St. Augustine beautifully expresses a principle that is well known to the spiritual masters, namely that desire is essential, in the following words: “For it is your heart’s desire that is your prayer; and if your desire continues uninterrupted, your prayer continues also.”
Recently I have been re-reading St. Theresé of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul and I came across the same principle expressed in a different way and with a particular focus. Theresé describes her desires as such: “The cry of Jesus on the cross sounded continually in my heart: ‘I thirst!’ These words ignited within me an unknown and very living fire. I wanted to give my Beloved to drink and I felt myself consumed with a thirst for souls. As yet, it was not the souls of priests that attracted me, but those of great sinners; I burned with the desire to snatch them from the eternal flames.” At this point in her life Theresé was experiencing an intense desire to quench the thirst of Christ on the cross with the souls of sinners. She began to see it as her mission to bring souls to Jesus as a way of quenching his thirst, because it would allow him to pour out his love upon them. It seems to me that the only reason she was able to experience this intense desire is because she first quenched the thirst of Christ by giving him her own soul.
By no means have I been experiencing desires to the same degree that the mystics mentioned above most likely experienced. Nonetheless, desire has certainly played a large role in my spiritual life since I have been living at Our Lady of Calvary parish in Northeast Philadelphia this summer. Rather than name it a desire for “great sinners”, I would call it a desire to bring the love of Jesus Christ to those who are suffering. A majority of the work I have been involved in since living at Our Lady of Calvary has been funerals, burials and hospital visits: moments of intense spiritual, emotional and physical stress that beg to be impacted and transformed by the love of Jesus Christ. It helps me to remember that Christ’s commandment to his disciples was to “love one another as I love you.” (Jn 15:12) But it is not enough to simply desire to love others this way. In fact, I think that on our own it is impossible to do so. Christ speaks this commandment to us in such a way that it implicitly guarantees his presence in order to make us capable of fulfilling it. In short, the desire I have experienced is not only to love those who are suffering as Christ loves them, but to let my heart be cleansed by the blood of Christ so that it is no longer my own heart, but his heart that loves them. Experiencing an intense desire for this has opened me to begging him to transform my heart into his, so that I might love with his love, not my own.
Keep in mind as you read this next sentence that I am no expert on the priesthood and I have only been in the seminary for two years, so I could be wrong about this claim: the transformation of one’s heart into the heart of Jesus Christ is essential for a priest to effectively serve the souls of his flock. I think this is true. When I think of the priests that have had a true impact on my life of faith I realize that they all have this trait: they desire to become less like themselves and more like Christ. Even better, they are not simply after a more thorough transformation, but the completion of that transformation. It is not simply a goal of coming closer to Jesus Christ, but of allowing Christ to truly be present in them.
Perhaps the most important point is this: the nature of these desires and the completion of this transformation are accessible (and I think essential) to all vocations, not just the priesthood. Every married man and woman and every consecrated brother and sister in the religious life are made in such a way that Jesus Christ wants to transform them into himself. Ultimately, that’s what it means to be a saint. Look no farther than St. Francis of Assisi and St. Catherine of Siena to see extreme manifestations of becoming Jesus Christ.
Imagine if each disciple of Jesus Christ sought out his love in such a way that their hearts would be cleansed and purified so as to become Christ’s heart and their love for others would become Christ’s love for them. This world would be a completely different place. There is a great deal of brokenness and pain in the world, a great deal of sickness and death. The world needs saints: men and women who desire the heart of Christ as their own and who desire to bring Christ’s love to those who need it. According to St. Luigi Guanella, holiness will save the world. We must foster a desire for this holiness, and an intense desire, too. If this desire is not present in your life at the moment, pray that God would flood you with it and then act on it when it comes. The world needs you to be a saint after the heart of Jesus Christ.