Words on the Word

The Sacred Heart

Hosea 11.1-9: I led them with reins of kindness.
Ephesians 3.8-19: May Christ live in your hearts.
John 19.31-37: Blood and water poured forth.

Eastertide is over, yet is somehow prolonged through three solemnities forming a Paschal wake through the beginning of what our liturgical books oddly calls ‘Ordinary Time’, as if any time were ‘ordinary’. On the Sunday after Pentecost we celebrate the Blessed Trinity, admiring the divine mystery revealed to us by Christ, the Father’s only Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit. The following Thursday is Corpus Christi, a kind of transfigured Maundy Thursday bathed in flowers and jubilant songs as we commemorate that the Lord, true to his word, remains with us and nurtures us with his Real Presence. Until 1955 Corpus Christi was kept with an octave, so that the feast’s message might truly penetrate the hearts and minds of the faithful. The ninth day, the following Friday – today – marked the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

I mention this context in order to stress a key point: there is an essential connection between the Sacred Heart and the Eucharistic sacrifice, pure, holy, and spotless. For our ancestors this connection was self-evident. Think of Giotto’s depiction of the crucifixion in the lower basilica in Assisi. There we see an angel fluttering close to Chris’s right side in order to gather in a chalice the blood and water flowing from his pierced Heart. The Blood of Christ is the effluence of his Heart, uniting us to him and to one another in communion.

If we consider the eucharistic miracles recognised by the Church, cases in which the consecrated Host appears in the form of human flesh, we note with astonishment that these, submitted to scientific analysis, systematically display traces of cardiac tissue.  Such miracles are not truths of the faith: no one is obliged to acknowledge them. But anyone can find in them a telling symbol. Christ’s Body, given for us, is in a privileged manner his Sacred Heart, burning with love for mankind, bursting with grief on account of man’s scornful rejection of this love.

The Heart of Jesus, we read in Scripture, is meek and humble. Meekness is a function of the third Beatitude; it distinguishes those who will inherit the earth. Humility appears before our eyes when Pilate, once the praetorium’s soldiers have had their fun, points at Jesus and says, ‘Behold the Man!’ Humility stands for genuine, true humanity. These qualities, humility and meekness, carry blessing and strength into a world wounded by mendacity and pride. Thanks to them, the yoke of Jesus is pleasant, his burden light. His Heart is a source, not just of life, but of joy.

Today we contemplate this Heart opened by Longinus’s spear in order never again to close until the end of time. But what does it mean to ‘contemplate’ the Heart of Jesus? Does it mean that, as onlookers, we gawp at an alien object? That we must entertain sublimely theological thoughts or be aflame with mystic ecstasy? Not necessarily.

The way of contemplation is a way of slow, essential transformation that unites us with the contemplated object so that we can stay in it. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is a universe in which we are invited to live. This may seem a little abstract, perhaps. Let me explain what I mean by means of an example.

One of my Order’s great examples and teachers is Saint Lutgarde of Aywières. She was born in 1182 and died in 1247. She was an exact contemporary of the Cistercian monks who in 1207 founded Tautra, just north of here. Lutgarde was an austere nun, strict with herself. She kept long fasts during which she lived only on beer. Lest this observation provoke sniggers, I remind you that weak beer back then, when water was not always drinkable, was a harmless drink that enabled her to abstain from solids while giving her body a minimum of nourishment.

We are told that Lutgarde one day saw the Heart of Jesus in a vision. She was invited to ask for a grace. Being conscientious, and liturgically minded, she said that she would be happy to know more Latin. That way she could better appreciate the riches of the liturgy. Her prayer was granted, and she rejoiced. The Gospels, Psalms, and Prophets shone with new brilliance. Her heart, though, was not entirely satisfied. It longed to beat with the rhythm of Christ’s own Heart, to be filled with that Heart’s love.

Lutgarde therefore asked the Lord if she might possibly exchange her first, linguistic grace for another. ‘What would you like?’, Jesus asked. ‘Your Heart, Lord’, she said. Again, her prayer was heard. She lived out her final years in an existential awareness of what it means to love as Jesus loves, ‘until the end’. It was no dance on roses. The love of Jesus, as another formidable nun, St Birgitta of Vadstena, liked to point out, is a crucified love: Amor meus crucifixus est. Lutgarde knew the anguish of the Sacred Heart; she also knew its exultance. She became blind. Its was as if the loss of physical vision illumined her inner eye. She was given the charism of reading others’ hearts, of working healings; she became a bearer of consolation to countless people. She died in Aywières on 16 June 1246, which that year was the Solemnity of the Blessed Trinity. The Lord had let her know that he would call her home then.

The example of St Lutgarde may seem remote, perhaps extreme. In reality it is neither. All of us, baptised Christians, are called to know the Heart Jesus from within. I love an old, deeply evangelical prayer that goes like this:

Iesu, mitis et humilis Corde, fac cor nostrum secundum Cor tuum

“Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like your Heart”. Today’s feast teaches us that this can actually happen. Let us seize the opportunity, pray like this in truth, and say a wholehearted Amen to the grace offered us.