Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Sacred Heart and the Dominican tradition

St. Albert the Great 
Dominicans - along with the Franciscans - have  made an enormous contribution to the understanding the spirituality of the Heart of Christ - especially in the middle ages.  And my reflections on St. Acquinas in terms of  the Sacred Heart as the 'abyss of all virtue' prompted me to examine the part plated by  Dominicans in the evolution of the devotion.  Although Acquinas was to write at length on  the theological principles which have informed and shaped the devotion - especially with regard to the  adoration of Christ's humanity ( part three of the Summa Theologica) and  the eucharist, he was not explicitly concerned with the heart as such.   His teacher, St. Albert the Great (1206-1280) on the other hand was  one of the earliest advocates of a spiritual life grounded in a devotion to the pierced heart of Jesus and the water and blood which flowed from it.  He also connected the  sacred heart,  and  Christ's blood to the eucharist.  St Albert was, therefore, one of those who were responsible for promoting the link between the devotion to the heart and the devotion to the Blessed Eucharist.  Perhaps Acquinas  took this aspect of his teacher's work as a given and felt no need to take it any further.  But there can be little doubt that St Albert's influence on the Dominican tradition of 'heart spirituality' was profound and lasting.

Meister Eckhart 
Although  St Acquinas  could not be said to have expanded on St. Albert's teachings on the devotion to the heart of Jesus, his pupils did:  in particular,  his Meister Eckhart (1260-1327). Eckhart  was one of the most inspiring and influential writers on the mystery of the heart of Jesus .  In his work we are drawn towards  the idea of the Heart of Jesus as a fire which we find through out the Dominican tradition.

 'On the cross his Heart burnt like a fire and a furnace from which the flame burst forth on all sides.  So was he inflamed on the Cross by his fire of love for the whole world. '

St Catherine exchanging  hearts, Giovanni di Paolo
Blessed Henry Suso (1200-1366), was also to stress the importance of meditating on the Heart of Jesus  'burning with love' in his  book Eternal Wisdom. Another German Dominican, and student of Eckhart, Johan Tauler (1300-1361)was also to place the heart of Jesus  in a central position in his book of spiritual exercises.
Thus by the 14th century the Dominicans were able to draw upon an immensely rich tradition of heart spirituality.   Out of this tradition was, of course, to emerge one of the most significant mystics associated with the Sacred Heart: St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380).  The teachings of St. Albert the Great, Meister Eckhart, Blessed Henry Suso and others were to flower in the life of St Catherine   who it is recorded as having exchanged hearts with Jesus and whose prayer distills so much of what Dominican heart spirituality is all about.

In your nature, eternal Godhead,
I shall come to know my nature.
And what is my nature, boundless love?
It is fire,
because you are nothing but a fire of love.
And you have given humankind
a share in this nature,
for by the fire of love you created us.
And so with all other people
and every created thing;
you made them out of love.
 O ungrateful people!
What nature has your God given you?
 His very own nature!
Are you not ashamed to cut yourself off from such a noble thing
through the guilt of deadly sin?
 O eternal Trinity, my sweet love!
You, light, give us light.
You, wisdom, give us wisdom.
 You, supreme strength, strengthen us.
Today, eternal God,
let our cloud be dissipated
so that we may perfectly know and follow your Truth in truth,
with a free and simple heart.
 God, come to our assistance!
Lord, make haste to help us!

Sacred Heart by Félix Villé,1895
What is interesting from an artistic point of view is that despite the evident popularity of the spirituality of the heart, it does not appear to have been a subject which attracted  Dominican artists - of which there were many: not least, of course, Fra Angelico (1386-1455) or Fra Bartolmeo della Porta (1472-1517) and, of course, Michelangelo (1475-1564) who was a lay Dominican.

