Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Seraphim, St. Margaret Mary and the Sacred Heart (2)

The autobiography of Saint Margaret Mary is a fascinating account of her experiences.  Considering the role which the saint  has played in the promotion of the devotion it might be thought that I have been rather negligent I not reading the icon through the perspective of her writings.  However, as I was determined to allow the icon to unfold in its own time and in its own way I was happy to wait until the time was right to read the icon in the light of St Margaret Mary’s  own words.  Of course, her experiences have been well documented and examined but several points seem to me emphasized more than they are.  The first – which is manifestly brought out by Teilhard – is that she is describes the Sacred Heart in terms of fire rather than in terms of a physical heart.  Her prayers turn to a desire to be consumed by this fire, rather than dwell on the heart as a bloody physical object.  The heart is a burning  furnace that desires to consume all things, and even consumes itself: ‘Behold the Heart , Which has loved men so much, that It has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming itself…’  Fire is the predominant image or metaphor which we find in her account.  Not  a  few flames, but a fire that is overwhelming, like the sun.  Hence the passage cited in an earlier post which she describes it as ‘brighter than the sun’ and surrounded by flames of pure love.’  Indeed, she then describes this sun being surrounded by the Seraphim who sing ‘Love triumphs, love enjoys, the love of the Sacred Heart rejoices!’.  They invite her to join with them in a perpetual ‘homage of love, adoration and praise’.

Given this, it is very gratifying that our icon does have a Seraph – unlike so many images of the Sacred Heart.  The word ‘seraph’, of course, derives from the Hebrew word which means ‘to consume with fire’.  In the book of Isaiah (6:6) we learn that their function was – amongst other things – to perpetually  sing the glory of  the Lord God of  Hosts’.  The hymn they sing in Isaiah – known as the trisagion. ( the thrice holy): it is referenced by the Sanctus  - the tersanctus - in the Mass: ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.’ (Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth, Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua.) The thrice holy  also occurs in the Book of Revelation (4:8) sung by four seraphs around the Throne of God: ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty,
 Who was and is and is to come!”

So the significance of the presence of the Seraphim in her visions of the Sacred Heart is very important but rather ignored. AND yet,  it serves to remind us that the Sacred Heart is, as the Litany of the Sacred Heart, proclaims:

Holy Trinity, one God,
Heart of Jesus, Son of the Eternal Father,
Heart of Jesus, formed by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mother,
Heart of Jesus, substantially united to the Word of God,
Heart of Jesus, of infinite majesty,
Heart of Jesus, sacred temple of God,
Heart of Jesus, tabernacle of the Most High,
Heart of Jesus, house of God and gate of heaven,
Heart of Jesus, burning furnace of charity,

The presence of the Seraphim in her devotion to the Sacred Heart indicates that our prayers to the Heart of Jesus are joining with the 'Seraphim's Song to the Heart of Jesus' .  The litany to the Sacred Heart may be read as  a seraphic hymn – like the Sanctus.   The new English translation of the Mass makes this clear in the preface prior to the Sanctus, for example Preface IV of Lent:

Through him the Angels praise your majesty,
Dominions adore and Powers tremble before you.
Heaven and the Virtues of heaven and the blessed Seraphim
Worship together in exultation.
May our voices, we pray, join with theirs
in humble praise, as we acclaim:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory……

So with St. Margaret we can join with the blessed Seraphim and sing:

‘Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory……
Love triumphs, love enjoys, the love of the Sacred Heart rejoices!’

We do find some images which have putti ( supposed Seraphim)  in them.  These just serve to over- sentimentalise the image of the Sacred Heart in a way which simply does not capture what St. Margaret Mary writes about at all!  In her autobiography we get a real sense of the power and energy of what she experienced, and this is reinforced by her account of the Seraphim.  The use of putti as compared with the Seraphim depicted in Eastern icons and medieval images illustrates how Catholic art from the Renaissance just cut itself off from its roots in older Christian representations. Putti, what happened there?!!

If you compare the images (ABOVE, click on image to enlarge) we find of  the Seraphim in medieval images and by Giotto  and those of Christ with the Seraphim in Eastern Orthodox icons with those of the Sacred Heart with putti it is evident how what we read in St, Margaret Mary was turned in dreadful sentimentalised images that in no way express what the Seraphim are about.  The icons completely captures the spirit of the Litany of the Scared Heart: the majesty and power of Christ surrounded by the blessed Seraphim.  Do the images of the Sacred Heart surrounded by cute putti capture it?  No. They wholly and completely lose sight of what we read in  St Margaret Mary or what the Seraphim are supposed embody in the tradition and teaching of the Church!! * 

Click to enlarge
Sacred Heart by Félix Villé, 1895
 WITH SERAPHIM! (Click to enlarge) 
One image we have already mentioned by Félix Villé, however, does capture what St. Margaret Mary says in her autobiography. My picture taken in Paris last year does not do it justice, but we can see, faintly  in the background the images of  Seraphim as opposed to silly putti.  If the painting was cleaned up a bit, I think the images of the Seraphim would be clearer: but you can see they are six winged and powerful angels who are closest to the fire of God's love: and not little baby putti!  Well done Felix!!

*For example, St Thomas Acquinas, in Summa Theologiae:

"The name 'Seraphim' does not come from charity only, but from the excess of charity, expressed by the word ardor or fire. Hence Dionysius  expounds the name 'Seraphim' according to the properties of fire, containing an excess of heat. Now in fire we may consider three things.
"First, the movement which is upwards and continuous. This signifies that they are borne inflexibly towards God.
"Secondly, the active force which is 'heat,' which is not found in fire simply, but exists with a certain sharpness, as being of most penetrating action, and reaching even to the smallest things, and as it were, with superabundant fervor; whereby is signified the action of these angels, exercised powerfully upon those who are subject to them, rousing them to a like fervor, and cleansing them wholly by their heat.
"Thirdly we consider in fire the quality of clarity, or brightness; which signifies that these angels have in themselves an inextinguishable light, and that they also perfectly enlighten others."

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