Thursday, April 11, 2013

Fill These Hearts (A Westian's Review)

My first post on sex caused quite a stir. Unwittingly, I had walked into the middle of a pitched battle between those who admire the popular theologian Christopher West (i.e., "Westians") and those who believe that his approach plays into the Main Stream Media's cult of the orgasm. So, it is with some trepidation that I venture my review of Christopher West's most recent book, Fill These Hearts. It is with even more trepidation that I announce that I liked it.

A recurring theme of Fill These Hearts is that we must learn to aim our desire according to God's design so that we can arrive at our destiny. Our destiny is to be totally united in bliss with Our Lord and Savior forever in heaven. "These heavenly nuptials are what we long for (desire); they're what we're created for (design); and they're what we're headed for (destiny)," states West.

A deservedly popular blogger voiced the complaint that Fill These Hearts "does not discuss chastity until page 127!" -- her implication being that chastity is, or should be, the main point of West's book. I respectfully disagree with that implication. I don't think that chastity is or should be the main point of West's book, because I don't think that sex is the main point of his book. True, he uses the ecstatic, nuptial, and even erotic language of the mystics whom he favors. But let's look beyond the sizzle to see what he's really saying. How do we achieve our desire based on God's design for our destiny? Primarily through prayer, the liturgy, and the Eucharist.

Here's what he says about prayer:

"True contemplative prayer ... is where we 'let our masks fall.' It's where we get real with God. It's where we [metaphorically] get naked, allowing our hearts to be fully exposed." Praying, we can say to Our Lord: "I desire you; increase my desire." (pp. 70, 80)

About liturgy:

"Christ is the one who 'left father and mother' to give up his body for his Bride, so that the Church might become 'one body, one spirit' with him, as the priest says in the Church's liturgy. And that's where it all happens for us -- in the liturgy, in the Church's most exalted prayer.  ...In her liturgy, the Church, speaking for all of creation, gives her 'yes' to God's marriage proposal." (pp. 93-94)

About the Eucharist:

"In the Eucharist, Christ offers his body graciously to us, and we offer ours graciously to him. And so, as Joseph Ratzinger wrote, in receiving Holy Communion 'there is a person-to-person exchange, a coming of one into the other. The living Lord gives himself to me, enters into me, and invites me to surrender myself to him.'" (p. 95)

And, only then, about chastity:

"Chastity is the virtue that overcomes the selfish pull of lust within us and orients the wildness of eros toward the truth of infinite love. ... This is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church boldly proclaims: 'Chastity is a promise of immortality.'" (p. 127)

Our destiny is immortality. Our destiny is heaven. Seen in this light, chastity is clearly not the end-point. It's the stepping stone. Without prayer, the liturgy, and the Eucharist, you may not be able to achieve chastity. You may not even see a reason to try. With prayer, the liturgy, the Eucharist, and the self-control inherent in chastity, you may be launched on a path to unending happiness.

I recommend this book whole-heartedly to anyone who seeks a peace that passes all understanding and a love that lasts forever. In the words of Blessed Pope John Paul II, "it is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; ... it is He who provoked you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise."

I guess my whole-hearted recommendation of Christopher West's book makes me a Westian. And I guess I'm okay with that.


  1. Excellent points - and I'd say my reaction to the book was very similar to yours! Thanks for sharing. :)

    1. Thanks, Stephanie. I appreciate the support!

  2. I'll toss my hat into the Westian camp, too, then. I have to say, I really don't like the fact that such a strong line has somehow been drawn, and that there's a tendency that you have to be all-or-nothing on one side of it when it comes to reverent frankness about sexuality. In my experience, getting real, while still being respectful, is a much better approach to these matters than keeping your distance, and since the culture is impossible to ignore, it takes a gifted evangelist to enter into it without "selling out" in a way; I admire West because I think he does this so well.

    I really enjoyed your review, Karee. I read the other one you linked to and would respond to the chastity complaint by arguing that I don't think that chastity is actually meant to be the central focus of this book. Desire, yes, but disciplining desire through chastity (while it's certainly very important, and, in my opinion, a key part of understanding desire in a good way), is not the point of the book. When it comes to TOB, it seems easy to forget sometimes that it's not just about earthly sexuality and not just about the bigger divine picture, but that they have to be held in a proper tension, so perhaps critiques of this book could stem from a desire on the reader's part to see one or the other given greater emphasis. It's actually amazing to me that this man has been able to write so many books on one teaching (the Theology of the Body), each with a different emphasis, from desire in this particular book, to bearing the Gospel, the Song of Songs, and eros and agape, in others. In my eyes, then, it's okay not to include every aspect of TOB in every book. I could go on all review of Fill These Hearts is here:

    Thanks for writing this, I think it has the potential to provide a lot of clarity in this little debate =)

    1. Thanks for posting the link to your review of Fill These Hearts. I read your review when you first posted it, and it actually inspired me to write this one.

  3. Here I go!

    When you say " I don't think that chastity is or should be the main point of West's book, because I don't think that sex is the main point of his book. " I think the problem is that chastity is viewed strictly in terms of sexual morality. Those who become eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom (or females who.... okay I don't know the analogy but you get my drift!) indeed are chaste, but it isn't just because they abstain from sex.

    That's the problem a lot of us have. Everything is viewed through the prism of sex, and it really need not be so. And to be honest, I don't think you'd disagree with anything I just wrote there. We call it giving the full story. We don't think Mr. West and his friends do.

    1. Hi, Kevin. Glad to hear from you again on the blog. I do agree that everything should not be viewed through the prism of sex. However, the Catechism does define chastity as "the successful integration of sexuality within the person." Therefore, I think that chastity has to be viewed in terms of sexual morality.

      If you're making the point that chastity ultimately involves self-control over all the passions (including gluttony, anger, etc.), then you're right that chastity deserves a more prominent spot in conversation over spiritual matters. I think it's fair to say that prayer, the liturgy, and the Eucharist should still come first, tho.

    2. Now we're getting somewhere. Yes, chastity applies in all the passions, not just the sex drive. I don't really see it as a coming "first" or second. Prayer, liturgy and sacraments are the tools we use to help apply chastity to all aspects of our lives.

      That's sorta been the point of the series at Catholic Lane I've been doing. Far too often, the sacraments like the Eucharist (and especially Confession!) are seperated from living a life of virtue, whereas the point I like to make is that the sacraments are how we become virtous.

      So when we complain that West barely mentions chastity in a book about sexuality, or mentions confession only once or twice in 600 some odd pages of TOB explained (in one off statements basically downplaying them), that's what we mean. We aren't bringing those powerful tools for living out Bl. JPII's statements, and he covers them in his general audiences, but also in several of his encyclicals as well.

      Sometimes it can be a semantics issue, but I think it's an important one.

  4. And I guess I would not say chastity is a "stepping stone" to heaven. Just as batting practice is not a "stepping stone" to Miguel Cabrera's hitting dominance. It is how he obtains that dominance

    Or for a more personal note, me serving and doing things for my bride to be isn't a stepping stone towards the nuptial union we will enjoy for the rest of our lives. It's the vehicle I drive on the road of fidelity.

    Chastity is that vehicle we drive on the narrow road of Christ, that encompasses all we do. So yeah, going the majority of the book without mentioning it, and then only in a brief quote, I think that's an entirely valid criticism.