If you have ever been filled-to-overflowing with love, if you have ever teemed with joy, been overwhelmed with gratitude, been awestruck by something too wonderful or too beautiful for words, then you know the language of the heart. If you have ever suffered a devastating loss – the death of a loved one, a terrorizing diagnosis, a deep disappointment, a betrayal, an appalling poverty, a tragic ending, a desolating sadness – then you know the language of the heart. What the heart knows, and feels, and receives, and shares plumbs the depths of our soul, oftentimes deeper than words, and where silence or tears are sometimes the only language we know. The language of the heart.
In the Hebrew tradition, the heart is the essence of a person: the feelings, the memories and ideas, the plans and decisions, the values and beliefs a person holds in their heart. [i] The psalmist speaks repeatedly about the heart:
“How long shall I have…grief in my heart, day after day?”[iv]
“[God] heals the broken hearted.”[v]
In the Letter to the Ephesians, we read of a desire “that the eyes of your heart be enlightened” with hope and with an awareness of God’s power at work within you.[vi] The eyes of your heart.
Jesus understands the way of the heart. Again and again what moved Jesus to work and to weep, to help and to heal, was a heart of compassion. At the very heart of Jesus’ good news was compassion, which literally means “to suffer together” with another person.[vii] “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he says, “and do not let them be afraid.”[viii] He says repeatedly, “Do not be afraid.”[ix] “Learn from me,” he says, “for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”[x] Jesus understands the way of the heart. After Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, two disciples were walking to Emmaus and Jesus mysteriously joins them and shares conversation with them. How do they describe their experience with Jesus? They recalled, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?”[xi] This is the shared language of the heart.
In the late 17th century, a French nun had a vision of Jesus’ heart.[xii] His heart was enwrapped in thorns and ablaze in flames; ascending from the top of Jesus’ heart was the cross. Though in earlier centuries, many people had reported mystical visions of Jesus’ heart, this particular image of Jesus’ heart – with flames, and thorns and a cross – literally caught fire. This became the image of devotion for The Sacred Heart of Jesus: the ring of thorns, the flames, the cross.
- The flames are a symbol of love kindled. What is being burned by this fire of love: fear, despair, hopelessness, inadequacy, dread, sadness, grief, loneliness. The sacred heart of Jesus, on fire with love for you.
- Then there’s the crown of thorns borne by our Savior. If we remember back to Jesus’ meeting with the Apostle Thomas following the resurrection, it was only after Thomas saw and touched the wounds on Jesus’ hands and in his side that Thomas could fully believe that this was Jesus, the crucified, resurrected Jesus, the Savior. Jesus is the wounded healer. Jesus’ compassion for the suffering of humankind is not just historical; Jesus’ compassion is present now, his heart broken open for the world, and for you.
- And then the image of the cross atop the Jesus’ heart: Jesus’ cross and your cross, the cross or crosses you have taken up in life, what has just killed you in life, and yet you live again.
Saint Catherine of Sienna, the great 14th century mystic, endured a terrible time of suffering in her soul, made all-the-worse by her sense that she had been abandoned by Jesus.[xiii] She had a miraculous recovery, but was left with this agonizing question for Jesus: “Where were you when my heart was so tormented?” She heard Jesus respond, “I was in your heart.” And so for you. Jesus will make good on his promise that he will be with us, that he will be with you. His parting words, in the Gospel according to Matthew, are: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[xiv] Remember.
This image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus – a heart enflamed with love, and acquainted with suffering – may help you picture how Jesus is really present to you, with you, even in the valley of the shadow of death.[xv]
The principal founder of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, Richard Meux Benson, was particularly drawn to the spirituality of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. The Jesuits’ ardent devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus became an important part of our own community’s spiritual formation. Saint Ignatius left us with a beautiful devotional prayer, the “Anima Christi” (soul of Christ), which speaks to the passion of Jesus’ heart of love:
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.[xvi]
[i] See 2 Samuel 15:13; Psalm 21:3; Isaiah 65:14.
[ii] Psalm 19:1.
[iii] Psalm 4:7.
[iv] Psalm 13:2
[v] Psalm 147:3.
[vi] Ephesians 1:17-19.
[vii] The English word, “compassion,” has a Latin etymology: com “together” + pati “to suffer.”
[viii] John 14:1; 14:27.
[ix] Matthew 8:26; 10:24-33; 14:27; 17:7; 28:10; Mark 5:36; 6:50; ; Luke 5:10; 8:50; 12:7; 12:32; John 6:20; 12:15; 14:27.
[x] Matthew 11:29.
[xi] Luke 24:32.
[xii] The vision was received by Marguerite-Marie Alacoque (1647-1690), a sister of an enclosed community, the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary.
[xiii] Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), an Italian Dominican Tertiary, mystic, and religious reformer.
[xiv] Matthew 28:20.
[xv] A riff on Psalm 23:4.
[xvi] Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), a Spanish knight who, in his conversion to Jesus, became the founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.
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