Sacred Heart, Gateway to God
by Wendy M. Wright
I give and consecrate myself to the Sacred Heart of our Lord Jesus Christ. I offer my person and my life, my actions, works and sufferings, and it is my desire henceforth to use no part of my being save in honoring, loving and glorifying Him. . . . Therefore, I take Thee, 0 Sacred Heart, as the sole object of my love... Let thy pure love be so firmly impressed upon my heart that I may never forget thee. I implore thee of thy mercy suffer my name to be inscribed on Thy Heart for I wish all my happiness and give all my glory to consist in living and dying as Thy slave.
-Margaret Mary Alacoque, seventeenth century
What is the weight
of the heart you promise in exchange
for the stone's weight
that lives inside me now?
What is the width
of mercy plundered
if my heart's walls
What is the depth
of joy discovered
as I am poured out
What is the length
of love learned
in the prints left
where you walked?
What is the breadth
of freedom given
when my shoulders
bear your yoke?
And what is the weight, width,
depth, length, height, breadth,
I will hold in the taking?
Margaret Mary, you terrible, wonderful creature. Lauded as the Apostle of the Sacred Heart. Maligned by one contemporary commentator on religion as neurotic, masochistic, guilty of wish fulfillment, and imprisoned in a pious projection, you nevertheless have been the object of admiration and regard for over three centuries. Rightly so, for it was your visions, received in the intimacy of prayer in an obscure convent in the provincial French back water of Paray-le-Monial, that eventually gave shape to the official devotional cult of the Sacred Heart. The nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century church venerated you, enamored as it was by the otherworldly religiosity of consumptive virgins, child martyrs, and spiritual victimhood. You gave them suffering and self-annihilation and unworthiness in spades.
You certainly are not an easy figure for the faithful of twenty-first century America to decode. You entered the Visitation convent of Paray-le-Monial in 1674, when you were just twenty-four, against your mother's wishes and armed for religious life with only a lonely, abusive childhood and the burning desire to belong completely to your beloved Jesus. It's that part of you I find compelling. The unquenchable thirst for God alone. The white-hot desire to burn away anything in yourself that stood between you and the living flame of Love.
If social anthropologists are correct in pointing out that often it is the marginal people who offer the most permeable membrane through which emergent ideas in the form of visionary revelations are offered to a society, then Margaret Mary is a case in point. She was nobody's poster child until later in her life. Then she was honored mainly within her community. Her international visibility occurred gradually and only after her death.
Her autobiography, penned under obedience to a religious superior and left unfinished when his term of office expired, reads like a distillation of earlier pious hagiography: a vow of chastity made at the age of four, her horror of marriage, an unbidden illness cured by a vow of consecration to the Virgin Mary, domestic persecution, a transposition of her personal suffering to the suffering of Christ, self-reproach at her perceived sinfulness, repugnance at ordinary eating and a hunger for the Eucharist, a struggle against the life her family envisioned for her, liberation into the enclosure of the monastery, alienation and misunderstandings within her community, the punishment of suspicious superiors, the intensifying refuge of prayer, locutions, visions, and impassioned exchanges between herself and Jesus.
Between the lines a reader can discern the singular religiosity of a young woman who had in her solitary visits to church in childhood (which the relatives who kept her and her mother under virtual house arrest suspected were fabricated to meet young men) cultivated a remarkable sense of the presence of God. This was no vague, spiritual presence but a living, breathing, highly emotive, and intensely communicative relationship. This relationship reached its apogee in 1673 on December 29, the Feast of John the Beloved Disciple, when Margaret Mary received the first of the "great revelations" that later came to structure the cult of the Sacred Heart.
The following year saw two more of her "great revelations." The fourth and final occurred in June of 1675. If in the first [Margaret Mary] experienced an "exchange of hearts" and received the appellation "beloved disciple," in the subsequent visions her newly acquired identity and mission were fleshed out dramatically. She was to promulgate the following devotional practices: Eucharist on the First Friday of every month in honor of the Sacred Heart; a nightly hour of prostrated adoration between Thursday and Friday in memory of Christ's agony in the Garden; and most significantly, the institution of a yearly feast of the Sacred Heart placed on the Friday following the Feast of Corpus Christi (the Body of Christ). The sentiment that fueled her aspiration was given to her by Jesus himself.
Margaret Mary clearly was not the inventor of the Sacred Heart devotion.
