Setting Hearts Alight: Insights on Personal Influence from Saints Josemaria and John Henry Newman

 “Lord, may your children be like red-hot coals, but without flames to be seen from afar. Let them be burning embers that will set alight each heart they come into contact with.”

The Forge, no. 9

St Josemaria often evokes images of fire and light to show how the Christian faith is spread from one heart to another, as the first point of The Forge likewise makes clear: “The Lord uses us as torches, to make [His] light shine out.” St Josemaria continues themes that came from the lips of Jesus Himself—who, with images of burning lamps and casting fire upon earth, heralded the same message: Gospel faith spreads by personal contact. Just as light provides guidance and fire transforms everything it touches, so should Christians do as the Master did and cause the hearts of all whom they meet to burn within them (cf. Lk 24:32).

Kindling this kind of spiritual fire is not something we can do with our own natural talents or charm. God makes use of these gifts, to be sure, but if we want to make Christ better known and loved by all around us, we must radiate Christ from within. St Paul’s own burning ambition to be “all things to all men, that I might save at least some” powerfully underscores this fundamental Christian desire to reach as many as possible with the light and love of Christ acting through us (1 Cor 9:22).

But where do we begin? Since Christian love is ultimately global in its aims, seeking the conversion and salvation of “all men,” how can we bring St Paul’s far-reaching ambition to bear on private life? Where, concretely, do we begin to enkindle the fires of faith in the hearts of others—those fires that our Lord came to light and which St Josemaria prays we will spread as burning coals to others?

St John Henry Newman (1801-1890) assures us that God “has given us a clue” as to our starting point. “God’s merciful Providence,” he says, has narrowed our field of action to what is nearest and most familiar: “We are to begin with loving our friends about us, and gradually to enlarge the circle of our affections, till it reaches all Christians, and then all men.”1

Citing St John the beloved disciple as a prime example, Newman charts the natural scope of Christian love and influence: “Now did [St John] begin with some vast effort at loving on a large scale? Nay, he had the unspeakable privilege of being the friend of Christ. Thus he was taught to love others; first his affection was concentrated, then it was expanded.”

This insight into Christian love as first “concentrated” and then “expanded” was close to the heart of Newman. Upon his elevation to the College of Cardinals in 1879, he chose as his cardinal’s motto Cor ad cor loquitur (“Heart speaks to heart”), indicating the very personal and humble interactions that often characterize most types of evangelization and apostolate. In fact, he saw in Divine providence a ‘built-in’ order for human life that provides widening circles of relationships and of influence.

God’s wisdom normally puts us first into the family, then into a wider circle of friends, and then into contact with the world at large. Thus, “the cultivation of domestic affections as the source of more extended Christian love,” says Newman, is the normal means for arriving at the universal love to which Jesus calls us: “the best preparation for loving the world at large, and loving it duly and wisely is to cultivate an intimate friendship and affection towards those who are immediately about us,” because “the love of our private friends is the only preparatory exercise for the love of all men.”

St Josemaria likewise advises us to allow the natural scope of this love to fan-out continually: “Those who have met Christ cannot shut themselves in their own little world: They must open out like a fan in order to reach all souls. Each one has to create—and widen—a circle of friends, whom he can influence with his professional prestige, with his behaviour, with his friendship, so that Christ may exercise his influence by means of that professional prestige, that behaviour, that friendship” (cf. Furrow, no. 193).

Our Lord prepared us to expand His kingdom via relationships of trust and friendship. He clearly envisions a kingdom spread from heart to heart, from one person’s inner life to another’s: “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Lk 17:20-21). It was, in fact, our Lord’s own way of reaching souls, perhaps most poignantly in His conversation with the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:5-42).

From a private conversation at a well in Samaria, the Lord transforms a sinful and skeptical woman into an apostle: “So the woman left her water jar, and went away into the city, and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?’ They went out of the city and were coming to him” (Jn 4:28-30). Owing to her personal witness, they likewise came to Him and believed, “for we have heard for ourselves” (4:42).

From such humble and hidden exchanges come the harvests that Jesus Himself contemplated within the hearing of the Apostles: “I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest” (Jn 4:35). He said this, let’s not forget, just moments after having had a private conversation with a “stranger,” who hastened away from her dialogue with Him proclaiming to her fellow villagers that she had met the Messiah. Once the fire is lit, it spreads without delay.

Because the ordinary means of evangelization will always depend upon a Christian’s personal contact with others, St Josemaria highly valued the “apostolate of friendship,” which creates a relationship of trust and genuine love wherein the truths of the Gospel can be more effectively conveyed and received. Throughout His public ministry people came to Jesus because they trusted Him. They knew that He was good and meant to do them good. If we too are trustworthy, sincere, and plainly intent on doing good to all, then the same result will follow: people will come, not to us, but to Jesus through us.

The Cor ad cor loquitur of Newman not only embodies this Gospel teaching, but also opens our eyes to the dignity which is ours as messengers of the Gospel, friends of Christ, children of God: “We are the children of God, bearers of the only flame that can light up the paths of the earth for souls” (cf. The Forge, no. 1). God has entrusted to each of us a flame of the fire that Jesus came to cast on the earth—the tongue of fire given each of us at Confirmation should never cease to burn, grow, and attract.

If we, as St Paul exhorts Timothy, “fan into flame the gift of God” we have received (cf. 2 Tm 2:6), many others will receive through us the light and warmth of that flame which Christ first lit within our own hearts.

1 Saint John Henry Newman, “Love of Relations and Friends,” sermon preached for The Feast of St. John the Evangelist. Parochial and Plain Sermons, Vol. 2, sermon 5. All quotations from Newman in this article come from this sermon.

Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem. Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem.

Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he is a formator in his community's seminary, preaches retreats, is chaplain to several communities of women religious, serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California, and is author of Praying from the Depths of the Psalms , Home Again: A Prayerful Rediscovery of Your Catholic Faith and Scatter My Darkness: Turning Night to Day with the Gospel. Father's latest book is Coached by Josemaría Escrivá (Scepter Publishers 2023). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.

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