When I was a small child, my grandmother would often put me in her lap at bedtime and rock me gently to sleep in her chair. One of my earliest and most reassuring memories was hearing the steady beat of her heart as I fell asleep. I recall this whenever I pray Psalm 131:2, “I have stilled my soul, hushed it like a weaned child, Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap, so is my soul within me.” The beating of a human heart, so comforting to me as a child, has come to symbolize the steady pulse of life and the continual stream of love flowing within it. That steady heartbeat and loving assurance always come to mind when I think about devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
As we celebrate the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart this week on the Friday following Corpus Christi, the Church invites us once again to celebrate the incomprehensible love of Jesus for every human being, a love “without exception” the Catechism says (#478). Bishop Donald J. Hying of Madison, Wisconsin wrote recently on the meaning of this feast, “The Sacred Heart of Jesus that began beating in the womb of the Blessed Virgin more than 2,000 years ago still beats today in the glorified humanity of the Risen Christ. And it will pulsate forever, pumping out the grace, mercy, and life of God to all of humanity. In the Heart of the Lord, we experience the overwhelming mercy of God and his infinite desire to be in relationship with us.”
We Benedictines at Sacred Heart Monastery rejoice in a special way on this patronal feast. Every year we reaffirm that the core of our lives is the inexpressible love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, his most human and personal love for each of us, that continually draws us together as a Community.
Our Community’s devotion to the Sacred Heart can be seen in images centrally placed in the monastery. The luminous rose window in the Chapel highlights the image of the Sacred Heart, depicted as the hub in a mystical wheel of colorful images radiating outward. Christ at its center is inviting us inward to experience his human heart. His Sacred Heart is encircled by a crown of thorns and a cross set ablaze, symbolizing a passionate love ever willing to lay down his life for us. There is also a large statue of the Sacred Heart that stands outside the entrance to our monastery, warmly welcoming all visitors and silently echoing Jesus words: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest…for I am meek and humble of heart” (Matt. 11:28-29).
How did the devotion to the Sacred Heart, one of the most widespread and popular of Catholic devotions, originate? Some trace the devotion to the Sacred Heart back to the Last Supper when Jesus allowed John to rest his head upon his chest. Both St. Gertrude the Great (13th c) and St. Therese of Lisieux (19th c) allude to “resting” or “sleeping” on the heart of Jesus like St. John. For them, the Heart of Jesus, was a “treasure of tenderness.”
Writers as early as St. Justin Martyr (2nd c) and Pope Gregory the Great (7th c) drew on John 19:34 as a metaphor for the divine graces that flow from the heart of the crucified Jesus, “One of the soldiers opened his side with a lance, and at once there came forth blood and water.”
Later spiritual writers, theologians, and mystics, including St. Bernard of Clairvaux (12th c) and St. John Eudes (17th c), further developed and popularized devotion to the heart of Jesus. It is easy to understand why the heart of Jesus became the focus of this devotion since the heart has long been viewed as the source of all human activity, the complete range of human feelings and powers. David Richo explains in his book, The Sacred Heart of the World, “Our heart is the soft center of the egoless self, and it has one desire: to open…Contemplation of Jesus’ Heart shows us how deep we really are, how vast our potential for love, how high our aspiration for the light.”
It was the visions of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque over a period of 18 months between 1673-1675 that eventually prompted formal, universal devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus throughout the Church. Jesus instructed St. Margaret Mary to introduce this feast on the third Friday after Pentecost, and begin the practice of lovingly receiving the Eucharist on the first Friday of every month and devoting an hour to Eucharistic adoration every Thursday, during which she was to meditate on his agony in the garden.
St. Margaret Mary’s visions came after the Reformation at a time when Calvinism and Jansenism were spreading throughout Europe. These doctrines emphasized the wrath of God and the sinfulness of the human condition, which, for many, brought about a deep sense of guilt. Catholics, influenced by the surrounding culture, began to withdraw from receiving Holy Communion. Devotion to the Sacred Heart was to become a “corrective” widely embraced among ordinary Catholics, who found renewed comfort in the message of Christ’s infinite love and mercy for all people without exception. The Sacred Heart of Jesus gave positive expression to the sacredness of every human person.
If we fast forward from St. Margaret Mary’s time to our own, the feast poses a challenge for us. How can we bring the message of God’s mercy and tenderness to the violence of our contemporary world? How do we see the face of Christ in those different from ourselves? How do we bring mercy and goodness into the lives of others? How do we rest secure in a God who loves us extravagantly? Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like unto thine.
By Sister Madeline Contorno, OSB