Circular Letter: Summer 1998
Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus
The spiritual life is more than a spiritual doctrine, but if it were, it would be about Jesus: “I am the truth!”, “in Him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2,3), and Jesus would be our teacher, “We know that you are a teacher come from God” (Jn 3,2), “one only is your master, the Christ” (Mt 23, 10). The spiritual life is more than the practice of virtue; but if it were, Jesus presents Himself as our model: “Learn from Me for I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt 12, 29). Not only is Jesus the model but the source of our virtue, for “from His fullness, we have all received grace upon grace” (Jn 1, 16), and He assures us, “My grace is sufficient to you” (2 Cor 12, 9). The spiritual life is more than a pilgrimage, a journey towards heaven, but if it were, Christ is the way and the guide: “I am the way, …no one comes to the Father but through Me” (Jn 14,6), and, “Come, follow Me!” (Mt 19, 21). The spiritual life is about eternal life, and therefore, about loving union and the knowledge (vision) of God. The development of the spiritual life, therefore, is inseparable from the development of devotion to Jesus. We hear, of course, about many different devotions based on different prayer practices. These are not our present concern; here we want to reflect upon the virtue of devotion and its chief expression, which is devotion to the Sacred Heart.
In order to better appreciate devotion to the Sacred Heart, we need to understand the true nature of devotion. What is meant by devotion? ‘Devotion’ derives from the Latin word meaning to make a vow. Accordingly, “devotion”, Faber explains, “means a particular propension of the soul to God, whereby it devotes itself [‘dedicates’ would be a better word], commits itself, binds itself over, consecrates itself, to the worship and service of God. This it may do by vow, by oath or by simple sentiment.”By its very nature devotion tends towards permanent commitment. Devotion, therefore, is a virtue most pleasing to God. After the theological virtues it belongs to the most important virtue of the spiritual life, to the virtue of religion. St. Francis de Sales warns that those who do not know the nature of true devotion will easily be deceived and led astray by their own proclivities. We need something greater than our own personal likes and dislikes to guide our spiritual life.
St. Thomas shows that devotion is not just an emotion (“feeling devotion”) but that it is a virtue and act of the will whereby we readily dedicate ourselves to those things that have to do with the service of God. Charity moves us, of course, to adhere interiorly with all our mind, will, strength and heart to the divine goodness; but it is the virtue of religion which moves us to offer the fitting and proper public service and worship to God. Devotion moves us to do this with even greater willingness and promptitude.
In the Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales presents devotion in the light of dynamic charity. “Inasmuch as divine love adorns the soul, it is called grace,… Inasmuch as it strengthens us to do good, it is called charity. When it has reached a degree of perfection at which it not only makes us do good but also do this carefully, frequently, and promptly, it is called devotion”. Devotion “not only makes us prompt, active, and faithful in the observance of God’s commands, but in addition it arouses us to do quickly and lovingly as many good works as possible.” Devotion, he says, is the queen of the virtues, for it is the perfection, the flame of the fire of charity. Devotion reaches out to esteem the evangelical counsels, and to embrace some of them, in the measure that our personal vocation may allow.
Devotion facilitates our progress on the path to perfection. We can see why Faber asserts: “Next to the gift of faith we should prize nothing so much as this substantial devotion”, which is based on the sure foundation of faith and consists in the generous and “solid resolution to serve God under whatever circumstances.”
1. Its Source
Since devotion is about the loving service of God, and since our access to the love and service of God is in and through Christ, it follows that our devotion must be principally focused on Christ. The seed of the devotion to the Sacred Heart is planted in Sacred Scripture. Jesus invites us to come to Him and learn from Him who is “meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11,29). St. John reclines upon the breast of Jesus at the Last Supper (cf. Jn 13,22) and beneath the Cross witnesses the piercing of the Sacred Heart by the soldier’s lance (cf. Jn 19,34ff).
This seed germinated at the beginning of the present millennium and began to thrive in the late Middle Ages. The writings and mystical experiences of St. Gertrude the Great helped the devotion to flourish. It was reinforced by the experiences and writings of St. Margaret Mary and St. Claude de la Colombière. Doctrinally, it was brought to maturity by the writings of St. John Eudes, whom St. Pius X declared to be the Father, the Doctor and the Apostle of the devotion to the Sacred Heart. The fruit is ready and waiting for us.
