Spiritual Reading 18

18. Karl Rahner on the Sacred Heart

In love, the gates of my soul spring open, allowing me to breathe a new air of freedom and forget my own petty self. In love, my whole being streams forth out of the rigid confines of narrowness and self-assertion that make me a prisoner of my own poverty and emptiness.

–Karl Rahner

Another important contributor to the maturation of the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus was German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner. He saw the Sacred Heart as a symbol of surrender to the divine will. He reframed the concept of our need to make reparation to Christ. In his view, we do not make reparation. We participate in reparation already made once for all by Christ. “Reparations are… rehearsals of the believing and willing heart for its allotted share in the fate of our Lord… (the fate reserved in the world for his love)…who as the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world.” To choose to suffer in more ways than life presents to us is to question the efficacy of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice. In Jesus’ time, the priests in the temple in Jerusalem performed sacrifices to accomplish forgiveness for the sins of the people. Jesus saw that as no longer necessary because he himself was the final sacrifice: the Lamb of God. Rahner clarifies it in this way: “Our Lord’s love enters into the history of this sinful world and wins its victory by enduring unto death the sins of the world and its own rejection by sinful men. All this outpouring of love is a revelation of his heart.” This forgiving love is reminiscent of the loving-kindness of the father of the prodigal son. He was on the lookout always for his wayward son and he ran to embrace him before he apologized for his misdeeds.

Rahner also commented on the traditional view that we are called to console the suffering Christ. He reconfigures it as “not as a sympathetic wish to console but as a generous and unselfish willingness to accept the law of Christ’s life, the law of voluntary self-sacrifice.” Comments like this free us from a sentimental style of devotion and open us to risk living in the likeness of Christ. This does not remove or reduce the soothing quality of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The comforting power is now in alignment with Christ’s way of living and many graces flow from that commitment. This is how devotion combines comfort and challenge, both so necessary for a true religious spirit.

Christian mystics saw the wounded heart of Jesus as an open door into an initiation into the interior life. This is the paradox of a wound as a source of grace. It helps us see why voluntary sacrifice has been so much a part of religious and patriotic history. Roman writer Apuleius describes a devotee of Osiris: “His left foot was wounded so he walked with a hobble… a clear sign of the will of the gods.” In ancient times also, a wound was one of the credentials of a guide for the initiation process. Christian initiation makes suffering an entry into the life of grace.

The medieval fascination with Christ’s passion made asceticism, often extreme and bodily harmful, seem like a path of merit. Our more mature view recognizes suffering as legitimate when it is a sacrifice of ourselves for others (self-sacrifice) or an enduring of the conditions of existence over which we have no control. We bear the suffering that is a given of our human life but we are not called to self-inflicted abuse. We gain nothing by whipping ourselves as St. Francis indicated when, on his deathbed, in answer to the question: “Do you have any regrets?” he said, “Yes, one, I was too hard on brother ass.”

I recall in my childhood a prayer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus: “Jesus, give me a heart of steel toward myself, a heart of flesh toward others, and a heart of fire for God.” Now we understand that the great mystery of the Sacred Heart is in how to have compassion, a heart of flesh, toward oneself and not only toward others. This is the opposite of —and remedy for— self-loathing. The loving-kindness we see in the Sacred Heart is meant to be shown to ourselves as well as to others. In a philosophical voice, we hear Friedrich Nietzsche warn: “We see an insanity of the will that is without parallel: man’s will to find himself guilty, and unredeemably so.” In the divine voice, we hear: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Ezek 36:26

St. Paul in Colossians 1.24 says: “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings for the sake of his body that is the Church.” What is “lacking” does not imply deficiency on Christ’s part but offers us a role in redemption with him. We do not make reparation to him but we join him in what, in Jewish tradition, is called tikkun olam, the repair of the world. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is the final clue to who we really are, love, and what we are here for: tikkun, to repair, build, and co-create the world from love into love. Devotion to Sacred Heart is the spiritual practice of repairing the world in that loving way. We have consciousness, virtue, and inventiveness so we can mend the world that shadow forces attempt to demolish. This is how we, as co-creators, continue what God has begun and continue, as co-redeemers, the work Christ has accomplished. The word redeem comes from a Latin word referring to the freeing of a slave. Redemption is finding our freedom to love in loveless surroundings so that love becomes the law of humankind, as it already is the intent and purpose of the universe: “In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.” Eph 3:12 The heart of Jesus is then the heart of the world and the driving force of evolution precisely in Dante’s sense: “Love steers the stars and other planets.”

