Light and Life – May-June 2021, Vol 74, No 3 – A Publication of the Western Dominican Province
[Fr. Peter Hannah, OP, was born in Temple, Texas. His father was in the military and his mother was a teacher. He became passionate about golf in high school and college, and aspired to be a professional. He entered the Western Dominican Province in 2007 and was ordained to the presbyterate in 2014. He currently serves as an Adjunct Professor at the DSPT teaching Scripture.]
It is difficult to think of a symbol with more far-reaching implications in human experience than the heart. Biologically and in terms of human relationships, the heart is—as it were—central. The biological organ itself evokes wonder the more one knows of it. And the experiences we generally associate with “matters of the heart” run the gamut, from nostalgic affection for places and things, to the bonds of family, to the emotional dramatics of romance. It is not too surprising, then, that this pulsating and vital organ within us occupies an important place in religious language and devotion. “Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul, mind and strength,” says the Lord in issuing to us the greatest of all commandments. Two feasts every year are dedicated to, of all things, this physical organ and all it stands for: the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (June 11) and of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (June 12). Our Lord’s heart and Our Lady’s heart have been elevated by Divine Providence to a place of honor, given the integral roles each played in our redemption. The hearts of Jesus and Mary are truly fonts of divine grace, which finally is the only power which can heal the brokenness sin has wrought.
Organ of Life, Source of Desire
The beating and fleshy and many-chambered organ in our chest is the vital center for our bodies for the whole of our time on earth. It is in fact the first organ to develop in the womb and begins pumping blood in a tiny and fragile manner after only three weeks, sustained and nourished by the life-system of the mother. One of the most time-honored pastimes for families, of course, is for the mother to invite her other children to place their ears on her belly to listen for the sound of the child’s beating heart within. The biblical writer of Ecclesiastes knew that only God could be behind such a marvelous process of growth: “As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all” (Eccles. 11:5). Somehow from its tiniest beginnings, the heart grows into maturity and sustains our life until the moment we leave this earth. Then the nurse or attending doctor checks our pulse to determine finally if the heart is still delivering life-blood to the body or if the “way of the spirit” has withdrawn. The same biblical writer memorializes this moment too, when in modern parlance we might say that the heart monitor flatlines: “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it” (Eccles. 12:7).
If the heart is a mysterious and marvelous thing on a biological level, its symbolism in human experience reaches further still. We say of physical locations marked by special memories or natural beauty that they are “close to our heart.” Family memories and relationships occupy similar places in our affections and emotional life. On Valentine’s day the heart becomes the widespread—if often kitschy—symbol of romantic experience. The arrow one often sees on that day is an idea reaching back into antiquity: Cupid, the god of love, was known to the ancient Romans to strike individuals unawares with pangs of love-longing, often enough in inconvenient or distressing ways. And here one begins to see not only the mystery and beauty of the heart but its potentially problematic qualities.
The word “heart” in modern languages and in ancient ones not only signifies the physical organ but also the vital source of all human desire. And human desires can gain steam in any number of directions, sometimes for good and noble things, and sometimes not. Our Lord in the Gospel of Matthew points to this “duality” in the human heart by exhorting his audience to desire the right things, for “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt. 6:21). It is, therefore, not for nothing that modern popes especially have stressed the importance of two devotions concerned with this vital organ of our life and desire: devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Devotion to the Hearts of Jesus and Mary
Devotion (Latin devotio) in the Catholic tradition properly indicates a readiness to give oneself in the service and worship of Almighty God. Physical objects like saint’s statues, religious icons, or even a physical heart, can be occasions of stirring within oneself this generosity of will, catalyzing an inner-zeal to cling to God as our Source of life and salvation. The physical hearts of Jesus and Mary signify in different ways the tremendous reality of Christ’s love in both its divine and human aspects. God has loved the human race from all eternity and has shown us his love by coming among us as a man, trodding the path of human life, and bravely undergoing his passion and death so as to draw us into the life of the Blessed Trinity. And his beating heart, which formed in the womb of the Blessed Virgin after her own heart received the angel’s word, brings into sharp focus the mystery of divine love flowing to us through Christ’s humanity.