Saturday, 28 December 2013

Christmas week

The closing lines of Christina Rossetti’s poem (which I love to sing as carol) that  always come to the fore during this season – ever since I learnt it as a boy.  I am sure that I have prayed and sung these lines every Christmas since.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

But, of course, what giving ones heart mean?  Reading Hildebrand’s book (The Heart) over Advent has, I think, helped me answer that question.  What is ‘my heart’?  What does it mean to ‘give my heart’? Although idea of heart is central is the to the Judeo-Christian – and indeed other - religious traditions it is curious that the concept has not been examined in more philosophical depth.  A search through the KJV of the Bible  reveals, for example,  that ‘heart’ is referenced close on 900 times ! It is indeed a complex idea, but it has not been the subject of philosophical scrutiny.  Hence, Hilderbrand’s book is such an important contribution to our understanding.

 Hilderbrand argues that the heart is ‘our real self’.   It is within our ‘real self’ that we experience joy, sorrow, and  enthusiasm  - it is where we ‘feel’ and respond to the world ‘affectively’. However, of course, the heart tends to be seen in and portrayed sentimental terms: but the sense of ‘heart’ we encounter in scripture is not sentimental.  It is not a place for emotional self-indulgence.  We have to understand the heart as existing alongside the intellect and the will.  It is part of the ‘triad of spiritual centers  - intellect, will and heart – which are ordained to cooperate and to fecundate one another’ (p19) .  The heart is the very core of our affective being – just as the intellect is the core of our intellectual being. And Jesus uses this sense when he said that ‘where thy treasure is, there they heart also will be’ ( Mt 6: 21).   Thus : ‘ In this context ‘heart means the focal point of the affective sphere, that which is most crucially affected with respect to all else in that sphere.’  And in this sense , the heart may be understood as the ‘very centre of gravity of all affectivity’p(21) ++ . The heart is ‘where our the treasures of our life our stored’ and it is ‘in the heart that the secret of a person is to be found; it is here that the most intimate word is spoken’ (58) The heart is where all our joy , love and enthusiasm is located.

So if we reflect on ‘giving Jesus our heart’ and opening our heart so as to allow Christ to be born in us, we are saying something very profound. We are asking Jesus to become, as it were, our centre of gravity, and to become the treasure of our life.  In giving Jesus our heart  we are seeking to make Jesus our focal point - the centre of our life.  We are asking Jesus to speak to the most intimate part of ourselves. As we are reminded on the 27th December – the Feast day the ‘beloved apostle’, St. John, who listened to the heart of the Saviour and witnessed the pierced heart of Jesus flow with blood and water- Jesus, the Word of God made flesh gave His heart to us.   Christmas is a time when we, like the shepherds acknowledge our poverty and give our heart - ‘where our the treasures of our life our stored’- to Christ. And also like the wise men, bow low and give our intellects and will as well. When we give our heart we give all of ourselves - just as Jesus gave all of Himself. Christmas is a time for listening - like St John - to the intimate sound of the Heart of Christ.


++ I think the icon of the Sacred Heart captures this sense of the heart of Jesus as a 'centre of gravity' and 'focal point'  - the heart of Jesus as the centre of our centre very nicely.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Third week of Advent:the Sacred Heart and the Incarnation.

Sunday of the third week of Advent we went to hear a performance of Berlioz’s ‘L’enfance du Christ’.  The closing lines of the piece provided a good start to the week - even though it is about the flight into Egypt, rather than the nativity, per se.  The closing lines says it all really.

Ô mon âme, pour toi que reste-t-il à faire,
Qu’à briser ton orgueil devant un tel mystère?
Ô mon cœur, emplis-toi du grave et pur amour
Qui seul peut nous ouvrir le céleste séjour.

Before the great mystery of the Incarnation all we can do is rid ourselves of our pride, and humbly adore.  And, in so doing, open our hearts to the deep and pure love of God – as, in Jesus, He has opened His heart to us all. Berlioz himself had long abandoned his Christian faith when he composed this great work. Nevertheless, his words and music serve to illuminate the Incarnation.  I returned to Hildebrand’s book The Heart with a renewed interest in understanding what he has to say.

Although Von Hildebrand was  (very) antagonistic towards  Teilhard’s approach, he shared Teilhard’s deep devotion to the Sacred Heart.  And in so many respects they agreed that renewal of the devotion – oe what Teilhard called the attraction – to the Sacred Heart was vital for the future of  Christianity in the modern world.  Both though that the Sacred Heart had to be rescued from the sentimenalism  and aberrations which had  distorted the true meaning of the mysterty of  the heart of  Jesus. To do this Von Hildebrand argues that we have to first clarify the idea of  the heart in philosophical terms  ‘in an attempt to do full justice  to the depth and spiritual plenitude of this ‘centre of man’s soul’ which could provide the basis for a ‘deeper penetration into the ineffable mystery of the Sacred Heart’ so that our eyes may be opened to the inexhaustible riches  and glorious beauty of this mystery, for  as he argues:

“ It is perhaps  in the adoration of the Sacred heart that the mystery of the Incarnation and of God’s infinite charity manifests itself in the deepest manner. In the invocation ‘Heart of Jesus, wherein abides the fullness of the Godhead’  we find the tension that is immanent in the mystery of the Incarnation in its full , ineffable glory.  In saying Cor Jesu, we are touching on the deepest and noblest mark of human nature, to have a heart capable of love, a heart which can know anxiety and sorrow, which can be afflicted and moved, is the most specific characteristic of the human person.  The heart is the most tender,  the most inner, the most secret center in man, and it is in the heart of Jesus that the plenitude of Divinity dwells.”