Rahner understood the Sacred Heart of Jesus to be a profound symbol of the mystery of being loved by God personally. The core of our being is love, an abiding reality in all of us. Love of one another, loving-kindness toward one another, is devotion to the Sacred Heart. As we saw above, Rahner has written: “The divine love of the Eternal Word has become incarnate in the human love of Christ. It has fashioned itself a place in history and cast itself for an unmistakable role in the sinful world. Thereby it has guaranteed that love, and not righteous anger, is God’s first and last message to the world.” The Sacred Heart of Jesus means that God is not retaliatory but unceasingly merciful no matter what we do.

Rahner also understood the reversal of values that a spiritual life demands from us: “Every person must live, irrespective of whether he decides for or against Christianity, in a situation marked by the outward, and therefore also inward, absence of God, a situation which corresponds to Golgotha and Gethsemane in the life of Jesus, where life is to be found in death, where abandonment implies the deepest proximity to God, and where the power of God parades itself in weakness.”

The Sacred Heart of Jesus tells us what divine love is really about. As Alfred North Whitehead wrote: “The best image of God’s nature is that of tender care that will not be lost.” Pope Pius XI referred to the Sacred Heart as “Totius religionis summa:” the summation of all that religion means. Institutional religion is often about its own preservation. Authentic religion is meant to offer only one thing: a technology for loving with tender care.

In Jesus, God turns irreversibly toward us in self-communication.

–Karl Rahner


We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.

-Step Eleven of Alcoholics Anonymous

Jesus of my heart, I ask for this grace: to seek you in prayer and meditation so that my conscious contact and communion with you may increase.

To seek you in prayer and meditation means that I give up my attachment to worldly values: I give up making any person, any amount of money, any status or position, or any form of addiction into a god, a higher power.

I am committing myself to daily meditation on and with your Sacred Heart. It is the joy of my focus in life.

As I feel my communion with you increasing I notice that I love others more than ever.

I ask only for knowledge of your will for me and the ability to carry that out in my daily life.

Jesus, I am committing myself to accepting the things in life I cannot change and I ask for the grace of serenity.

I am committing myself to changing the things in life I can change and I ask for the grace of courage.

I am committing myself to knowing the difference and I ask for the grace of wisdom.

This my way of entering and cherishing a mystical relationship with your heart.

Jesus, take away the arrogance in my ego and give my your heart in its place. Take away my ego-centeredness and make your heart and its purposes the center of myself.

I willingly enter the fire of your heart and let your heart burn away my ego and enflame me with enthusiasm for the conversion of the world to the desires of your heart.

I feel the passionate longing of your heart for all humanity and I ask to be an apostle of your love.

I want to be your friend as you are mine.

I want to make friends with the world and bring your friendship to the world.

Jesus, I feel your presence as an ongoing and never-failing accompaniment to me on my journey through life.

I trust that you not only love me, but like me.

At the same time, sometimes I lose my sense of contact with you.

Let me hold in each hand, all at once, both: “Why hast thou forsaken me?” and “Thou art with me:”

I can walk through the valley of the shadow of death with you beside me and in me.

I can experience the dark isolation and trust your presence even when I do not feel your accompaniment.

You do not exempt me from darkness and forsakenness.

You felt all this on the cross and you are my companion in it now whether or not I notice it.

This is how I show you my faith and I am thankful for the grace of having it.

I have faith in your heart being faithful to me and to all of us in this valley of delights and distresses.

I ask for an awakening and when it happens I ask to share this faith in your abiding presence with those who do not yet know you.

May I always remain loyal to those who are still lost in the ever-darkening sunset of hate, greed, and delusion.

I consecrate my life to joining you in letting the light through.