My Thirst for God Satisfied
I HAD spent ten years studying in South American seminaries, the last three years of which I specialized in theology and philosophy. But now a humble peasant was telling me that he could help me to understand the Bible. My disappointment with seminary instruction made me listen.
What had moved me to want to be a priest? Yet why did years in seminaries leave me with an unsatisfied thirst for God?
A Humble Background
My parents raised seven of us boys in Vallegrande in Bolivia. We lived in a fertile valley, raising cattle and growing such crops as maize, peanuts, and potatoes. Our village of Naranjal was isolated, so I had little opportunity for schooling. However, I did learn to read and write.
Each year a Roman Catholic priest would visit our village for the local religious festival. I used to admire the way he spoke about God. On one visit, he announced that a seminary had been opened in Bolivia to train young men to become priests. When I said that I wanted to learn about God, he began to take an interest in me. He said: “You can become like a ladder, helping people get to heaven.”
I longed to go to the seminary and acquire knowledge about God. I hoped that there some of the confusion I felt would be cleared up. For example, although my mother taught me that the mountains, flowers, and trees were gifts from God, she also said that God sends some people to hell to suffer terrible tortures. ‘How can God be that way?’ I wondered.
The new seminary was in Tupiza, a town in a beautiful valley. I arrived in 1958. When I was younger, I enjoyed climbing a hill where I would meditate about our loving Creator. However, I was disappointed not to be learning much about God at the seminary. There they didn’t even have a complete Bible, only the “New Testament.” When I asked about getting one, the instructors told me to be patient.
After the first year, only three of us qualified to continue the course. All the rest were sent home. Since we were so few, we were sent to Buenos Aires, Argentina, to continue our studies. When I arrived at the San Miguel Seminary, I felt overawed. It seemed such a huge place. ‘Surely I will be able to draw close to God here,’ I thought. We studied Latin, Greek, English, and French, and we read about the lives of those the Catholic Church honored as “saints.” But these studies left me feeling empty. My questions remained unanswered.
“How is it that God is a Trinity?” I asked one of the instructors. He replied that even great theologians like the 13th-century Italian Thomas Aquinas had not been able to explain things like that. I still had never seen the complete Bible, so I asked one of the professors about the “Old Testament.”
“That is only for Protestants,” he said.
I wondered how this could be, since I knew that Jesus often quoted from it. I became frustrated and depressed.
In time, six of us were selected as novices, and we took vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. After a year’s study as novices, we went to the seminary in Córdoba, Argentina. We could wear only religious garb, which consisted of a long black gown and a white collar, together with a rosary and a large crucifix. I was filled with anticipation; now for the first time, I would be taking a course in theology.
The theology course featured a study of higher criticism, which treats the Bible as a work of literature like any other book. I was disappointed that my many questions were still not being answered. I became a close friend of a bishop. “How is it that the Bible says Jesus was in hell?” I asked. (Acts 2:31) But he simply evaded my question.
There were also many moral questions that troubled me. I asked a theologian about masturbation and sex between single persons. Rather than referring to what God’s Word says regarding such matters, he was enthusiastic about the latest ideas of well-known theologians in Paris. He showed me one of their books. “They say that these things are not sinful,” he said. “You have nothing to worry about.” But the answer did not satisfy me.
One day I was browsing in the seminary library when I happened to open a book written in French. It quoted Psalm 42:2, which says: “My soul indeed thirsts for God.” I thought to myself, ‘Why, that is just the way I feel.’ Soon afterward, while visiting home, I went to the convent in the nearby town of Vallegrande. There in the bookshop I saw a copy of the complete Bible—the Nácar-Colunga translation. It was the first time I had ever seen a complete Bible. I asked if I might purchase it, hardly believing that it would be possible. How happy I was to walk out of that shop with my own Bible under my arm!
I walked home singing and whistling. On arriving, I began to read Psalm 42, which begins: “As the hind that longs for the water streams, so my very soul longs for you, O God. My soul indeed thirsts for God, for the living God.” ‘Perhaps now,’ I thought, ‘my thirst for God will be satisfied.’ But I soon realized that I would need help to find Bible answers to my questions. My seminary studies failed to supply such help.
In 1966, I was told that a higher seminary specializing in theology and philosophy had been opened near Cochabamba in my native Bolivia and that I was to be transferred there. The seminary was staffed by young Spanish priests, modern theologians, and it had a beautiful library. ‘Perhaps now I will find the answers to my questions,’ I thought.
Often I would ask questions, such as: “How can it be that Mary is the mother of God?” Yet, instructors had little interest in such questions. Rather, they were more concerned with Communist philosophy. Once I met a cardinal, but he was more interested in telling me about his experiences in World War II than answering my questions.
