This post is a part of the First Friday link-up at http://www.omostsacredheart.com/
I used to live in Europe back when I was an Evangelical Protestant, and many of my friends there were from Turkey. My Turkish friends had no better grasp on the denominational chaos of Protestantism than most of us have of the denominations of Islam, with its Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, Sufi Muslims, etc. On numerous occasions I was forced as a Protestant to explain that, no, John Paul II was NOT my pope (I was my own pope, although in those days I did not realize it). I considered Catholicism to be a medieval bastion of superstition, and I – fresh out of college – was proud to proclaim myself an enlightened Christian who rejected anything that smacked of credulity. I had Catholicism’s number, or so I thought. Catholic beliefs arose when people who had never been born again were allowed to style themselves Christians! They then misunderstood symbolic Christian practices such as baptism and holy communion, believing them to be magic spells that “regenerated” people and made “Jesus’ flesh” appear on the altar. How pagan can you get? Shrewd operators capitalized on this ignorance, claiming that these magical sacraments were necessary for salvation, thereby enslaving benighted peons who couldn’t read the Bible for themselves – the conspirators had locked it away lest the populace read it and discover that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone – no magic spells involved! By the time of Luther, I believed, Christendom had grown gouty with rosaries and litanies, vigils and processions, indulgences, incense, saint worship, and devotions to Jesus’ wounds, to His face, to His heart and to sundry other body parts. All such malarkey I rejected, and so I was somewhat miffed when the occasional atheist would claim that my belief in God fell into the same category as these Catholic superstitions. Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t God, nor did he claim to be, atheists argued. His weak-stomached followers deified him after his death because they weren’t tough enough to face a universe devoid of meaning, and superstitious weaklings have worshipped him ever since. It was obvious from some of the silly objections made by atheists of my acquaintance that they had never actually looked into the historical arguments for the deity of Christ. It never, however, occurred to me that I probably knew less about Catholicism than those atheists did about Jesus….
Are Catholics Christians? Had you asked me, I would have answered that some of them probably are, the ones who have actually asked Jesus to come into their heart as their personal Lord and Savior as the Bible tells us to do in Revelation 3:20.
Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.
Paul instructs believers similarly in Ephesians 3:17:
that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith….
Of course, since Catholics don’t know what the Bible says, born-again Catholics are probably few and far between! Catholic superstitions were based, not on Scripture, but on man-made doctrines like the devotion to the Heart of Jesus – devotions which hindered Catholics from growing closer to Christ. How goofy can you get? The notion that Jesus would have His heart pinned to the outside of His shirt, standing there, pointing to it as if it meant something, or even holding it in His outstretched hand – I didn’t know if I was supposed to laugh or cry. It’s kitsch like that that gives real Christianity a bad name! Read the Bible, people!!
After all, had those poor, benighted, medieval mystics who made up the devotion to the Sacred Heart just read the Bible, think what they would have come up with!
…reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing. Jn 20:23
In the 12th century, poor, benighted, medieval mystic William of St. Thierry read those words of Jesus to His doubting apostle, put himself in Thomas’ shoes and came up with this:
I want to see and touch the whole of Him and – what is more – to approach the most holy wound in His side, the portal of the ark that is there made, and that not only to put my finger or my whole hand into it, but wholly enter into Jesus’ very heart, into the holy of holies, the ark of the covenant, the golden urn, the soul of our humanity that holds within itself the manna of the Godhead….
That sounds oddly like someone who is in love with Jesus….
It came as quite a surprise to me that this biblical interest in Jesus’ Heart appears to have been commonplace back then! In the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Solomon, Jesus was seen as the Bridegroom, and the Church as His bride. In this scenario, the “heart” in verse 9 of chapter 4 was seen as the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
You have captivated my heart, my sister, my bride; you have captivated my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace. Song of Solomon 4:9
Though as medieval as he could be, St. Bernard of Clairvaux sounded shockingly like a born-again Christian when he felt moved to write in his Sermons on the Canticles:
Surely the man who said: “My sin is too great to merit pardon,” was wrong. He was speaking as though he were not a member of Christ and had no share in His merits, so that he could claim them as his own, as a member of the body can claim what belongs to the head. As for me, I can appropriate whatsoever I lack from the Heart of the Lord who abounds in mercy. They pierced His hands and feet and opened His side with a spear. Through the openings of these wounds I may drink honey from the rock and oil from the hardest stone: that is, I may taste and see that the Lord is sweet.
Through these sacred wounds we can see the secret of His Heart, the great mystery of love, the sincerity of His mercy with which he visited us from on high. Where have Your love, Your mercy, Your compassion shone out more luminously than in Your wounds, sweet, gentle Lord of mercy? More mercy than this no one has than that he lay down his life for those who are doomed to death.