Thus far I have only come across one Sacred Heart painting by  a Dominican artist  - the lay Dominican, Félix Villé.   His painting, I think, is a unique statement of a Dominican perspective on the Sacred Heart and seems to draw heavily on St. Catherine's prayer.  You can read more about it HERE.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

St Thomas Acquinas and the Sacred Heart: the abyss of all virtues

My Lenten reflections on the pierced heart of Jesus brought to mind the other day an observation in St Thomas Acquinas' Summa:

'Hence, Chrysostom says, commenting on the words of John, 'Immediately there came out blood and water'. Since the sacred mysteries derive their origin from thence, when you draw nigh to the awe-inspiring chalice, so approach as if you were going to drink from Christ's own side"' (Summa, III, 79, 1, c.)

Although Acquinas is not a saint generally associated with the devotion to the Sacred Heart per se, there is little doubt that the symbol of the heart is to be found in his writings.   As in , for example, his well-known prayer:

Grant me, O Lord, 
an ever-watchful heart that no alien thought can lure away from You;
a noble heart that no base love can sully; 

an upright heart that no perverse intention can lead astray;
an invincible heart that no distress can overcome; 

an unfettered heart that no impetuous desires can enchain.

As I reflected on this I was also reminded that, the ' Angelic Doctor'  informs the development of the devotion, not least through his writings on the eucharist.  Teilhard would certainly have known and loved Acquinas' hymns Pange Lingua ( Listen here) and Adoro te Devote (Here) .  These are, above all,  songs of the heart. And with that thought in mind I mused on the image of the saint who is traditionally shown with a shining sun on his breast.   Pope Pius XI observed in 1923 of this image that it expressed how he embodied a : 'combination of doctrine and piety, of erudition and virtue, of truth and charity, is to be found in an eminent degree in the angelic Doctor and [ therefore ]  it is not without reason that he has been given the sun for a device; for he both brings the light of learning into the minds of men and fires their hearts and wills with the virtues. God, the Source of all sanctity and wisdom would, therefore, seem to have desired to show in the case of Thomas how each of these qualities assists the other, how the practice of the virtues disposes to the contemplation of truth, and the profound consideration of truth in turn gives luster and perfection to the virtues'. 

 Benozzo Gozzoli The triumph of St Acquinas, 1484

It is fitting that as we reflect on the Sacred Heart that we should turn to the shinning sun  of the great (est) Doctor of the Church whose philosophy and theology of  the moral, intellectual and theological virtues serves to guide our lives and help us to remember that, in the words of the Litany; Cor Iesu, virtutum omnium abyssus, The Sacred Heart of Jesus is the abyss of all virtues. Let us focus on the bright light shinning from St Thomas Acquinas and open our hearts to the pierced Heart of Jesus.   

In one of his Angelus reflections on the Litany of the Sacred Heart, Blessed John Paul  has this to say about the Sacred Heart as the 'abyss of all virtues'.

Following the invocation of the litany, we try to describe in some way [ Jesus’] inner life: through his heart. The heart determines the depth of  the person. In every case, it indicates the extent of this depth, in the interior experience of each one of us, as well as in inter-personal communication. The depth of Jesus Christ, indicated by the measure of his heart, is peerless. It surpasses the depth of any man, because it is not just human, but at the same time divine. This divine-human depth of Jesus’ heart is the depth of the virtues, of all the virtues. As a true man Jesus expresses the interior language of his heart through the virtues. In fact, by analyzing his behaviour all these virtues can be discovered and identified, as, historically, they emerge from the knowledge of human morality, as the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance), and the others derived from them (These virtues are possessed to a high degree by the saints and, while always with divine grace, by the great exponents of moral standards). 

The invocation of the litany speaks in a very beautiful part of an "abyss" of the virtues of Jesus. This abyss, this depth signifies a particular degree of perfection of each virtue and its particular power. This depth and power of each virtue proceeds from love. The more each of the virtues are rooted in love, the greater is their depth. Furthermore, in addition to love, humility also determines the depth of the virtues. Jesus said: "Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart" (Mt 11, 29).

.. let us ask Mary that we may ever draw closer to the heart of her Son. That we may be able to learn from him, and from his virtues. 

