We celebrate the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus this week.
In 1956, Pope Pius XII published an encyclical on devotion to the Sacred Heart. Writing about that encyclical 25 years later, Joseph Ratzinger (who would become Pope Benedict XVI) said that the Heart of Jesus is the reason why the human heart — our emotions and feelings — must be part of our relationship with God. If and when human emotions are left out of the spiritual life, he noted, this is “followed by a wave of emotionalism which is, however, largely chaotic and incapable of commitment.” Feelings and emotions will play a role in our lives, one way or another. The question is whether we will own them, or they will own us. Current culture is a good example of the destructive effects of letting our feelings own us.
But there’s another way. St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, living and writing in the 1500s, proposed it. An expert on their thought says: “Teresa and John’s confidence in the power of desire, rightly ordered and intensely focused, can provide a hopeful and helpful path.” The challenge they place before us is to have our desires “rightly ordered” and “intensely focused.” That’s an achievement; it requires discipline.
St. Gregory of Nyssa, writing his “Treatise on Christian Perfection” in the 300s, provides some help in learning that discipline. Noting that Christian life has two main aspects — our interior thoughts and feelings, and our external words and deeds — he advises that we examine ourselves, to see whether and to what extent our thoughts and feelings, and words and deeds are directed toward Christ or turned away from Him. What are some key dimensions of this examination?
We do it partly by reason, which tells us that it’s wrong to act on adulterous feelings, no matter how strong and persistent they may be. We do it partly by reading and praying with the Scriptures, which tell us that actions based on selfish feelings will never truly satisfy us because, no matter what we may acquire by selfish action, Jesus shows us that we’re made to give ourselves away in love. We do it partly by studying Church teachings, which give us guidance on new questions that aren’t directly answered in the Bible. Reason and Scripture and Church teaching all help reveal to us what’s in the Heart of Christ. And, as St. Gregory says: “If you draw from Him the thoughts in your mind and the inclinations of your heart, you will show a likeness to Christ.”
When we celebrate the feast of the Sacred Heart this week, we have the opportunity to benefit from a tradition that stretches back to St. Rose Philippine Duchesne in the 1800s, Sts. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross in the 1500s, St. Gregory of Nyssa in the 300s. It goes back to the very Heart of Jesus 2,000 years ago, and is every bit as alive today. The wisdom of that tradition tells us: if we open our hearts to Christ, He will pour His Heart into ours. Then the Sacred Heart of Jesus will rightly order and intensely focus our desires, thoughts, words and actions. If and when that happens we will give Him glory on earth and, ultimately, be brought to share His glory in heaven.