Oh Heart of Jesus, enflamed with love for us: inflame our hearts with love for Thee!
There are three things I mean to accomplish with this reflection: (1) to look at a little known figure in this devotion’s history; (2) to help you see the excellence of this devotion; (3) and finally, to explain the title of this talk and what it means for our spiritual life.
First, a look at the history of devotion to the Sacred Heart. It would be too much to recount the whole history. The good news is that one can certainly find plenty to read about it if one is interested. However, I would like to put the spotlight on one early figure in the history of the devotion. St. Margaret Mary’s dates are 1647 to 1690. However, serious meditation on the Sacred Heart was taking place some five or six-hundred years earlier.
A Quick History Lesson
St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) is someone who should receive honorable mention in the history of the Sacred Heart. He is known as “the Father of Scholasticism” because of his now famous definition of theology; namely, that theology was fides quaerens intellectum. By this he meant that theology was the discipline whereby man employed all the powers of his mind to understand and grow stronger in what he already believed in faith. Anselm teaches us that theology, in a sense, is not so much about proving the doctrines of God as it is about strengthening the spiritual life.
In any case, that is a digression. The point is, Anselm was extremely intelligent; he is one of the Doctors of the Church. Therefore, it makes what he says about the Sacred Heart stand out. Moreover, he also wrote beautiful prayers and meditations. In fact, Anselm could well be credited with being one of the first writers of what we know as devotional literature today. Devotions are often distinguished from liturgical prayers because they are a little more free-flowing, more personal, and their purpose is to do just as their name implies: to increase our devotion. Devotions, however, are meant to complement the official prayers of the Church and elaborate on them. They are prayers we can carry home with us into our daily life. And so Anselm was one of the very first figures to pen these kinds of private prayers and share them with others. (And this almost a thousand years ago.)
Anselm writes in one of his meditations: “What sweetness in this pierced side. That wound has revealed to us the treasures of his goodness, that is to say, the love of His Heart for us.” This image of the pierced side of Jesus comes up again and again throughout the medieval period. However, Anselm, being the man of theology and devotion that he was, gets to the very center of the matter: he shows that the most perfect revelation of God’s love is the wounded Heart of Christ. What is more, we cannot help notice that Anselm uses two words that will appear, later, in the Litany of the Sacred Heart: goodness and treasure. The Heart of Jesus is filled with goodness (bonitate) and love, and in which is found all the treasures (thesauri) of wisdom and knowledge.
Elsewhere in his meditations Anselm writes: “Jesus, dear as he inclines his head in death; dear in the extending of his arms; dear in the opening of his side. Opened so that there is revealed to us the riches of his goodness, the charity, that is, of his heart towards us.” It is a truth that can’t be gotten around; it cannot be looked at in any other way: Anselm teaches us that the wounded Heart of the Master is the center out of which all His love proceeds.
So much for this chapter in the history of Sacred Heart devotion. It seems, then, that two truths emerge for us as a result of our very brief historical note about St Anselm: first, it becomes clear to us that St. Margaret Mary did not invent devotion to the Sacred — and mind you that is to her credit: it defends her from the charge of her enemies, who want to see her as someone outside the tradition of the Church. But we see, on the contrary, she is situated quite securely within the tradition, which was slowly taking shape before her time. Second, we also see that a growing devotion to the humanity of Christ begins to take shape during the early medieval period — and we see already at the beginning of this trend that the Sacred Heart figures prominently.
Why the Sacred Heart is an Excellent Devotion
This brings us to the second part of the talk where I would like to consider, in a simple way, the more doctrinal side of this great devotion.
|The most perfect revelation of God’s love
is the wounded Heart of Christ.
The genius of Catholicism is that we get the whole truth. It’s what the name implies: κατα−ολος, – according to the whole. We have been gifted by God with the fullness of truth, and of course that fills us with very humble gratitude. At the center of this truth stands Jesus Christ Who not only teaches us the truth, but Who is the truth itself. I am the way, the truth, and the life. And as we know and believe, Jesus is God-made-man: the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity Who took flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This great, great mystery is what we call the Incarnation, and it’s the mystery we celebrate in a particular way during Christmas when Heaven is wedded to earth; eternity breaks into time; God is united to man; and God who is perfect takes away the sins of man who had fallen from grace. All this is accomplished by Jesus, for He is true God and true man. It is the particular center of our faith. The holy Gospels are all about the Incarnation; the Sacraments flow from the Incarnation. Everything we do as Catholics can, in some way, always point back to the Incarnation.
For this reason, then, devotion to the Sacred Heart emerges as a most dignified and authentic devotion. When we look at an image of the Sacred Heart, it is as if we have the whole mystery of the Incarnation concentrated right before us. The Sacred Heart is a human heart, exactly like ours except that it is totally free from sin; yet it is also a Heart completely taken up by God.
