Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Feast of St. John Bosco

When I can find the time I have been reading Dr. Wendy M. Wright's excellent book on the Salesian tradition, Heart Speaks to Heart.  (see HERE.)    So it is fitting therefore that today we remember a saint who was to be inspired by the life and writings of St. Francis de Sales, St. John Bosco. And I think if we want to see the Salesian tradition of the Sacred Heart in practice we have to look no further than St. John Bosco.

This has prompted me to remember that I was so fortunate to have a teacher in High School - Tom Keeley - who was very keen to promote our interest in the saint, and every class would start with  'Saint John Bosco pray for us.'  He was really the best teacher I  ever had, and when I began my own career in higher education I consciously decided to imitate his way of teaching: he taught with his head but also his heart. He was a demanding teacher, but was nonetheless gentle and kind. ( But you still would not want to cross him! ) No matter how hard the lesson was you would never feel that he was leaving anyone behind.  Despite his rather stern way, no-one was ever afraid to put up their hand and say ' I don't understand'.  Other teachers would shout or call you an idiot or 'pay attention', but he would always explain.  I learnt more mathematics from him than anyone else!  You could get it wrong time after time, but he would work through your problems.  He taught you to be highly rational and analytical, but at the same time he was a deeply spiritual man with a devotion to the rosary.  He would make them and repair them in his spare time.  Every time I pick up my rosary beads, I always think of him.  He was, I think, a model of teaching from the heart. With him you always thought that you had 'got it'.  It seemed to stay inside, whereas with other teachers in would go in one ear and out the other.   So today I have him in my thoughts as well as someone who I think embodied the kind of values which are to be found in the Salesian tradition.  So, God bless you Mr. Keeley, wherever you are!

The more I think about St John Bosco, the more do I appreciate his relevance to the world we face today. St. John lived (1815-1888)  at a time when Italy was going through  revolutionary economic, political and social change.  He realized that the people who were most   damaged by all this change were young people, and he devoted his life to trying to improve the welfare and education of the young.  Education, following the principles of St. Francis de Sales was a 'matter of the heart'.  You could  only teach the young through being kind and loving.  He believed that through education we could prevent problems developing : by giving the young employment skills and values to see them through life.  Education should be about three things: reason, religion and kindness.  In a world in which so many young people are bearing the brunt of the economic , social and political conditions  of our own times, St. John Bosco reminds us to have a care for the young: to make sure that they have a good education which will equip them for employment; so that they appreciate the complementary role of reason and religion; and above all through our hearts speaking to their hearts, they might experience kindness and gentleness.   He was intensely practical about this and believed that fear was not the way to shape and form the character of the young: and in this we see his devotion to the Sacred Heart shining through all his works and deeds. So today I pray for all those who have been inspired by the life of this saint to work for the education of our young people in these challenging times.

St. John Bosco pray for us. Let our hearts be as open to the needs of the young in our troubled world as yours was in your own time. 

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Henry VIII, the Sacred Heart and the Five Wounds of Christ

There is a most remarkable exhibition in the British museum at the moment.  We spent a couple of hours yesterday  entranced by the illuminated manuscripts on show.  As we were on the way out I noticed the recently discovered ‘prayer roll’  that once belonged to a young  King Henry VIII - before he broke with Rome.  The discovery of the roll has caused much excitement as it shows what a devoted Catholic Henry was as a young man. READ MORE HERE.  and HERE.

As I looked at the prayer role I noticed something which is important to our understanding of the Sacred Heart. The roll contains a fascinating image of the five wounds which features the wounded heart of Christ.  The young Prince Henry would have been familiar with this popular devotion  (see HERE)   
Designs based on St Francis de Sales original idea.
St. Margaret Mary's drawing
 Henry’s prayer roll shows an image of the five wounds which is comparable to similar images found at this time – late 15th century. And when we compare the five wounds image in the roll with other such images we can see a clear line of development between this symbol and that later proposed by  St. Francis de Sales in 1600 - (above right) .   In turn this design was to inform St. Margaret Mary's  drawing of the Sacred Heart - (left).  And like the Sacred Heart, later on  it was to be adopted as a symbol of opposition to anti-Catholicism.   It was used, for example, in the banner of the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ (below) in 1536 which showed public opposition to Henry's attack on the Catholic Church. (See  HERE. )

Henry must have  had an intense devotion to the five wounds of Christ as a young man.  As the British Library notes:
The five wounds on Henry's roll - click on image to enlarge. 
The prayer roll provides unique evidence of Henry VIII's early religious beliefs. It demonstrates that, as a young man, Henry practised the devotions characteristic of the late medieval popular piety that just twenty-five years later he would destroy as the Reformation King.
It is ironic that the symbol we find on his prayer role  - and which was once a focus of his devotion  - was to be subsequently used as a symbol to rally opposition to his destruction of the Catholic church in these islands.   When, however, we reflect on the parallels as between the image of the five wounds and the later images of St. Francis de Sales and St Margaret Mary, and the use of  both of these images to defend the Church the links between them become very important indeed - especially in Britain.  Perhaps British Catholics  should adopt the symbol of the five wounds as a banner for a new 'Pilgrimage of Grace': opposition to the marginalization of moral and religious values in the public square!

