Friday, June 19, 2009

The Heart of Love

One of the personal "thin places" in my life has been Sacred Heart Catholic Church, at W. 4th & Wilkinson, Dayton, OH [pictured above]. My mom used to take me there whenever we were downtown, primarily so that she could avail herself of the sacrament of Reconciliation (we called it "confession" in those days!) Later on, both before and after I was ordained I would stop by when I was near, sometimes also confessing in one of the dark "boxes" prevalent in those days. I remember Sacred Heart as a haven of peace, right in the midst of the noise and bustle outside. The smell of incense and candle wax was familiar. And even though many, many folks came through the church in the course of a day, you always had the sense that you were alone with Jesus, the Word of Love. As best as I can determine, Sacred Heart is no longer a functioning parish, and I don't know if the Eucharist is still celebrated there for the benefit of the folks downtown, or if it has been put to some other use. I do know that it's on the list of historical places. At any rate, it was here that my own personal devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus took root.

The Sacred Heart is a religious devotion honoring the physical heart of Jesus as symbolic reprentation of Christ's divine love for all human beings. Predominantly significant in the Roman Catholic Church, some Anglican/Episcopal churches, and some Lutheran churches, the devotion stresses the central Christian idea of loving and adoring Jesus the Christ. Devotion to the Sacred Heart is less often seen in the Eastern Catholic Churches, where it remains a point of controversy, interpreted by many as an example of liturgical latinization. Predecessors to the modern form of the devotion originated unmistakeably in the Middle Ages, notably in the 11th and 12th centuries. The devotion arose in the fervent atmosphere of the Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries and in the world of the thought of St. Anselm and St. Bernard, although it is impossible to say positively what were its first texts or who were its first devotees. The devotion was already well known to St. Gertrude, St. Mechtilde, and to the author of the Vitis mystica [The Mystical Vine], ascribed to either St. Bernard or to St. Bonaventure.

From the 13th to the 16th centuries, the devotion doesn't seem to have had much traction in developing. Though individuals and various religious orders everywhere, including the Franciscans, Dominicans, Carthusians, etc., practiced it, it was, nevertheless, a private, individual mystical devotion rather than a general movement. Similarities were found in the devotion to the Five Wounds by the Franciscans, in which the wound in Jesus' Heart figured most prominently.

In the sixteenth century, the devotion began to emerge from the domain of mysticism into the mainstream of Christian asceticism. It was established as a devotion with prayers already formulated and with special exercises, found in the writings of Lanspergius (d. 1539), a Carthusian in Cologne; Louis of Blois (Blosius; 1566), Benedictine abbot of Liessies in Hainaut; John of Avila (d. 1569); and St. Francis de Sales in the 17th century. Ascetic writers spoke of it more frequently, particularly members of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was more prominently evident, largely due to the Franciscan devotion to the Five Wounds, and to the habit of the Jesuits of placing the image on the title-page of their books and on the walls of their churches.

For all that, the devotion remained an individual, or at least a private, devotion. Jean Eudes (1602-1680), who could rightfully be called the founder of the liturgical worship of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, publicized the devotion, composed an Office, and established a feast for it. Père Eudes, an ardent apostle of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, was equally devoted to the Sacred Heart. The two devotions eventually became separate, and on August 31, 1670, the first feast of the Sacred Heart was celebrated in the Grand Seminary of Rennes. The feast soon spread to other dioceses, and the devotion was likewise adopted in various religious communities. It gradually came into contact with the devotion begun at Paray-le-Monial, resulting in a fusion of the two.

The most significant promoter of the devotion to the Sacred Heart in its modern form was a nun of the Order of the Visitation: St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690), who claimed to have experienced visions of Jesus Christ. Prior to the revelations, Margaret Mary had from her earliest years had a burning love for Christ in the Eucharist. In one of her visions, on December 27, probably 1673, Margaret Mary reported that Jesus permitted her, as He had formerly allowed St. Gertrude, to rest her head upon his Heart, and then disclosed to her the wonders of His love, telling her that He desired to make them known to all humankind and to diffuse the treasures of His goodness, and that He had chosen her for this work. In either June or July, 1674, Margaret Mary claimed that Jesus requested to be honored under the figure of his heart of flesh, and for a devotion of expiatory love. In 1675, probably on June 16, in what is known as the "great apparition", Jesus said, "Behold the Heart that has so loved men...instead of gratitude I receive from the greater part [of humankind] only ingratitude...". He asked Margaret Mary for a feast of reparation of the Friday after the octave of Corpus Christi, bidding her to consult Father Claude de la Colombière, then superior of the small Jesuit house at Paray-le-Monial. Solemn homage was asked on the part of the king, and the mission of propagating the new devotion was especially confided to the religious sisters of the Visitation and to the priests of the Society of Jesus.

A few days after the "great apparition", Margaret Mary reported everything she saw to Father de la Colombière, and he, acknowledging the vision as an action of the Spirit of God, consecrated himself to the Sacred Heart and directed her to write an account of the apparition. He also made use of every available opportunity to discreetly circulate this account throughout France and England. After his death in 1682, a copy, in his own handwriting, of the account that he had requested of Margaret Mary was found in his journal of spiritual retreats, together with a few reflections on the usefulness of the devotion. This journal, including the account and an "offering" to the Sacred Heart, in which the devotion was well explained, was published at Lyons in 1684, and gained a wide audience. Margaret Mary reported feeling "dreadful confusion" over the book's contents, but resolved to make the best of it, approving of the book for the spreading of her cherished devotion. Various priests, religious, and lay people espoused the devotion, particularly the Capuchins, Margaret Mary's two brothers, and some Jesuits. Jesuit Father Croiset wrote a book called The Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the Sacred Heart has been closely associated with acts of reparation made to Jesus Christ. In his encyclical Miserentissimus Redemptor, Pope Pius XI stated: "the spirit of expiation or reparation has always had the first and foremost place in the worship given to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus".

