Devotion to the Sacred Heart has always included an image. Most mystics say that images are an encumbrance. Jan Van Ruysbroeck wrote: “We are lifted above reason into a bare and imageless vision wherein lies the eternal in-drawing summons of the divine unity.” What is the difference between working with an image as an aid to meditation and not invoking an image at all? In profound mystical states no images are necessary. Yet some mystical visions also occurred in connection to an image, e.g., at Lourdes or to St. Margaret Mary.
A distinction may help us: While in our conscious ego state, images help us and can even be necessary. We recall St. Clement of Alexandria: “I will give you images to understand the mystery of the Logos.” Images are gifts of revelation. The Logos refers to Christ as the incarnate Word: God made visible. St. Paul speaks of Christ himself as the “image of the invisible God” Col 1:15. Thus, it is not a choice between image or no image. We can move from words to the Word and from images to vision where words fail and images vanish. Both image and no image have a place as do the visible and invisible. In addition, as we saw above, God speaks to each soul personally in the indwelling Holy Spirit and this continues for all time: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” John 14:26
Some of us are image-oriented, some not. Thus images will be useful for some of us while others will learn and pray better in other ways. In any case, we hear varying reports from many mystics. Here are three examples: Brother Lawrence says in The Practice of the Presence of God: “I know that for the right practice, the heart must be empty of all other things, because God will possess the heart alone: and as he cannot possess it alone without emptying it of all besides, so… it has to be left vacant for him.”
Jami, Muslim mystic, adds: “It is necessary to use every endeavor to force these thoughts to camp outside the enclosure of your heart so that glorious Truth may cast its rays into your heart and deliver you from yourself and save you from the trouble of entertaining his rivals in your heart.”
On the other hand, ancient Roman devotee of Isis, Apuleius, using words familiar in our Catholic tradition, says: “Poor though I am, I do all that a truly religious man can do: I keep the image of your divine face in my heart, and in that secret depth, I guard your divinity forevermore.”
In the course of history, we notice a mystical response to one or more of these three: an image, the person of Jesus, and pure divine consciousness. St. Margaret Mary, in her mystical visions of the Sacred Heart, represents the first and second of these. She says: “He should be honored under the figure of this heart of flesh, and its image should be exposed.… He promised me that wherever this image should be exposed with a view to showing it special honor, he would pour forth his blessings and graces.”
Images and statues help create a context of devotion. They take us beyond ourselves into a spiritual realm. Among them, we are in heaven. This is especially true of long-standing symbols —like that of the heart— that issue from the deep archetypal silo of spiritual power images. Among symbols and images we are in the transpersonal soul-world beyond ego. We do not disparage images but we are open to going beyond them to the mystical reality they present to us. Different images appeal to us in each of the stages of our life journey. An image that worked in childhood may not have meaning to an adult. To tie devotion to the Sacred Heart to its traditional depictions is to disregard the fact that the path is always personal and that new articulations become more apt for new stages of life.
When we say that God is the ground of being, the depths of ourselves, we are beholding the theophany of the Sacred Heart without a need for a painted image. The Sacred Heart does not then stand for something. It is a direct vision of who God is. The Sacred Heart is not simply a literal image but also a metaphor and compendium of the history of salvation and of our immediate entry into it. A metaphor is a comparison, i.e., a connection of similitude. To say the Sacred Heart is a metaphor is not to downgrade its reality but to connect its reality to something in ourselves. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is our heart when we love as he did and does. It is not a distant object of veneration but a close-up of our own heart, honored because it is his in ours and ours in his.
To pray before an image is a valuable tradition, since images grow in power when we pay attention to them, that is, honor them and see them as calling us to our true destiny. Miracles associated with Lourdes, Guadalupe, Montserrat and with many other images of Mary show this truth. Indeed, a religious image is not simply a picture we look at but a means of prayer, a sacramental, something that that speaks to us in a grace-giving way and that we respond to in an active way. A religious image thus has an intentional power that makes a promise to and a claim upon us. The promise is that we can enter divine consciousness and the claim is to live accordingly, to live by love. This is the coded information in the Sacred Heart, a set of directions to our destiny.
As we have been seeing, religious images are archetypal, i.e., expressing the long-standing innate longings and powers of humanity. An archetypal image is sacramental in that it helps us glimpse something not seen in ourselves and in nature. Therefore, when a religion loses or scuttles its images, it is in danger of becoming externally-oriented and overly activist. The mystical sense may be lost. Then, for instance, planetary consciousness becomes taking action for the survival of the ecology. The ecology of nature is no longer appreciated as a divine milieu. The soul in the world is no longer one with the soul of the world. We no longer make contact with our archetypal identity in nature with all its diversity.
Every image in the religious pantheon is energy in our own souls. We are love in the Sacred Heart of Jesus, purity and humility in the Virgin Mary, courage in St. George, and simplicity in the Little Flower. They are not other than us. They are who we can be and act like right now, who we indeed became by baptism. Thomas Merton say simply, and mystically: “God is not someone else.”
God and the saints are not magical powers at our disposal. They are powers that point to our personal and universal destiny. They show a heaven on earth, full of glory. They make time a story of salvation not simply a chronicle of events. They make a lifetime a passage into immortality not simply a series of years. They show us where we belong and why we are here and when we will be more than any here can hold.
Images at one point are given up only to be reclaimed with the realization of their inadequacy and yet their indispensability for cherishing the experience of the sacred.
—Raymond Studzinski, OSB