Henry VIII's prayer roll should thus serve to remind us that the Sacred Heart is rooted in the history of  Catholicism from the earliest times, and that the image of a God who loves us and suffered for us and suffers with us is as relevant to the 21st century as it was to the 15th and  16th centuries. And, that when we reflect on such images that were once a focus of prayer for a king who did so much to destroy the Church he once loved we can remember that, in the Heart  of the King of Kings - who shows us what the love of our neighbour really looks like -  we will all be ultimately united.

Banner of the Pilgrimage of Grace

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Feast of Saint Francis de Sales

When you read about the history of the devotion to the Sacred Heart the name of Saint Francis de Sales shines out brightly.  His writings and teachings had an enormous influence on the evolution of the devotion and the image itself.  But I have to confess that I tended to read him in the shadow of Paray-le- Monial, and that is a great pity.    Today, of course, is the day when the Church asks us to focus on his life and the spiritual tradition which is associated with his name.

There is so much wisdom and insight in his writings that it is impossible to do his work any justice in this blog.   But this passage below  I find gives a sense of how the heart of Jesus was at the very heart of his spirituality and provides another way of reading the icon. 

God’s love is seated within the Saviour’s heart as on a royal throne.  He beholds through the cleft of his pierced side all the hearts of the children of men.  His heart is king of hearts, and he keeps his eyes fixed on our hearts.  Just as those who peer through the lattice see clearly while they are only half seen, so too divine love within that heart, or rather that heart of divine love, always sees our hearts and looks on them with his eyes of love, whilst we do not see him, but only half see him.   If we could see as he is, O God, since we are mortal men we would die for love of him, just as when he was in mortal flesh he died for us, and just as he would still die for us were he not now immortal.  Oh, if we could hear this divine heart singing with a voice infinitely sweet his canticle of praise to the divinity! What joy…..what striving within our heart to spring up to heaven so as to hear it forever!

Treatise on the Love of God, Tan Books, Rockford, Ill., 1975, Vol 1, Book V, p263. 

There is, of course, a wealth of scholarship devoted to Saint Francis de Sales and the Sacred Heart.  I warmly recommend the work of Susanne  A.K. Koch who has done a great job in exploring this literature.   Read her Here.

One piece of  St. Francis' wisdom which struck home to me today as I reflected on the plants and vines at the bottom of the icon.  It is a well known quote from the saint:

“Truly charity has no limit; for the love of God has been poured into our hearts by His Spirit dwelling in each one of us, calling us to a life of devotion and inviting us to bloom in the garden where He has planted and directing us to radiate the beauty and spread the fragrance of His Providence.”

Jesus in the icon is shown as the source of living water that feeds our soul and enables it to grow.  This  element of the icon now makes me think that we are being invited to bloom where He has planted us! 

I think that  it is about time I read a little more about this gentle saint for whom the heart was such an important idea.  So on this his feast day let us pray:  that the love of God burning in our hearts will help us to grow and bloom where we are planted.  And let us keep in mind the prayer used in the mass today:

..O Lord kindle in our hearts that divine fire of the Holy Spirit with which you wonderfully inflamed the most gentle soul of Saint Francis de Sales.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

The Sacred Heart as a Symbol for Christian Unity

We are now in day 5 of the week of prayer for Christian unity - which began on the 18th January. There are so many symbols which keep us apart rather than serve to unite us as Christians.  In many ways the Sacred Heart may be considered to be one of those symbols that divides rather than unites and yet this should not be so.  If we reflect on what the Sacred Heart symbolizes: the self-sacrificing love of the Word made flesh who suffered to redeem the world, and as a symbol of the energy of  love that comes from God and which fills all creation, then it should provide a focus of unity.  The Sacred Heart is a summary of what Christians believe: God became one of us.  Jesus, God from God and light from light has a human heart like us.  He wants to live in our hearts.  When Christians reflect on the central role of the heart in the Bible, and the fact that we are called to be meek and humble of heart -like Him -  then the Sacred Heart becomes a point of convergence and not divergence:  a symbol for the future, and not of the past.

