Our Lord's Heart is indeed ineffably beautiful and satisfying: it exhausts all reality and answers all the soul's needs. The very thought of it is almost more than the mind can compass.
Teilhard de Chardin S.J.
Of late I have been working on the problem of humility - as an important civic and epistemological virtue and how this relates to the theology of the idea of humility, especially in Acquinas. And a while ago I was asked to read at Mass and to my surprise it was Saint Paul's letter to the Philipians ( 2:6-11 ) where he draws our attention to the humility of Christ. It seemed at that point many ideas began to flow into one another in a most productive way. One result of this was to prompt me to reflect on the theme of humility in the icon. This has been a topic which this blog has touched upon, but it strikes me that it needs to be given more emphasis. I think this is the result of allowing Theodore Baily's window to help me read the icon. Both images ask us to contemplate Jesus as 'meek and humble of heart' ( Matthew, 11:29). We have to learn from him. His heart is the great treasury of wisdom: that if we are to evolve as a person and as a species we must learn to be humble. If His heart is the treasury of all knowledge and wisdom (scientiae and sapientia) then we must understand how important humility is for humanity. Dom Theodore's window therefore invites us to consider the Benedictine tradition of humility as the most vital of virtues, whilst the icon gives us paragons of humility: the Blessed Virgin, and St John the Baptist on the left and right. Whilst on the bottom of the icon we find Adam and St. Mary Magdalene in positions of humility before Christ Omega.
Learning humility in purgatory, by Dore
Humility was considered more of a vice by Aristotle, but Augustine and Acquinas regarded Humility as the first of the virtues, for without humility it was impossible to love God or ones neighbour. We see their teaching expressed nicely in Dante's Purgatory, in which Pride is the first 'terrace'. Without learning humility it was impossible to overcome the other sins. Pride ( what Dante terms "love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for one's neighbour") was the deadliest of all sins: it was the great offence of Satan. Although the Greeks did not acknowledge humility they did recognise that human beings could fall prey to 'hubris' - excessive love of the self and an over-confidence in your own abilities. Pride is the source of so much human misery at an individual and collective level- hence Aquinas devoted a good deal of his writings showing why humility is spiritually and socially important. And yet, despite this, humility has never been accorded the central place it deserves. For Machiavelli, humility in a prince was a dangerous weakness and vice. However, the prince had to appear or seem to be humble - for the sake of appearances. Humility was a useful form of deceit. During the 'enlightenment' humility was also regarded as more vice than virtue. In Hume's Enquiries (1777) he argues that it is nothing more than a 'monkish' virtue of little practical use outside a convent or monastery. However. as we contemplate the humility of Christ, and how we must seek to learn from his meek and humble heart, the icon prompts us to realize that the future of humanity is bound up with how we learn this chief lesson of the Sacred Heart. Humility is a necessary epistemological virtue: that is, unless we are able to able to admit that we are wrong in what we thought was true, and unless we are willing to learn from our mistakes we are doomed to face our personal and collective nemesis. Science cannot be hubristic: science can only progress by cultivating humility. ( Indeed that is what the arch-atheist Russell argues in his history of philosophy!) So controlling our pride is a virtue which is a pre-condition of rational behaviour. Humility is not just a 'monkish virtue', it is also a pre-condition for scientific progress. Humility is also a pre-condition for creating and sustaining political and social order. Humility, correctly understood, is about self-knowledge: understanding your limitations, and being aware of your strengths and weaknesses. Humility, correctly understood, is about respecting other people and not assuming that you can live your life independent of them. Humility is a civic virtue which expresses itself in listening and toleration. Without humility human beings can be foolish and dangerous to the common good. And yes, humility is a theological virtue grounded in an appreciation of our call to love God and love our neighbour. In all of this humility is not about being a floor mat. The great Saints who exemplify lives of humility were not weak or passive pusillanimous people: quite the opposite. The humility of saints shows itself as a powerful and vital force or energy which enabled them to do great things. In short, to realise your potential as a rational and spiritual human being you must learn humility: and humility is undoutedly the hardest thing that humans have to learn. Hence we pray:
Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make my heart like unto Thine.
The reading from Mass the other day (5th September) from St Paul (Corinthians 3:1-9) brought me to yet another reflection or reading of the icon - especially in the light of Dom Theodore Bailey's window I discovered whilst in West Wales. The line that caught my eye is where St. Paul says 'only God makes things grow'. We can do do all we can with a seed to help it grow, but we can't make it grow. ( I have tried many times!) Turning to the icon and Bailey's window it struck me how both uniquely - as far as I know- introduce nature into the image of the Sacred Heart: both have images of growth.
Sacred Heart by Dom Theodore Bailey
The icon uses the vine, leaves, grapes and animals, and Bailey uses ferns and sunflowers. As Teilhard was all about seeing Christ in all things and God's love as an energy which fills all creation and pulls all things towards completion in Him, I think this idea of only God can make things grow is reflected in both the images. St.Paul was, of course. very much an inspiration for Teilhard's idea of the Heart of Jesus, but by saying that 'only God can make things grow' we are reminded that we are all dependent on the grace of God. The icon shows the living water which flows from the heart of the Saviour, nourishing all creation. In Dom Theodore's window we see plant life blooming at the feet of Christ. Both images remind us that only God can make us grow: to be devoted to the Sacred Heart is to trust in God's grace. Without it we cannot grow. This made me think of another window by Dom Theodore in St. David's chapel on the island of Caldey - which I last visited over twenty years ago! His theme here is the 'tree of life'. Perhaps we understand his (and our) Sacred Heart all the better when we take account of this window. Can we read the Sacred Heart as the tree of life? The window as described by the Caldey website says that: 'It depicts a threefold tree, possibly symbolising the Trinity and the three crosses on Calvary. When illuminated by the afternoon sun, it gives a stunning sense of the power of the Creator breathing life and light into the world.' (Go HERE) On this we can turn once again to the poem by St. Edith Stein quoted in the previous blog:
The Tree of Life, Theodore Bailey
In the heart of Jesus, which was pierced, The kingdom of heaven and the land of earth are bound together. Here is for us the source of life. This heart is the heart of the triune Divinity, And the center of all human hearts That bestows on us the life of God. It draws us to itself with secret power, It conceals us in itself in the Father's bosom And floods us with the Holy Spirit.
