There is a classic picture of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, the twentieth-century Italian saint who enjoyed having a good time, playing billiards, and hiking with his friends. This picture is from one of his mountaineering outings as he’s scaling a cliff and looking up to the heavens. In his own hand, he inscribed on the photo the words Verso l’alto (to the heights).
There are few young people who have had an encounter with Jesus whose blood is not stirred by that image and call. “To the heights!” Similar statements from monumental players in our faith evoke the same aspirations. “You are not called to comfort, you are called to greatness!” “Do not be afraid!” “Become who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire!” Awesome stuff.
Awesome because to have an encounter with the living God in the person of Jesus Christ is not just an exciting thing. It is captivating, frightening, enthralling, and strange. It somehow gives you everything your heart has ever longed for and, at the same time, demands everything from you. The encounter embeds the knowledge in your bones that nothing else can satisfy you, as hard as you may try. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, encountering Jesus gives your life “a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
But what happens when you have started down that path, and you’ve taken off running in that decisive direction? You’re ready and willing to live a life of sacrificial love, be sent as a missionary, give your life for the faith, and fight orcs. Life is an adventure waiting to be undertaken. An encounter with Jesus brings with it the desire to help him save souls, whatever the cost.
Here is a brief dialogue from a memory of my first week of seminary when I was pretty sure I was called to save the world. The setting: fifteen brand new seminarians, ready to fight for Jesus and save souls, spent an evening getting to know our rector, Fr. Robert Barron, one of the great evangelists of our times.
Brand new seminarian (possibly yours truly): Father, how do you want us to evangelize? Do you want us to plan street evangelization? Maybe go to college campuses and ask people about Jesus? (thinking, “Wow, I just totally impressed Fr. Barron, and I’ve only been here a week”).
Fr. Barron: That’s all good stuff, but what I want you to do more than anything else is read.
Brand new seminarian: (thinking, “Wait, what did he just say?!” . . . he then muttered nothing worthy of remembrance)
Fr. Barron: You’ll never have another opportunity like this. You should read every day until your eyes hurt.
Read until your eyes hurt. What?! I want to be sent out; I can’t spend all this time reading and studying.
Think back to that picture of Frassati, that deep longing in each of our young hearts to go “to the heights!” To have our lives be about something more than ourselves, to be called to something great, to have a mission and purpose in our lives that drives us on through whatever storms come our way. Here’s the thing, the Italian verso l’alto comes from the Latin Duc in altum—“to the depths.” That’s the great trick of the spiritual life—in order to reach the heights of all the desires and dreams that stir in our hearts for a life of meaning and mission, we have to be willing to go with Jesus to our own depths. The saints have no superpowers. They are not examples of how high human beings can rise; rather, the saints are examples of how low God is willing to go in order to redeem and transform a human being.
When you encounter Jesus and he sets your heart ablaze, he sends you to a specific place and time with specific people and circumstances. The will of God is found in the concrete circumstances of our life. Always. In our freedom, we can discipline our lives around our call to love.
My first week of seminary, I wanted to save the world, but Jesus is the one who saves the world. He needed me to read so that I could be a good priest. I was like a first-year medical student asking if the professor wanted me to go ahead and perform a surgery or two.
Don’t misunderstand me; we are called to evangelize, to be witnesses to joy, and to boldly invite other human beings to know and follow Jesus, no matter how ill-equipped we feel. But like an athlete training for a lofty goal, we have a responsibility to discipline our lives.
As Catholics, we are never done reading. This summer, read one good book. One that will cultivate your imagination and help you to get to know and maybe wrestle with the God who is alive and loves you. It just might be a way to invite Jesus further into the depths of your own heart.
Don’t know where to start? Ask someone you trust, someone living a life of discipleship with Jesus. My only general advice is to read something that is written firsthand by the masters, whether it’s spiritual, historical, or fictional. There is a reason classics are called “classics,” and why spiritual masters are called “masters.”
Here are five books that have greatly impacted my Catholic faith:
- Story of a Soul by St. Thérèse of Lisieux
- A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken
- The Confessions by St. Augustine of Hippo
- Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
- Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Do you desire to go to the heights with Jesus? Good! Cultivate that desire and center your life around growing in that love. Read until your eyes hurt.