The Sacred Heart Devotion – Love Conquers All
In Catholic culture, devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has become so widespread that the image has become an icon of Catholicism. Sometimes, the various forms of the image can strike us as a little bizarre, with Jesus pointing to a physical heart on His chest. Others which are more contemporary move us with the more abstract heart on fire with love. Why is this image so central to the modern or post 1500s Catholic imagination? We don’t really find it in ancient icons.
Understandings of The Fall
In the 1500s and 1600s, Calvin and other protestant reformers focused on the fall of humanity from grace or the breakup of people from their loving relationship with God when Adam and Eve sinned. The only way that this divorce could be fixed was by God reaching out in love according to St Augustine (in the 300s) because humanity was too broken and too easily fell into sin. This sinful impulse is called concupiscence. The brokenness of humanity is called depravity which comes from the Latin word for crooked. The Catholic Church has always taught that the passion, death and resurrection of Christ has restored humanity and that we are not basically at our core wicked, corrupt, or crooked. Calvin and others taught that human nature is basically corrupt and is covered over by God’s love. Only a few will be saved and God has made up His mind ahead of time who they will be. Those few are predestined by God since there is really nothing anyone can do to enter into this loving relationship with God.
These ideas found their way into a Catholic movement led by Bishop Cornelius Jansen (1585 – 1635) of Ypres in the Belgian Province of West Flanders. In part, this was a reaction to the pre-reformation Catholic notion that you could win your way back into God’s favor by doing good works. Some people had the mistaken idea that God could be “bought.” This was a distortion of the fact that we are supposed to live our faith and show our reunion with God by doing good things for other people. Basically, love is more than words. Love is shown in how we live.
The Jansenist Change of Tone and Attitude
The Jansenist movement took St. Augustine’s view of a fallen human nature and moved toward Calvin’s position that we are so fundamentally damaged and crooked that there is nothing we can do. According to Calvin, we are incapable of reaching out to God’s love but God’s love or grace is so powerful that it can sweep us up and we have no choice in the matter. That’s the only way that we can be saved. While not throwing aside Catholic teaching the way that Calvin and other reformers had done, the Jansenist movement changed the tone and the attitude of how we are supposed to relate to God. We are so damaged and unworthy that we should receive communion only rarely. We should engage in a lot of prayer and penance because God still sees our sinfulness and brokenness and is always “ticked off” or at least supremely disappointed. There was no way that you could be human — loving, caring, and inconsistent — and make God happy, because we are all hopeless “screw ups.” Jesus may have suffered and died for us, but all we do is repay him with sin. The Jansenist attitude causes the loving Jesus to be off in the distance and our relationship with him to become formal and focused on certain types of religious practices that make no allowance for human frailty, weakness, or growth.
The Jansenist attitude became a prominent part of the Catholic Church in the United States since it was brought by Irish and French immigrants and the priests and nuns who accompanied them. One could not receive communion without going to confession first. Many types of minor human mistakes, even the gestures the priest used at Mass could be gravely serious mortal sins that cut us off from the love of God completely. Eating meat on Friday was a mortal sin; owning slaves was not. Not observing certain days of fasting and not eating meat (abstinence) were mortal sins; beating one’s wife or children was not. The tragic legacy of Jansenism and the Calvinism that is a big part of Anglo American culture is that we are seen as beyond real healing and redemption. We are so messed up that God’s healing love, forgiveness, and happiness are not within reach. This has become a major reason for people to give up on God and religion altogether. Such a distorted “god” is inhuman, abusive, and unloving.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus
In the 1600s, at the same time that Catholic and Protestant movements were focusing on the brokenness and crookedness of humanity and how far we are from God, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and St. Claude de la Colombière promoted a renewed focus on the love and forgiveness of Christ. This devotion came to be known as devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Since Christ is truly human and truly divine, this vision brings us an understanding of Jesus as loving us in a completely human way but with unlimited Divine love. This is the Divine love that continuously overflows in creation, redemption, and resurrection in our lives.
The devotion to the Sacred Heart has had its own excesses. There was a tendency to actually worship the heart of Jesus itself as opposed to rejoicing and reveling in God’s love. This is called an error of logical typing, an error which would lead to eating the menu instead of the food. Another problem was to humanize the love of Christ to the point of believing that our rejection of God’s love could somehow “hurt” him in the way that we suffer rejection when others do not respond to the love we offer them. God cannot be other than God, which is love. (1 John 4:16) God cannot help Godself. The divine love is what God is. If we love imperfectly it is because we are human and we love with all of those human limitations. This is the only way we can respond to that divine love that is always creating, redeeming, and bringing new life out of death. But it is not the way God loves.
This understandably human mistaken notion that God can be “hurt” led to a number of practices such as special prayers, fasting, and mortification of the “deadening” impulses related to hunger, thirst, and sex, as well as the deadly sins of pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, avarice (greed), and sloth or laziness. While these are important parts of spiritual training or getting “in shape” (called asceticism), they were often done to somehow make up for all of the bad stuff everyone else was doing to “hurt” God. These are called acts of reparation. In this mode we focused on the transcendence of God — the loftiness of the Almighty as separated from everyday creation and living.
The Second Vatican Council (1961 – 1965) focused more on the immanence of God — the presence of God in our daily lives. The Church’s concept of itself was no longer that of a “perfect society” that was complete and sufficient within itself like a strong kingdom or empire. The Church became the People of God on pilgrimage, living in and following the living Christ of the Resurrection. This changed the expression of our devotion to the loving presence of God. Images of the Divine Word Incarnate in Jesus became more human. Jesus became more Jewish looking, more middle-eastern, and more like a young virile man. Many earlier images of a pale, wan, almost effete white man no longer matched the Catholic imagination of the post-modern period that emerged after World War II.
Not all Catholics welcomed this development. Such a generous, understanding, and lovable Jesus who is the image of the Living God seemed to downplay the seriousness and widespread nature of sin. Getting in shape spiritually (asceticism) now focused on changing structures of sin and oppression — human rights, civil rights, freedom, and equality. This was quite a shock to the Catholic imagination which had focused so heavily on the interior and heavenly direction of our relationship with God. By retreating from the world to our “perfect” society we had security due to the certainty we enjoyed. Insecurity returned when we realized that faith is the opposite of certainty. Suddenly, the life of Christ was a not a noble walk of the white Aryan with fair hair through Palestine. The life of Christ as the model for our lives became a struggle to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven that ends in apparent failure, torture, and death. Yes, the resurrection transforms us all. The death and resurrection of Christ which we live out in our lives is God’s definitive “no” to evil and to death.
Michael Rubbelke in his post “Devotion to the Sacred Heart Today: The Heart of the Poor, Creation, and Mercy” offers an emerging vision of the Sacred Heart Devotion. The images of the Sacred Heart in his post offer a stark contrast. The first is a traditional image of the white serene Jesus. The second is a contemporary icon by Robert Lentz. This image of Jesus is a brown man with tightly curled African hair. He is portrayed in a more South Asian Hindu style, jutting forth from the icon with arms extended and stylized flames bursting from his hands. Perhaps this is the post-modern icon of the Sacred Heart. It gives expression to Pope Francis’ vision of a church of the poor for the poor, a call to be responsible stewards of creation, and a profound call to announce and to become the Divine Mercy.
This is a more challenging and less comforting Sacred Heart. It also brings more of the challenges of a direct, open, and honest love relationship with the Living God.
Image: Sacred Heart of Jesus, Joseph Fanelli,
used with permission