The true nature of devotions is that they are ‘incarnate’ forms of doctrine, that is to say, they bring the truths of our faith down to the level of daily life and practice; they shed their exemplary light on the goal to be pursued, the path to be followed, and the things that ought to be done and avoided. Devotions, when doctrinally inspired, are literally schools of spirituality for growth in faith, hope and charity. By means of devotion we ought to become ever more perfectly assimilated to the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ. True devotion will make us more Christ-like.
Souls reasonably want to know: “Is there any way of knowing where I am advancing spiritually or going backward?” Yes there is. We may indicate two further signs of spiritual health and vigor that reflect a growing intimacy with Christ:
– A constantly deepening awareness of one’s own nothingness and misery before God. This awareness is divine in origin when it is received in great interior tranquillity, gratitude and joy in God’s love. Such humility makes us modest, but willing servants of God. We gladly turn our wills over to Him and serve silently and unassumingly wherever Divine Providence places us.
– A genuine desire to be purified by God in the manner and way God chooses. This spirit of meekness is only possible with growing interiority in which the soul lives in perpetual contact with God. The desire for union increases the soul’s readiness for sacrifice. Humility and meekness, of course, are the attributes of the Heart of Jesus. The perfect devotion, evidently, ought to bind us to Jesus Christ, the sole means of salvation. Devotion to Christ, therefore, is the sum and exemplar of all devotions.
2. Its Reasons
Christ is the image, the icon of the Father, the manifestation of the eternal Godhead, of the merciful love of God. Now the symbol for this love is the heart. Hence, the Sacred Heart of Jesus stands: 1) for His Person and for His love; 2) for His Divinity and for His humanity; 3) for His love for the Father and for us; 4) for His divine and His human love. In a word, devotion to the Sacred Heart embraces the entire mystery of the Hypostatic Union, in virtue of which the man, Jesus, is the very Son of God. Pope Pius XII writes:
“The Heart of Jesus is the Heart of a Divine Person, the Word Incarnate, and by it is represented and, as it were, placed before our gaze, all the love with which He has embraced and even now embraces us. Consequently, the honor to be paid to the Sacred Heart is such as to raise it to the rank — so far as external practice is concerned — of the highest expression of Christian piety. For this is the religion of Jesus which is centered on the mediator Who is God and Man, and in such a way that we cannot reach the heart of God save through the Heart of Christ, as He Himself says: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father save through Me’ (Jn 14,6).”
Let us now consider the key ideas which motivated St. John Eudes in his great love for the Sacred Heart, so that by understanding them “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that being rooted and grounded in love, you may have the power with all the saints to comprehend what is the breadth and length, and height and depth and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God “(Eph 3, 17-19). Two interrelated thoughts overwhelmed him; first:
“The Sacred Heart of Jesus, whether considered in His Divinity or in His humanity, is more ardently enkindled with love for His Father, loving Him infinitely more at any given moment, than all the hearts of angels and saints can love him throughout all eternity.”
The lover’s first great pain and longing is to be able to make a fitting return of love for love. But how can a creature respond adequately to the love of God which is infinite? For the creature it is impossible, but not for God. God’s solution was the Incarnation. God created the Sacred Heart to offer its love together with that of all creation back to the Father. With us Christ, in His humanity, is a creature: the Sacred Heart takes up the love of all the angels and saints, and of each one of us poor sinners, like so many little tributaries into its own tremendous stream of love which flows back into the infinite sea of divine love. In Christ our love has been made worthy of the Father, because Christ, who is one with the Father in being and holiness, has deigned to make our love and prayers part of His own. We might call this the first great ‘divinization’ of our love.
The second thought which rejoiced the heart of St. John Eudes expands on the first:
[Jesus, the Son of God] “willed to be our Head and chose us as His members. He has associated us with Himself in His ineffable love [for the Father]. He has given us, as a result, the power to love the Father with the [very] same love with which he loves [the Father], with a love eternal, boundless and infinite.”
