Until twenty years or so ago, the only thing I had ever heard about the Sacred Heart was from my childhood friend and next-door neighbor, Ronnie Impens, who went to a parochial school, Sacred Heart School. Ronnie always bragged that the Sacred Heart had the best basketball team. Otherwise, this feast day which we commemorate today, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, had absolutely no meaning to me. My experience probably parallels many people’s today in the Episcopal Church, especially those of us who have come from other Protestant traditions. This Feast Day of the Sacred Heart only came to have real meaning for me personally when I made my first visit to Mexico about 20 years ago. You too will know, if you have visited Mexico, or the southwest in our own country, the Latin Americas or Spain or Italy, that Jesus’ wounded heart is depicted most everywhere, in all types of religious art, statutes, paintings, T-shirts, holy cards and other religious kitsch, altar frontals, and much more. I must confess that in my own cell here in the monastery, I now have both an icon and a plastic glow-in-the-dark image of Jesus with the sacred heart featured prominently (and in our community, I know that I’m not alone in this!). At Emery House, our rural monastery in northern Massachusetts, we have an outdoor statute of Jesus, prominently depicting his Sacred Heart.
For many people this image of the Sacred Heart serves as a powerful symbol of Christ’s being with the poor – being with us when we are poor or when we feel poorly: in the most simple and profound of ways – this image of Jesus’ sharing his broken heart with our own. The Sacred Heart of Jesus: a visual and verbal symbol how Christ is with us and others in suffering, Christ’s sacred, passionate, wounded, encompassing heart broken open for the broken hearts of the world.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus can be traced back to the Middle Ages. The devotion seems to have sprung from the cult of the Wound in the Side. This devotion was for a long time confined to a relatively small number of mystics and saints, the most familiar to us being Julian of Norwich. By the 16th century the devotion extended from the visions of the mystics to the regular practice of many in religious orders who were drawn to the ascetic life, especially the Carthusians and later the Jesuits, and then to the church at large. The commemoration of the Sacred Heart came to be a solemn feast in the Roman Catholic Church, but that happened in only 1969.
Our own community was formed in the 1860s, and our founder, Richard Meux Benson, was particularly drawn to Ignatian spirituality, the spirituality of Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556). The Jesuits’ ardent devotion to the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus became an important part of our community’s spiritual formation. Ignatius of Loyola has left us with a wonderful devotional prayer, the Anima Christi:
Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O good Jesus, hear me;
Within thy wounds hide me;
Suffer me not to be separated from thee;
From the malignant enemy defend me;
In the hour of my death call me,
And bid me come to thee,
That with thy saints I may praise thee
Forever and ever. Amen.
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