Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Good Shepherd

The theologian Karl Rahner describes the word heart as primordial in essence, that is, a concept which is repeated throughout the civilizations of the world, the point of commonality, as it were, among our great religions. It is a theme repeated time and time again to describe themes that go beyond our common understanding and reason, and as any cursory reading of poetry or religious scripture will reveal, the heart seems to occupy a place midway between the divine and human: at once revealing the limit of our understanding and evoking the depths of just what humanity is capable of.

As Catholics, almost all of us invariably grew up with the image of Christ, clothed in flaming red, and holding in His hand His beating, throbbing heart, wrapped in thorns, and surmounted with a cross set afire, in the sidelines. This is the image of the Sacred Heart, which is perhaps one of the most vulnerable depictions we have of the Son of God. My first encounter with the devotion to the Sacred Heart was in fourth grade. As it happened, our school happened to be within walking distance to this beautiful church, dedicated to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, where we would attend without fail the First Friday Mass. I will be honest, I was never much of a devotee; for most of my life, the only devotion I had was the holy rosary, and even that I still have some trouble with. But I admired this image of the Sacred Heart, set in a quaint corner of the church, where throngs of old women would line up every Friday to kiss its hands and feet, and offer flowers of the rarest kind at its peana.

Considered through a historical perspective, the devotion to the Sacred Heart has had a somewhat unfortunate history, in my opinion. We know for a fact that this devotion arose in 17th century France, after the visions of a certain nun, whom the faithful now revere as St. Marguerite Mary Alacoque, said to have been especially favored by Our Lord Himself. It was also during this time when the first stirrings of the French Revolution—the crowning jewel upon the crown of the Enlightenment—began entrenching themselves in society. There too was a third party involved, the Jansenists, whose excessive pietism threatened to infect the very life of the Church.

It was during this time that this devotion was born, nurtured as if through fire and brimstone. Indeed, even today, I still encounter Catholics who look upon this practice as a sad remnant of superstitious days past, and nothing more. I have heard this argument countless times before: if the ways of God are infinitely beyond our ways and comprehension, how comes it that the Church allows such a flawed and human devotion? I confess that I myself still fall into this mindset from time to time. If there is any answer to this question, I am almost certain that the answer or answers have been staring me in the face for the longest time. I have been thinking about this lately, and I think I’ve finally arrived at a suitable answer.

As I’ve noted before in a previous post, most Catholics, while having an idea of what the Incarnation was all about, nevertheless have no clue whatsoever about its significance. We believe that God took on flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, thus effectively taking on a human nature, while remaining completely God at the same time. By condescending to this, God partook of our humanity, and it was such a glorious event, enough to momentarily stop the flow of eternity and make the angels themselves tremble in awe. But this is only the beginning, not the end; the Gospels make it a point to reiterate that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, calls each of us by our name, relating to us on an individual, personal level. We are no longer just sheep; we are His sheep. He has called us to partake of His life by descending to the depths of our humanity.

Of the messages communicated by Our Lord to St. Marguerite Alacoque, one in particular always struck me: ‘Behold this heart which has loved so many but is so little loved in return.’ Usually accompanied by an image of Our Lord holding His heart on one hand, it is a message that confronts us with the sad, unavoidable truth. Too often do we see Christ, yet do nothing about it: that beggar in the street, that pus-ridden, grease-bathed, homeless man wandering in dead ends, the poor mother habitually beaten by her husband. These people are a powerful witness to Christ, for like Him, they are disarmed, exposed for all the world to gloat at. We are content to voice our discontent, but continue on walking nevertheless. Sometimes I wonder why the Good Shepherd would even persevere in looking for us and calling us by our names when our very actions would shame Him before others.

I am of the opinion that real theology will always be above our capability to rationalize them. For that, we have only the heart with which to make sense of such things. I am not the biggest fan of Rahner out there, but I thought this sentiment from him expresses what I cannot otherwise say with eloquence: God’s self-utterance is humanity, plain and simple. It is in the language of our weaknesses and frailties that the power of God shines through the most; He is a God who shames the mighty and extols the weak, after all. When you look at a man, shriveled and shivering in some nameless street corner, with nothing but dirty rags to hide his nakedness, practically more dead than alive, one is tempted to cry out in disbelief in outrage. We cannot understand why we can feel such pity; even modern man, who has largely forgotten his own importance and is so convinced of his merely utilitarian existence, is still moved by such a sight. These are reasons of the heart, and as such, they defy wisdom and explanation. This is perhaps one of the greatest gifts God has given us.