Evidently, contemplation of this “Heart of the Lord” helped St. Bernard to begin to fathom the depths of His mercy. Not content to merely enter the Heart of Mercy and meditate on the great mystery of love, several saints, Lutgardis, Catherine of Siena, and Bl. Henry Suso among them, are said to have mystically exchanged hearts with their Savior. What an overwhelming thought! I realize now that it was that exchange that had eluded me as a modern-day Evangelical, the idea that God desires not only “Jesus in my heart” but also “my heart in Jesus.” This recurring theme that we have captivated the Lord’s heart, that He is so in love with us that He wishes to give His heart for ours, pervades medieval piety. Fourteenth-century Dominican Johannes Tauler demanded poignantly:
What more could He still do for us, that He has not done? He has opened His very Heart to us, as the most secret chamber wherein to lead our soul, His chosen spouse. For it is His joy to be with us in silent stillness, and in peaceful silence to rest there with us…. He gives us His Heart entirely, that it may be our home. He desires our hearts in return that they may be His dwelling place.
I as an Evangelical was perfectly happy to ask Jesus into my heart, considering this to be eminently biblical, but the notion that it was meant to be an exchange, a mutual heart transplant, so to speak, was foreign to me. “He gives us His Heart entirely, that it may be our home.” Had I never read the Proverbs?
Give me your heart, my son, and keep your eyes fixed on my ways,
And I had to admit I could think of no better way to fulfill the Great Commandment:
You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart!
This made tremendous sense of Jesus’ instruction to “abide in Me, and I in you.” This reciprocity was important to the Savior – not just “I’ve got Jesus in my heart” but “Jesus has got me in His Heart” as well. For their part, the saints portrayed His Heart as a most desirable abode! In the words of St. Bonaventure (13th century):
Since we have reached the most sweet Heart of Jesus, and it is good for us to abide in It; let us not readily turn away from It. How good, how sweet it is to dwell in Thy Heart, O good Jesus! Who is there who would not desire this pearl? I would rather give all else, all my thoughts and all the affections of my soul in exchange for It, casting my whole mind into the Heart of my good Jesus…. Who is there who would not love this wounded Heart? Who would not love, in return, Him Who loves so much?
Familiar with the New Testament Scriptures, I knew that “our God is a consuming fire.” Not surprisingly, those medieval mystics – also familiar with the New Testament Scriptures – proclaimed Jesus’ Sacred Heart, the place we are urged to abide, to be a furnace: a burning furnace of charity. As St. Bonaventure put it:
My soul, if the voice of your Beloved makes you melt into love for Him, why are you not utterly inflamed and consumed when you enter by the Sacred Wound of His side into the burning furnace of His loving Heart?
And the 14th-century Carthusian Ludolph of Saxony concurred:
Our Lord’s Heart was wounded with the wound of love for our sake, so that, loving Him in return, we might enter through that open wound into His Heart and there live inflamed with His Love, just as iron cast into the fire becomes incandescent.
The Catholic approach to all this heart business proved to be very balanced, two sides of the same coin, to the point that we see St. Francis de Sales calling out:
May God live in my heart, for that is what it is made for!
And his spiritual daughter, St. Jane de Chantal, answering in reply:
May God give us the grace to live and die in the Sacred Heart!
Abide in Me, and I in you…. How simple. How scriptural.
The medieval mystics, whose devotions I had scorned as superstitious treacle, were theologically light years ahead of my stunted understanding of “asking Jesus into my heart.” Far from being the clownish caricature which so embarrassed me, the Sacred Heart was, in the words of Pope Leo XIII, “a symbol and a sensible image of the infinite love of Jesus Christ.” That pope, as in love with the Heart of Jesus as any medieval mystic, wrote of the mystery of Love:
Jesus Christ, our God and our Redeemer, is rich in the fullest and perfect possession of all things: we, on the other hand, are so poor and needy that we have nothing of our own to offer Him as a gift. But yet, in His infinite goodness and love, He in no way objects to our giving and consecrating to Him what is already His, as if it were really our own; nay, far from refusing such an offering, He positively desires it and asks for it: “My son, give me thy heart.” We are, therefore, able to be pleasing to Him by the good will and the affection of our soul. For by consecrating ourselves to Him we not only declare our open and free acknowledgment and acceptance of His authority over us, but we also testify that if what we offer as a gift were really our own, we would still offer it with our whole heart….
So when asked, I as a Catholic can proudly confess that I have accepted the Lord Jesus into my heart. What is more, I can do my old Evangelical self one better, for the Lord Jesus has asked me to come into His heart, and I have said “Yes!” –
On the memorial of St. Onesiphorus
Deo omnis gloria!
Photo credits – Andachtsbild: Jesus offenbart sein Herz (Herz Jesu) der sel. Maria Droste zu Vischering und der hl. Margaretha Maria Alacoque, by Bremond/Wikimedia Commons