Thursday, 19 April 2012

St Thomas Acquinas and the Sacred Heart: the abyss of all virtues

My Lenten reflections on the pierced heart of Jesus brought to mind the other day an observation in St Thomas Acquinas' Summa:

'Hence, Chrysostom says, commenting on the words of John, 'Immediately there came out blood and water'. Since the sacred mysteries derive their origin from thence, when you draw nigh to the awe-inspiring chalice, so approach as if you were going to drink from Christ's own side"' (Summa, III, 79, 1, c.)

Although Acquinas is not a saint generally associated with the devotion to the Sacred Heart per se, there is little doubt that the symbol of the heart is to be found in his writings.   As in , for example, his well-known prayer:

Grant me, O Lord, 
an ever-watchful heart that no alien thought can lure away from You;
a noble heart that no base love can sully; 

an upright heart that no perverse intention can lead astray;
an invincible heart that no distress can overcome; 

an unfettered heart that no impetuous desires can enchain.

As I reflected on this I was also reminded that, the ' Angelic Doctor'  informs the development of the devotion, not least through his writings on the eucharist.  Teilhard would certainly have known and loved Acquinas' hymns Pange Lingua ( Listen here) and Adoro te Devote (Here) .  These are, above all,  songs of the heart. And with that thought in mind I mused on the image of the saint who is traditionally shown with a shining sun on his breast.   Pope Pius XI observed in 1923 of this image that it expressed how he embodied a : 'combination of doctrine and piety, of erudition and virtue, of truth and charity, is to be found in an eminent degree in the angelic Doctor and [ therefore ]  it is not without reason that he has been given the sun for a device; for he both brings the light of learning into the minds of men and fires their hearts and wills with the virtues. God, the Source of all sanctity and wisdom would, therefore, seem to have desired to show in the case of Thomas how each of these qualities assists the other, how the practice of the virtues disposes to the contemplation of truth, and the profound consideration of truth in turn gives luster and perfection to the virtues'. 

 Benozzo Gozzoli The triumph of St Acquinas, 1484

It is fitting that as we reflect on the Sacred Heart that we should turn to the shinning sun  of the great (est) Doctor of the Church whose philosophy and theology of  the moral, intellectual and theological virtues serves to guide our lives and help us to remember that, in the words of the Litany; Cor Iesu, virtutum omnium abyssus, The Sacred Heart of Jesus is the abyss of all virtues. Let us focus on the bright light shinning from St Thomas Acquinas and open our hearts to the pierced Heart of Jesus.   

In one of his Angelus reflections on the Litany of the Sacred Heart, Blessed John Paul  has this to say about the Sacred Heart as the 'abyss of all virtues'.

Following the invocation of the litany, we try to describe in some way [ Jesus’] inner life: through his heart. The heart determines the depth of  the person. In every case, it indicates the extent of this depth, in the interior experience of each one of us, as well as in inter-personal communication. The depth of Jesus Christ, indicated by the measure of his heart, is peerless. It surpasses the depth of any man, because it is not just human, but at the same time divine. This divine-human depth of Jesus’ heart is the depth of the virtues, of all the virtues. As a true man Jesus expresses the interior language of his heart through the virtues. In fact, by analyzing his behaviour all these virtues can be discovered and identified, as, historically, they emerge from the knowledge of human morality, as the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance), and the others derived from them (These virtues are possessed to a high degree by the saints and, while always with divine grace, by the great exponents of moral standards). 

The invocation of the litany speaks in a very beautiful part of an "abyss" of the virtues of Jesus. This abyss, this depth signifies a particular degree of perfection of each virtue and its particular power. This depth and power of each virtue proceeds from love. The more each of the virtues are rooted in love, the greater is their depth. Furthermore, in addition to love, humility also determines the depth of the virtues. Jesus said: "Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart" (Mt 11, 29).

.. let us ask Mary that we may ever draw closer to the heart of her Son. That we may be able to learn from him, and from his virtues. 

( 28th July, 1985, in John Paul II,  Litany of the Sacred Heart, Prayer and Service, October- December, 1990, no 4. pp 313-4) 

It seems to me that this (Thomist?) sense of the Sacred Heart as an 'abyss of all virtues' is powerfully expressed in our icon in a way that the traditional image utterly fails to capture.  The heart itself is the centre of a powerful swirl of energy and fire which is inviting us to think of the infinite and cosmic  depth of God's love as revealed in the death and resurrection - and ultimately the pleroma -  of Christ.  When read as an image of how all virtues flow out of one divine source, love, the icon prompts us to reflect and meditate on the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, but also to consider how Jesus displays the four 'cardinal ' virtues in all their perfection.  To live a virtuous life we must live a life powered and energised by the love which the Sacred Heart symbolises: a love that is cosmic, immeasurable and without end, but which is at the same time is personal and desires unity with us as individuals.  If we want to live a virtuous life - and evolve as a species in the direction marked out by the second Adam - we are called to learn from Jesus how to be 'gentle and lowly of heart'. 

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