After ten years of seminary training, I asked for a year’s leave of absence so that I could get out and meet people. I wanted to experience speaking to people about the gospel. Soon I realized I would never be satisfied with convents, so I decided to ask to be released from my vows. Later I married a former nun, Porfiria. We took up lodging in the city of Santa Cruz, Bolivia.
A Surprising Visitor
One day the following year, I was sitting on the patio where the landlady was baking bread in a wood-fired oven. A man arrived at the gate. I assumed that he had some business with her, so I called: “Come in!” He did, and he sat down beside me. Although he was dressed neatly, I could tell by his appearance that he was from a humble background. To my surprise he began talking to me about the Bible.
I learned later that the man’s name was Adrian Guerra and that he was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It didn’t take me long to realize that he didn’t know how to read well. I was on my guard with him, but I didn’t feel afraid. ‘After all,’ I thought, ‘I know Latin and Greek. I have studied theology and have spent years discussing philosophy with theologians and bishops.’ I didn’t feel proud or despise him, but I simply did not expect to learn anything from him.
He asked my opinion on the question, Why has there been such an increase in badness in the world? We talked about this, and then he asked me to show him my Bible. By this time I had bought the recently published Catholic Jerusalem Bible. He had me read Revelation 12:12, which says: “But for you, earth and sea, trouble is coming—because the devil has gone down to you in a rage, knowing that his days are numbered.”
“Surely that refers to when sin began,” I countered. He had me read the context, verses 7-10, which says that war in heaven began when Christ became King, and as a result Satan and his angels were hurled down to the earth. “The terrible conditions we see now are the result of the Devil’s increased anger,” explained Adrian. “But we can be pleased that Christ is now King and that the Devil’s days are numbered.”
Learning this from my Bible fascinated me. But I was also astonished that this humble man, with such a pleasant smile, could just sit there and calmly explain the Scriptures to me.
My Thirst for God Satisfied
Adrian left me some literature and promised to return. I was glad when he next visited, and I began to ask him questions that had perplexed me for so long, such as: “How can God be a Trinity?” and, “Why was Jesus in hell?” He used a guide to the Bible called The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life, and he had me read from my own Bible the texts cited there that answered my questions. I felt like a burro (donkey or dimwit). I learned that God’s name is Yahweh, or Jehovah, and that he is not a Trinity, that hell is the grave and Jesus was unconscious there for parts of three days.—Psalm 16:10; Ecclesiastes 9:10; Isaiah 42:8.
I had often asked in the seminary about the afterlife and was told that heaven is like a great church where all will stand before God and pray. ‘How boring!’ I thought. But now, as the Bible’s promise of everlasting life in a paradise earth was explained to me, my faith in God’s love for mankind was rekindled.—Psalm 37:9-11, 39; Revelation 21:3, 4.
After a few visits, Adrian arrived one day with a foreigner, whom he introduced as a congregation overseer. “You ask so many questions,” he said, “I decided this missionary will be able to help you much better.” But I liked Adrian, and the missionary’s presence made me nervous. So I continued studying the Bible with Adrian. I started to attend meetings at the Kingdom Hall and found that the Bible talks were very instructive.
Overcoming My Fear
In time Adrian began encouraging me to share with others what I had learned. At their meetings Jehovah’s Witnesses are encouraged to teach from house to house. In fact, I came to realize that the Bible theme Adrian first considered with me, about the cause of increasing badness, had been the recommended topic of conversation for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Bolivia that month in 1970. I could see that the training Adrian received equipped him to serve God better than my ten years of training had equipped me! Yet, the idea of visiting people at their homes frightened me. It was so different from preaching to people who come to church.
The next time Adrian came to study with me, I hid in the house and pretended not to be at home. He must have suspected as much because he patiently waited outside for a full half hour before leaving. But he didn’t give up on me; to my surprise he returned the following week. Gradually, my love for Jehovah grew stronger, and I overcame my fear. In 1973 my wife and I were baptized. Porfiria became a pioneer, serving full-time in the preaching work and conducting Bible studies. She continued up to and including the day of her death early in 1992.
Adrian became a fluent reader, and for many years now, I have served as an elder in the congregation. We both continue to preach the good news of God’s Kingdom from house to house. Recently I met a lady who said: “You should have stayed with the church. You could have done a lot of good from within.”
I asked if she would bring me her Bible. When she did, I showed her Jeremiah 2:13, which describes how Israel rejected God’s Word. It says: “They have left even me, the source of living water, in order to hew out for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that cannot contain the water.”
“Something similar has happened with the church,” I told her. “Trying to satisfy people’s thirst for God with un-Biblical Catholic teachings is like trying to supply water from a broken cistern.” Indeed, it was only when I started to study the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses that my thirst for God was satisfied.—As told by Hugo Durán.
[Picture on page 15]
Adrian and I present the Kingdom message together