In a flash, at a trumpet crash, I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am….
–Gerard Manley Hopkins
Several years ago I went on a pilgrimage to the woods of Mount Subasio, near Assisi, where St. Francis had lived in contemplative retreat. I lay in the cave where the saint slept and then walked out into nature.
As I stood transfixed by the natural beauty of the place, I suddenly heard a voice asking me: “Who are you?” My mind was about to come up with an answer when I stopped myself since I felt drawn instead, simply to wait in silence. At that same moment the leaves of the trees surrounding me shimmered in the sunlight in willowy slow-motion. The whole world seemed still and still moving. I realized that the leaves, and all the living things I was looking at so intensely, were opening. That word “opening” suddenly repeated itself and I knew it at once to be the answer to the question “Who are you?”
This was a powerful religious experience for me and, when I returned to San Francisco, I shared it with my Franciscan priest friend. He looked at me knowingly and asked: “Do you happen to know a famous prayer of St. Francis?” I did not know it and he told me: “Lord, who am I? Lord, who are you?” This synchronicity confirmed me in my new-found trust in continual opening as a spiritual path. It also fit so perfectly with the theme of the openness of Jesus’ heart that I had been attempting to describe in this book.
Now I see only a unity: his heart, our pilgrimage, our path, our life purpose as humans. I also find that as I open more, I begin to see the people and events of my life as just right for my learning to practice love, the central focus of devotion to the Sacred Heart. I am hoping to share this discovery in the pages that follow.
In most religious traditions, the heart of God is honored as the center of the natural world and as the center of ourselves. A spirituality of heart is thus one that cherishes three hearts as one: God’s heart, our heart, and the heart of the universe. The long-cherished theme of the Sacred Heart has preserved for all of us that same meaning. We are ready today to appreciate this good news more deeply than ever. We are ready to be both comforted and challenged by it.
The Sacred Heart is God’s zeal for communion with the human world. This was consummated in the Incarnation of Christ and continues in the ongoing incarnation of the divine life in each of us by grace: “We are by grace what Christ is by nature.” Our spiritual destiny is to show the love that is in his heart because that love is who we really are meant to be. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is the heart we had before we were born, the heart that remains in us all through life, and the heart that does not die when we do. Spiritual practice is focused on letting that reality become visible in our lifetime. In fact, this is why we were given a lifetime.
A devotion to the heart of God is not only found in Christianity. The heart of Jahweh and the heart of Allah are honored in Judaism and Islam. The heart of Buddha is venerated in some Buddhist traditions. Ancient polytheistic religions referred to the hearts of gods and goddesses. In Hindu lore, the god Hanuman’s heart contains the whole universe as does the body of Krishna. The heart is a chakra, a center of universal love-energy. The heart is also the axis mundi, the still-point in the flux of becoming that is a dancing universe.
The revelations of the Sacred Heart tell of a God who is no longer distant but of a God who has come close, as close as our very own within, as close as between us all, as close as around us all. Thus a devotion to the Sacred Heart is a fully and richly mystical experience. It liberates us from dualism, God out there and we down here, to a unity that is abiding and that powerfully endures within time and beyond it. Meister Eckhart wrote: “There is something in the soul which is so closely akin to God that it is already one with him and does not need to become united to him.” We can say that humanity’s stubborn denial of this fact is the original sin. We insist on separation when oneness is built in by grace. Jesus is the model of hypostatic union, the human and the divine in one being.
Meister Eckhart says that our attachment to our individual ego is what keeps us separate and what prevents us from recovering our true identity in God. He calls this true identity of ours “the birth of Christ in us.” We are baptized and called to a life of virtue in the Holy Spirit and the Sacred Heart is what that calling looks like. God is still creating us. When we dismantle our arrogant ego, we are becoming co-creators of ourselves since our true identity is then being allowed to emerge. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit of love makes for a complete and true identity. We are ourselves when we are living the life of love, as theologian Etienne Gilson says: “When the soul has lost its likeness to God it is no longer like itself.”