The death of Margaret Mary Alacoque, October 17, 1690, did not dampen the zeal of those interested in the devotion to the Sacred Heart; on the contrary, a short account of her life published by Father Croiset in 1691, as an appendix to his book De la Dévotion au Sacré Cœur, served only to increase it. Nevertheless, there were all sorts of obstacles, and the Holy See was very deliberate in promoting the devotion.

In 1697, the Pope granted the feast to the Visitandines with the Mass of the Five Wounds, but refused a feast common to the whole Church, with special Mass and Office. Nevertheless, the devotion spread, particularly in religious communities. The Marseilles plague of 1720 furnished perhaps the first occasion for a solemn consecration and public worship outside of religious communities. Other cities of the south followed the example of Marseilles, and thus the devotion increasingly became a popular one.

In 1726 another appeal was made to Rome for a feast with a Mass and Office of its own, but in 1729 the Vatican again refused.

Rome finally yielded in 1765 when Clement XIII approved a Mass and Office in honor of the Sacred Heart. That same year, at the request of the French queen, the feast was received quasi-officially by the bishops of France.

Acts of consecration, reparation and devotion to the Sacred Heart were introduced when the feast was declared. In Auctorem Fidei (August 28, 1794) Pope Pius VI praised devotion to the Sacred Heart.

Since c. 1850, groups, congregations, and states have consecrated themselves to the Sacred Heart.

In 1856, at the urgent entreaties of the French bishops, Pius IX extended the feast to the universal Church.

In 1873, by petition of President Gabriel García Moreno, Ecuador was the first country in the world to be consecrated to the Sacred Heart, fulfilling God's petition to Saint Margaret Mary over two hundred years later.

In his encyclical Annum Sacrum (May 25, 1899), as well as on June 11, Pope Leo XIII consecrated every human being to the Sacred Heart. The idea of this act, which Leo XIII called "the great act" of his pontificate, had been proposed to him by a religious of the Good Shepherd from Oporto,Portugal, who said that she had supernaturally received it from Jesus.

In his 1928 encyclical Miserentissimus Redemptor Pope Pius XI affirmed the Church's position with respect to Saint Margaret Mary's visions of Jesus Christ by stating that Jesus had "manifested Himself" to Saint Margaret and had "promised her that all those who rendered this honor to His Heart would be endowed with an abundance of heavenly graces." The encyclical refers several times to the conversation between Jesus and Saint Margaret Mary .

On May 15, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI, in a letter to Father Peter Hans Kolvenbach, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, on the 50th anniversary Pius XII's encyclical Haurietis Aquas, on the Sacred Heart, reaffirmed the importance of the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The Feast of the Sacred Heart is a solemnity in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, celebrated 19 days after Pentecost. The feast always falls on a Friday. Liturgical worship of the Sacred Heart mainly consists of several hymns, the Salutation of the Sacred Heart, and the Litany of the Sacred Heart.

In Christian art the Sacred Heart is often depicted as a flaming heart shining with divine light, pierced by the lance-wound, inflicted by a Roman soldier to ensure Jesus' death, bleeding, surrounded by a crown of thorns, and surmounted by a cross. Sometimes the image appears over Jesus' body with his wounded hands pointing at the heart. The wounds and crown of thorns allude to the manner of Jesus' death, while the fire represents the transformative power of love through the Holy Spirit. The motif of the Sacred Heart has interestingly become a part of modern culture through its appropriation by tattoo artists [see middle photo above]. An image significantly similar to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, or the Immaculate Heart of Mary, was used as the logo for Baz Luhrmann's movie Romeo + Juliet (1996). In addition, the hospital featured on the television sitcom Scrubs is named "Sacred Heart Hospital."

The noted medieval anchoress and mystic, Julian of Norwich (c.1342-1416) records the "shewing" of the Sacred Heart to her understanding in her Revelations (or Showings) of Divine Love, written in the 1390's:

"And with the sweet sight [of Jesus' wounded side] He showed His blessed Heart cloven in two.
And with this sweet rejoicing, He showed to my understanding, in part,
the blessed Godhead, strengthening the pure souls to understand
(in so far as it can be expressed)
that this Heart is to signify the endless love
that was without beginning, and is, and shall be always.
With this our Good Lord said most blissfully,
'Lo, how I love you'
(as if He had said: 'My dear one, behold and see the Lord, your God,
who is your Creator and your endless Joy.
See you own Brother, your Savior;
my child, behold and see what delight and bliss I have in your salvation,
and for my love, enjoy it now with me.')."

I think Julian must've been channelling Marshall McLuhan, centuries before he was born! McLuhan, you will recall, taught us that "the medium is the message". For Julian the medium was the symbol of Christ's heart cloven in two; the message, clearly, was love. She expands on this at towards the end of her Revelations:

"From the time that it was shown, I desired frequently
to know what our Lord's meaning was.
And fifteen years after (and more)
I was answered in spiritual understanding, saying thus:
'Would you know your Lord's meaning in this thing?
Be well aware: love was His meaning.
Who showed it to you. Love.
What did He show you. Love.
Why did He show it to you? For love...'

Thus was I taught that love was our Lord's meaning.
And I saw full certainly in this and in all the showings,
that before God made us, He loved us
and this love was never slackened nor ever shall be...

In our creation we had a beginning,
but the love in which He created us was in Him from without beginning,
and in this love we have our beginning.

And all this we shall see in God without end,
which may Jesus grant us. Amen."

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