The Feast of the Sacred Heart—June 11

Even after 50+ years since my education by the Religious of the Sacred Heart, this feast still captures attention, still intrigues by its contradictions.

On the negative side, the fierce discipline, obsession with rules, silence and order might have been simply the products of an era when few schools were enlightened or relaxed. Some friends have worse horror tales from crazier nuns and more rigid Catholic schools. We may not have been encouraged to be especially creative, but we were never physically punished. We may have sung maudlin hymns, but we were never taught a Mel Gibson-style obsession with the gruesome details of the crucifixion.

On the positive side, I still remember a statue of Jesus as the Sacred Heart which stood outside our school. It had the odd heart-outside-the-body typical of sentimental art. But more important: his arms were flung wide in welcome. His hands didn’t hurl thunderbolts, tick off lists of wrongdoing, or brandish law books.

The stance epitomized the insight of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, credited with popularizing devotion to the Sacred Heart. “The divine heart…is an ocean full of joy to drown all our sadness…” When she tried to convince others of this broadly inclusive approach, authorities called her delusional. Indeed, she had made a huge stride forward from 17th century piety, with its emphasis on the externals of religion. (How had they avoided today’s passage from Ephesians, “may Christ dwell in your hearts through faith”?)

The readings for this feast are marked by tenderness, especially the Hosea passage about God as parent helping a young child walk or lifting an infant to brush the cheeks. The gospel reference to blood and water flowing from the side of Jesus is often compared to the gush of fluid when a woman gives birth.

This tone is consistent with fourteenth century mystic Julian of Norwich’s writing in The Showings about God as mother. “In the sight of God, we do not fall” (p. 222) because we are always graciously enfolded in love. Just as a mother brims with pride in her child, so we too are God’s joy, treasure and delight (p. 228). More on that in another blog; thanks to a Sacred Heart education for the assurance that God can’t not love.

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