The Sacred Heart, argues Von Hilderbrand,  expresses   the ‘great secret’ of every soul: ‘God’s infinite love for us in Christ – which is the source of our joy, our consolation, our hope in statu viae and our everlasting joy in eternity, shines forth in a specific way in the Sacred Heart.”

The devotion to the Heart of Jesus has, from earliest times has been implied in the adoration of the Sacred Humanity of Christ.  It developed form from the 18th century as a response to Jansenism and later the rationalism of the enlightenment which ignored the role of the heart and which focused on the head and the will. In the twentieth century Hildebrand wanted to awaken our attention to the critical role which the Sacred Heart has to play in combating the hatred directed at human dignity and personality.  The Sacred Heart  reminds us that God is love, and that God loves us in spite of all our disregard of  this infinite love.

“The centre of Christian revelation is the self-revelation of God in Christ.  The crowning of all Christian revelation is the epiphany of God in the Sacred Humanity of Christ.”

This is why we urgently need to renew our devotion to the Sacred Heart.  Those who have problems with the devotion fail to understand the ‘specific aspect of the divine mystery which the devotion to the Sacred Heart  discloses.’ The Sacred Heart  focuses our attention on one of the main marks of Christian morality: charity. ‘Whereas rectitude and justice are the core of natural morality, in Christian morality the specific centre in the goodness of charity’. We see this time and time again the  Gospels – as in the story of the Good Samaritan: we hear ‘the voice of the heart’.  We see in the Gospels how utterly superabundant is God’s love.  In the Gospels we see how a ‘transfigured affectivity permeates Christian morality’ ; we see how God’s love has no limits that discloses a ‘new and unheard-of-dimension of the heart’.

For Hildebrand ( as for Teilhard)  this is why the devotion is so very important to the contemporary world.

“Devotion to the Sacred Heart throws into relief the mystery of this holy affectivity of the Sacred Humanity of Christ, and does so with all the realism so characteristic of Christ’s revelation.  By this realism we mean the individual, concrete character of God’s revelation in Christ as opposed to any abstractionism that confuses authentic breadth with logical extension; it is opposed as well to any proud spiritualism which scorns matter… The fact that the devotion is extended to [the] bodily heart which has been pierced by the spear of the soldier, from which  his Sacred Blood dripped, gives to the entire devotion an implacable realism. The mysterious interpenetration of the physical heart and the heart as a spiritual centre of affectivity immerses us in the concrete reality of this blissful mystery.”

In this devotion, the Church makes explicit the Sacred Humanity of Christ and the unfathomable divine love which radiates from the heart.  It is, therefore, a devotion with deep and profound roots in the history of the Church, but was only made more explicit in more recent centuries. As he says: ‘ The Apostles were [themselves] under the spell of the Sacred Heart.’ Throughout the history of Christianity the Sacred Heart has been present in the life of the Church.  It has always been ‘deliciae sanctorum omnium’, and as a devotion it has grown ‘organically’.   But, along with development of the devotion has come an inevitable distortion and corruption : ‘Many devotional pictures of the Sacred Heart and especially many hymns..display a mawkish sentimentality, and portray the Sacred Heart not only stripped of supernatural mystery but, but even from the natural point of view, as insipid and mediocre’.

In many respects Teilhard and Hilderbrand take similar lines – even if they use very different kinds of language and approach.  For Hilderbrand the Sacred Heart had to be reinvigorated by a more philosophical perspective on the role of the heart and the Heart of Jesus.  For Teilhard, it also needed to be reinvigorated and re-instated – and this meant a far more mystical understanding of the Sacred Heart. For both the Sacred heart had to be liberated from the 'mawkish sentimentality' of the past   In this way what Teilhard says about the Sacred Heart, and what we find in Hildebrand are far more in harmony that they might first appear. In order to better understand the Incarnation which took place in Bethlehem, we must better understand the Heart of Jesus, and open our hearts in complete humility  to the babe born in a stable.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Second week of advent: traveling with a wise man

 It is fitting that at this stage in Advent, we read in the mass on Wednesday in the second week of Advent the lines from Matthew 11: 28- 30

Come to me, all you who labour and are overburden, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light’. 

This passage concludes a chapter that deals with how un-teachable the chosen people have been.  They refused to listen to John the Baptist, and they will refuse to listen to him.

