Monday, 5 September 2011

Teilhard's Litany of the Sacred Heart: (3) Where is the fire?

Reflecting on Teilhard’s litany of the Sacred Heart ( Here)  I was initially puzzled by the fact that he makes no mention of fire.   Teilhard would have said the litany of the Sacred Heart many times and the line ‘Cor Jesu fornax ardens caritas’ ( Heart of Jesus Burning Furnace of Charity’) is very Teilhardian!   And yet, we do not have any mention of  ‘ardens’  (burning) in his litany.   What we have is the English word ‘glow’.  The Sacred Heart is – as we noted in an earlier blog the ‘golden glow’.  Something can be glowing but not burning.  So, where is the fire?

Fire is  a major feature of the Sacred Heart.  St. Margaret Mary’s first vision the Sacred Heart is described in these terms:

My Heart is so inflamed with love for men that not being able to contain within itself the flames of its ardent charity, it must needs spread them abroad..’ 

And in the second vision, the Heart is described as  ‘a sun glowing with brilliant light….of flames that burst forth especially from his adorable bosom which resembled a furnace’.

In Teilhard’s  Mass on the World  we find this prayer:
Tu autem, Domine mi, include me in imis visceribus Cordis tui. Atque ibi me detine, excoque, expurga, accende, ignifac, sublima, ad purissimum Cordis tui gustum atque placitum, ad puram annihilationem meam.
‘Lord, lock me up in the deepest depths of your heart; and then, holding me there, burn me, purify me, set me on fire, sublimate me, till I become utterly what you would have me be, though the utter annihilation of my ego.’
He says that he believes that this prayer encapsulates ‘the Christianity of tomorrow’.  It  is in this prayer of the burning heart  that the Christianity of tomorrow would  (he hoped) be  increasingly portrayed.  He says:

How strange, my God, are the processes your Spirit initiates! When, two centuries ago, your Church began to feel the particular power of your heart, it might have seemed that what was captivating men’s souls was the fact of their finding in you an element even more determinate, more circumscribed, than your humanity as a whole. But now on the contrary a swift reversal is making us aware that your main purpose in this revealing to us of your heart was to enable our love to escape from the constrictions of the too narrow, too precise, too limited image of you which we had fashioned for ourselves. What I discern in your breast is simply a furnace of fire; and the more I fix my gaze on its ardency the more it seems to me that all around it the contours of your body melt away and become enlarged beyond all measure, till the only features I can distinguish in you are those of the face of a world which has burst into flame.  

And so when we come to the litany, we might expect to find some reference to fire and furnaces.   But, there is no  mention of fire as a furnace: it is a golden glow.   However, our icon is very much about fire.   The heart in the centre is on fire and surrounding Jesus is a red nimbus on fire  and a then a swirling firey red mandorla.  In the top left we  have a Seraphim, fanning the flames of  God’s love.  But when we read at his litany to the Sacred Heart there is no mention of fire.  Why?

The answer to that is because the fire is everywhere!  We can read each one of his invocations as about fire.  Each invocation is an attempt to capture a different dimension of the Sacred Heart as fire.  Fire is Teilhard’s central metaphor.   In the ‘Heart of Matter’ he recounts how early on in his life he began to understand God in terms of fire.  He beings the ‘Heart of Matter’  (Collins, 1978 edition) by explaining:

What I shall try to do in the pages printed here.. is quite simply …to show how, starting from the point at which a spark was  first struck, a point that was built into me congenitally, the World gradually caught fire for me, burst into flames; how this  happened all during my life, and as a result of my whole life, until  it formed a great luminous mass, lit from within, that surrounded me.

..The Diaphany of the Divine at the heart of a glowing Universe, as I have experienced it through contact with the Earth - the Divine radiating from the depths of a blazing Matter: this it is  that I shall try to disclose and communicate in what follows. (15-16)

He notes that later that:

I was still not yet 'in theology’ when, through and under the symbol of the 'Sacred Heart’, the Divine had already taken on for me the form, the consistence and the properties of an ENERGY, of a FIRE: by that I mean that it had become able to insinuate itself everywhere, to be metamorphosed into no matter what…    (p44)

He tells us that he had been ‘drawn’ by the Lord to follow the road of fire’!   And that road was to lead to :

Christ.  His Heart.  A Fire: a fire with the power to penetrate all things..(47)