( 28th July, 1985, in John Paul II,  Litany of the Sacred Heart, Prayer and Service, October- December, 1990, no 4. pp 313-4) 

It seems to me that this (Thomist?) sense of the Sacred Heart as an 'abyss of all virtues' is powerfully expressed in our icon in a way that the traditional image utterly fails to capture.  The heart itself is the centre of a powerful swirl of energy and fire which is inviting us to think of the infinite and cosmic  depth of God's love as revealed in the death and resurrection - and ultimately the pleroma -  of Christ.  When read as an image of how all virtues flow out of one divine source, love, the icon prompts us to reflect and meditate on the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, but also to consider how Jesus displays the four 'cardinal ' virtues in all their perfection.  To live a virtuous life we must live a life powered and energised by the love which the Sacred Heart symbolises: a love that is cosmic, immeasurable and without end, but which is at the same time is personal and desires unity with us as individuals.  If we want to live a virtuous life - and evolve as a species in the direction marked out by the second Adam - we are called to learn from Jesus how to be 'gentle and lowly of heart'. 

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Divine Mercy Sunday : reflections on the Lenten and Easter journeys

Divine Mercy Sunday is an appropriate day to reflect on the Lenten and Easter journey  which - for me -  was focused on the life and teaching of St. David.   More than anything this Lent  made me think of water - the element most closely associated with the saint.   As Lent progressed I was increasingly pulled towards reflecting on the heart of Christ lanced with a spear and the blood and water flowing out of Christ  into the creation.  But it was only on Good Friday that the significance of the 'Heart of Jesus, pierced with a lance' came home to me - for in truth it had never really got through to me before this.  The pierced heart  was an aspect of the icon which I was aware of, but had not, until that moment during the reading of the Passion according to St, John in the Good Friday service, commanded my attention, and it was a 'light bulb'  experience.   I got it.

When they came to Jesus they found he was already dead, and so instead of breaking his legs one of the soldiers pierced his side with a lance; and immediately there came out blood and water.  This is the evidence of one who saw it- trustworthy evidence, and he knows he speaks the truth...( John 19: 23-37) 

This flow of blood and water was immensely important to the evolution of the devotion to the Sacred Heart.   At today's Mass we are reminded of the centrality of this event in the reading from John's Gospel  (20:19-31) where Jesus invites Thomas to put his hand into the wound in his side. And, in the first letter of St. John we again are reminded that Jesus 'came by water and blood, not with water only, but with water and blood'(5: 1-6.)

The image of Jesus associated with Saint Faustina explicitly urges to focus on the blood and water which flows from the heart of Christ.  Blessed John Paul - a great advocate of both the Sacred Heart and the Divine Mercy  had this to say about the the 'Heart of Jesus pierced with a lance'  in one of his Angelus meditations on the Litany on the Sacred Heart. (30th July 1989)

Throughout the centuries, few pages of the gospel have attracted more attention from mystics, spiritual  writers and theologians  than the passage from St. John's Gospel which describes Christ's glorious death and piercing of his side...In the pierced heart we contemplate the filial obedience  of Jesus to the Father..that is to the ultimate sacrifice of himself.   The pierced heart is the sign of the totality of this love in the vertical and horizontal directions, like two arms of the cross..  The pierced heart is also the symbol of the new life  given to man through the Spirit and the sacraments....[ St. John] intends to deepen the significance of the salvific event and to explain it through the symbol.. therefore he regards the episode of the piercing  with the lance as profoundly significant.  Just as from the rock struck  by Moses a stream of water gushed forth in the desert, so from Christ's side,  pierced by the lance, there came forth a torrent of water to quench the thirst of the People of God.  This torrent is the gift of the Spirit which nourishes divine life in us. ..  from the pierced heart of Christ the Church is born.  Just as  from the sleeping Adam his wife Eve was taken, so ..from the  wounded side of the Saviour as he slept in death on the cross, the Church , his Spouse, was taken.   In fact, she is formed  from the water and blood - Baptism and Eucharist - which flow from the pierced heart.. The Evangelist notes that besides the cross was Mary, the Mother  of Jesus.  She saw the wounded heart from which flowed blood and water, blood taken from her blood and she understood that her Son's blood  had been taken for our salvation.  Then she  understood fully the significance the words which her Son had spoken a short time previously: 'Woman this is your son': the Church which flowed from the wounded heart had been entrusted to her motherly care.   Let us ask Mary to lead us to draw  more and more abundantly from the streams of grace flowing from Christ's wounded heart.   
John Paul II, Litany of the Heart of Jesus, Prayer and Service, October - December 1990, N. 4, pp 343-4

