Among the overabundance of signs and symbols that comprise our ordinary lives, there is one that takes center stage when dealing with what is most dear to us — the “heart.” For millennia, the heart symbol has expressed a variety of meanings. Most notably, the heart continues to represent the center of emotions and spirituality. Whether we are dealing with the most basic expressions of shared affections for others or more complex feelings of being in love, it is helpful to use the language and image of the heart.
It is quite amazing to see how accustomed we’ve become in appealing to the heart. In our daily interactions and conversations with one another, we speak, for instance, of being “heartbroken,” or we hear and understand others to be “speaking from the heart.” And when we want to convey deep sentiments of affections, we make sure to tell others that our wishes are “heartfelt.” What is clear in these and other similar expressions is the cultural and personal value we place on the heart, precisely as the place of truth and integrity.
The same is true about our spiritual and religious experiences. Sacred writings and spaces reveal a partiality to the language and image of the heart. Most common and emblematic in our sacred writings is St. Augustine’s familiar quote from his “Confessions”: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” In a similar vein, the image of the heart of Jesus is found on many devotional altars and stained-glass windows in churches. We have even set aside a special celebration, the solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, stressing the closeness and tenderness of God’s love for each one of us.
This intimacy with God’s love is also dramatically visualized in Bernini’s white marble sculpture of St. Teresa of Avila in prayerful ecstasy. The sculpture depicts the cloistered nun’s encounter with an angel who thrusts and pierces her heart with an arrow, leaving her with the sensation of being on fire with a great love of God. While many of us may not necessarily relate to this intense mystical image and experience of St. Teresa, or use the thinking and language of St. Augustine to describe our own search for God, we do have our own heart encounters with Jesus.
In our own way and in faith, we have experienced God’s love in Jesus. In several Gospel stories, for example, we hear of Jesus’ healing encounters with others, and of His own desire to make His Father’s love and compassion accessible to all. “It is to the glory of my Father that you should bear much fruit and be my disciples. I have loved you just as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love. I have told you this so that my own joy may be in you and your joy may be complete” (John 15: 8-9; 11).
When we bring these words, memories and encounters with Jesus close to our own hearts, we can readily see them not as things of the past but as lived spiritual experiences of the present. More to the point, only when we remain and rest in Christ’s loving heart, do our lives find the needed respite and direction. What a blessing it is to be able to speak to Jesus from the heart and share with Him all that we are and desire — trusting that our joy will be complete!
Orozco is executive director of human dignity and intercultural affairs for the Archdiocese of St. Louis.