Sacred: in the World, in the Heart

More than 50 years ago, very early in my years as a Jesuit, I attended a conference on the international mission of the Society of Jesus. The keynote speaker, Fr Horatio de la Costa, SJ echoed a sentiment attributed to Jerónimo Nadal early in the Society’s history when he told the gathered Jesuits, “We must have hearts as large as the world.” The words ignited a new fire in me. Unexpectedly, they prompted me on a course that just two years later would find me in Kathmandu, Nepal, embarking on my first interreligious encounters.

Sacred Heart PaintingI mention this now because Arturo Sosa, our current General Superior, will on July 31, 2022, rededicate the Society to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The original dedication was pronounced by Fr Pieter Jan Beckx in 1872; a rededication was offered by Fr. Pedro Arrupe in 1972, when he sought to susFr Arrupe's Letter on the Sacred Heart

The heart has been a powerful religious symbol in the West for many centuries — expressive of divine love, most often suffering love, poured out for the sake of the human race. Many see the roots of this devotion in John 19.34: “one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.” I was reading again recently the remarkable medieval saint and mystic Gertrude of Helfta (1256-1302). In her Herald of Divine Love II.20, she recounts how in an intimate moment Jesus invited her to place her hand in his side, in his heart: “I saw you opening with both hands the wound in your deified heart…”; Jesus then closed the opening around her hand, keeping it there. (M. Winkworth translation) At III.25, Gertrude relates how Jesus gave his heart to her as an oil lamp suspended within her heart, a light in the dark. Other images abound in her writings and throughout the Middle Ages, full of physical detail, evocative of the spiritual senses, and all about how God’s love comes first, is felt first before it can be understood.

Jesuit devotion itself is indebted to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690), who received visions urging her to spread this ancient devotion in a new way. In this work she was helped for a time by the Jesuit saint Claude de la Colombiere (1641-1682). Established over time, the devotion became linked the “Apostleship of Prayer” which aimed to communicate throughout the Catholic world a special intention for each month of the year. In our times, this has been interpreted as Pope's Intentions Fr Sosa is seeking to renew this network of prayer in a way that leads to action, which “leads our hearts as close as possible to the Heart of Christ, making us available to his mission, a mission of compassion for the world.” We must do the works of compassion, not averting our eyes from the suffering around us. We need to love as we have been loved, and we need to love in action, in community, and by way of our institutions.

Especially today, there has to be an interplay between the intense, vividly literal piety of the heart and the wider meanings of compassion enacted in action on behalf of those in need. Without the action, the piety may become too private, self-comforting, indulgent. Without the vivid piety, the compassion may turn into another energetic strategic plan to do good in the world using all personal and institutional resources. We need to feel the divine, just as we need to feel the sufferings of our brothers and sisters. This doubly intense feeling is what imparts urgency to the Sacred Heart devotion.

Readers will know that my own spiritual imagination always tends to the interreligious. As far as I can see, if strategies of doing good are accompanied by the intense sensual piety of the heart of Jesus, our actions will speak more intimately and persuasively to people of other faith traditions. Devotion to the Sacred Heart is necessarily action grounded in contemplation and devotion.

Hanuman's LoveIf our imaginations and intuitions are opened in the depths of this love of Jesus, we ourselves can be nourished interreligiously in innumerable ways. Many symbols arise for example in the Hindu traditions I study. The “cave of the heart” is already mentioned in the ancient Mundaka Upanisad: The Real “is large, heavenly, of inconceivable form; yet it appears smaller than the small. It is farther than the farthest, yet it is here at hand. It is right here within those who see, hidden within the cave of their heart.” (3.1.7; P. Olivelle translation, adapted) So too, those familiar with yoga spirituality will know something about the centers of energy (chakras) in the body, including the heart chakra. Finding this chakra by contemplations and sustained visualizations can help us to imagine and intuit concretely the fleshly, sacramental presence of God loving us just where and as we are. This chakra and the Sacred Heart are of course not identical, but we need to know and imaginatively receive what is new to us before we assert differences. Swami Maheshwarananda, a learned teacher, gives some good opening insights here.

I close with one other image. The Hindu monkey god, Hanuman is a famed and beloved character in the epic Ramayana traditions and in popular devotion all over India even today. Once he was asked to prove that he truly loved the divine Rama and Sita whom he so tirelessly and joyfully served. In response, he opened his own chest that all might see divine couple within him. For Hanuman, as for Jesuits, a deep sense of God’s love in the heart overflows in a life of service, love and duty sustained by the spiritual senses, seeing and feeling God within us.