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A month for the Heart (Fr. David Stewart, SJ)
June has, for a long time, been the month of particular devotion to the Heart of Christ, the Sacred Heart. The Solemnity of the Sacred Heart occurs usually around half-way through the month, nineteen days after Pentecost, while, every year, many individuals and parishes pray a Sacred Heart Novena; a period of nine days, with a structured prayer each day. People understand instinctively that there is a rich but easily engaged theology available through contemplation of this heart of Christ, because we all recognise how the image, the idea of the heart takes us straight, if you will, to the heart of things that really matter to us – “heart” is one of those words that a poet would use, because its single syllable contains so many layers of depth and meaning.
A great theologian of the 20th century, Karl Rahner, spoke of the word “heart” as an “Urwort”, a primordial or root-word, one that conveys deep meaning in a singular way. We need words like that, just as we need poets and artists, writers and composers to bring them to us. Popular culture associates hearts with love, and uses heart-shaped symbols and logos repetitively, but we use it also to describe courage, or when we say a generous person has a big heart, or at times of grief – when you’ve experienced a major personal loss, you’ll say you’re “heartbroken”. The poet Yeats wrote of coming to know essential truths “in the deep heart’s core”. “Cor ad cor loquitur”, as St. John Henry Newman loved to say, a phrase he learned from St.Francis de Sales, who had spoken of “silent conversing” with God – “heart speaks to heart”, in a way that words cannot do.
The Morning Offering, to the Heart of Christ, has been at the heart of the spirituality of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network for all its existence of over 175 years. Generations of Catholic Christians, and many other followers of Jesus, have made this daily offering, faithfully. From the earliest moment of the Apostleship of Prayer, in 1844, this prayer was missionary, oriented to the mission of all Christians. When we now make that Morning Offering, we start to train our hearts to be more like Christ’s. We want to make ourselves available, in the day ahead, for Christ’s mission. Not only can we begin each day with the Lord, but also at the end of the day we can review all the gifts and opportunities of the day, especially moments of mercy and healing when we’ve not quite got it right. We’ll begin to grow as missionary disciples.
There is always a deeper dimension, a larger meaning, when we pray with the whole Church. That deeper meaning has a purpose. Each month, each of us is invited to consider and pray for an intention by the Holy Father. The mission of this Network, the world’s largest, is to spread the message of the Pope’s Intention for the challenges that face humanity and the mission of the Church. This calls forth a compassionate response. By uniting our prayerful self-offering to the concerns that are in the Pope’s heart, we are in fact drawing together in prayer with the whole church, the whole People of God. We are offering ourselves intentionally for His mission, opening ourselves and our hearts to God’s action in the world not just as observers but as participants. Since the pieced heart of the Saviour overflows with compassion for all, we can place our hearts close to His. Then we will find our compassion growing, too.
Devotion is a favourite word of St.Ignatius who used it to express a closeness and intimacy with Christ’s person and mystery, which we can ask for in our prayer. You might think of it as a chosen attitude, an intentional response that we can find growing in our own hearts, as we’re drawn towards God’s compassion and love for all of humanity; for all of creation, in fact. It might not always be so deliberate on our part, because that superabundant compassion touches and appeals to a deep part of our own being, beckons to us and draws us. We very well might talk about this as a movement within our own hearts. But it rarely happens in an instant because most of us have to work at gaining the spiritual freedom that truly opens the heart to the gift. It’s that word “heart”, again, isn’t it; signifying a deeper reality that other words can’t capture. That is a reality that we all seek.
When following the Spiritual Exercises of St.Ignatius, you are encouraged to spend quite a lot of time contemplating Jesus in the flesh, in the Gospel stories about him, asking to know him more intimately and so come to a deep knowledge of how he laboured, and still labours, for you. The knowledge that grows in you is much more in the heart than in the head. Devotion to the Sacred Heart is like that; it involves not a set of ideas but a contemplation, gazing on the crucified Christ’s wounded side, out of which blood and water flowed. It is when we gaze on Christ in this way, not simply thinking about him or about salvation but letting him draw personally close, that devotion begins and grows. These are not intellectual ideas but matters of the heart – his heart and yours.
In Laudato Si’: Pope Francis argued that “we must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world.” Devotion to the Heart of Christ will help us to rediscover and reclaim that conviction. The Holy Father has also taught that “the Heart of Christ is so great it wants to welcome us all into the revolution of tenderness”. In this Month for the Heart, especially in the Sacred Heart Novena, let that tenderness grow in your own heart. In this year, which has been like no other year, open your heart to that shared responsibility and so become an instrument of that revolution of tenderness, that our world so badly needs and longs for.