Centuries of private devotional practice all over Christendom had paved the way. Moreover, the Visitation order she joined was heir to the heart theology of Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal. Yet, strangely enough, when as a young professed she began to introduce intentional devotion to the heart in her community, it was viewed as a foreign and suspect practice. This type of devotion was apparently not known in the provinces; certainly it was not known to her sisters in religion at Paray.
Moreover, visionary experience itself was keenly suspect at this period of French history. Public quarrels over Quietism and Jansenism had signaled the end of easy acceptance in the church for anything that looked like individual mystical or spiritual experience. The favor of the day was given to doctrinal orthodoxy, belief in the sufficiency of the sacraments, and loyalty to ecclesiastical authority. Add to this cultural mistrust of individual illumination the fact that by the end of the seventeenth century the Visitation Order came to stress the dimension of its charism that emphasized humble, simple conformity to the community rule, and there was even more reason for Margaret Mary (who couldn't be trusted to mind the monastery livestock because she let them wander off while she went into a rapture) to be under suspicion.
It took Jesuit Claude de la Colombière (1641-1682) to authenticate her visions both for herself and, obliquely, for her community. It has not been unusual for spiritually gifted women in the church to find champions in some male counterpart. Indeed, this is the norm rather than the exception. Claude had been assigned as confessor for Margaret Mary's monastery. His Jesuit community at Paray, like the Visitation, had a few decades prior been established as part of the militant reestablishment of Catholic ascendancy in the region. A generation past, the area had been economically and socially dominated by Huguenot families. These French Protestants were expelled by Louis XIV's revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had allowed French Protestantism to coexist alongside its Catholic counterpart. The Jesuit Colombière, himself steeped in the Sacred Heart devotion, which his order had long encouraged, discovered in this obscure provincial nun a friend and fellow spirit traveler. It was he who deemed Margaret Mary's visions to be direct communiqués from God, and he whose retreat notes, read aloud much later in the refectory at Paray, suggested to Margaret Mary's community that something graced and extraordinary had indeed occurred among them. Eventually, the Paray-le-Monial monastery found common purpose in initiating and promoting the Sacred Heart devotion under the aspect revealed to Margaret Mary Alacoque. The devotion was simultaneously promoted by others outside the cloister, especially Jesuit Fathers Croiset and Gallifet, whose writings were widely circulated.
Margaret Mary's visions emphasized the devotional postures of adoration and reparation. Adoration was due the heart that loved humankind with such abundance yet had suffered so for that love. The attitude of adoration was impressed upon Margaret Mary with the force of vision.
The Eucharistic focus of [her] visions is clear. And the layered implications of the [Margaret Mary’s] sightings are striking. To put it rather bluntly, these were politically charged visions.
On the first level, they spoke directly to Margaret Mary herself - of her vocation, her identity, her mission. On a second level, the visions implicated the sisters at Paray-le-Monial. In fact, within a short time Margaret Mary was ordered by her invisible companion to confront her own monastery about the tepidness of its religiosity - an order that, when carried out, did not endear the visionary to her sisters.
But the Sacred Heart revelations implied a wider audience than these few provincial cloistered women. Implied were broader ecclesial and societal challenges: Protestantism, Jansenism, and Quietism, as well as the growing religious skepticism that had permeated French intellectual life. The Sacred Heart eventually came to be the standard carried into battle by the French Catholic monarchy against all the enemy forces that threatened its foundations and its right to exist.
Of course, this was a complex, lengthy journey. Later in her life Margaret Mary (prompted again by her divine mentor) proposed that the French monarch - none other than the absolutist Sun King, Louis XIV - put himself and the French realm under the patronage of the Sacred Heart. The message seems not to have reached the king. The marriage of the Sacred Heart symbol and the French people, however, had begun.
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A pure heart
That we may see thee,
A humble heart,
That we may hear thee,
A heart of love
That we may serve thee,
A heart of faith
That we may live thee.