“To understand this truth well,” he explains that we must consider three important points: First, that the love of the Son of God for His Heavenly Father, being eternal and divine, does not pass away, but remains forever. Secondly, because of the love of the Son of God for His Father fills all things by its immensity, it consequently abides in us and in our hearts. — ‘Intimo meo intimior’ as St. Augustine says. Hence, we do not need to be looking outside ourselves for the love of Him who is so intimately present and loving within us. Thirdly, since the Father of Jesus has given us all things in Him (cf. Rom 8,32 and Lk 15,29: “Son, all that I have is yours.”), it follows that “the love of the Son of God for the Father has been given to us as a gift that belongs to us and we can and must use as a possession that is our own.”
Surely, then, Christ’s love is our greatest talent, and not merely a gift which we passively receive, but truly a biblical talent which we are to steward so that it increase and multiply. And this is the practical point for St. John Eudes. How can we best profit from the total gift of the Sacred Heart with its infinite treasure of love. Only by loving! “On this basis,” he asserts, “I can, with my Savior, love His Divine Father and mine, with the same love wherewith He loves Him.” Practical man that he was, St. John Eudes offers us the following prayer, which implements the whole doctrine:
“O my Savior, I give myself to Thee to unite myself to Thy eternal, boundless, and infinite love for Thy Almighty Father. O adorable Father, I offer Thee all the eternal, boundless, and infinite love of Thy Son Jesus as a love which is mine.
Just as our lovable Savior says to us: ‘As the Father hath loved Me, I also love you’ (Jn 15,9), I may say to Thee:
‘O Divine Father, I love Thee, even as Thy Son loveth Thee.'”
Thus, we can and ought to love the Father with the infinitely worthy love of the Son by humbly accepting this gift into our miserable hearts. Uniting ourselves with Jesus, we should call out ‘Abba, Father!’ Generally, souls are intimidated and overwhelmed by their indignity; they fail to see that it is entirely a question of putting on Christ, of allowing this union and exchange of Hearts.
3. Its Fruits
At the Incarnation the Son of God not only sought a single humanity for Himself, but He aspired to unite all of humanity into Himself as into one ‘mystical person’, as Pope Pius XII terms it in His encyclical on the Mystical Body. At the Last Supper He prayed for all who would believe in Him: “[I pray] that all may be one, even as Thou, Father, art in Me and I in Thee; that they also may be one in us and that they may be one, even as we are one” (Jn 17,21. 22). Evidently, the principal glorification of God in creation is this love of Jesus Christ. Accordingly, we ought to recognize that this is the principal reason why God incorporates men and angels into the Mystical Body of Christ, so that we all as one can love and glorify the Father with the infinitely pleasing love and power of the Sacred Heart. Truly, the Heart belongs to the entire Body. However humble we may be, as members of the Mystical Body, as members of Christ, His Divine Heart with all its fire and affection is wholly and entirely ours.
St. John Eudes precedes then to draw a further ramification from the fact of the donation of all things in Christ, namely, that the Holy Spirit has been given to us. The current Holy Father, John Paul II, writes in his encyclical on the Holy Spirit (nr. 12): “[In God] personal love is the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of the Father and the Son. It can be said that in the Holy Spirit the intimate life of the Triune God becomes totally gift, an exchange of mutual love between the Divine Persons, and that through the Holy Spirit God exists in the mode of gift. It is the Holy Spirit who is the personal expression of this self-giving, of this being-love, ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.'”
The Spirit, of course, is given as the Spirit of Christ. As Christ’s Spirit the Holy Spirit vivifies us in the love and grace of Christ and unites us to the Father. In the Spirit God’s very being becomes ‘Gift’ and ‘Love’; this Spirit has been given to each one of us personally, so that we might love with a power and beauty which is proper to God. In giving us the Spirit, the Father has thus given us His own personal love for the Son. We are not, therefore, limited in our loving Jesus to the slight measure of our frail hearts, but we may claim the omnipotent love of the Father.
So we may pray with St. John Eudes:
“O Father of Jesus, I give myself to Thee to be united to Thy boundless and eternal love for Thy Beloved Son. O my Jesus, I offer Thee all the eternal, boundless and infinite love of Thy Father, and I offer it to Thee as a love which is mine.” We may therefore dare to say: “O Jesus, I love You, even as the Father loves You.”
