Water, for the Ents, is literally an aqua vita. It provides sustenance and entices sleep; it invokes laughter and calms haste; it organizes their homes and even provides light. It distills the needs of breath, drink, food, and warmth into a single substance. In the hands of the ancient shepherds of the forest, water becomes a higher form of itself, a magnification, as Merry and Pippin discover:
“The drink was like water, indeed very like the taste of the draughts they had drunk from the Entwash near the borders of the forest, and yet there was some scent or savour in it which they could not describe: it was faint, but it reminded them of the smell of a distant wood borne afar by a cool breeze at night. The effect of the draught began at the toes, and rose steadily through every limb, bringing refreshment and vigour as it coursed upwards, right to the tips of the hair. Indeed the hobbits felt that the hair on their heads was actually standing up, waving and curling and growing.”
These qualities of water necessitate the fifth corporal work of mercy, giving drink to the thirsty, which I find a weak and unsatisfactory alternative to the phrase quenching the thirsty. The word “quench” comes through Old English roots meaning “to extinguish.” Quenching is a service acted upon multiple layers: most obviously 1) to quench advocates for alleviating the immediate thirst of those who are arid. Beauty radiates from its simplicity: whether drawing water from a well, passing cup to a stranger, or giving bottle to a dry tongue, the mercy aids in the person’s own quenching, satisfying the need, providing balm for the parched pain. In quenching the thirsty, one assists in bringing about refreshment and vigour; one succors life itself.
Simple enough. Yet to extinguish a thirst means also 2) to quench the cause of thirst. As the poet says, “Water, water, every where, and all the boards did shrink; water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink.” The hobbits immense thirst is caused by their captivity and the cruelty of the orcs; Treebeard speaks of the felling of trees, the destruction of forests, and the polluting of rivers. On a planet that teems with water, tragic is the struggle for so many persons to obtain it. Whether by war, pollution, greed, or mismanagement, the most basic element of life is corrupted into a harbinger of death. The advocacy for clean, accessible, and bountiful water is an act of mercy, and importantly provides an outlet for Christian service for those who care for the environment. The highest form of fostering the world itself cannot be service but is instead stewardship, as service (that is to say, the works of mercy) requires relationship and personhood. Those impassioned by the cause of stewardship indirectly participate in the quenching the thirsty by orienting the environment toward the symbiotic preservation of human life.
There is a final layer to this work of mercy, for after alleviating immediate thirst and rectifying the cause of thirst, still there remains 3) to quench thirst itself. “Whoever believes in me will not thirst” (John 6:35). God works through water – the waters of creation, the waters of the Flood, the waters in the desert, the waters of baptism – and therefore water recalls the “living water” which the Samaritan woman sought at the well (John 4:1-15). In water is that faint reminder, that “scent or savour” of something indescribable borne from afar. Quenching the thirsty has a spiritual component to it; there is a thirst no earthly water may extinguish. In quenching the thirsty, one seeks to serve a true aqua vita: a water for the withered wilderness of both body and soul.
2015’s Reflection: “On Not Being Hasty”