West: We were invited to educate the priests, but we also had the chance to be among the poorest of the poor. We spent some time with a lovely Irish missionary nun, Sr. Anne, who, as part of her rounds, took us to meet a paralyzed teenaged girl who lives in a small shack on the side of a mountain. You would think this girl – who has nothing and lives a life of great suffering – would be tragically depressed, but she radiated joy. Sr. Anne asked her why she was so joyful and the girl said, “I talk to Jesus all day long, and he talks to me.” That was the most memorable experience of the trip.
Kapler: In At the Heart of the Gospel you pointed out, and I would argue rightly so, that we cannot change the culture through a merely intellectual presentation of the Truth, nor one that starts simply by attacking error. Instead we need to focus upon the beauty and power of the Truth as it comes to us, for example, in John Paul II’s TOB. But what does that look like? How should I respond when I am at work and my coworker begins talking about how bigoted it is to oppose same-sex “marriage”?
West: Yes, where to begin? I think it’s important to look for common ground before discussing differences. For instance, everyone yearns for love. Everyone feels that “ache” inside for fulfillment. Start there. Affirm it. Catholic teaching is so often presented merely as a list of prohibitions rather than as a path by which to pursue the satisfaction of the deepest desires of our hearts. In my experience, if people know that you are with them in affirming that deepest yearning of the human heart – if they know that you feel that yearning too and are a true seeker of answers to life’s deepest questions – then we can begin a civilized conversation about what fulfills that yearning and what doesn’t. In other words, we need to love people right where they are and approach them not with an agenda to prove a point or win an argument, but with love, compassion, understanding, patience, and as a fellow seeker in the human quest for answers to life’s questions.
Kapler: I understand you have a new book about to be released, Fill These Hearts. What is the focus?
West: Actually, it’s about precisely what we were just discussing – that “ache” inside that we all feel for fulfillment. The subtitle is God, Sex, and the Universal Longing. The Greeks called that longing “eros.” Fill These Hearts explores the ancient but largely forgotten idea that the restless, erotic yearning we feel at the core of our being is actually our desire for God, for “the wedding feast” that Christ promises in the Gospels. I try to show that true satisfaction of our hunger lies not in repressing eros, nor in indulging it lustfully, but in learning how to direct our desire according to God’s design so we can safely arrive at our eternal destiny: bliss and ecstasy in union with God and one another forever. The Gospel in a nutshell is this: there is a banquet that corresponds to the hunger we all feel inside; there is a sweet wine that corresponds to the thirst we feel inside; there is a balm that corresponds to the “ache” in our hearts. Life, yearning, suffering, love, our cry for intimacy and union – all begin to make sense when the Church’s teaching is properly framed and presented as the beautiful invitation that it is.
Kapler: Fill These Hearts is more than a book, it’s also a live event. Would you tell us about that?
West: Sure. I’ve been in dialogue with a team of creative thinkers and artists for several years now, all of the “JP II generation.” Each of us has been impacted by art and music as much as by our study of theology. We were especially inspired by JP II’s Letter to Artists in which he insists that the Gospel cannot be presented in all of its splendor without the help of art. With that as our inspiration, The Cor Project has been developing an artistic event that integrates my presentations with the live music of indie folk-rock group Mike Mangione and the Union (www.mikemangione.com) along with other artistic elements like movie clips, classical and contemporary paintings and icons and thematic imagery projected on large screens.