Thus my Lenten and Easter journey accompanied by St David brought me to a new and deeper appreciation of the image of the Sacred Heart contained in the icon.  We can mediate on the wound inflicted by the lance as a golden shining (cosmic)symbol of the new life in Christ.  We can reflect on the Church being born like Eve from the first Adam (on the left) and contemplate the stream of living water which flows from Christ.  And we can turn to Mary  and 'ask us to lead us to draw more and more abundantly from those streams of grace flowing from Christ's wounded  heart.' 

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Sharing the Lenten Journey with St David (4) : Finding David's joy in lent

As I have been trying to journey through Lent mindful of St. David's wish that we should 'be joyful and remember the little things'  I have to confess that it is the being 'joyful' bit that I have found most problematical.   You only have to pick up a newspaper to realize that we live in a pretty awful world.  Sometimes it is very difficult to feel joyful.  The more one reflects on the state of the world the more hopeless rather than joyful one feels.   And yet as Christians we are, as St. David reminds us, called to have hope and to be joyful.  As Teilhard said often, to live a life focused on the Sacred Heart is to live a life with faith in the future.   Faith in what? Faith in the love of God - as represented in the Heart of Jesus - as alive and active in creation.  But in Lent, and as we reflect as we approach Good Friday, I find it hard to be joyful.  Lent is not a time for joy. Having said that, however, St. David tells us to be joyful: even in Lent.  Have faith and hope in the future: believe in the power and energy of love.  Be open to joy, and not overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness.   C.S. Lewis comes to mind on this.  His book Surprised by Joy is all about 'joy' and being a Christian.  Re-reading it recently it is interesting that he describes joy using the German word 'sehnsucht': joy as a intense longing or yearning. It is a tricky word as it is difficult to translate, but it seems to me that it is close to the Welsh word 'hiraeth' which also means an intense longing and yearning for Wales, or for home.  Joy as hiraeth: an intense longing felt deep within the heart for that which is lost or far away.   To be joyful in this sense is to have an intense longing for home - where we belong.  
When we are joyful we somehow feel an intense feeling of what being home, or being complete means. Joy  -as sehnsucht or hiraeth - is a sense of there being a better place, a place where we will feel at home and complete.  I think St. David is asking us to always be in a state of hiraeth and remain open to those flashes and glimpses of joy when we are intensely  aware of our real home.  Hiraeth or sehnsucht is  a longing which calls from deep inside us - from our very heart.   To be joyful is not to walk around smiling and looking like an idiot, but to live  with a sense of the home which is calling us, and which we know is there and waiting for us.   It is this sense of joy which gives us faith, hope and love.

When we reflect on the Sacred Heart as as centre of a cosmic energy which is pulling creation towards itself and which seeks a personal relationship with us - the centre and heart of us as individuals - then we too can live joyfully.  The Sacred Heart is the source of our joy - the focus of our deep longing and yearning: our hiraeth and sehnsucht.  This is the joy St. David  asks us to remember.   It is the joy which we find in Francis Stanfield's great hymn:

 O Sacred Heart,
our home lies deep in thee;
on earth thou art an exile’s rest,
in heav’n the glory of the blest,
O Sacred Heart.

O Sacred Heart,
lead exiled children home,
where we may ever rest near thee,
in peace and joy eternally,
O Sacred Heart. 

To be joyful in keeping the faith is to live with this longing for unity with the Heart of Christ.   St. Augustine put it well when he says in the Confessions: 'You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.'  Joy is to found in the restlessness of our hearts for the Lord.  With this joy we can, in Teilhard's sense have 'faith in the future': Lent becomes a time for joy.