So on this day let us listen to a wonderful piece of music written in the past, which might serve as a focus of future unity: Dieterich Buxtehunde's Membra  Jesu Nostri ( 1680).  (READ ABOUT IT HERE.)  This is a Lutheran oratorio - in Latin.  It reflects on the crucified body of Christ.  Part V deals with Christ's breast, and part VI with his heart ( ad Cor).  To listen go HERE. Buxtehunde (1637-1639) a German-Danish composer  was - of course- an influence on  none other than J.S. Bach.  Such works can serve to focus on minds on the wounded heart of Christ: a symbol to unite all Christians!

Vulnerasti cor meum,
soror mea, sponsa,
vulnerasti cor meum.

Summi regis cor, aveto,
te saluto corde laeto,
te complecti me delectat
et hoc meum cor affectat,
ut ad te loquar, animes

Per medullam cordis mei,
peccatoris atque rei,
tuus amor transferatur,
quo cor tuum rapiatur
languens amoris vulnere

Viva cordis voce clamo,
dulce cor, te namque amo,
ad cor meum inclinare,
ut se possit applicare
devoto tibi pectore

Ad Cor - To His Heart.
English Translation.

You have wounded my heart,
my sister, my bride,
you have wounded my heart (Song of Songs 4:9)

Heart of the highest king, I greet you,
I salute you with a joyous heart,
it delights me to embrace you
and my heart aspires to this:
that you move me to speak to you

Through the marrow of my heart,
of a sinner and culprit,
may your love be conveyed
by whom your heart was seized,
languishing through the wound of love

I call with the living voice of the heart,
sweet heart, for I love you,
to incline to my heart,
so that it may draw close,
devoted to you with the breast

Friday, 20 January 2012

The Sacred Heart as an integrative symbol

 I have been reading the icon for  awhile with the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner for company.  For Rahner as for Teilhard the Sacred Heart is an indispensible symbol of God’s love.  And yet, like Teilhard, he believed that it had been rather devalued as a result of certain aspects of the popular devotional practice.  Here are a few reflections on what I have taken from Rahner thus far.

Mosaic in Jesuit College Innsbruck
Rahner describes as a ‘primal word’ to be found in many cultures to signify ‘the whole man’ as a ‘person of body and spirit’( in J. Stierli (ed) Heart of the Saviour,  Herder and Co, New York, 1958, p 132.)  Given this centrality of the idea of heart, when we speak of the heart of Jesus we are referring to the love which Christ has for God’s creation as true man and true God.  So, it is not just any old devotion: it is the devotion above all others.   In the Sacred Heart we see a wounded and pierced heart: the love of God which has taken to itself the pain of our humanity.  The Sacred Heart is no mere  Christian cult: it is Christianity.  For  Rahner the Sacred Heart wholly encapsulates what Christianity is all about: God is with us, and has given himself wholly and completely.  In Jesus he has given us his all, his whole self: his heart.  It is a heart that was pierced for us, and it is this heart which desires to become one with our heart.  As a symbol it shows us that this love of God for us requires our response: we too have to overcome  pain, sin and death.  It is a symbol of triumph and redemption.  God is heart shaped.  Therefore, if we want to live the kind if life that leads to God, the Sacred Heart shows us how: God is love and God is all heart.  God’s love is self-sacrificing.  God’s love is forgiving and merciful. We are called in the Gospels to look at how Jesus loved and do likewise.  As a devotion therefore, it is calling us to have a personal – heart to heart  - relationship with God. The Sacred Heart is therefore a devotion which is deeply personal, and the organization or institutionalization of the devotion can ( and for Rahner has) serve to atrophy rather than stimulate the growth of the devotion.  For Rahner the Sacred Heart is to be understood as a symbol of the fact that God loves us personally.  God’s very centre, core or heart is love, and we are called to have a personal relationship to this centre by – in a sense – de-centering ourselves by practicing self-sacrificing, forgiving and merciful love.  For it is only in this way can the sin, pain and death of existence can be overcome.  Only through this kind of love symbolized in the Sacred Heart can humanity be redeemed.

 Because of this centrality of the Sacred Heart to the gospel message Rahner, like Teilhard wanted to see a renaissance in the devotion on these lines.   ( As I understand Rahner, that is.)  And like Teilhard, he also saw Sacred Heart as a pivotal aspect of  Ignatian spirituality.  Indeed, it seems to play a similar integrative role for both men.  For Teilhard it is a symbol which allowed to integrate his Ignatian  religious and spiritual beliefs with his scientific ideas.  For Rahner the Sacred Heart is described as  a ‘anti-toxin’ to the essentiall feature of Ignatian spirituality : indifference to the world.  Indeed, he argues tha: ‘ if not protected against itself it can be rationalistic, cold, calculating, skeptical, icy, exaggerating the relativism of all things other than God’ (Rahner, Mission and Grace, III: 189). 