Because God was a fire of love spreading throughout the entire  universe,  Christ was to be found in all things.   And so, when we reflect on the Sacred Heart and how Teilhard expresses his thoughts in his litany we have to keep this image of fire at the forefront of our minds.   The Sacred Heart is nothing less than the fire which penetrates all things and which desires above all to penetrate, absorb and consume us and thereby complete us as human beings.   As we keep in mind the Sacred Heart as the symbol of divine fire we are also drawn into contemplating the role of fire throughout scripture.   At the top of the ‘Heart of Matter’ Teilhard invites us to do this.  He has the phrase ‘ The Burning Bush ‘ as the first line of his introduction, and under that: ‘At the heart of Matter, A World Heart, The Heart of God.’

Our icon leads us to reflect on the Sacred Heart as a powerful symbol of  the fire of God's love. The God of the old testament is a God of fire.   In the revelation of the Sacred Heart we have the most complete expression of the fire of God’s love: the Heart of Jesus is on fire for the love of  humanity; it is the Heart of the World.  The Sacred Heart is the  fire at the Heart of God.  It symbolizes the  love of God experienced by Abraham and  Moses and the God we encounter throughout scripture and the God who is at the heart of all creation.   It does not need to be in Teilhard's litany, because the litany is  a series of reflections on Divine love as energy and  fire.  It is essentially a series of reflections on: Cor Jesu fornax ardens caritas’ . ***

From The Mass on the World.

Fire, the source of being: we cling so tenaciously to the illusion that fire comes forth from the depths of the earth and that its flames grow progressively brighter as it pours along the radiant furrows of life’s tillage. Lord, in your mercy you gave me to see that this idea is false, and that I must overthrow it if I were ever to have sight of you.
In the beginning was Power, intelligent, loving, energizing. In the beginning was the Word, supremely capable of mastering and moulding whatever might come into being in the world of matter. In the beginning there were not coldness and darkness: there was the Fire. This is the truth.
So, far from light emerging gradually out of the womb of our darkness, it is the Light, existing before all else was made which, patiently, surely, eliminates our darkness. As for us creatures, of ourselves we are but emptiness and obscurity. But you, my God, are the inmost depths, the stability of that eternal milieu, without duration or space, in which our cosmos emerges gradually into being and grows gradually to its final completeness, as it loses those boundaries which to our eyes seem so immense. Everything is being; everywhere there is being and nothing but being, save in the fragmentation of creatures and the clash of their atoms.
Blazing Spirit, Fire, personal, super-substantial, the consummation of a union so immeasurably more lovely and more desirable than that destructive fusion of which all the pantheists dream: be pleased yet once again to come down and breathe a soul into the newly formed, fragile film of matter with which this day the world is to be freshly clothed.
I know we cannot forestall, still less dictate to you, even the smallest of your actions; from you alone comes all initiative — and this applies in the first place to my prayer.
Radiant Word, blazing Power, you who mould the manifold so as to breathe your life into it; I pray you, lay on us those your hands — powerful, considerate, omnipresent, those hands which do not (like our human hands) touch now here, now there, but which plunge into the depths and the totality, present and past, of things so as to reach us simultaneously through all that is most immense and most inward within us and around us.
May the might of those invincible hands direct and transfigure for the great world you have in mind that earthly travail which I have gathered into my heart and now offer you in its entirety. Remould it, rectify it, recast it down to the depths from whence it springs. You know how your creatures can come into being only, like shoot from stem, as part of an endlessly renewed process of evolution.


  1. I very much appreciate this blog and would like to share the title of my book: "The Sacred Heart of the World" published by Paulist Press. It is based on the work of Teilhard and of the mystics.
    David Richo

    1. Dear David, thanks so much for your comment. I think we have referenced your excellent book (must check!) and I have often used it as a guide to help me on this journey. But, as the blog is very much a process of unfolding and discovery - that is allowing the icon to do its work - I confess that I have not been at all systematic in what I have written or read. The blog does seem to go where it wants to go! However, now that you have prompted me, I will organise my thoughts and post on the 'The Sacred Heart of the World' in due course. It has been a great help in both writing and reading this icon. Your book is must read for anyone interested in the Heart of Jesus.

    2. Thank you for your kind comments. I remain thankful for the grace to write on so sacred a topic.
      In Jeus' Heart,