A moment ago we said that all the Sacraments flow from the Incarnation: and so it is true. Remember—when the centurion pierced the side of Jesus on the Cross, Blood and Water flowed from His Heart. These are the Sacraments: the waters that cleansed us from Original Sin in Baptism came from that Heart; the infinite merits of the Holy Mass poured out from that Heart; and the Blood that washes us clean in the Sacrament of Penance cascaded from that Heart. And all the Sacraments, each in their way, pour forth from the Heart of Jesus.
So, because devotion to the Sacred Heart points us so readily to the mystery of the Incarnation—that mystery of God becoming true man is Jesus Christ — it is a most excellent and worthy devotion. And if all this sounds too exalted or theoretical, not to worry. Pondering the Sacred Heart, praying to the Sacred Heart, sacrificing for the Sacred Heart: these are the best lessons—better than any explanation this poor deacon could give.
Now, as for the final third of this talk, we should try to make all this a little more concrete for us. Remember the title I’ve given this talk: “Heart Speaks to Heart: the Sacred Heart and Divine Intimacy.” Heart speaks to heart; Cor ad cor loquitur. This was the motto used by Cardinal Newman on his coat of arms, and I’m coopting it here because it serves as a perfect summary of what devotion to the Sacred Heart means for us.
Whether the world knows it or not, it is starving for intimacy with God.
The world is mad with noise. One of the easy things to blame for this madness is social media, and to do so would be quite legitimate. Even if we here are not personally attached to being plugged in all the time, our culture certainly is. It is addicted to the consumption of novelty, to say nothing of the more foul ideas and images that can be found everywhere. We also understand easily enough that technology does not serve as a very authentic way of cultivating human friendship, human intimacy. To be sure, it has some limited uses, but it does not substitute for down-to-earth, face-to-face, real human contact and communication. (This is why we don’t allow cell phones at the dinner table!) In a sense, then, the whole question of social media teaches us that one of the crises of the present age is a crisis of friendship. After all, heart speaks to heart. Not heart speaks to iPhone; not heart speaks to Facebook; heart speaks to heart. And if we cannot even speak to another human being in a meaningful and virtuous way, how can we be his or her friend?
However, the more grave part of this crisis of friendship is that it affects not only the friendships among men, but friendship between man and God. One way to describe sin is to think of it as broken friendship with God. Sin destroys intimacy. And whether the world knows it or not, it is starving for intimacy with God.
And so, in the face of such starvation, we have the promises of the Sacred Heart. As we move toward the conclusion of this talk, allow me to read all the promises given by our Lord to St. Margaret Mary. Try to listen to them carefully; I will read them slowly. They speak very powerfully in themselves.
(1) I will give them all the graces necessary in their state of life.
(2) I will establish peace in their homes.
(3) I will comfort them in all their afflictions.
(4) I will be their secure refuge during life, and above all, in death.
(5) I will bestow abundant blessings upon all their endeavors.
(6) Sinners will find in my Heart the source and infinite ocean of mercy.
(7) Lukewarm souls shall become fervent.
(8) Fervent souls shall quickly mount to high perfection.
(9) I will bless every place in which an image of my Heart is exposed and honored.
(10) I will give to priests the gift of touching the most hardened hearts.
(11) Those who shall promote this devotion shall have their names written in my Heart.
(12) I promise you in the excessive mercy of my Heart that my all-powerful love will grant to all those who receive Holy Communion on the First Fridays in nine consecutive months the grace of final perseverance; they shall not die in my disgrace nor without receiving their Sacraments. My divine Heart shall be their safe refuge in this last moment.
Dear friends, you can see how each of these promises is an antidote for the world that is starving for intimacy with God. Heart speaks to heart. Each of these promises is a way that the Sacred Heart speaks to our hearts. There is nothing abstract or distant about these promises. The lesson of the Sacred Heart, therefore, is about Jesus’ closeness to us. The world cannot even begin to guess how close, how accessible God means to be to us. Nonetheless, the promises of the Sacred Heart respond to every need of the human heart. Heart speaks to heart. Therefore, anyone who cultivates true devotion to the Sacred Heart has found a treasure beyond price.
As a parting thought, let me say this: that no one understands the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus like his Mother. Therefore, if our devotion to the Sacred Heart would be constant and true, we do well to seal that devotion with simultaneous devotion to the Heart of Mary. Heart speaks to heart, after all. And so between the Two Hearts of Jesus and Mary we will always find safety and rest.
Father Ryan Sliwa
Fr. Ryan Sliwa was ordained to the holy priesthood at St. Michael’s Cathedral in Springfield, Massachusetts on June 6, 2015. He grew up in Huntington, Mass. and is now Parochial Vicar at St. Mary’s Parish in Westfield, Mass.