-Dag Hammarskjöld, twentieth century
Margaret Mary Alacoque was neither the first nor the last individual in the Catholic tradition to undergo an "exchange of hearts." A number of women in the medieval mystical tradition before her had encountered Jesus in a visionary or mystical mode and in the process "lost" their own hearts. The variants in the tradition were many, but inevitably the experience involved a visionary encounter and a hidden, interior transformation that the vision symbolized. Dorothy of Montau and Catherine de Ricci each received dramatic confirmation that her "old heart" was replaced by a "new heart." Dominican Margaret Ebner recounted a "grasp in the heart of an inner divine power" that impressed the "sweetest name" of Jesus within her. Both Lutgard of Awyieres and Catherine of Siena (whose experience was widely recounted and artistically represented) received Christ's own heart in place of their own. This theme, of course, is part of the deep grammar of Christian prayer in which echoes Old Testament prayer, "Give me a clean heart," and the corresponding promise, "I will take away your heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh." The medieval cloister, luxuriating in the devotional imagery of the heart, vibrated with the songs of lover and beloved. What more fitting way for the radical imitation of Christ for which the tradition pressed than a mystical exchange of hearts? Paul's words "I no longer live but Christ lives in me" moved from metaphor to embodied understanding. Catherine's heart was "crushed"; Margaret Mary housed a spark of living flame. Other recipients of this curious (to modern sensibilities) grace each underwent the exchange in their own unique ways.
But what of this exchange today? In what guise might this religious relic appear at the turn of the millennium? I find my own ruminations turning toward contemporary social theory, especially theories of nonviolent resistance that offer a vision of a transformed world that begins in a transformation of hearts.
It is especially the tradition of nonviolent resistance — articulated in the present century and culminating in the thinking of Martin Luther King Jr. — that seems to me to have the possibility of responding creatively to the violence so endemic in our present world. King's theories provide the sub-structure beneath the various acts of civil disobedience that he and others orchestrated during his years as champion of civil rights for American blacks. The theories are significant not only because they analyze the structures that breed violence but also because they point to a radical change of heart that can potentially transform violence through the use of militant nonviolence.
Martin Luther King Jr. viewed militant nonviolence as the choice of the courageous. First, it was not a question of whether or not one should confront evil. He felt it was a fundamental human moral obligation to do so. The only choice one had was whether to resist violently or nonviolently. Second, the end sought by nonviolence was not victory over one's opponents but reconciliation with them based on the recognition of the common interests shared by all parties. For King, the goal was the creation of what he called the "be loved community," in which all would be reconciled. This implies that compromises must be made by all parties in order to find common ground. Third, the struggle for a just world was not a struggle against the impersonal forces of evil or against other people but against the structures of evil that enslave the oppressors as well as the oppressed. Thus revenge is foreign and forgiveness commonplace in King's vision of a transformed and transforming world. Fourth, one must be willing to accept suffering oneself rather than inflict suffering on others. Fifth, the resister must renounce both the use of physical violence and any internal spirit of violence. This inner conquest is perhaps the most difficult dimension of the nonviolent platform. One must genuinely love one's opponents, not because one approves of or even likes them, but because a fundamental agapic love has possessed one's heart. This agapic love is God's love for humans revealed most clearly in Jesus. Such love is a gift, a creative in-breaking of the Spirit that human beings cannot control but that can be courted by opening our hearts to grace. Sixth and finally, Martin Luther King Jr.'s theory of nonviolence assumes that there is cosmic companionship in the struggle for a just and loving world and that the true meaning of life is discovered in the personal effort to live humanely, courageously, and freely.
I would like to create a space, as it were, for the dialogue between the tradition of Sacred Heart devotion and nonviolent theory. It is clear to me that it is not enough simply to pray to the Sacred Heart of Jesus to take away the violence in contemporary culture. Nor do I think it is adequate for all of us simply to devote ourselves to making reparation for the sins of humankind, although this is an intercessory practice to which some may have a genuine call. Instead, I take my cue from the tradition of Margaret Mary and other women mystics who invite us to ask and prepare ourselves for an exchange of hearts. Our hearts must become inhabited by the heart of God. When it happened to Catherine of Siena, her heart was "crushed." Gertrude the Great describes the process as being "grasped." Francis de Sales, in less mystical fashion, simply enjoined Jesus to live and reign in human hearts. Margaret Mary experienced her heart as removed and replaced by a fiery atom. No matter how one might conceptualize this "exchange," it seems to me to be the fundamental dynamic both in King's vision and in the spirituality of the Sacred Heart.
What does it mean to experience this exchange? What are the aspects of a heart inhabited by the heart of God? First, I would say that the heart of God is embodied in the particular. The central, utterly stunning insight of the Christian religion is the idea of incarnation. As an historical and theological concept, the incarnation of God in human form is a familiar idea. But if we read the incarnation as a more wide-ranging symbol, a rich insight that invites us into a fundamental truth of existence, we see that the incarnation speaks of the conjunction of the visible and the invisible, the meeting of heaven and earth. Most specifically, it proclaims that spirit is discovered in matter, that the infinite is encountered precisely in the finite. This is not to be pantheistic, reducing God to the world, but to invite us into the paradox, to paraphrase Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem about the Virgin Mary, that infinity is cloistered in a dear womb. Her womb, our womb, the womb of the world.
