Summary of Fill These Hearts by Christopher West

Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing by Christopher West, New York: Image Books, 2012. 

What this Book is About

“In short, the simple and, at the same time, lofty goal of this book is to help us aim our desire according to God’s design so we can safely arrive at our eternal destinybliss and ecstasy in union with God and one another. Desire, design, destiny: perhaps we could call it living our lives in 3D. Put even more succinctly, this book is a prayer, a cry welling up from that deep void in our being, for God to fill these hearts” (xv).

PART 1: DESIRE

Desire = an expressly felt yearning for something that promises to fill a void; a longing for that which promises satisfaction in its attainment. From the Latin desiderare: to long for, wish for, hope for, expect.

There are three “gospels” that promise happiness determined by a specific orientation of our desire, a specific invitation for how to direct or how to deal with our hunger.

Gospel #1: The Starvation Diet

The “starvation diet gospel” presents Christianity as a stoic brand of religion, a lifeless legalism of a long list of do not’s and a short list of do’s – totally unrelated to our deepest desires. The starvation diet sees desire as the enemy of the Christian life and spurns the human heart as incapable of desiring and choosing the good. This pessimistic and suspicious view of human life is the heresy known as Jansenism, which has been repeatedly condemned by the Church.

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Those who follow the “starvation diet” avoid the pain of desiring more than this life has to offer by choosing not to want so much, by shutting down desire. This is the life of the stoic. It sees pleasure as an evil to reject (“if it feels good, it must be sinful”). Rather than redirecting desire toward its proper end, stoics shut down desire and live a lifeless, vapid life.

“What we’re starved for in the “starvation diet gospel” is the beauty of the truth. We’re made for beauty. We must have it. And when the version of Christianity that is presented to us doesn’t supply what we’re looking for, we seek it elsewhere” (20).

Gospel #2: The Fast Food Diet

The “fast-food gospel” – the promise of immediate gratification through indulgence of desire – is the culture’s answer to the hunger of the human heart. It mimics the banquet we’re created for. That’s why fast food can be so attractive. But do the promises of the “fast-food gospel” really pan out? Do we truly think the reason Mick Jagger “can’t get no satisfaction” is that he’s not having enough sex? (27).

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Those who follow the “fast food gospel” try to “avoid the pain of wanting more than this life has to offer by gorging on the things this life does have to offer, trying to suck infinity out of finite things” (33). This is the life of the addict. It sees pleasure as an idol to indulge (“if it feels good, do it”). He is not led to satisfaction and happiness but addiction and despair. He is always left wanting. Yet at least he is – unlike the stoic – in touch with his desires.

“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward … promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea. We are far too easily pleased” (C.S. Lewis).

Gospel #3: The Banquet

The “banquet gospel” presents the Christian life as the passionate pursuit of the satisfaction of the heart’s deepest yearnings, the religion of ardent desire for divine ecstasy, the blessed life of hungering and thirsting for the “wedding feast”.

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This is the life of the mystic. He “allows himself to feel the deepest depths of human desire and chooses to “stay in the pain” of wanting more than this life has to offer… He can live within that “ache” because of his living hope that his “soul shall be satisfied as with a banquet” (Ps 63:5), a banquet that lasts forever and will fulfill his every desire beyond all earthly imaginings. He sees pleasure as an icon that’s meant to point to heaven (“if it feels good, it’s meant to be a preview of coming attractions”).

His spiritual life is a “constant ongoing search, driven by a mad desire and an unquenchable thirst that haunts him and never quits” (56). He finds a rich kind of satisfaction in seeking Christ and wanting Him to fill the gnawing void deep within. His life is guided by hope as he groans inwardly for the redemption of his body (Romans 8:24). He knows that without this lively hope for a banquet that will satisfy his hunger, he will start grasping at the pleasures of this world in a disordered way (59).

The Journey of a Mystic

The first step in redirecting our desires to “by being honest with ourselves and honest with God about what really goes on inside of us and refusing to cover it over with a pious mask” (67).

Then we need to learn how to listen to God. “As we listen carefully and prayerfully, we might have an important memory come to mind. We might hear a song. We might see an image in our mind’s eye. We might “hear” a voice speaking to our hearts. Pay attention to those things. Write them down in a prayer journal” (67).

“One of the things God wants to show us is that behind all our misdirected desires and lusts there is a legitimate desire God put there and wants to satisfy. Uncovering that legitimate desire and entrusting its satisfaction entirely to God is critical to our healing and wholeness… the inner healing we need is part of a lifelong journey that takes us through the various levels of painful, interior purifications. Step-by-step we learn to expose the real contents of our hearts to God and let him stretch our desires beyond the things of this world” (67).

Prayer as Desire

Prayer is fundamentally reaching into our deepest desires, becoming a longing for God, allowing God to expand our souls to increase our capacity to be filled with Him.

“So by delaying [his gift] God strengthens our longing, through longing he expands our soul, and by expanding our soul he increases its capacity. So brethren, let us long, because we are to be filled… That is our life, to be trained by longing: and our training through the holy longing advances in the measure that our longings are detached from the love of the world… Let us stretch ourselves out towards him, that when he comes he may fill us full” (St. Augustine). 