I think that IS what the Sacred Heart in these images prompts us to contemplate. The Sacred Heart as the source of love, light and life.
The window by Dom Theodore has continued to provided much food for thought and prayer. It was the feast day of the great Carmelite saint, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross - Edith Stein - on the 9th August which brought me right back to Dom Theodore's window and to our icon. I came across a passage in her book The Hidden Life which seemed to echo what the window is saying.
'The work of salvation takes place in obscurity and stillness. In the heart’s quiet dialogue with God the living building blocks out of which the kingdom of God grows are prepared, the chosen instruments for the construction forged. The mystical stream that flows through all centuries is no spurious tributary that has strayed from the prayer life of the church it is its deepest life. ' ( See here )
Reading her work is is apparent how she draws deeply upon the Carmelite tradition of the heart, and how central the Sacred Heart was to her spiritual life. The evidence of her 'heart spirituality' is much in evidence in her writings. In 1940, for example, she writes of the 'Hidden life and Epiphany':
'When the gentle light of the advent candles begins to shine in the dark days of December a mysterious light in a mysterious darkness it awakens in us the consoling thought that the divine light, the Holy Spirit, has never ceased to illumine the darkness of the fallen world. He has remained faithful to his creation, regardless of all the infidelity of creatures. And if the darkness would not allow itself to be penetrated by the heavenly light, there were nevertheless some places always predisposed for it to blaze. A ray from this light fell into the hearts of our original parents even during the judgment to which they were subjected. This was an illuminating ray that awakened in them the knowledge of their guilt, an enkindling ray that made them burn with fiery remorse, purifying and cleansing, and made them sensitive to the gentle light of the star of hope, which shone for them in the words of promise of the "protoevangelium," the original gospel. As were the hearts of the first human beings, so down through the ages again and again human hearts have been struck by the divine ray. Hidden from the whole world, it illuminated and irradiated them, let the hard, encrusted, misshapen matter of these hearts soften, and then with the tender hand of an artist formed them anew into the image of God. Seen by no human eye, this is how living building blocks were and are formed and brought together into a Church first of all invisible. However, the visible Church grows out of this invisible one in ever new, divine deeds and revelations which shed their light ever new epiphanies. The silent working of the Holy Spirit in the depths of the soul made the patriarchs into friends of God. However, when they came to the point of allowing themselves to be used as his pliant instruments, he established them in an external visible efficacy as bearers of historical development, and awakened from among them his chosen people. Therefore, Moses, too, was educated quietly and then sent as the leader and lawgiver.' ( Read here.)
This passage to me helps me to read Dom Theodore's window, but also to read the icon in a new way. A relationship to Christ in the heart of of creation is one in which the light penetrates the human heart and illuminates it from within: it is an invisible process by which God's presence is experienced in the world. This sense of humanity being open to the penetration of divine light is very much a theme in Teilhard. And wherever we look in Saint Edith's work we find the heart as that point in the universe in which God's light seeks to make a home. A beautiful example is her poem: I Will Remain With You.
You reign at the Father's right hand
In the kingdom of his eternal glory
As God's Word from the beginning.
You reign on the Almighty's throne
Also in transfigured human form,
Ever since the completion of your work on earth.
I believe this because your word teaches me so,
And because I believe, I know it gives me joy,
And blessed hope blooms forth from it.
For where you are, there also are your own,
Heaven is my glorious homeland,
I share with you the Father's throne.
The Eternal who made all creatures,
Who, thrice holy, encompasses all being,
In addition has a silent, special kingdom of his own.
The innermost chamber of the human soul
Is the Trinity's favorite place to be,
His heavenly throne on earth.
To deliver this heavenly kingdom from the hand of the enemy,
The Son of God has come as Son of Man,
He gave his blood as the price of deliverance.
In the heart of Jesus, which was pierced,
The kingdom of heaven and the land of earth are bound together.
Here is for us the source of life.
This heart is the heart of the triune Divinity,
And the center of all human hearts
That bestows on us the life of God.
It draws us to itself with secret power,
It conceals us in itself in the Father's bosom
And floods us with the Holy Spirit.
This Heart, it beats for us in a small tabernacle
Where it remains mysteriously hidden
In that still, white host.
That is your royal throne on earth, O Lord,
Which visibly you have erected for us,
And you are pleased when I approach it.
Full of love, you sink your gaze into mine
And bend your ear to my quiet words
And deeply fill my heart with peace.
Yet your love is not satisfied
With this exchange that could still lead to separation:
Your heart requires more.
You come to me as early morning's meal each daybreak.
Your flesh and blood become food and drink for me
And something wonderful happens.
Your body mysteriously permeates mine
And your soul unites with mine:
I am no longer what once I was.
You come and go, but the seed
That you sowed for future glory, remains behind
Buried in this body of dust.
A luster of heaven remains in the soul,
A deep glow remains in the eyes,
A soaring in the tone of voice.
There remains the bond that binds heart to heart,
The stream of life that springs from yours
And animates each limb.
How wonderful are your gracious wonders!
All we can do is be amazed and stammer and fall silent
Because intellect and words fail.