The  sublime gift of indifference is saved from being a deadly poison only when it is received by someone with an adoring devotion to love: someone who dares to have a heart, being an adorer of the Heart. (193) … the ultimate source of love is the Heart of the Lord.  And hence Ignatian spirituality can only be healthy if it loves that Heart and loves union with it.  Otherwise all that is most sublime in it becomes most deadly.’ (199)

In other words, the Jesuit’s devotion to the Sacred Heart is not an option.  It is, as Rahner puts it: the ‘true flowering’ of the devotion.  As Fr. Philip Endean S.J. argues, therefore: 'Rahner’s intent was not to destroy Sacred Heart devotion, but to renew it.  In the aftermath of Vatican II, however, the Sacred Heart seems to have vanished from public Catholic rhetoric.'  (Read here.)  It seems to me that the need for renewal in the devotion to the Sacred Heart is more urgent and more necessary than ever before in the Church.  From the standpoint of this blog, that renewal must necessarily involve exploring the imagery which has dominated ( and perhaps  distorted) the devotion.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

The Sacred Heart as the 'Golden Glow'

Returning to the question of 'would Teilhard like the icon?' reading Ian's new blog (for his icon of the Trinity for Keeble College, Oxford,  see HERE. ) has reminded me of something I had quite forgotten: the importance of gold in the icon.  When you live with an icon the gold behaves in relation to light is so captivating.   The Greek philosopher Heraclities of Ephesus famously said that 'you cannot put your feet into the same river twice because new water is always flowing on to you', or words to that effect.  And the same can be said of an icon,  as you cannot see it exactly the same way twice because the way the icon reacts to light is constantly changing in subtle ways - and indeed sometimes in quite dramatic ways.  It is why taking a photograph of it is so disappointing : no picture can really show the way in which the light changes the image.  Perhaps it is this which makes the icon such a powerful aid to prayer?   Teilhard liked to talk of the Sacred Heart as the 'golden glow' -  he used the English words.  And so I think that the fact  that the icon is very much a 'golden glow' would be something he would have commended, and indeed something he would have asked us to reflect and meditate upon.

In Ian's  Keeble  Trinity blog he writes:

Gold is not about giving the icon value, in the worldly sense. The value of the icon is its subject, in this case the Most Holy Trinity. Rather, Gold has a very particular set of qualities, which speak most eloquently of the nature and presence of God, which makes its use in iconography eminently suitable. According to Christian mystical theology, especially in the teachings of the early fathers and the Hesychasts of the eastern Church, these are fundamental ways in which we can describe God: as Light that can be perceived and reveals Itself, but yet as utterly Unknowable, without limits or definition. "True Light itself, Eternal Day, you are far brighter than the sun Illuminating with your grace, The deep recesses of each heart" (VIth century hymn attri. to St Hilary of Poitiers).  Gold speaks of this divine light: it is a 'bright darkness', capable of capturing and intensifying the power of light to the point that it is blinding, while at the same time so dark it seems to have no end. 

I really like the quote attributed to St. Hilary: God as light that  illuminates the deep recesses of our hearts.  When we  reflect on the gold in the icon it should draw our mind - and heart - towards contemplating the divine light of  God's love as expressed in the Heart of Jesus. 

Monday, 16 January 2012

New blog... The Keble icon of the Trinity

For those of you who enjoyed seeing how the icon of the Sacred Heart evolved, you might be interested in a new blog I have put up which is following the icon of the Trinity, which will be a gift to Keble College, Oxford, my alma mater. The plan is I should be in residence as an 'artist in residence' during the college's Arts Week in mid February, and complete the piece while there. You can find the blog HERE: www.kebletrinity.blogspot.com

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Further to David's post, some observations. The image of Christ is not really in the hands of the artist, the iconographer. Rather it is something entrusted to the iconographer by the Tradition. So, it will of course resemble other images of Christ. The Pantocrator is the standard depiction of Christ as He is now, and so other images work out from here. One of the images of Christ I was consciously working from was Christ of the Powers, a version of Christ as Lord of All (Pantocrator) but within the celestial hierarchy and in glory. This is a 'version' one might say of Christ Lord of All, but in another sense it is an image type of its own. I wanted to emphasise the Lordship of Christ throughout and over all things, physical and spiritual, as the Source and Sustainer of all things as I think this ties in with Teilhard's insights into the Sacred Heart.

