WORCESTER, Mass. — Bishop Robert Barron told Assumption College graduates Sunday that humans can feel empty after experiencing all of the world’s pleasures but that true “satisfaction of the restless heart is in God alone.”
Bishop Barron, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of the Catholic apologetics organization Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, touched on the themes of love and the longing for God in his speech during the college’s 101st commencement.
Bishop Barron began by recalling an interview that he read a few years ago with actor Don Johnson. Bishop Barron said Johnson in the 1980s was one of the coolest people on the planet — handsome, wealthy, the star of the No. 1 television show in the country, and a worldwide fashion icon. In other words, he seemed to have it all.
But, the bishop said, “in the interview, [Johnson] recalled a party that took place at his Florida estate in the mid-80s, when he was at the height of his powers. … Three of his yachts were moored in his private bay, and glitterati were cavorting everywhere.
“Johnson was looking out at the proceedings from a balcony on the upper story of his home, and, he said, it occurred to him at that moment that all of his dreams had come true. He was wealthy beyond his wildest hopes. He was one of the most famous men in the world. The most beautiful people wanted to be with him. He was a major cultural influence.
“Practically any sensual pleasure was available to him. However, he recalled, his very next thought was, ‘Then why am I so blank miserable?’”
The bishop posed the answer to the actor’s question, citing what he called “one of the wisest lines in the history of Christian spirituality,” penned by St. Augustine in his Confessions: “Lord, you have made us for yourself and therefore our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
This reality of our human nature “is both our glory and our burden,” according to Bishop Barron. As he explained it to the graduates, we human beings can experience all the goods the world has to offer — wealth, pleasure, honor, power — and still feel unsatisfied, restless, because we were made for more than that. Sharing an insight of the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, Bishop Barron pointed out that it’s often precisely at the best moments of life, not the worst, that we become most aware of this holy longing.
“When we forget this elemental truth,” Bishop Barron said, “we fall almost automatically into some form of addiction. Trying, for example, to satisfy the deepest longing of your heart with wealth, you get a kind of buzz when you meet your first financial goal. But the buzz will wear off. Then you’ll strive and strive … and when you reach your next financial goal, the buzz might return. …
“But it will wear off faster this time. Now you’re panicked and your striving becomes frantic and eventually self-destructive, as your whole life commences to center around the accumulation of riches. The same dynamic [develops] in regards to all other worldly goods.”
Bishop Barron shared a story from St. Augustine’s life: Augustine himself confessed to an addiction to honor. One day when he was being carried on a litter through the streets of Milan, Italy, on the way to deliver a speech that he composed in honor of the emperor, he was feeling a rush of pride and self-satisfaction. He then spied a drunken man — badly dressed, filthy, and unshaven.
Augustine looked upon this man with a mixture of contempt and condescension. But then, Bishop Barron recounted, something devastating occurred to Augustine: “He thought, ‘Tomorrow, that man will be sober, but I will still be drunk on ambition.’ In other words, the great Augustine, confidant of the emperor, was as much an addict as the vagrant.”
What should the graduates infer from Augustine’s painful insight? And how should they apply it to their own lives?
Bishop Barron explained: “The satisfaction of the restless heart is in God alone. … St. John summed up Christianity in a simple declaration: God is love. Every religion will say that God loves, or that love is one of God’s attributes, but only Christianity will say that love is God’s very nature, what God is straight through. So if this is true, then filling ourselves with God means filling ourselves with love. And this is where things get paradoxical.
“For love is not a feeling or a sentiment; love is an act of the will. It is to desire the good of the other. It’s wanting what’s best for somebody else and then doing something about it. Therefore, to love is to give oneself away, to empty oneself for the sake of one’s neighbor. And so here’s the formula … the key to happiness: … To be filled with God, what the heart wants, is to be emptied out. To have God in you is equivalent to making your life a gift. … If you want joy, that’s the path.”
Quoting St. Teresa of Kolkata, Bishop Barron said: “‘Don’t worry about doing great things. Do little things with great love.’ See, great things in the eye of the world usually involve making money, or wielding power, or being honored. But … great things in the eyes of God are acts of love, however simple, and however hidden. It is in the latter, graduates, and not the former, that you will find what your hungry heart is looking for.”
Editor’s Note: You can watch video of Bishop Barron’s address here. The speech begins at about the 1:19:00 mark.