Church Life,  Faith and Life

The Love Which Counts

As a child, our parish was the Cathedral of St John in Portsmouth. Each time we entered the Cathedral, my eyes fell on the life-size statue of the Sacred Heart which is pictured above.

I found this statue very imposing and intriguing; why was His Heart pictured like this? Why were there drops of blood on His forehead? What did this statue mean? Why were His arms wide open? That statue is still in the same place, more than fifty years on, and it still startles me as I gaze on it whenever I go home.

Now, however, I find the message of the statue, of the Sacred Heart itself, deeply challenging.

This particular image of Jesus grew through the devotions and writings of several Saints of the Church – of particular note were St Mechtilde and St Gertrude the Great. But probably the most famous was St Margaret Mary Alacoque, a Visitation nun.

At her convent in the French village of Paray-le-Monial, St Margaret Mary experienced a series of heavenly apparitions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, beginning at the tail end of the year 1673 and continuing till the middle of the following year.

During these appearances, Jesus revealed a new form of devotion which had His Sacred Heart as it’s object; the devotion consisted of various elements, such as specific prayers and a holy hour, ‘enthronement’ of an image of this Heart, and the request for Holy Communion on the first Fridays of nine consecutive months as an act of reparation. Alongside these requests, Jesus gave the Saint a number of promises regarding His disposition towards those who would undertake the requested devotion.

In the centuries since then, this devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus spread slowly at first before gathering great pace. Today, it is very unusual indeed to find a Catholic church which does not have an image of the Sacred Heart, such is the popularity of this devotion.

While it is very easy to focus on the essential aspects of the devotion at the sensible level – the particular religious practices and the associated promises – there is something which is, at the same time, both far deeper and also far more obvious; and it is something we often risk overlooking.

And that something is this – the very image of the Sacred Heart itself, depicting Love incarnate and demanding a similar love in return. And that returned love is to be directed both to God and to our neighbour, in line with the twin demands of the Great Commandment of the Lord in the Gospel.

And this is where the challenging part comes in.

It is possible to do all of the practices and devotions as requested – and yet to do so with not an ounce of charity in our heart. Now, divine grace will almost certainly touch and transform such a heart over the course of time, so that the practice of the devotions produces good fruit. But it is possible, regardless of that.

It is equally possible to know not a thing about devotion to the Sacred Heart under this form, to have no idea of the requested practices associated with it – and yet, to live a life of great charity.

What seems evident, then, is that the ‘doing’ the things asked and the ‘being’ what this Heart depicts, are two different things – often intertwined, certainly, and one often leading to the other; but still distinct. I think we might see here a practical application of St Paul’s theology of grace and works.

For me personally, I look upon an image of the Sacred Heart and I see it very much as a challenge – it asks me quietly but very insistently if I have reflected a similar and unconditional love toward God and toward others. And it encourages me in that, knowing I have so very often failed in this endeavour, still there is hope for me – so long as I rely on this Sacred Heart and not on my own abilities and devices.

All those religious practices are not, for me, a sign of any perfection but – rather – a glaring reminder of my constant imperfection; and it speaks to me of my need to continue to struggle to do better, day by day.

The Sacred Heart reminds me very clearly that it is not about the ‘things’ we do, no matter how salutary they might be in themselves – rather, it is about the love with which we do them.

It is the love which counts.

Catholic | Retired Nurse | UK

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