One of the differences from images of the Pantocrator is in the colour of Christ's vestment - here the white of purity and light, reminding us of the Transfiguration when Christ' glory, as the centre of all things, was manifested and also of the icons of the descent into hell, rescuing the lost and manifesting His power over death and hell itself. That He is otherwise naked is reminiscent of some Western images of Christ in glory, but also of Christ the Bridegroom, the moment when Christ shows the depths of His love, laying down His life for us on the Cross.

But would Teilhard have liked the icon?

Ian and I met up for lunch recently - at which he apparently had the best sausages he had ever eaten!  It was, as always, great to catch up and discuss the project.    In the course of our discussion Ian asked a question which deserves an answer: 'But would Teilhard have liked the icon?' I answered 'yes', but it should be explored in a little more detail.  As Fr. Philip Endean notes in his book on Rahner (see my post here), he was not someone who 'took works of art as a starting point'.  And yet as Fr. Endean observes, the mosaic in the  Jesuit chapel in Innsbruck can serve to 'illustrate Rahner's approach to Christianity'.    My view is that this also holds for Teilhard: our icon is an image which can indeed serve to illustrate Teilhard's approach Christianity - and his belief in the  centrality of the Sacred Heart to the Christianity of the future.  

Sacred Heart by Félix Villé, 1895
I do not know if Rahner had a favourite image, but we do know that Teilhard did: the image by Pinta that he carried with him and which he gave as a farewell gift to Lucille Swan.    Given the nature of the Sacred Heart  it is simply nonsense to think that any artist could capture its meaning.  Teilhard admired Pinta's picture because it was  'a vague representation of the universal “foyer” of attraction which we are aiming for'.  Above all, and unlike most images of the Sacred Heart it showed what Teilhard called the 'golden glow' of the divine centre of  God's love as an energy which fills all creation at towards which all is being drawn forward like some  cosmic gravitational force.   For this reason I think he would have like the painting by Félix Villé if he had ever seen it: this shows a golden glow and not a heart, just like Pinta's painting.   As I note elsewhere, this picture predates Pinta's image, and would have been well-known to him. But, unlike Pinta's image, Félix Villé's painting does not appear to have been reproduced for  popular devotional use - as was Pinta's painting. 

 I can find no other record of Teilhard making an observation on a work of art - or any evidence that he went looking for other images.    However, in the Divine Milieu Teilhard does explicitly reference and image which captures his approach to Jesus:

Ian's Christ Pantocrator 
Disperse, O Jesus, the clouds with your lightning! Show yourself to us as the Mighty, the Radiant, the Risen! Come to us once again as the Pantocrator who filled the solitude of the cupolas in the ancient basilicas! Nothing less that this Parousia is need to counter-balance and dominate in our hearts the glory of the world that is coming into view. And so that we should triumph over the world with you, come to us clothed in the glory of the world.  (The Divine Milieu, Harper and Row  edition, p 128) 

I am no expert on Teilhard, but his reference to Christ as 'Pantocrator'  (Παντοκράτωρ )  who' filled the ancient basilicas' is strongly suggestive that he would have indeed 'liked' our icon of the Sacred Heart.   In icons of Christ Pantocrator  Jesus is shown holding the Book of Life in his left hand and blessing with his right hand.  In our icon the heart is placed not off centre, but at the very centre of the image. But is is clear that the icon is very much based on the image of Christ as ruler of all creation - that is as Pantocrator.  So in a sense one could say that the icon  is the Pantocrator as the Sacred Heart.  Furthermore, our icon shows 'nothing less' than the Parousia as referenced in St. Paul.  This serves as a  'counter balance'  to the rather kitsch and sentimental images that Teilhard thought did the devotion to the Sacred Heart few favours.   Thus it is significant that when he does express a visual image of Christ as drawing all things to himself he should reference a Greek or Orthodox image, and not a Roman Catholic image.  Teilhard was open to the 'light from the East' in this as in other regards.  Again, we see in the icon Christ as Omega 'dispersing the clouds' with the beams of light and swirling fire and energy surrounding his radiant body making all things new. 

But, of course, if you compare our icon with images of Christ as Pantocrator  it is obvious that there are many differences  - apart from the use of a heart and omega symbol rather than a book. Ian's icon seems to be drawing on a range of sources - especially ( I think?) from  images of Christ in Majesty / or 'in glory'  and Christ as ' Salvator Mundi' - the Saviour of the World.  An interesting contrast is with the images of Christ as law giver (Tradio Legis)  and as Teacher.   The symbol of law and teaching are here replaced by Christ who does not give laws or teach , but Christ as Jesus, a fellow human being, who loves us.  And loves us with a love that is greater than all things.  Christ who desires and wants our love in return for His. 

