Spiritual Reading 2

2. Three Questions

Where is the Sacred Heart? The answer is mystical, as Nicholas of Cusa says of the divine life: “Its center is everywhere; its circumference is nowhere.” He adds: “The universe is in us in such a way… that everyone in the universe is the universe.”

This is why we can speak of the Sacred Heart of the world. In fact, now we know the identity of the loving intent of the universe: the Sacred Heart. When we consecrate ourselves to the Sacred Heart, we join in that intent ever to radiate love to all without exception, ever open to receiving love without limit or inhibition.

We say of someone: “He has a good heart” or “a big heart” or “a kind heart.” We are not referring to the organ of the heart but using a metaphor to describe an inner virtue that has become visible to us. Physically the heart is a pump that makes the body thrive by bringing blood in and sending it out. Poetically, likewise, the heart is love which thrives by being given and received. The Sacred Heart does not refer to the physical heart/organ of Jesus during his life in Nazareth. It refers to the heart of the risen Christ which is not an organ but a field of divine energy. This field, as in gravitational or electrical fields, is both radial and magnetic, reaching out, drawing in. In other words, the Sacred Heart of Jesus is a metaphor for how God gives out and draws in love. The Sacred Heart is thus a revelation of how God is love, i.e., both reaching out all-inclusively and yearning to receive from all of us.

The goal in what follows is threefold: to show how devotion fits into spirituality, to upgrade the traditional devotion to the heart of Jesus, and make this devotion understandable to Catholics and Protestants alike, as well as to anyone open to it. I am hoping to address three questions:

  • How do we form a devotional life without getting caught up in sentimentality and superstition?
  • How can the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus be aligned to contemporary realizations about the cosmos, religion, and spirituality?
  • Recently Protestants have been more open to the place of Mary in our spiritual lives. How can the devotion to the Sacred Heart also become more appealing to them?

Our first question leads us to ask: What is devotion? The Latin word vovere means to vow, promise, or dedicate oneself. Devovere is the Latin word for dedicating oneself by a vow. By the sixteenth century it had come to mean to cast a ballot as in the word “vote.” Thereafter devotion came to mean pious and feeling-laden ways of relating to a personal God or a saint. The plural word devotions referred to practices that fostered this experience. Mature devotion is heart connection, how spirituality becomes heartfelt personal relationship, how it enters mystical consciousness. We lose all this when we disregard devotion as an integral part of our spirituality. This is a handbook for designing a spirituality of heart with the Sacred Heart of Jesus as metaphor. Personal devotion does not cancel the sense of social consciousness that is so important in spirituality; it enriches it as we shall see.

Some Catholics today are indifferent to or even repelled by devotion. Since devotion is a feature of spirituality, this is a great loss. Devotion to the Sacred Heart has disappeared in many areas of Catholic worship. This is also a loss since it can mean less personal responsiveness to the love of Jesus for us and of us for him. We would lose so much if we let this devotion go rather than rediscover it in the light of Vatican II and all we now know about religious symbolism. We can reclaim the riches in the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus with an intelligent, scriptural, and mystical faith.

The popular depiction of the Sacred Heart may appear as sentimental and saccharine. But, as we look symbolically, the image of a divine open and grace-giving heart shows what our own inmost core looks like. It is a spiritual portrait not only of our own hearts but of the heart of the universe: strongly aglow with divine fire, beaming light in every direction, and at the same time opened because it is wounded. The woundedness of Christ is compassionate and self-giving, as ours can be: “Behold the heart” is behold our own heart; it looks like this. So the familiar image of the Sacred Heart holds a mystical vision of human/divine unity that we have been looking at since childhood but may never have fully appreciated until now.