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus gained momentum especially in the late Middle Ages but its roots go back to Holy Scripture. Jesus declares to a crowd in the Gospel of John that “If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water’.” The Gospel writer John tells us that Jesus said this “about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive” (Jn. 7.37-39). The Fathers of the Church read this passage in relation to the moment after Jesus’ death on the cross when the soldiers came and “pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” (Jn. 19.34). Jesus, in other words, identifies himself as the source of the living water of grace, a reality which becomes dramatically enacted when his side is pierced on the cross. The Fathers developed a rich theology of the Church from these passages. As Eve, the mother of all the living, was taken from the side of the First Adam in the Garden (Gen. 2:21), so the Church, Mother of souls, sprang from the side of Christ on the Cross. Eve is the bride of the First Adam and the source of natural life for the human race; the Church is the Bride of the New Adam, Christ the Lord, and becomes the source of saving life to souls, sprung as she is from the very Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Medieval theologians developed a kind of spiritual theology of the Sacred Heart, beginning with Sts. Anselm (d. 1109) and Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), and continuing through Sts. Bonaventure (d. 1274), Mechtilde (d. 1180), Gertrude (d. 1302), and many others. St. Margaret Mary Alacoque’s revelations between 1673-1674 have given to the devotion many of its modern features, including allotting First Fridays to reception of communion and making reparation for souls. St. John Eudes (d. 1680) especially promoted devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and it was during this time that devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary also arose. As Our Lord’s physical heart is a fitting symbol for the depths of his divine love, crystallizing the point where God’s infinite grace is mediated through Christ’s humanity, so Our Lady’s heart was the locus of her reception of the divine word from Gabriel to cooperate in the work of Christ’s redemption (Lk. 1:26-38). Our Lady’s cooperation in the plan of redemption infused her with an interior life richer than any human being in history. She continually “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk. 2:19, 2:51), and experienced the Passion of her Son with a closer identification than any other (cf. Lk. 2:35; Jn. 19:26-27). Pope Clement XIII gave official approbation to the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 1765, and Pius VII granted permission to celebrate feasts of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1805.
Devotions Suited to Our Times
Pius XI calls devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus a “synthesis of our whole religion” and Pius XII the “highest expression of Christian piety.” Of devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, one theologian remarks that it “can be regarded as the synthesis of all Marian doctrine and devotion.” The high praise offered for these devotions points to the way they capture the “heart”—pun intended—of our faith.
From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible testifies to the broken, wavering, and sinful tendencies of the human heart. It is “tortuous…beyond remedy” to the prophet Jeremiah (17:9); God calls it “continually evil” before he sends the flood (Gen. 6:5); St. Paul associates the “heartless” with all those who have forsaken God (Rom.1:28-31). And one need not look too far today to see that the essential inclinations of human behavior have not changed. The political, social, and familial crises which have continually struck society in recent years can, in a manner, be traced to disordered desires laying within the human heart. Against the “lust of the flesh…the eyes…and the pride of life” of which St. John speaks, Our Lord urges his followers to acquire purity of heart that we might enjoy a vision of God (Jn. 2:16; Mt 5:8). This purity of heart empowers us to obey the greatest commandment of loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength.
But how attain such purity and strength of heart? Evidently, through a source of healing, reform, discipline and sustenance from a power larger than ourselves. Our hearts, which mysteriously begin beating just a month after conception and do not cease until death, both sustain our physical life and fill our lives with desires, hopes, dreams, fears, and longings; sometimes these are helpful and good, but often enough they can lead us astray. By cultivating a devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus, our minds and hearts are turned to all that God desires us to be. Beginning with the very depths of our desires. Mary received the divine Word with perfect purity and faith, and continued meditating on the mysteries of her divine Son’s life, finally culminating with a deep identification with his suffering and death on the Cross. She who was miraculously preserved from sin focused her heart’s desire on God’s love in a manner more fully than any human being in history apart from her son. Our Lord’s tiny human heart takes flesh and develops in Mary’s very body, begotten by the Father and sustained by the Spirit. It animates his earthly life and ministry, and is pierced by the soldier’s lance on the Cross, bursting open into streams of divine grace which continue to nourish the Church. Through baptism, the eucharist and other sacraments, we experience these “rivers of living water.” Our hearts, broken as they are by sin, receive the marvelous gift of forgiveness, healing, and restoration, that we may enjoy a vision of God forever in unity with that love which comes to us through Jesus’ Heart. Transformed by the graces available through the Sacred Heart of Christ and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, we acquire a proper humility before the Divine Majesty to seek and dwell upon things that are good, beautiful, and true. In this year of 2021, may we all seek such reformation of heart, humble yet confident that Our Lady and Our Lord are strongly disposed to assist us with such reformation, according to their proper role in the divine plan, from the depths of the divine Love they each knew intimately.