Friday, 24 December 2010

An extract from one of Teilhard's works, in which he reflects on the image of the Sacred Heart

Chapter 2: Christ in the World of Matter

Three stories in the style of Benson1

My friend2 is dead, he who drank of life everywhere as at a sacred spring. His heart burned within him. His body lies hidden in the earth in front of Verdun. Now therefore I can repeat some of those words with which he initiated me one evening into that intense vision which gave light and peace to his life.

‘You want to know,’ he said, ‘how the universe, in all its power and multiplicity, came to assume for me the lineaments of the face of Christ? This came about gradually; and it is difficult to find words in which to analyze life-renewing intuitions such as these; still, I can tell you about some of the experiences through which the light of this awareness gradually entered into my soul as though at the gradual, jerky raising of a curtain.


‘At that time,’ he began, ‘my mind was preoccupied with a problem partly philosophical, partly aesthetic. I was thinking: Suppose Christ should deign to appear here before me, what would he look like? How would he be dressed? Above all, in what manner would he take his place visibly in the realm of matter, and how would he stand out against the objects surrounding him?. . . And confusedly I found myself saddened and shocked at the idea that the body of Christ could stand in the midst of a crowd of inferior bodies on the world’s stage without their sensing and recognizing, through some perceptible change, this Intensity so close beside them.

‘Meanwhile my gaze had come to rest without conscious intention on a picture representing Christ offering his heart to men. The picture was hanging in front of me on the wall of a church into which I had gone to pray. So, pursuing my train of thought, I began to ask myself how an artist could contrive to represent the holy humanity of Jesus without imposing on his body a fixity, a too precise definition, which would seem to isolate him from all other men, and without giving to his face a too individual expression so that, while being beautiful, its beauty would be of a particular kind, excluding all other kinds.

‘It was, then, as I was keenly pondering over these things and looking at the picture, that my vision began. To tell the truth, I cannot say at what precise moment it began, for it had already reached a certain degree of intensity when I became conscious of it. The fact remains that as I allowed my gaze to wander over the figure’s outlines I suddenly became aware that these were melting away: they were dissolving, but in a special manner, hard to describe in words. When I tried to hold in my gaze the outline of the figure of Christ it seemed to me to be clearly defined but then, if I let this effort relax, at once these contours, and the folds of Christ’s garment, the lustre of his hair and the bloom of his flesh, all seemed to merge as it were (though without vanishing away) into the rest of the picture. It was as though the planes which marked off the figure of Christ from the world surrounding it were melting into a single vibrant surface whereon all demarcations vanished.

‘It seems to me that this transformation began at one particular point on the outer edge of the figure; and that it flowed on thence until it had affected its entire outline. This at least is how the process appeared to me to be taking place. From this initial moment, moreover, the metamorphosis spread rapidly until it had affected everything.

‘First of all I perceived that the vibrant atmosphere which surrounded Christ like an aureole was no longer confined to a narrow space about him, but radiated outwards to infinity. Through this there passed from time to time what seemed like trails of phosphorescence, indicating a continuous gushing-forth to the outermost spheres of the realm of matter and delineating a sort of blood stream or nervous system running through the totality of life.

‘The entire universe was vibrant! And yet, when I directed my gaze to particular objects, one by one, I found them still as clearly defined as ever in their undiminished individuality.

‘All this movement seemed to emanate from Christ, and above all from his heart. And it was while I was attempting to trace the emanation to its source and to capture its rhythm that, as my attention returned to the portrait itself, I saw the vision mount rapidly to its climax.

‘I notice I have forgotten to tell you about Christ’s garments. They had that luminosity we read of in the account of the Transfiguration; but what struck me most of all was the fact that no weaver’s hand had fashioned them — unless the hands of angels are those of Nature. No coarsely spun threads composed their weft; rather it was matter, a bloom of matter, which had spontaneously woven a marvellous stuff out of the inmost depths of its substance; and it seemed as though I could see the stitches running on and on indefinitely, and harmoniously blending together in to a natural design which profoundly affected them in their own nature.

