01-02-2014 - Traces, n. 2


Desire Begets Desire
From a California commune to the St. Charles Seminary in Rome, FR. VINCENT NAGLE retraces the events that revealed "the attractiveness of life itself–a life in which one discovers to have gained it all" in responding to somone who calls each one by name.

by Barbara Gagliotti and Sarah Strenio

"'Have you seen Him whom my heart loves?' [Songs 3:3]. None of us finds it difficult to imagine what happened inside them when Jesus, bending over their nothingness, called them by name. How amazed they must have been! How much more inflamed they must become in the passion for Him, the desire to seek Him," we heard Fr. Carrón say at the Beginning Day. Fr. Vincent Nagle, of the Priestly Fraternity of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo, shares with Traces the story of how Jesus called him by name.

You have had a very colorful life, even by American standards–growing up on the outskirts of the famous hippie communes in the California Redwoods in 1960s, one of 8 children, each following markedly different paths to happiness in life. The words like "attraction" and "desire" must have had a particular meaning for you.
I remember, when I was 13, a conversation between myself, my grandmother, and one of my older brothers. A few years earlier, my brother had been involved in drug dealing, and ended up getting arrested in Israel. He told us how he had gotten out of prison and gone into Jerusalem that very day. As soon as he got into the city, he saw this beautiful girl walking by and said, "I'm gonna have that girl." Then he said, "You know, that night I did have that girl." (I'm not trying to scandalize you. Sorry about that.) I said, "How'd you manage that?" You know, a 13-year-old boy wants to know these things. I don't remember what he said, but I remember what my grandmother said.

It is amazing that your grandmother was even part of the conversation!
Well, my grandmother is no shrinking violet. She had been a night club dancer in the speakeasies. She was a famous Broadway dancer in Ziegfeld Follies, and then became the very first Revlon Cover Girl. She was a woman of the world, even from the point of view of giving away her secrets. So she looked at me and said, "Honey, don't you know? Desire begets desire. When your brother looked at this woman with desire, it sparked a desire in her." We all want to be desired, and it makes us desire the person who desires us. Now, I thought that was pretty good advice about how to make conquests. What I didn't expect is that it be would a very deep description of my own discovery of God–and humanity's relationship with God.

You grew up very strongly influenced by Eastern religions; how did this play into your own understanding?
I was given a lot of training by my older sister, especially in Buddhist meditation. The Buddha begins in the same place as Christianity–from human need–but then we move in exactly opposite directions. People suffer because they desire what they cannot have. And I would even say we sin because we desire, but we don't know what we desire, so we take what we can get! It's very close to what Buddha would say. People desire, but they cannot possess, so they suffer. Well, how can we fix that? If people realized that what they desire–actually their very desire for what they desire–is an illusion; if they were freed of this illusion, then they would be free of all suffering. This is what Buddha taught. Once I was at a Catholic–Buddhist conference and I remember seeing this one Buddhist monk there looking up to a crucifix, looking up there at Jesus. What was Jesus doing on that crucifix? Suffering, of course! And he said, "Sometimes we are at these conferences and I think we are very close. But then I look at this and I think: we will never understand each other, never." So Buddha says the point is to be enlightened, to be liberated from this wheel of desire and disappointment, of violence and sin, and to realize that our desire is an illusion–but that's a big thing to say your desire is an illusion!

What do you lose when you say your desire is an illusion?
From the moment you open your eyes, you have desires. In fact, when someone says, "I want to know myself," what is he trying to understand? What he wants! The very word "I" can only be spoken when you say "I desire," "I want." Otherwise, there's no meaning to this word "I." For Buddha, there is no "self" because your very self is an illusion. In other words, Buddha looked at life, saw this suffering, saw that the heart of man consisted in desire, and said, "To keep people from suffering we will take away their hearts."

What is the place of desire in the Christian ethos?
My experience of Christianity is exactly the opposite. Christ came to say, "I am the object of your desire." So the entire path is to go deeper into desire, because a deeper relationship with the object of our desire brings out our "I" more–I become more and more myself! It screams out my identity. It's the miracle of the creation of my heart through an ever more intense relationship with the object that my heart was made for, the object of desire. We were made for something, but we don't know who we are until that object appears and attracts us. And this is the dynamic of salvation. My grandmother got it right.

How is salvation a question of attraction?
The true desire is the desire that doesn't just draw out my sexual instinct or my greed or my desire for comfort or my desire to protect myself from the infinite dangers of life. It is an object that draws out something that goes much deeper. It's the one object of attraction that draws out my "I." Me, Vincent. What do the Gospels say? That God calls each one, draws each by name, the "I."

How do you see that in the Gospels?
One of my first insights into the Bible, as I was becoming a Christian, was that Jesus was not an easy guy to be with. Being with Jesus was fascinating, thrilling, compelling, stunning, and overwhelming; but it was never easy. There was a constant purification involved. As the disciples became more and more attached to Him, He moved them further and further from what they thought they were attached to, things like national power or personal status. 'Grant that in Your glory one of us may sit on Your right and one on Your left.'" Little by little, He purifies their object of desire, their point of attraction. What emerges with Him is the attractiveness of life itself–not just any appetite, but an appetite for Life, eternal Life–a life that's plugged into the only source of life, which is Love; a life in which one discovers to have gained all.

You discovered this in your own life?
Ultimately, the event that draws us to God is the Spirit of Jesus dwelling among some that He has chosen. This becomes apparent to us when we see that there are some people who want the good of our life more than we do. They are more willing to suffer for my good than I am. They have a greater passion for my life than I do. Their desire begins to inflame my own. This happened for me for the first time some 3,000 miles away from here, in San Francisco, at a place called the Saint Ignatius Institute.

With Fr. Joseph Fessio?
Yes, it was this really Catholic ramrod place and I ended up there. Given my background, I found myself outraged by their doctrinaire judgment on all the hot-topic issues. I'd been an active Catholic for years; no one had ever said any of those things. Well, let's just say that I really took my opposition to them very seriously. Yet, there were many times Fr. Fessio defended me. On the day before graduation, I went to his office and said, "Even though we've had our discussions, I know I wouldn't have graduated without you, so thank you." He said, "Don't thank me, Vincent. We need more students like you because you asked all the hardest questions, and you stayed there to listen to the answers, so everybody learned!" When I looked at him, I realized that I had done my best to make him suffer, but that didn't matter to him. If this suffering could contribute to my coming closer to seeing God in His true face, it didn't matter to him. He was much more willing to suffer for my good than I was.

Your mother is also very important in your life.
My mother was involved in the founding of the New Age Movement and she told me many times that my "Catholic thing" was not for her. Then, a little after I began seminary, my superior, Father (and now Bishop) Massimo Camisasca, came to visit. He was there for two or three days, but he doesn't speak English and she doesn't speak Italian, so it didn't go so well. A month later, she asked me to take her to our local church, where she ended up receiving all of the sacraments. When I asked her why, she said, "Well, when Fr. Massimo was here, I saw how much the Church loves you, and I want to be able to love you like that." She wasn't convinced by doctrine or ethics; she wanted to love more. Desire begets desire. That's the mission of salvation and attraction is its strength.