Discovering our Burning Hearts
In high school, I attended a program sponsored by the local Catholic diocese called Young Christians at Work. The program combined direct service among directly impacted communities and learning more about Catholic Social Teaching. Now, admittedly, when I was 14, the selling point was the direct service. I loved volunteering, and the opportunity sounded fun (I do continue to be a proud nerd!). However, I could not have guessed, at the time, the lasting impacts of the justice-oriented learnings.
It was at Young Christians at Work that I first heard the metaphoric story of the ‘babies in the river.’ Now, for those unfamiliar, that might sound odd, but hang in with me. The premise is that there’s a baby caught in a river’s current. You catch sight of the baby, and you jump in to save them. But the story continues. More and more babies appear. You get help to keep plucking them out of the water. The situation becomes nearly untenable, and as it does, the looming question remains: Why are there babies in the river to begin with? Well, my 14-year-old brain nearly exploded. Right! Of course, direct service is needed to address the profound suffering and oppression in our world. But, hearing that story over 20 years ago was an epiphany of sorts – we also have to go upstream! In many ways, Young Christians at Work was an experience that has had an ongoing influence shaping my life, values, political work, community, faith, and career.
In today’s Gospel, two of Jesus’s disciples are on a journey to their own epiphany of sorts. In a state of seeming bewilderment and sorrow, the men converse with Jesus (all while not realizing it is him!) while traveling to Emmaus. When the men’s eyes are opened, they state, “Were not our hearts burning within us…” (A verse I’ve always loved and encountered often during my Jesuit education!). Though it extends beyond this reading, I imagine that their realization, the unleashing of their hearts aflame, altered their future, too, as they committed to a life of doing justice and peace.
We see these ‘aha!’ moments in the lives of many saints. Seeing as I mentioned the Jesuits, let’s talk about St. Ignatius Loyola. His conversion was precipitated by being hit in the leg by a cannonball (personally, I’m relieved I just had to sit on a couch and listen and learn).
The upshot is that we’re constantly journeying, not unlike the disciples on the road to Emmaus. We do not quite know when or where or how we’ll experience the big moments that impact our trajectories. It may come when we’re unsure and bewildered – or even comfortable and content. It may come when we’re 14, 44, or 84 years old. But the common thread is to not just be someone with a heart on fire – but to carry that flame forward. To be an agent of transformative change. To do the work of collective liberation. To bring our aliveness to the world.