‘But, as you will understand, I could spare only a passing glance for this garment so marvellously woven by the continuous co-operation of all the energies and the whole order of matter: it was the transfigured face of the Master that drew and held captive my entire attention.

‘You have often at night-time seen how certain stars change their colour from the gleam of blood-red pearls to the lustre of violet velvet. You have seen, too, the play of colours on a transparent bubble. So it was that on the unchanging face of Jesus there shone, in an indescribable shimmer or iridescence, all the radiant hues of all our modes of beauty. I cannot say whether this took place in answer to my desires or in obedience to the good pleasure of him who knew and directed my desires; what is certain is that these innumerable gradations of majesty, of sweetness, of irresistible appeal, following one another or becoming transformed and melting into one another, together made up a harmony which brought me complete satiety.

‘And always, beneath this moving surface, upholding it and at the same time gathering it into a higher unity, there hovered the incommunicable beauty of Christ himself. Yet that beauty was something I divined rather than perceived; for whenever I tried to pierce through the covering of inferior beauties which hid it from me, at once other individual and fragmentary beauties rose up before me and formed another veil over the true Beauty even while kindling my desire for it and giving me a foretaste of it.

‘It was the whole face that shone in this way. But the centre of the radiance and the iridescence was hidden in the transfigured portrait’s eyes.

‘Over the glorious depths of those eyes there passed in rainbow hues the reflection — unless indeed it were the creative prototype, the Idea — of everything that has power to charm us, everything that has life. . . And the luminous simplicity of the fire which flashed from them changed, as I struggled to master it, into an inexhaustible complexity wherein were gathered all the glances that have ever warmed and mirrored back a human heart. Thus, for example, these eyes which at first were so gentle and filled with pity that I thought my mother stood before me, became an instant later, like those of a woman, passionate and filled with the power to subdue, yet at the same time so imperiously pure that under their domination it would have been physically impossible for the emotions to go astray. And then they changed again, and became filled with a noble, virile majesty, similar to that which one sees in the eyes of men of great courage or refinement or strength, but incomparably more lofty to behold and more delightful to submit to.

‘This scintillation of diverse beauties was so complete, so captivating, and also so swift that I felt it touch and penetrate all my powers simultaneously, so that the very core of my being vibrated in response to it, sounding a unique note of expansion and happiness.

‘Now while I was ardently gazing deep into the pupils of Christ’s eyes, which had become abysses of fiery, fascinating life, suddenly I beheld rising up from the depths of those same eyes what seemed like a cloud, blurring and blending all that variety I have been describing to you. Little by little an extraordinary expression, of great intensity, spread over the diverse shades of meaning which the divine eyes revealed, first of all permeating them and then finally absorbing them all. . .

‘And I stood dumbfounded.

‘For this final expression, which had dominated and gathered up into itself all the others, was indecipherable. I simply could not tell whether it denoted an indescribable agony or a superabundance of triumphant joy. I only know that since that moment I thought I caught a glimpse of it once again — in the glance of a dying soldier.

‘In an instant my eyes were bedimmed with tears. And then, when I was once again able to look at it, the painting of Christ on the church wall had assumed once again its too precise definition and its fixity of feature.’

Article from the Catholic Herald by Prof Parsons

Article, The Catholic Herald, 5th November 2010

Let’s help young Catholics to enter the public square.

The Sacred Heart connects private devotion to public witness, says David W. Parsons

One of the most satisfying aspects of the papal visit is that it actually managed to open up a debate, both within the Church and outside it, about the relationship between faith and reason and religion and politics. The “best-kept secret of the Church”, Catholic social teaching, is now something which even my non-Catholic students are at least vaguely aware of. And that is quite something.

The genuine warmth of affection of young people for Benedict xvi, despite the horrendous press coverage prior to the visit, is a great testament to the commitment of a generation for whom the future looks increasingly bleak. If this enthusiasm is not to fade and wither away the Church has to ensure that the young people who cheered and who also stood in silent prayer with Pope Benedict can have faith in the future and a future lived in faith. In part this will be about making the faith more visible. This means that we have to engage young people with the question of how faith connects with political, economic and social problems, as well as how faith connects with scientific and technological problems.

