6th June 2024, University Church of St Mary the Virgin

One of the advantages of living in a multicultural society is that from time to time we are reminded just how strange Christian faith is. Historian and podcaster, Tom Holland insists that it’s the weird stuff, as he puts it, that Christians need to concentrate on to maintain their identity – the things that make us different from the rest. The Sacred Heart points us towards one of the most glaringly weird aspects of our faith: our stubborn foregrounding of the virtue of love above almost everything else. Other religions do not do this. Contemporary secular culture only does it to the extent that it points us towards the fleeting consolations of sex. And for the great historical mass of suffering humanity, longing for security, a fair wage, food to put on the table, love might look like a luxury, an ornament with little cash-value.

We Christians often mislead others in what we say about love. We make it sound as though it’s the answer to everything. Which it isn’t. We can use the word to make God sound tame and undangerous. We turn love itself into an insipid duty, either a grandiose “universal love” massively beyond our true, capacities or an unobjectionable niceness to all and sundry, a studied harmlessness which makes no earthly difference. Do we really believe that the love shown by Christians is the Church’s greatest legacy? Rather than our saints, our theologians, our moral and social teaching, our buildings, the institutions which bear the imprint of the Gospel? Where does love really register in the ledger book of history?

Indulge me in a flashback to 17th Century France. The Jesuits and the Jansenists are going hammer and tongs at their much-feted controversy. The Jansenists accuse the Jesuits of watering down the demands of the Gospel by excessive accommodation to the world. The Jansenists have a splendid PR operation, not least thanks to the efforts of Blaise Pascal and his hilarious Lettres provincials, in which he lampoons his sophisticated, casuistic Jesuit opponents. The Jesuits respond with a co-ordinated campaign to censure and weaken their critics by drawing in higher ecclesial authority. The controversy rumbles on for decades. At the heart of the disagreement are vital questions about human freedom and the extent to which God actually changes human beings, as well as subsidiary questions about authority in the Church – and in the state. But polemical discourse, as we know from our own day, doesn’t favour serious listening or self-questioning honesty. Rather it fixates on neuralgic topics and resorts to the cheap tactics of ridicule and disgust so that everyone ends up exactly where they started.

It’s into this sterile context that certain visions were granted to a Visitation nun of Paray-le-Monial, named Margaret-Mary Alacoque. The visions were of Christ Himself and made known Christ’s insistent desire that Sr Margaret Mary promote devotion to His Sacred Heart and insist that the universal Church observe an annual feast to the devotion, something that was finally achieved in 1856. It is an astonishing fact that the devotion entered so profoundly into the Church’s bloodstream and that today we do indeed celebrate this Solemnity throughout the universal Church in the way she called for.

It was not an entirely novel notion that Christ’s heart was to be venerated. Towards the end of the 13th Century, to cite but one example, a Saxon Benedictine, St Gertrude, experienced a deep joy at the ceaseless beating of the Christ’s heart as she imagined resting her head on His breast, as the “beloved disciple” had done at the Last Supper. And she heard too that this
revelation had been held back to this moment to make known the sweetness of these heartbeats so that they might warm the ageing world when its love was grown cold.

But the fact that the visions of Paray-le-Monial took place in the 17th Century was significant and the impact of those visions can be seen as an answer to the ecclesial feud of the day. Both Jansenists and Jesuits had something to say about the love of God. But both sides had become bogged down in a tired row about human weakness and human achievement. The Sacred Heart refocussed everyone’s attention on Christ – and on the essential role played in human salvation by Christ’s love.
Pope Pius XII, writing in 1956, puts it simply: “it is only under the impulse of love that the minds of human beings obey fully and perfectly the mind of the Supreme Being.” In other words, the experience of being loved makes us docile to God’s will. This makes sense psychologically. If we don’t feel loved by the one who gives a difficult command, we will at best be compliant, but more likely grudging and resentful. But with love, something awakens in the human heart, a freedom, a lightness ever eager to accomplish what God asks. And this change in the heart is not just a little lubrication of the system. It brings joy and peace which enable further growth and change because it is full of confidence in God.

There are two things to note about this love, then: its intimacy and its efficacy. And these are captured perfectly by the vision God imparted to St Margaret Mary. The heart in early modern Europe retained its Biblical sense as the seat of the person, a centre of love, understood in relation to our human capacity to make a free decision. The Sacred Heart is Christ’s capacity to choose freely out of love to commit Himself definitively to be always for us. And so it is intimate. And Christ’s love always has an effect. When we receive it, it opens up the future for us to commit to, to make decisions out of love. It is effective. Hence, devotion to the Sacred Heart penetrates the intimate depths of our inner life, fills it with the light of divine love and empowers us to love with the same intimacy and effectiveness. That is how this private revelation was so transformative of the Church, bringing Christianity back to what was essential. Devotion to the Sacred Heart has changed so many lives because it calls us back to the fundamentals, touching into the “dearest freshness deep down things”.