What this means for us is that our hearts cannot be fixed on the generic or the ideal but must learn and exercise love through the particular. We are called to encounter God in the specific, embodied persons and events with which we come in contact. The extended tradition of contemplation on the Sacred Heart makes this abundantly clear. In much of that tradition the distinctive, bodily heart of Jesus is the focus. I have come to love the stunning fleshiness of it all, the sense that in gazing upon the organ itself one can know the depths of God. I admit it took me a long time to adjust to this concept and that originally I came to my study prepared to focus on the heart in a more conceptual manner. But the tradition is unambiguous. God does not love only with a free-floating, "spiritual" love but with the rush of blood, the tensing of muscle, with the tearing of tissue and bone. And so must we love.
To have a heart inhabited by God's heart, we must love specific people in all their idiosyncrasies. We must practice an energetically engaged love that mucks in the messiness of things. The medieval women mystics were so good at grasping this truth. For them, the God who died on the cross was as much a woman in childbirth as a sacrificial victim. God, for them, had the heart of a mother, whose love is inextricably linked to the irrepeatable flesh and blood of her child.
To have such a maternal heart ourselves means we must be lovers of all that is created, have our eyes opened to the deep spirit that slumbers within the substructure of rocks, courses through crystalline stream beds, and echoes in the oceans' primordial depths. Teilhard de Chardin, whose twentieth-century spiritual vision was contoured by loving gaze upon the Sacred Heart as well as by his scientific training, spoke of this reality in "My Litany":
The essence of all energy
The cosmic curve
The heart of God
The issue of cosmogenesis
The tide of cosmic convergence
The God of evolution
The universal Jesus. . .
Focus of ultimate and universal energy Center of the
cosmic sphere of cosmogenesis Heart of Jesus,
heart of evolution,
unite me to yourself.
This incarnational intuition that the finite is the gateway to infinity (and its corollary that love can only be exercised in the particularity of finite persons and situations) dovetails well, I think, with the insights from nonviolent theory which insist that reconciliation and the creation of the beloved community is the end we seek. We cannot love our enemies if we cannot see them as potential friends, cannot find some vestige of humanity in them, cannot find God in all things as they are, even if we would wish them otherwise. To perceive the infinite in the finite requires an act of the imagination, a capacity to pierce stereotypes and appearances to reach the core of goodness that lingers in all created things. It requires enormous faith to suspend our own expectations and wait for God's illumination in the darkness. But that is what the embodied heart of God invites us to do.
The second revelatory insight in the tradition is that God's heart is the center where all paradoxes are held in tension. Christianity is a religion of paradoxes. Three in one. Fully God and fully human. Life born through death. These are foundational ideas that support the whole Christian edifice. The tradition of the Sacred Heart seems to me to be a vehicle through which we locate the place of paradoxical convergence. The heart is at the center of God's body, the center of the liturgy, the center of our redemption, and the center of the universe. There all things converge, but their convergence does not dilute distinctiveness into sameness. Instead, the incredible tension of holding opposites together generates intense creativity. For the center is not static but dynamic, and the existence of paradox there is not chaotic but life-giving. It is the ancient image of the divine heart as a fiery furnace that captures my imagination.
Classically, nonviolent theory does not identify itself with any preconceived political or social agenda for it is not an ideology as much as an approach to life. It does not seek to push forward special interests as much as to arrive at the "beloved community" by whatever available nonviolent means. To have a heart thus fixed is to have a flexible heart, one married to the ultimate good of all concerned. This means that one must hold in one's heart the incredible paradox of one's own truth as well as the truth perceived by others. This is a tension-filled but ultimately creative undertaking that burns away our little, carefully bounded selves.
If we are to have hearts like this we must learn to live with the kind of searing paradox that burns off our narrow preconceptions, our petty self-protectiveness, and our need to control. We must be burned hollow enough to allow that divine expansion to communicate itself to us, to move freely and fluidly between us, to make us passageways through which the Spirit flows.
The third aspect of Sacred Heart devotion that recommends itself richly to me is the insight, perhaps most fully developed in Salesian spirituality, that God's heart is gentle and humble. The Salesian tradition seized upon the scriptural passage found in Matthew 11, in which Jesus invites his hearers to take his yoke upon their shoulders. "Come to me, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart," he says. As we saw, Francis de Sales took the invitation seriously and made this the core not only of his Christology but also of his spiritual vision.