We will not be able to upgrade our devotion if we hold on to biases about how it looked to us in the past or how sin/guilt-based it may have been. It is ironic that a symbol of generous love became somehow focused on our need to make reparation, that a powerful divine presence became associated with a saccharine image, that a liberating message became moralistic, that a call to universal compassion became a Jesus-and-I devotion. It is time to remove the past from the Sacred Heart and restore it to the meaning it had for the mystics and can have for us today. This is the challenge: to find in what may have become tired, irrelevant, and familiar a new and thrilling possibility for spiritual growth. Our task in the church is not to go back to our beginnings in order to understand ourselves but to go to our center, where the entire Gospel is always and now, Jesus’ heart.

Our second question is about how devotion fits into contemporary realizations about the cosmos, spirituality and our evolving moral consciousness. There are at least four phases of religious consciousness in the Hebrew Bible. At first the accent was on the hand of God and how God acts in human history, as in the exodus from Egypt. Then prominence was given to the voice of God and how God instructs us about moral living as, for example, in the Ten Commandments. The emphasis then moves to the mind of God and what the divine plan is for humanity and the universe as expressed by the prophets and wisdom writers. Finally, we focus on the heart of God and what love is.

In Christianity, this love appears among us as a person, Jesus who shows us his heart. In the history of the church, there is a gradual awakening to who Jesus is, both human and divine. He is the archetype of our own richly graced nature, human by birth and divine in our potential for love, virtue, wisdom, and powers of healing and reconciliation in and for the world. We are human cooperators in the divine work of ongoing creation, redemption, and sanctification of the universe. As Carl Jung says: “We are not God but we are the only stable in which he can be born.”

How do we cooperate in the divine plan? Devotion does not end at a shrine or image. It is only authentic when it reaches all the way into ourselves and into our lifestyle with an utterly transforming power. This is how it challenges us. We are spiritually mature when we become different from the world around us, i.e., when its values are no longer ours. We are no longer motivated by greed, prestige, revenge, or ego aggrandizement but by virtues such as generosity, humility, and selfless love. St. Paul writes to us: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Rom 12:2 This is reminiscent of the distinction in the early church between the kingdom of Rome and the kingdom of God. The command of Christ was to abandon the greed, hate, and ignorance of the man-made city and to live—and die—for the establishment of what St. Augustine calls the City of God. Our vocation is citizenship in that City, the kingdom of God on earth. We then live by faith, hope, and love. The result is a transformation of the world, no longer divided as sacred or secular: “This [place where we are right now] is indeed the house of God and the gate of heaven.” Gen 28:17

Our third question in this book is: Can devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus be appealing to Protestants and to other spiritually oriented people? A universal feature of religion is personal relationship to the transcendent and thus devotion is an enlivening part of any religious life. Luther and Calvin denounced devotion as sentimental and superstitious since in their time, as can often be true today, people associated devotions with forcing God to grant favors: “If I say these prayers or perform this sacrifice I will get what I want.” In true devotion the bottom line is always: “Thy will be done.”

John Wesley, founder of Methodism, stands out as a reformer who restored devotion and piety into Protestant worship. Throughout this book we will refer to many Christian and non-Christian traditions as resources in the design of our devotional practices. We are encouraged in this attitude by Vatican II: “We acknowledge, preserve, and promote the spiritual and moral goods found in other religious traditions.”

In the history of Christianity, devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus occurred in three stages. The first stage was one of inklings, beginning in the Gospel according to St. John, continuing in the fourth century with the writings of Origen, and then expanding passionately in the medieval mystics. The second stage came in the seventeenth century French church with the realizations and visions of St. Francis de Sales, St. Jane de Chantal, St. John Eudes, and especially in the revelations to St. Margaret Mary. The third stage was initiated in the mystical contributions of Teilhard de Chardin and continues now in the new cosmology and in its integration into our maturing religious consciousness. Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus can grow in all denominations of Christianity in direct proportion to this integration. The first stage was biblical/mystical. The second stage emphasized sin and reparation. The third stage restored the biblical/mystical dimension and liberated us from the sin-centeredness, sentimentality, and superstition that had unfortunately crept in from the seventeenth century onwards.