lack of rain would be like the silence of God: a Word not spoken, that does not come forth and give life to all.
In the Sermon on the Mount, the generous, indiscriminate mercy of God is best compared to the rain:
But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5)
But perhaps the most remarkable statement about the rain comes in the revered and very popular text of ethical norms from ancient south India, the Tirukkural (Holy Couplets). This set of about 1300 couplets deals in its major parts with righteousness, prosperity, and love. (A great text of moral values, it attracted Christian attention before most other Indian texts; Fr. Beschi, a Jesuit, translated most of it into Latin in the early 18th century.) It begins, as many Indian religious texts will, with verses reverencing God as the source of all:
“A” begins the alphabet / And God, primordial, the world.
Long life on earth is theirs who clasp / The glorious flower-garlanded feet.
The delusions caused by good deeds and bad / Shall never be theirs who seek God's praises. (Tirukkural 1.1, 3, 5; P. Sundaram tr., adapted)
But what is at first surprising is that the very next set of couplets is in praise of rain. God, then rain. Here is the set in full, on what rain makes possible, and what is lost when the rains do not come:
Rain which sustains the world / Should be deemed life's elixir.
To the hungry, rain supplies / Both food, and itself as drink.
Should rain fail, hunger will rack / The wide earth sea-girt.
Ploughmen will not plough / If rain withholds its plenty.
It is rain which ruins men; it is also rain / Which lifts them up.
If raindrops stop dropping / There won't be a blade of grass.
Even the wide sea will be less itself / If the cloud depriving it meanly holds back.
If the heavens dry up, the very gods / Will lack festival and worship.
The vast world rainless, one may bid adieu / To charity and penance.
If the world cannot do without water / Neither can do aught without rain. (Tirukkural 2.11-20; P Sundaram tr.)
The Tirukkural is deliberately placing reverence for God next to reverence for rain. Both are mysterious, and life is unimaginable without either. The world needs God; the world needs rain.
And so in a profound way, drought is a kind of negative sacrament: what the world is like without lifegiving rain, without the lifegiving God. We too often take rain for granted, as if it is somehow to our credit that it rains. Drought is terrible, but at least it teaches us – people like me – that life itself is a gift that is not to be taken for granted.