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.

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