It is interesting when reflecting on the role of faith in what Benedict XVI called the “national conversation” that one of the founding fathers of Catholic social teaching, Leo XIII, had something important to say about the connection between faith and public affairs. He was, of course, the same pope who dedicated the whole world to the Sacred Heart in 1899. In his encyclical Annum Sacrum he makes it clear that the consecration had an expressly political purpose. The consecration, he argued, could serve to “draw tighter the bonds which naturally connect public affairs to God” and serve to address the way in which (then, as now) faith was being excluded from public life.

For Leo XIII, the consecration of the whole world to the Sacred Heart was not just about the private devotion of the faithful; it was also a means of connecting public affairs with spiritual affairs. The Sacred Heart was seen as a very visible symbol of the Catholic faith which Leo hoped could serve to “give hope of better things” in the public sphere. And it remains so today. When the present Pope and Archbishop Vincent Nichols are urging us to make the faith more visible and, in Leo’s words, “connect it to public affairs”, we should keep in mind this very important relationship between the social teaching of the Church and that most traditional of Catholic images, the Sacred Heart of Jesus: the most powerful icon of the love of God for all creation.

In the 1950s and 1960s it would have been difficult to find a Catholic home without an image of the Sacred Heart. And yet by the 1970s this was fast becoming a thing of the past. I confess that as a student I was not particularly keen on the images with which we are all familiar. And that is a great pity, because when once we get past those oftentimes simplistic images and contemplate the meaning which they contain we can understand why Leo XIII saw a profound connection between what he had said his encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891 and his consecration of the world to the Sacred Heart in 1899. I count myself very fortunate that my own faith in the future and my own determination to live a life in faith was strengthened through reading the work of the French Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He renewed my faith by opening up my mind to the connection between my spiritual life and my academic and political life, between faith and reason. Teilhard taught me to look at the image of the Sacred Heart as nothing less than an image of the energy of love which radiates from the heart of the cosmos itself. He taught me to focus on the task of what he called “harnessing” this energy of love so as to make a better world for God. And love, as Pope Benedict has so eloquently argued, is at the core of all Catholic social teaching. But Teilhard also reminds us that, as followers of Christ, we should embrace what science shows us of the sheer complexity of God’s evolving creation. Indeed, he saw the Sacred Heart – the radiating energy of love – as the driving force of evolution itself.

So Teilhard opens our eyes to another dimension of the Sacred Heart: as an image which can serve to connect faith to scientific and technological affairs. Teilhard’s vision of the Sacred Heart informed both his spiritual life and his work as a scientist. As a priest he had an intense devotion to the Sacred Heart. As a scientist he saw the Sacred Heart as the very centre and focus of the entire cosmos. It was the gravitational power of God’s love which was pulling all things towards it. Humanity had to evolve by learning how to harness this energy as it had learned to harness fire, the wind and water. Mankind had to evolve in the direction marked out by the life of Christ or it would perish. Learning to love our neighbour was not just a moral injunction, it was an evolutionary imperative.

This is a compelling vision that sees humanity as partners in the future evolution of life. It inspired me in the 1970s: and I have no doubt that it could be an equally inspiring vision for the young people who greeted Pope Benedict during his historic visit. If only they knew about it!

These two images of the Sacred Heart, of Leo XIII and Teilhard, on the face of it have little in common, but in truth they are just different perspectives on the mystery and enormity of God’s love. Taken together they enable us to experience afresh an icon for those concerned with the task of “harnessing the energy of love” that radiates from the divine heart at the centre of the cosmos.

If we want to ensure that our faith contributes to the national conversation about our future, we would do well to remember the Sacred Heart of Leo and Teilhard. So if you haven’t got a picture, go out and get one and make it a visible and public sign of your commitment and your faith in the future and in the power of love.

David W. Parsons is professor of public policy at Queen Mary, University of London.

Welcome! This is a blog dedicated to the development of a new icon of the Sacred Heart. Commissioned by Prof. D.W.Parsons from Ian Knowles at Elias Icons the inspiration comes from the work of Theilhard de Chardin. As ideas develop they will be posted here, and any reflections will be warmly welcomed.