To what should I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces who call out to one another,  ‘We played the flute for you, yet you did not dance; we wailed in mourning, yet you did not weep.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” Then Jesus began to criticize openly the cities in which he had done many of his miracles, because they did not repent. ..At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent, and revealed them to little children.  Yes, Father, for this was your gracious will.  All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son decides to reveal him. (Matthew, 11: 16-27)

Jesus says, however, that if they want to know the Father, they should learn from his heart.  Why because, as the Litany says: the Heart of Jesus, [is] united substantially with the word of God. The Heart of Jesus, [is] the holy temple of God.  The Heart of Jesus, [is ] tabernacle of the Most High. It is  the  house of God and gate of heaven;  the  glowing furnace of charity, the vessel of justice and love;  it is the  full of goodness and love.    The Heart of Jesus, is an abyss of all virtues,  and most worthy of all praise; it is   king and center of all hearts.  Within the heart of Jesus are  are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

By learning from the heart of Jesus we can begin to understand  fullness of the Divinity which became flesh in the womb of Mary.

At Christmas we celebrate the moment when God ‘s word and wisdom became flesh: when a  Divine heart beat in Mary’s womb alongside a human heart.  We celebrate  God with us – our Emmanuel.   In seeking to journey to Bethlehem this year I have been travelling with a wise man – Dietrich Von Hildebrand (HERE) (1889 - 1977)  - whose work on the Sacred Heart has been rather neglected, but which is well worth reading.  Perhaps, given his opposition to Teilhard and his view that Teilhard did a lot of damage to the Catholic Church,  Hildebrand  is a rather odd companion for me. However, his book on the Sacred  Heart is, I believe, a truly inspiring work.  I am not convinced by his criticisms of Teilhard, but I am thankful for his book ( The Heart : An Analysis of Human and Divine Affectivity, St. Augustine press, 2007, first published 1965).

If, like the shepherds and the wise men,  we are to wonder at the mystery of the incarnation on Christmas day, we should, as Jesus tells, us learn from his heart.  Von Hilderbrand’s book  can help our understanding of that great mystery.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

First week of Advent.

 The readings at mass in the first week of Advent return us to the Litany of the Sacred Heart!  On the first Sunday of Advent we read that Isaiah’s vision (Isaiah. 2:1-5) describes the ‘Temple of the Lord’ towering above the mountains which will draw all the nations to it so that he may ‘teach us his ways’ so that we can walk in his paths and in his light.  The litany asks us to pray to the Heart of Jesus as the ‘ holy temple of God’! The Psalm ( Psalm 121) invites us to  ‘go to God’s House’ and the Litany asks us to pray to  the Sacred Heart as ‘the house of God’. On the first Monday of Advent  the readings (Isaiah, 4:2-6)tell us that the Lord will cleanse Jerusalem and will be a ‘flaring fire’ and the glory of the Lord will be a ‘canopy and a tent to give shade by day and heat by night’.  Again, the Litany calls us to pray to the Heart of Jesus as the tent (that is ‘tabernacle’)  of the Most High. We are also reminded in this context that Jesus is the Temple which was destined to be destroyed and rise  again in three days!   Isaiah also brings to mind  Matthew (11-28-29): ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’

Advent is a time of waiting and preparing for that moment when God came to live with us: to love us as God  incarnate.  At Christmas we draw hope from our humble God with a human heart asleep in the stable.

On the Tuesday of Advent we read in Isaiah that the Emmanuel  will have the spirit of  wisdom, counsel and knowledge.  Once again the Litany of the Sacred Heart reminds us that Jesus is the wisdom of God - in whose heart we find all the treasures  of wisdom and knowledge.  Later, we will hear of the ‘wise men’ who  have followed a star to find this great treasure.  Jesus tells us that we must learn from his heart. We do this when, like Mary, we open pour hearts to God.  On Wednesday – which was also the feast of the great defender of icons – St. John Damascene – we read Psalm 22, in which we pray to dwell in the Lord’s house for ever and ever.  And the Lord’s house is, of course, the Sacred Heart.

On Thursday on this first week of Advent we read from Isaiah ((26:1-6)  who calls us to ‘trust in the Lord’.  And, of course, the devotion to the Sacred Heart is all about precisely  this : ‘ Sacred Heart of Jesus, we place all our trust in you.’  That is, as the Psalm (117) for the day says: trust in ‘ in a love that has no end.’   The Sacred heart  is the great symbol of the infinite nature of the love and mercy of God.  On Friday – the first Friday of December, and the feast of St. Nicholas – we are again reminded in the Psalm (26) that we have to take heart : and trust and hope in the love of God- our light and our salvation.   In other words, imitate the life of the Saint who is most closely associated with Christmas.  It is such a great pity that in so many countries – such as the UK – we rather neglect the saint. He is, of course, very important in the Orthodox tradition and is the patron saint of  Russia.  When you cut through all the stories told about him one thing is clear: he trusted in the Lord and had an open and giving heart to all in need.

On the last day of the first week of Advent  we reflect on hope. As the Litany says: the Heart of Jesus is the ‘hope of all who die in him’.  The reading from Isaiah (30) puts it a little differently, happy those who live in the Lord.  The Psalm (146) reminds that ‘ Happy are all who hope in the Lord’.   He will heal the ‘broken hearted’ raise up the lowly and humble’.   We wait for the child to be born who contains a ‘wisdom that can never be measured’.