This perfect exchange of love is possible because, by sanctifying grace we are not just called children of God, but are truly so; we are one spirit in Christ. This is why our Lord in the High Priestly prayer to the Father does not hesitate to affirm: “You have loved them, even as you have loved me! …May the love with which You have loved Me, be in them” (Jn 17,23. 26). This is the greatest invention of Divine Love, that God discovered a way to introduce us into the very loving exchanges of the Trinity. And this is offered and takes place in and through the Sacred Heart of Jesus. We are truly worth more than many sparrows.
For some souls these prayers are so overwhelming, that they feel compelled to ask, ‘Is this the traditional and true doctrine of the Church, and can this really be true?’ The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers us an answer by quoting St. John Eudes on this particular doctrine: “I ask you to consider that our Lord Jesus Christ is your true head, and that you are one of His members. He belongs to you as the head belongs to its members; all that is His is yours: His spirit, His heart, His body and soul, and all His faculties. You must make use of all these as your own, to serve, to praise, love and glorify God. You belong to Him, as members belong to their head. And so He longs for you to use all that is in you, as if it were His own, for the service and glory of the Father.” (CCC 1698) III.
The Flames of Love issuing from the Heart of Jesus
The better we come to know the love of the Sacred Heart, the better our love will leap up like a flame in response to His love. Rather than try to acquire spiritual growth through asceticism, which is slow and painful, we should enkindle the fire of our love in the Heart of Jesus. This is not to deny the need for asceticism; asceticism is necessary, only it should be inspired by love. To this end, we want to consider how the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus reaches out to us in love from the tabernacle, in order to inflame our hearts with a reciprocal response of love. St. John Eudes discerns eight different flames of love which issue from our Lord’s Heart in the tabernacle which are freely adapted here to our present needs.
The First Flame Impels Christ to Remain with us
“The first flame is the inconceivable love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus which impelled Him to abide there continuously night and day, for nearly 2000 years, to be always with us, so as to fulfill [His] promise.” “Behold, He assures us, “I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” (Mt 28,20). St. John Eudes, accordingly, understands this as a Eucharistic Promise. As he points out, this is an imprisonment of love. What loneliness, coldness and abandonment; never was there a lover so spurned and so neglected. “Could you not watch one hour with me?!” On the one hand — when He finds Himself in the midst of friends — it is a sheer delight: “It was my delight to be with the sons of men.”
The Second Flame Repairs All Our Debts
The second flame of this fiery furnace is the love of our Lord’s Heart which issues forth and rises up to heaven in order to pay our greatest debt. “He is there [in His hidden humanity] adoring, praising and glorifying His Father unceasingly for us, to satisfy to the full our infinite obligations of adoring, praising and glorifying. He is continually giving thanks to the Father for all the corporal and spiritual gifts He has ever given us.” As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews expresses it: “He is always living to intercede for us” (7,25).
The Third Flame Reveals the Self-Immolation of His Love
The third flame of this Heart issues from Christ’s perpetually renewed self-immolation in our behalf. In His Passion He allowed Himself to be made sin, so that we can become the justice of God. Christ not only makes good our innumerable omissions, but in love He mystically bears the burden of our sins, so that out of this overflowing of grace our blindness might be cured, our hardness of heart be softened, and we might receive anew the grace of forgiveness.
The Fourth Flame Gives Life and Unity to the Church
The fourth flame of Love from Christ’s Eucharistic Heart is like the surging of His Precious Blood which gives life and unity to His entire Body, the Church. We owe His Eucharistic Heart our love and gratitude not only for our reconciliation with the Father, but we need also to acknowledge that the unity of the Church, of society and of the family is due to our Lord’s presence and love in the Blessed Sacrament, the sacrament of unity.