In this central focus on the power of God's  love as expressed in the Heart of Jesus, I really believe that Teilhard would indeed have liked the icon!

Friday, 6 January 2012

TGI First Friday ! First Friday of 2012*

When we reflect on the importance of the Sacred Heart, whether in the writings of Teilhard or Rahner or Benedict XVI, it is so very sad that the practice of attending mass and receiving communion on  the first Friday of every month has lapsed over the years.   It is, of course, one of the promises made to St. Margaret Mary on the 16th June 1675.

 I promise thee in the excess of the mercy of My Heart, that its all-powerful Love will grant to all those who shall receive Communion on the First Friday of Nine consecutive months the grace of final repentance; they shall not die under My displeasure, nor without receiving the Sacraments; My Heart shall be their assured refuge at that last hour.

That is quite a promise:  it is really an offer you just can't refuse.  However, as I noted in an earlier post, despite my best intentions I never managed to actually 'do' the first nine 'First Fridays' until last year and I think that it was really a focal point of the year.  All I can say is that it was a tremendously worthwhile exercise and a deeply spiritual experience  and I would encourage anyone to do it.  I did it while the icon was being written, and find it appropriate now during the process of reading the icon.  Surely it would be a simple matter for Churches just to draw attention to the fact a Friday coming up is the first Friday of the month.  It is about time we re-discovered the efficacy of these traditional practices which prompt us to reflect on the fact that, as Benedict once put it:

In the Heart of Jesus, the center of Christianity is set before us. It expresses everything, all that is genuinely new and revolutionary in the New Covenant. This Heart calls to our heart. It invites us to step forth out of the futile attempt of self-preservation and, by joining in the task of love, by handing ourselves over to him and with him, to discover the fullness of love which alone is eternity and which alone sustains the world. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, (Behold the Pierced One, 1981)

Yes, you too can join the revolution by going to Mass every first Friday of the month!  Hand yourself over  and leave your ego outside and your heart wide open.  And then just 'Thank God its (a first) Friday'.  The collect at today's mass is beautifully expressed in the icon: 
'Cast your kindly light upon your faithful, Lord, we pray, and with the splendour of your glory  set their hearts ever aflame...'

* The Epiphany of the Lord is celebrated on the 8th January in England and Wales!

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Reading an icon of the Heart of Jesus with Rahner

Teilhard was no theologian, and made no claims to be one.  Karl Rahner on the other hand was one of the most important and influential Catholic theologians of the twentieth century.  And as a Jesuit, like Teilhard, he had an intense devotion to the Sacred Heart.  And also like Teilhard his devotion to the Sacred Heart was grounded in Church teaching and tradition, but was not constrained by it.  Rahner also believed that the  Sacred Heart had a considerable relevance for the future: but that we had to go beyond the kind of  popular devotion  which was usually associated with the devotion.   Like Teilhard,  Rahner is a controversial figure, but also like Teilhard despite all his supposed departures from orthodoxy his devotion to the Sacred Heart is absolutely central to his Catholic faith and his Ignatian spirituality+.   Thus what he has to say about the Sacred Heart can provide a way of reading this icon. 

In his essay ‘ The theological meaning of the devotion to the  Heart of Jesus’ *, for example, Rahner describes the Sacred Heart as ‘the ultimate, adoring invocation of the one, all embracing ground of reality and the unity the multiplicity of our religious life’(131).   The term ‘Heart of Jesus’ names ‘the one and all-uniting Lord’ and ‘at the same time unifies and interiorises all the riches of him whom it names’(133).  As such it is a wholly indispensible description or symbol and ‘summa’ of  Christ as ‘God’s eternal word, sprung from the heart of the Father’ which has ‘sought out our own heart’ (135).  And because of this the words must be treated with ‘reverence’ and ‘sober moderation’ (133).   Like Teilhard, therefore, he does not think that the popular devotion  as it stood  at the time was the right direction for the future.   

The ‘Heart of Jesus’  for Rahner – as for Teilhard – is an utterly indispensible symbol, and for this reason both men were deeply concerned about the future of the devotion.   Rahner argues that:

'Apart  from this word of the ‘Heart of Jesus’, what word is there that both names the one and all-uniting Lord and at the same time unifies and interiorises all the riches of him whom it names? There is none; no other has rung out but this one(133).' 

