e-mail us


A fresh look at an ancient image


An old Catholic devotion to the gentle, humble heart of God can help us today to strengthen our spirituality and build communities of love and peace.

I’m not sure what the fascination has been, but fascination is the right word to use when describing my relationship with the devotional image of the Sacred Heart. As a post-Vatican II Catholic, I did not grow up with the image, except as it was an ever-present reminder -- in church statuary and stained glass or in the names of schools, parishes and religious communities -- of a devotion that flourished long before the Second Vatican Council.

So, several years ago I set out to research the long developmental history of the Sacred Heart, to peel back the layers of meaning of an image that has been present, at least incipiently, from the earliest days of the church.

Beginning with the account in John’s Gospel of the blood and water that flowed from the pierced side of the crucified Christ, and with the story of John the beloved resting his head on Jesus’ breast, Christians over the centuries have woven together a tapestry of scripture, contemplative prayer, visual imagery, theology, devotional and liturgical practices and hymnody to fashion a graceful, gracious story of the mystery of a divine-human heart that invites us into the unfathomable depths of a divine love that longs to claim us and make our hearts its own.

Ancient Catholic devotions are always full of meaning. Among the many motifs that one might pick out from the rich cluster of themes discovered in the tradition -- including adoration and reparation; mutual breathing and breakup; feasting and feeding; wound and clefts; the fountain of life; the beloved’s breast; flames and fiery furnaces; mystical dew; gentleness and humility; consecration; shepherding; spaciousness and the width and breadth of love -- one especially has claimed my attention. That is the motif of the exchange of hearts.

In the light of recent world events, this theme has for me taken on new significance.

In the medieval world this exchange of hearts was a mystical exchange -- recorded by the likes of Ss. Catherine of Siena and Catherine de Ricci -- in which the human heart was removed from the mystic’s breast and replaced by the heart of Christ. While this was, in the medieval world, an extraordinary occurrence, the exchange of hearts points to a somewhat less extraordinary, but nevertheless remarkable, exchange to which we are all invited.

I have spent time pondering what that exchange might look like in modern terms and so I have tried to create a dialogue across time between contemporary theories of nonviolent resistance, especially those of Martin Luther King Jr., and the tradition of the Sacred Heart. What have I learned?

Heart of God

First, I would say that the heart of God is embodied with the particular. The central stunning insight of Christianity is the idea of incarnation, an idea that points to the conjunction of the visible and invisible, the meeting of heaven and earth. It proclaims that the infinite is encountered precisely in the finite. What this means for us is that we must exercise love in the particular. We are called to encounter God’s presence in those specific, embodied persons and events of our lives. We must exercise an energetic, engaged love that mucks about in the messiness of things.

The incarnational intuition that the finite is the gateway to infinity, and its corollary that love can only be exercised in particular finite persons and situations, dovetails with nonviolent theory, which insists that we cannot love our enemies if we cannot see them as potential friends, cannot find some vestige of humanity in them. To perceive the infinite in the finite requires a capacity to pierce through appearances to reach to the core of goodness that lingers in all created beings. For the end of our loving and our struggle, in King’s words, is not victory over our enemies but the creation of a Beloved Community in which all will be reconciled.

The second insight that this dialogue between the Sacred Heart devotion and nonviolent theory yields is the insight that God’s heart is the center where all paradoxes are held in tension. Christianity is a religion of paradox: Three in One, fully human, fully divine, life born through death. The Sacred Heart tradition shows the heart as the center where all these paradoxes converge. There, the incredible tension of holding opposites together generates intense creativity. For the center is not static but dynamic, not chaotic but life-giving.

Furnace of love

The ancient image of the heart as a fiery furnace best expressed the creative potential of paradox. The heart is a furnace of love, which dilates, expands and consumes imperfection, bringing new life out of death. Nonviolent theory does not identify with any preconceived political, religious or social agenda, as it is not an ideology but an approach to life -- an orientation of the heart. To have a nonviolent heart means that one has a flexible heart, married not to particular interests but to the good of all concerned. This means that one must hold in the heart the incredible paradox of one’s own truth as well as the truth perceived by others. This is a creative undertaking that burns away our little bounded selves, petty self-protectiveness, preconceptions and need to control. We must be burned hollow enough to allow that divine expansion to move freely and fluidly between us, to make us passageways through which the Spirit flows.

The third aspect of Sacred Heart devotion that recommends itself richly to me is the insight that God’s heart is gentle and humble. Matthew 11:28-30 is the Gospel reading in cycle A of the Lectionary for the feast of the Sacred Heart. In it, Jesus invites his hearers to take his yoke upon their shoulders. “Come to me, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart.” The invitation is to let his heart become our own. Such a heart -- gentle and humble -- is paradoxically infinitely strong. There is nothing passive about gentleness. It is intensely active. Gentleness wishes no harm to the other; rather it wishes and elicits only the good. Nor does gentleness have anything weak in it. Like a young sapling that bends in a storm while a mighty oak snaps and breaks, gentleness exercises flexibility and good humor to negotiate all difficulties.

I think of the techniques of nonviolent resistance that King advocated in his civil rights work. He advocated the use of tactics, gestures and words that could transform a conflict situation by disarming it. Rather than responding as victims or adversaries and thus further polarizing a conflict, nonviolent resisters were taught to disarm their opponents through unexpected responses that invited the enemy to see them as having common interests. A situation could be reframed, reinvented or broken open by hearts employing the tactics that disarm. Hearts that allow the gentle, humble Jesus to live in them contain the transformative power of God’s own gentle love; love that conquers all and is stronger than hell or death.

A final dimension of the heart tradition that lends itself to dialogue with nonviolent theory is the idea that the heart is a place of creative suffering. The full-fledged liturgical cult of the Sacred Heart grew out of the more diffuse but widespread devotion to the wounds of Christ. Medieval Christians prayed to enter into the open wounds to discover there not only the sacramental streams of blood and water but to learn the secrets of a love that suffered unto death.

Now the spiritual theme of participatory suffering can, if misconstrued, lend itself to abuse; it can rationalize oppression or justify violence. But the tradition does in fact point to the mystery that new life, healing, transfiguration, and resurrection can spring forth from consecrated suffering. One of the crucial aspects of King’s nonviolent theory is the willingness to take on suffering oneself rather than inflict harm on another. This is transformative suffering embraced on behalf of a vision -- the Beloved Community -- larger than oneself and giving ultimate meaning to one’s little life. It can be a passionate and positive practice engaged out of love for the world.

The tradition of Sacred Heart devotion gives us access to some of the richest, most insightful dimensions of Christian thought. Some of the themes discovered there -- the heart is embodied in the particular, the heart is the center where paradoxes are held in tension, the heart is gentle and humble, the heart is a place of creative suffering -- lend themselves to a rich dialogue with nonviolent theory and challenges us to ask for the grace of an exchange of hearts so that our hearts might become forges of loving transformation in the midst of a violent world.

Wendy M. Wright is professor of theology at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., and author of Sacred Heart: Gateway to God (Orbis).

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2001