The Fifth Flame Assimilates Us to Himself
The fifth flame issuing from the Eucharistic Heart of our Lord assimilates us to Himself, who is meek and humble of heart. It belongs to the nature of fire to transform all things into itself. Christ’s love is a fire. Those who expose themselves willingly and sufficiently to this flame, shall be transformed into His likeness, and will also taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
The Sixth Flame Makes us Messengers of His Love
The sixth flame that issues from His Heart in the tabernacle makes us instruments and messengers of His love. By the ardor of this love, we no longer live for ourselves, be we live in and for Christ, who lives in us, and makes us His instruments of peace and reconciliation. We can only become worthy and useful instruments of reconciliation for Jesus in the measure that Christ’s insatiable thirst for peace and reconciliation has penetrated us and filled our own heart.
The Seventh Flame Fills us with His Blessings
The seventh flame that issues from His Eucharistic Heart is the plenitude of blessings in His Father’s love. As St. Peter witnesses: “God sent His Son in order to bless you.” (Acts 3,26). Likewise St. Paul attests from personal experience: “If God is with us, who is against, us? He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, will He not also give us all things with Him?” (Rom 8,32).
The Eighth Flame Gives Us Eternal Life
The eighth flame that issues from the Sacred Heart of Christ in the tabernacle gives us eternal life and carries us over into eternity. “I am the living bread, which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever,… He who eats My flesh and drinks My Blood has eternal life, and I will raise him upon the last day” (Jn 6,51. 54).
It is an interesting fact in the Life of the Church, namely, that the dying are not necessarily obliged to go to confession, unless, of course, they need to be reconciled with God. Similarly, the dying are not necessarily obliged to receive the Anointing of the Sick, even though it would be foolish to not profit from such a great source of grace that prepares one for eternal life. Uniquely, all the dying are seriously obliged to desire and request Holy Viaticum, which is the last Communion, the Living Bread for the final journey to eternal life. The reason for this lies in the singular nature of the Holy Eucharist. The Sacraments of Penance and the Anointing of the Sick should be received as well. However, they contain only the power of Christ, whereas Holy Viaticum is the substantial, living Heart of our Savior Jesus Christ. “As the living Father has sent Me, and as I live because of [My communion with] the Father, so he who eats Me, he also shall live because of [his communion with] Me” (Jn 6,58)
There is nothing more desirable nor anything more necessary to pilgrim souls than a deep love and union with the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Without Him we can do nothing; without Him we shall never come to the Father. With Him we can do all things. Now He is physically present and waiting for us in the Eucharist.
The Sacred Heart is knocking at the door of our heart. Will we open the door for Him? Will we make a commitment in devotion to serve Him with greater zeal and fidelity? Will we let Him in? The choice is now ours. Those who want to grow, know where the Sacred Heart is waiting for the response of their love, and they know how to imitate His love in their daily life. Let us resume all that has been said with a final thought from St. John Eudes: “The Son of God gives us His Heart not only to be the model and rule of our life, but also to be our heart, so that by the gift of this Heart, immense, infinite and eternal, we may fulfill all our duties to God in a manner worthy of His infinite perfections. [Thus] we have received from our Divine Savior the gift of His adorable Heart which is the perfect means of fulfilling all our duties. We should employ the Sacred Heart as if it were our own heart, to adore God fittingly, to love Him perfectly, and to satisfy all our obligations adequately so that our homage and love may be worthy of His supreme majesty. Eternal and infinite thanks be rendered to Thee, O Good Jesus, for the infinitely precious gift of Thy divine Heart. May all the angels, saints and all creatures bless Thee forever!”
–Fr. William Wagner, ORC
Frederick Faber. Growth in Holiness. Burnes & Oates, London.
(no date; handwritten dedication from 1921). ch. 22, p. 365.
Summa Theologiae. II-II.82,1,c.
St. Francis de Sales. Introduction to the Devout Life. Doubleday, Image Books, Garden City, 1972.ch. 1, p.39.
St. Francis de Sales. loc. cit. ch.1, p. 40.
P. Pius XII. Encyclical on the Sacred Heart. Nr 106
St. John Eudes. The Sacred Heart of Jesus. Kennedy, NY, 1946. p. 2. All further references to St. John Eudes, unless noted, are taken from this first chapter.
cf. St. John Eudes. The Sacred Heart of Jesus. ch. 7, pp. 31-35.
St. John Eudes. Loc. Cit. P. 99.
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