Wednesday, 7 November 2012

St Augustine and the spirituality of the heart

Some places have strong associations with the Sacred Heart.  Paris, obviously, and perhaps less obviously London.  As I have noted elsewhere in the blog, St. Claude de la Colombiere- the spiritual director and great supporter of St. Margaret Mary-  spent time in London and so London was one of the first places outside France to hear of her messages given at  Paray-le-Monial.  In addition, of course, it was to London that the Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmatre came  led by Marie Adele Garnier – after they were forced to leave France in 1901.  And, of course, the good sisters are still here! See HERE.  So, on these two counts I think London can rightly claim to be a ‘City of the Sacred Heart’.

Over the past few months, however,  I have been working with an organization based in another city which can claim to have a close association with the Sacred Heart: Milan. I had the opportunity to meet with colleagues from the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore , the University of the Sacred Heart. This is, of course, the largest Catholic University in the world, and the biggest private university in Europe! I hope to get to know it better on my next visit.  The ‘Cattolica’, as it tends to be called, is a fascinating place and it was great – given my devotion to the Sacred Heart – to be in a university dedicated to the Sacro Cuore!

St. Augustine by Phillipe de  Champaigne, circa 1645-1650
However, whilst there, my mind tended to drift off and think more about the city’s association with St. Augustine (354- 430AD)  – no doubt because I had been re-reading a lot of Augustine of late. It was in Milan where Augustine became a Christian and where he sat at the feet and learnt from St Ambrose after his conversion.  Ambrose actually baptized Augustine and  I believe that he must have learnt about the significance of the pierced heart of the Saviour  from Ambrose. In his reflections on Psalm 33, for example,  St Ambrose observed:

Drink of Christ, for he is the fount of life.  Drink of Christ, for he is the stream whose torrents brought joy to the City of God. Drink of Christ, for he is peace. Drink of Christ, for the streams of living water flow from his bosom. 

Ambrose, in common with other great early teachers of the Church drew attention to the heart of Christ as the source of living water, and it is apparent that his pupil, Augustine, was to follow in this tradition.  Once again, it is so important to understand that the spirituality of the heart was not a 17th century French invention: as is apparent from reading Augustine, the idea of the heart of Christ as a powerful symbol of God’s love is something which stretches back to much earlier times.  Augustine must have learnt about the heart of Jesus when he studied in Milan, and we find it in so much of his work.  Wandering around the streets of Milan it dawned on me that Augustine, in so many ways, prefigured or anticipated the devotion to the Sacred Heart that was to flower or evolve hundreds of years later.  Augustine’s writings are full of reflections on the ‘heart’.   As he put it in De Sancta Virginate (HERE) :

Is it to this that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge hidden in You are brought, that we learn this of You as a great thing, that You are meek and lowly of heart? (35) 

‘Of Holy Virginity’ is all about what we might term ‘heart spirituality’.   In reflecting on humility as they most important of all the virtues he asks us to consider the example of Mary who conceived Christ in her heart, before in her body. Mary, he argues,  ‘conceived in her heart’. (11)

‘Her nearness as a Mother would have been of no profit to Mary, had she not borne Christ in her heart after a more blessed manner than in her flesh.’( 3) 

To learn we must be humble of heart: only then can we find all ‘the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ contained in the Heart of Jesus.  We are loved by Christ ‘with full glow of heart’.  We must love, like Mary, and allow Christ to be born in our hearts.  Only when we have become meek and humble of heart can we conceive Jesus in our heart.

‘Augustine is all heart’.  I thought as a walked around Milan.  Having studied Augustine's De Civitate Dei as a student I thought of him as the great thinker of the Church, but I had never engaged with his spirituality.  How had I missed the fact that this was someone for whom the heart was central to his whole thought?  His famous Confessions, for instance, begins with:

Great art thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is thy power, and infinite is thy wisdom. And man desires to praise thee, for he is a part of thy creation; he bears his mortality about with him and carries the evidence of his sin and the proof that thou dost resist the proud. Still he desires to praise thee, this man who is only a small part of thy creation. Thou hast prompted him, that he should delight to praise thee, for thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee. Confessions, 1.1) 

Reading the Confessions we find that he frequently refers to the heart, most famously with theses words:

You have pierced our hearts with the arrow of your love, and our minds were pierced with the arrows of your words. Confessions, 9,2

Your gift sets us afire and we are borne upward; we catch this flame and up we go. In our hearts we climb those upward paths, singing the songs of ascent. By your fire, your beneficent fire, we are inflamed. Confessions13,9.

And the idea of the heart is to be found in several of his well-known prayers:

Breathe in me O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy.
Act in me O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy.
Draw my heart O Holy Spirit, that I love but what is holy.
Strengthen me O Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy.
Guard me, then, O Holy Spirit, that I always may be holy. Amen.