God sees us, not as the sinner to be condemned, but as the individual who has no idea how to manage the graces he has been given. I think this is one of the most beautiful thoughts we can have; to know that God is always molding us with His hands, and that He will continue to work on us despite our own inability to change our ways and our lack of foresight and trust in God’s vision. One of the most striking moments in the Gospels is when the beloved apostle John was given the privilege to lay his head on the Master’s chest. It is striking in that John is essentially mimicking how a child would lay its head on its mother’s breast, putting all his trust in Jesus. And it was a heart that lay beneath the folds of sacred flesh, a heart that beats and throbs with love.

I used to think that Catholicism had the answer for every question I had; when I was younger and still inexperienced, I put my faith on every apologetic material I had, hoping that truth would eventually emerge victorious in the end. I now realize that the Church just doesn’t work that way; apologetics, for all their worth, are just that, an explanation. In real life, no amount of apologetic, doctrinal material or spiritual reading can ever help me get through my problems; it is only when one sees with the heart that we can ever hope to face the cruelties of life. I now see that I was just running away from the night, afraid to confront the massing darkness, and forgetting the promise of day. Jesus was sustained by His heart, weeping profusely for the sins of men, while He carried His cross, and it was with His heart that He was able to persevere in those trials. The heart has reasons the mind can never understand, and while I am concerned, I am glad this is the way it is.

The great St. Anselm, Doctor of the Church, and who many consider to be the founder of scholasticism, once described theology as fides quaerens intellectum-- faith seeking understanding. In many ways, I believe that only the human heart can truly fathom the deepest mysteries of theology, not because it readily has the answers to everything, but because it always seeks these answers. I am reminded of that oft-quoted line from St. Augustine, another pillar of the Church: 'My heart is restless until it rests n Thee, O God'. Yes, for the unbeliever, Catholicism will always be just a bundle of contradiction after contradiction and unending legalism, and our doctrines are at best kitschy. But seen through the eyes of faith, they are radiant with splendor. Seen through the eyes of the heart, they are enough to move mountains and part seas.

One of the most beautiful things about Catholicism is that God accepts even the most shabby and seemingly worthless trinkets we give Him. Every little gift, from the most insignificant mite, to a child’s knocking on a tabernacle door, are treasured by Him to Whose glory we can never add to. Yet He continues to accept our gifts, and treasures them, in spite of what we may think about their importance, or lack thereof. And even in the face of such sin, He continues to have faith in us. All of this is possible because of the Sacred Heart, which continues to this day to beat and throb for our salvation.

O Sacred Heart
O love divine
Do keep us near to Thee
And make our hearts
So like to Thine
That we may holy be

Heart of Jesus, hear!
O Heart of love divine!
Listen to our prayer!
Make us always Thine!


Archistrategos said...

I was supposed to post this the day before, the feast of the Sacred Heart, but my ISP was acting a bit strange. Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us!

Brother Burn said...

Great post except for the fact that it is not a fact that the devotion to the Sacred Heart "arose in 17th century France..." from the visions of St Margaret Mary Alacoque (A favorite saint of mine) sharing the viewpoint of Auguste Hamon and J. Bainvel. The fact is the devotion can be traced as far back as the earliest Christians who meditated the wounds of Christ and of course venerated the heart that was wounded through the pierced side Christ. You can read references to it in the writings of the Fathers of the Church, down to the middles ages - St Bernard of Clairvaux (another favorite saint) can be credited much for the rise of the devotion to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and do not forget the loveable St Lutgardis, who had the first recorded apparition of our Lord showing His Sacred Heart, then there's St Gertrude the Great, St Mechtilde, St Bridget of Sweden, St Catherine of Sienna, Bl Henry Suso etc (yes, all favorite saints).

Archistrategos said...

^Actually, that was the point I was driving at-- that the devotion to the Sacred Heart could very well be one of the oldest devotions out there. I suppose I should have made this more clear in my post; you are correct that it has been a popular fixture even in the writings of the Fathers, but only gained significant popularity in 17th century France. In any case, though, I appreciate your comments, and I thank you for bringing thisn up to my attention! :)

Brother Burn said...

if you are anywhere in Oregon next July 23, I'm inviting you to my solemn profession of vows.

Archistrategos said...

Well, I'll definitely be traveling during those days, but to Japan, so I'm afraid I'll be issing it. In any case, though, I offer my sincerest congratulations! I am sure God will be very pleased to have such a good and faithful servant. God bless!