And yet this word:

'.... has been taken up by the devout and prayed and whispered and shouted from the roof-tops(oh, yes, with a lack of discretion, often enough, that has been in horribly bad taste; but the self-offering of love cannot easily be made commensurable with taste and discretion).  And the Church has accepted it.  And she has said that she knows no such other word. Even if we were to say that this word is only one of many possible ones….only this word of the Lord’s Heart can (if any can) be the word for which we are seeking, and which, even though it is there, we are also capable of missing, ignoring and rejecting.’(134)

Because ‘heart’  it is an indispensible word, we have to be more thoughtful about what it means otherwise the devotion will fall victim to the  ‘lack of discretion and bad taste.’   Indeed, by the time of his death in 1984 the Sacred Heart had  become  increasingly ignored and rejected for the reasons that he suggests: a failure to explore the deeper meaning and mystery of the devotion. Rahner thought that given the profound mystery embodied in the symbol, we have to focus on the Sacred Heart as:

‘that place in which the mystery of man opens into the mystery of God’ and that which ‘ signifies the love that is unthinkable and selfless, the love that conquers in utter failure, that triumphs when it is  powerless, that gives life when it is killed: the  love that is God. ‘(134)

For Rahner rediscovering the Heart of Jesus in this sense was therefore the great task for our age: rediscovering it as the symbol of  the powerful love that gathers all things together. (135)   The danger was, however, that it had become an over-used concept and over-familiar image and as a result the devotion was losing its meaning by losing its mystery.  Because it is the summa of our faith, Rahner believed that the symbol should not be over used, but reserved for those times when we are ‘concerned with speaking of the inward man, the ‘hidden person of the heart’ in Christ’ (136).   In other words, the popular devotion to the Sacred Heart  - and especially its image - was actually serving to erode the real meaning of the devotion as embodying the  unutterable mystery of  the idea of the ‘heart’ of Jesus.   If we are to  make the Sacred Heart relevant for our age, and regain the power of the words -  then we have to come to see the Sacred Heart as:

'The name for that reality in which the nameless mystery, whom we call God, is present, not as mysteriously withholding  himself, but as pitying self-giving intimacy: present where we are, in the central source of our earthly being, the heart'.  (140)

 And consequently:
'It is only thus that this word of the Heart of  Christ can be saved from sinking to the level of so many other trite and commonplace religious words.  It is to be used sparingly.  But when we utter it, when we wish to bring together all the rest of what we say of God’s grace and compassion in  Christ and interiorise it and unite it within ourselves by speaking quietly and discreetly of the Heart of Jesus, then we must utter it in such a way that the bare word will be ‘understood’ in this higher sense, the sense in which we shall understand all the words of the faith only when the light of unclouded glory shines upon us.’ (143)

 I suppose, therefore, that this icon may be read as an image which is prompting the viewer to reflect on the Heart of Jesus in this ‘higher sense’ which Rahner is talking about.    It calls the viewer to focus not on the physical heart as in the ‘standard’ image, but as ‘that place in which the mystery of man opens into the mystery of God’ and to read it  less as a  symbol of  reparation but of the the love ‘that is unthinkable and selfless, the love that conquers in utter failure, that triumphs when it is  powerless, that gives life when it is killed: the  love that is God.’ 

In the conclusion to his essay on the ‘Devotion to the Sacred Heart Today’ ** Rahner gives us a way of reading our icon – appropriately enough in ‘Eastern’ terms:

'We look at the heart of the Lord and the question that is decisive for eternity fills our innermost being, our innermost heart and life: Do you love me? Do you love me in such a way that this love generates a blessed eternity, that it truly, powerfully and invincibly generates my everlasting life? This question is not answered because the answer would no longer be a secret; we could give it to ourselves. The question enters the mystery that has come near to us in the heart of the Lord. But when it enters this heart, because it is asked with faith, hope and love, that question is not answered but overpowered by the mystery that is love, by the unquestionable reality of the mystery of God…..It is impossible properly to teach devotion to the Sacred Heart. With confidence in the Church and the Spirit, we must try to approach its mystery. We must eventually, in the luminous and in the dark hours of life, try to pray: ‘Heart of Jesus, have mercy on me.’ We should perhaps try to practice a prayer like the Jesus prayer of the Russian pilgrim. We might venture to use this word like a mantra in Eastern style meditation. But over and above all that, we must experience in life that it is most improbable, most impossible, and so most evident that God, the incomprehensible, truly loves us and that in the heart of Jesus Christ this love has become irrevocable.' **

That is a powerful meditation and a powerful way of reading the icon.  The icon prompts us to reflect on what reply can we give to these questions:

Do you love me?
Do you love me in such a way that this love generates a blessed eternity, that it truly, powerfully and invincibly generates my everlasting life?