Holy Spirit, powerful Consoler, sacred Bond of the Father and the Son, Hope of the afflicted, descend into my heart and establish in it your loving dominion. Enkindle in my tepid soul the fire of your Love so that I may be wholly subject to you. We believe that when you dwell in us, you also prepare a dwelling for the Father and the Son. Deign, therefore, to come to me, Consoler of abandoned souls, and Protector of the needy. Help the afflicted, strengthen the weak, and support the wavering. Come and purify me. Let no evil desire take possession of me. You love the humble and resist the proud. Come to me, glory of the living, and hope of the dying. Lead me by your grace that I may always be pleasing to you. Amen.

Both of these wonderful prayers are powerful reflections on the mystery of the heart of Christ which he must first have heard about from St. Ambrose.  They are also demonstrably prayers whose sentiments are echoed in so many later prayers associated with the Sacred Heart.  Hence, it is not a coincidence that Augustian spirituality is very ‘heart’ centered.  This is exemplified in Phillip de Champaigne's (fascinating) painting (above) where the Doctor of Grace and Love is portrayed holding a burning heart. The Augustians state that:

 The spirituality that is richly expressed in St. Augustine's writings is one of warmth and of love. The heart, which artists have often portrayed Augustine holding, is a key to this spirituality. For Augustine the heart is a metaphor for all that is deepest, truest and personal in one's self. He makes frequent use of the heart to signify the affective aspect of faith in God.

For an illuminating talk on the role of the heart in Augustine by Fr David Kelly OSA in 2010, GO HERE. 

Hence, the emblem of the Augustian order is a flaming heart, pierced by an arrow on the background of an open book. The open book suggests a dedication to intellectual searching or study; the pursuit of knowledge, both divine and earthly. Read HERE:

I think that Augustine gives us a great insight into what the Heart of Jesus essentially represents: it is the focus of our own restlessness.  Our hearts – that is all that we are, our inner core  – has a τέλος (telos)  an end point or ultimate purpose.  It is made for unity with God: our heart is made to be united to the heart of God.  And in Jesus we find that God has a human heart that began to beat and glow in the womb of the Virgin.  We can never be truly happy or fully ourselves- that is we can never become fully human -  until we rest in God. We cannot be complete until we have conceived Christ in our hearts.

Teilhard, of course, was attacked for the way in which his ideas departed from the Augustian teaching on original sin.  It is easy, therefore, to think of Teilhard as being far removed from Augustine, and indeed, from Teilhard’s point of view, Augustine’s  ideas about original sin are rather problematical.  But, it seems to me that if we reflect on Augustine’s  words on the restless heart, and a heart that is being drawn towards God – the ultimate destination of humanity – then there is much that the two have in common. For some, of course, that argument is somewhat heretical, but I see considerable convergence in spiritual terms as between the Sacred Heart as an ‘Omega point’ and a point in which our hearts are finally at rest.  For both one thing is clear: both passionately – and with their whole hearts and minds, with fides and ratio (faith and reason) – believed: Cor Iesu, in quo sunt omnes thesauri sapientiae et scientiae.(Heart of Jesus, in which are all the treasures of knowledge and wisdom.) Both men were men of the head and heart.  The image of an open book, a flaming heart joined by an arrow would fit Teilhard nicely.   The open book, representing learning and study, that is a passion for intellectual searching; the burning heart as a symbol of divine love that wants to set our heart alight; and the arrow as representing the divine energy of God – the beginning and the end – that desires unity with us, unity of mind and heart.  “Centre with Centre, Heart with Heart’( as Teilhard puts it, in the Heart of Matter)

In Milan Augustine had a conversion experience in which he heard a voice in a garden saying  ‘Tolle Lege’, take and read. This led him to open the Bible and read St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (13, 14).  In many senses, Teilhard also heard a call to ‘tolle lege’ when he discovered the Sacred Heart as the heart of all things. But for him this call to read, was a call to read and study creation itself and understand the heart of matter: Christ in all things.   And, like St. Augustine, he was to find his inspiration in reading St. Paul.  Both were men of fire. Perhaps Sion Cowell expressed it best when he observed : ‘Augustine was the first to introduce the christocntric theme in human history.  Teilhard does so with cosmic theory.’ (The Teilhard Lexicon, p14)

If we are to rediscover the Sacred Heart we need to take and re-read Augustine and explore Augustinan spirituality, but we also need to take and read Teilhard! Perhaps we can do that by a closer reading of the painting of St. Augustine  by Phillipe de Champaigne (1602-1674) ?   See the next post...

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