I think of the techniques of nonviolent resistance that King advocated in his civil rights work, techniques that he had learned from Mahatma Gandhi and Thoreau. He advocated the use of tactics, gestures, and words that could transform a conflict situation by disarming it. Rather than responding as victims or as adversaries and thus further polarizing a conflict, nonviolent resisters were taught to disarm their opponents through unexpected responses that invited the enemy to see them as having common interests or concerns. A situation could be reframed, creatively reinvented, or broken open by disarmed hearts employing the tactics that disarm. Hearts that allow the gentle, humble Jesus to live in them contain the transformative power of God's own gentle love, a love that conquers all and is stronger than death.
A final dimension of Sacred Heart devotion that seems to me to lend itself well to dialogue with nonviolent theory is the idea that the heart is a place of creative suffering. The full-fledged liturgical cult of the Sacred Heart grew out of the more diffuse but widespread devotion to the wounds of Christ, this focused practice being part of the spiritual emphasis of Western Christendom that emphasized the human experience of Jesus and was especially attentive to his passion.
Although many of us in the twenty-first century find ourselves perplexed and troubled by the emphasis on suffering within the spiritual tradition, it nevertheless is a powerful and persistent theme. I would caution that the theme of suffering for the sake of Christ, if it is used to rationalize oppression or justify the abuse of others, could simply be disguised violence. But we have access to a long and profound heritage that, taking its cue from the cross, sees suffering incurred on behalf of the kingdom as redemptive. Much of Sacred Heart devotion falls into that category. Perhaps Margaret Mary Alacoque is the most obvious and notable exponent of this dimension of the heart tradition.
The Visitation tradition already carried in it the idea of the martyrdom of love, an idea implicit in all Christian spirituality and given further articulation by Jane de Chantal. But Margaret Mary lived it out with great vividness. Behind her sometimes troubling accounts of her sufferings is the idea that in her own body she continued the redemptive work of Jesus. Her suffering is ultimately transformative not simply imitative. New life, healing, transfiguration, and resurrection spring forth from the deep and consecrated suffering that she experiences. Margaret Mary thus is an example of what was known in pre-Vatican II Catholicism as a "victim soul," individuals chosen by God to so conform themselves to the crucified Jesus that, like him, they become victims of expiation for the sins of the world.
It is only on the level of mystic participation in which our seemingly separate bodies are known to be intimately intertwined that this participatory suffering makes sense. One of the crucial aspects of nonviolent theory is the willingness to take on suffering oneself rather than inflict harm on another. This too is transformative suffering embraced for a vision — the beloved community — larger than oneself and giving ultimate meaning to one's little life. Translated into the idiom of nonviolent theory, the idea of reparation changes from a potentially negative, world-shunning devotional exercise into a passionate and positive practice engaged in out of love for the world.
The tradition of Sacred Heart devotion gives us access to some of the richest and most insightful dimensions of Christian spirituality and theology. The many themes discovered there — the heart is embodied in the particular, the heart is the center where paradoxes are held in tension, the heart is gentle and humble, and the heart is a place of creative suffering — seem to me to lend themselves to a rich dialogue with modern theories of nonviolence and challenge us to open ourselves to the grace to ask for an exchange so that our hearts might become forges of loving transformation in the midst of a violent world.
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Promises of the Sacred Heart Given to Margaret Mary Alacoque
- I will give them all the graces necessary in their state of life.
- I will give peace in their families and will unite families that are divided.
- I will console them in all their troubles.
- I will be their refuge during life and above all in death.
- I will bestow the blessings of heaven on all their enterprises.
- Sinners shall find in my heart the source and infinite ocean of mercy.
- Tepid souls shall become fervent.
- Fervent souls shall rise quickly to great perfection.
- I will bless those places wherein the image of my heart shall be exposed and honored and will imprint my love on the hearts of those who would wear this image on their person. I will also destroy in them all disordered movements.
- I will give to priests who are animated by a tender devotion to my divine heart the gift of touching the most hardened hearts.
- Those who promote this devotion shall have their names written in my heart, never to be effaced.
- I promise you in the excessive mercy of my heart that my all-powerful love will grant to all those who communicate on the First Friday in nine consecutive months, the grace of final penitence: they will not die in my disgrace, nor without receiving the sacraments. My divine heart shall be their safe refuge in this last moment.