 + See, for example his essay' 'Ignatian Spirituality and the Devotion to the Heart of Jesus' in in Mission and Grace, Volume III, Sheed and Ward/ Stagbooks, London 1966. pp176-210.

*References to essay contained in Mission and Grace, Volume III, Sheed and Ward/ Stagbooks, London 1966.

**Karl Rahner, ‘Devotion to the Sacred Heart Today’, Theological Investigations, vol. 23, pp 127-128)

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

First week of 2012: on the road with Rahner

The past few days have been spent ( when I can)  reading the icon through the perspective of the Jesuit tradition.   Of  course, the devotion to the Sacred Heart was very influenced by the Jesuits from the time of St. Claude de la Colombiere S.J., if not before this.  As a Jesuit Teilhard believed that the Sacred Heart was indeed the summary of the Catholic faith, but also that as a devotion it needed to evolve if it were to remain relevant to the Church of the future: that is to the church of today.  Many Jesuits have written extensively on the Sacred Heart, but perhaps the most notable of the commentators in the modern era was the theologian Karl Rahner, S.J.  And thus in the first week of this new year I have been reading what he had to say. 

However, the first thing to note is that Rahner acknowledges the contribution of Pius XII’s  encyclical Haurietis aquas of  1956.   He notes  in ‘The theological meaning of  devotion to the Heart of Jesus’ that it is a ‘comprehensive treatise on everything connected with this devotion’.  His own thoughts on the Sacred Heart are offered as ‘subjective’ and  ‘marginal observations’  to this definitive statement.  And as the way of things on this blog, before I could get down to reading Rahner, I thought it best to proceed by re-reading the ‘comprehensive treatise’ itself.  

In many ways the icon may be read as an image which is inspired by this document.  Indeed, early on in the project Ian noted that his thinking was being shaped by reading the encyclical and Benedict’s comments on the 50th anniversary of its publication.   Having re-read the encyclical myself  I am now minded to read the icon as a visual representation of what is said in Haurietis aquas and by Benedict in 2006.   I was asked a while ago if I though the icon needed a ‘guide book’ and I said that I would think about it!  And now, on refection, I am inclined to say that Haurietis aquas is most probably an excellent guide to the icon, as it is to the devotion.  And furthermore, that  Rahner's 'marginal observations' complement much of what the both the encyclical and Teilhard say about the Sacred Heart. 

Reading about Rahner I came across I fascinating observation by a Jesuit scholar, Fr.  Philip Endean, in his book Karl Rahner and Ignatian Sprituality.  (See here.)  As this blog is about the role of images in our religious life,  Fr. Endean's observation is of special relevance.

Mosaic in Jesuit Chapel, Innsbruck*
"In the chapel of the house in Innsbruck where Rahner lived during his most productive years, a visitor is confronted by a large wall mosaic. At the centre stands Christ, dressed in priestly vestments and carrying the cross, with his heart openly displayed. On the right is Thomas Aquinas, holding the Summa theologiae; on the left we find Ignatius, with his Constitutions leaning against his cloak. Rahner was not the sort of theologian who took works of art as a starting-point, but this mosaic can nevertheless stand as an illustration of Rahner's approach to Christianity. Rahner's writings on the Sacred Heart depend relatively little on the idea of reparation so strongly emphasized in the mainstream devotional tradition. For Rahner, the term 'heart' points, rather, to a metaphysical truth about human identity, about being a 'spirit in world'. Our access to our own 'hearts', our self-presence, comes only in and through our interactions, through our presence to others. When devotion to Christ centres on the symbol of his heart, this reminds us that Christ's revelation occurs only in and through his relationships with us. The Jesus we read of in the gospel must become the cosmic Christ who incorporates us. Thus Christian tradition remains permanently to be continued. Thomas Aquinas and Ignatius have their place in the picture, because both developed articulations of Christianity particularly respectful of this fundamental principle. If the word of God is proclaimed in terms of Thomas's austere scholasticism or of Ignatius's terse requests 'to reflect and draw profit', then the event is completed only when the hearer responds, participating in the mystery in ways that we cannot predict in advance .."pp 259-60 

The mosaic in the chapel of the Jesuit College, Innsbruck (HERE)  thus provides us with a fascinating visual link between our icon and the central role of the Sacred Heart in Rahner's ( and Ignatian) theology and spirituality. 

* Image found on Fr. Joe Koczera's blog,'The City and the World'.  Go HERE.