But whose love is it that is to do all this? The Father’s love which is so utterly opaque to us, a dark, impenetrable cosmic background out of which everything comes into being? Or the Son’s love for the Father, the Trinity’s eternal dance of self-giving and surrender? Yes, both of these. But Christ’s heart is a human heart, beating for us in a human way, fortified and purified by the Divine love to which it is united. And it is this unity of the human and the divine in the incarnation which makes Jesus’ love both truly intimate and truly transformative. We are loved into goodness by the beating of a human heart, a heart that still beats now in the glorious body of the Risen Lord. How we all long to be loved by a human heart!

A grace as powerful as the vision of the Sacred Heart would inevitably ramify in the lives of those to whom it was entrusted. In the first instance, for St Margaret Mary it meant a certain amount of suffering. She was obviously close to the Lord. But she was also a tough, resilient woman who, I think it is fair to say, did not suffer fools gladly. She understood that God had given her the duty to make known the Sacred Heart of Christ and for a celebration of the Solemnity to be observed throughout the whole Church. You don’t change the calendar of the Catholic Church so easily! Reading between the lines, she was regarded by her superiors as
getting above her station. She was treated as a member of the awkward squad. In her distress, she received a crucial private revelation, hearing the voice of Christ say: “I will send you my faithful servant and perfect friend who will teach you to know me and abandon yourself to me.” The promise was fulfilled shortly afterwards when a young French Jesuit, Claude de la Colombière, was missioned to Paray-le-Monial, a man who would go on to become her spiritual director, her champion and, indeed, her perfect friend.

The friendship between the priest and the nun is unutterably touching. They came in time to share a tender love in Christ which was about as intense as was possible between two consecrated religious. In a vision, Margaret Mary saw two hearts ready to be united in the Sacred Heart itself, “lost,” as she put it, “in that abyss”. Christ wishes her to open her heart to Claude without reserve and for them to be like brother and sister, with an equal share of spiritual blessings. This friendship, forged in many one-to-one meetings in the convent, continued even after Claude left for a trying mission in London where he ministered to the Catholic members of the Royal Household and indirectly to the dispersed Catholic community in England, before finding himself imprisoned in the hysteria of the Popish Plot. Throughout this tumultuous period, St Margaret-Mary maintained a lively correspondence with St Claude, supporting and affirming him as well as offering discreet counsel which he would treat with the reverence due to a divine oracle. The intimate, efficacious love of the Sacred Heart had fostered its own micro-climate in this most special of spiritual friendships. Divine love always does this. Intimate friendship, the mutual exchange of blessing and grace, is not a random benefit but a sure sign of grace at work – as you can see at the end of every Pauline epistle.

And what of us? We modern people know all about religious polemics, especially about how much Christians should accommodate themselves to the spirit of the age. We know rather less about the interior life and about the transformative effects of divine love. In fact, our age is characterised by deep despair about the changeability of human beings. Can God really bring about a conversion in us that will deliver humanity from the dangers of AI, of war, of godlessness, of environmental collapse? The God so many Christians conceive of is the distant and disinterested Creator-God of Deism, a deity indifferent to the plight of his forlorn human creatures. The confident message of this Solemnity is that the intimate, efficacious love of Christ’s human heart will help us by making us docile once more to God’s dream of a new human fraternity, our turning afresh to our neighbour in tender love.

But in our age, faced with so many threats and dangers, it is not only love we need but hope. And in his surrender to the love of Christ’s heart, that is also something St Claude, found. I find the searing honesty of his prayer supremely moving:
          I am assured I will be eternally happy because I firmly hope to be, and it is from you, O Lord, that I hope for it. I know, alas, I know only too well that I am frail and inconstant. I know what temptation can do against the strongest virtues. I have seen the stars of heaven and the columns of the firmament fall. But all that cannot frighten me, as long as I hope. I stand protected from all misfortune. And I am sure of hoping always, because I still have hope in this unchanging hope. […] I hope that in the most rapid slopes you will hold me, that you will sustain me against the most furious assaults, that you will cause my weakness to triumph against my most redoubtable enemies. I hope that you will love me always, and that I love you also without respite, and to carry all at once my hope as far as it can go.