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.

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