We must be “trained by longing”, that is, to allow the desires of our hearts to increase until we bypass idolatrous attachments to created things and are convinced that there really and truly is nothing in this world that can possibly satisfy it. Remember, the goal is not a stoic detachment (a cold indifference toward true gifts and pleasures this life has to offer), but a mystic detachment (a holy rejoicing in the true gifts and pleasures this life has to offer without making idols of them).

“And so, contrary to widespread belief and practice, if one is idolatrously attached to the pleasures of this world, the solution is not to turn the volume down on our desires, but to turn the volume up – way up… since every disordered desire is a reduction of the original fullness of desire with which God created us” (78, 79). 

“We must have great confidence for it is necessary not to hold back one’s desire” (St. Teresa of Avila). 

“If you would make progress, you must be thirsty, because… those who are not thirsty will never persevere in their journey” (St. Catherine of Sienna).

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“Think about it: if “the banquet” – infinite satisfaction of our desire in God – is real, then there’s no need to repress desire as the “starvation-diet gospel” would have us do, and there’s no need to reduce desire to addicting, finite pleasures as the “fast-food gospel” would have us do. Rather, if the banquet is real, we can and must learn how to unleash desire so God can fill us full. That’s what the journey of prayer is all about. If it seems daunting, you’re right: it is!

You might simply begin by praying from your heart: Lord, I recognize these twisted, lustful desires within me. Lead me on the journey of untwisting them… I desire you; increase my desire… I entrust the satisfaction of my every desire to you” (80). 

PART II: DESIGN

Design: a particular plan, purpose, or intention indicated by the form and functionality of a thing. From the Latin designare: “to set apart for a specific purpose.”

In the very design of our humanity, we find “a womb-like emptiness crying out to be filled, impregnated by [our] divine lover” (Peter Kreeft). We have been designed to be one with God, to be filled with his own divine life.

This is why the Church has traditionally prayed her liturgy toward the east. She is the Bride awaiting the coming of the Bridegroom. The sun’s rising orients the Church’s prayer, that is, the Church’s longing. The Church gathers all of creation together is a cosmic Yes to God’s marriage proposal.

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God designed our bodies – and only our bodies – to make visible what is invisible, the spiritual and the divine. God created us as sexual beings (male and female) to tell the story of His own life-giving love in the world, and to invite us to participate in that life-giving love eternally. He has written this “code” into the very design of our bodies, our deepest desires, and into the whole universe” (97).

Trusting God’s Designs

Since we have been designed for infinite bliss, we are radically dependent upon God to satisfy us. Just as God invited Adam and Eve into a relationship fo trust – to orient their hunger towards Him and believe that He will satisfy their ache – we must trust that God will satisfy the deepest desires of our hearts.

“There is only one temptation. All particular temptations are expressions of this one original or ‘primordial’ temptation. It is the temptation to believe that the fulfillment of the desires of the human heart depends entirely on us” (Lorenzo Albacete). 

“Christ’s entire mission is to save us from the lie that the satisfaction of our fundamental hunger is up to us” (118). In the Eucharist, the infinite One has become food for us in order to satisfy our hunger for the infinite (117).

Whereas the tempter wants to divert our desire away from God’s designs in order to keep us from our destiny, Christ wants us to follow him in an attitude of continued receptivity, a holy suffering, a refusal to grasp at fulfillment apart from the Father’s providence, as we journey in faith to the heavenly feast that awaits us.

PART III: DESTINY

Destiny: one’s ultimate point of arrival; one’s end or fate. From the Latin destinare: “to make firm or establish’; in archery – “to aim at.”

Our destiny is heaven, “the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (CCC).

“The question here is not whether we desire “heaven,” but what we desire as “heaven,” as the fulfillment of our longing. We all desire some kind of “heaven,” some kind of lasting fulfillment. Nothing can change that about us. But in the end, if we’re not aiming our ultimate desire at the Ultimate, we miss the mark. And when the mark is heaven, there’s something we really don’t want to miss” (126-7). 

The Moral Life

Seen in this light, the moral life is a quest to align human desire with the divine design – with authentic love – so that we can reach our heavenly destiny – and be truly happy both here and in the next life. Chastity becomes the virtue that orients all of our sexual desires and emotions toward the truth of love, a “no” to lust and a “yes” to love, the successful integration of sexuality within us so that we may live in true freedom.

Freedom

True freedom is the ability to see what is true, good, and beautiful and desire it with all our heart. In this freedom from sin and the compulsion to indulge, we are able to give ourselves as a gift of love to others, have benevolence (selfless desire for the other’s true good).

Eternal Life

Eternal life, according to Pope Benedict XVI, is not an unending succession of days on the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality… into the ocean of infinite love… a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy. We must think along these lines if we want to understand the object of Christian hope, to understand what it is that our faith, our being with Christ, leads us to expect.”

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“Lord, teach us how to direct our desires according to your design so that we may at long last arrive at so glorious a destiny. Come, Lord, fills these hearts! Amen” (176). 

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