In late June we observed the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This is one of those liturgical celebrations which can be a bit confusing if we are not clear on its purpose. To some, it might seem archaic or even silly to point out the Heart of Jesus, as if we are focusing on nothing but sentimentality. But this Solemnity is not about that at all. Rather it is about the whole person of Jesus, especially His mercy, compassion, and self-giving; it also sums up the gospel He taught with the intention that we might learn to love as He does. His heart is the representation of the depths of His love which He extends to us. We describe His Heart as sacred because indeed His love is the most sacred manifestation of God. I have written about how the Trinity is the shared love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit extended out to us. God is love, and therefore to depict the Heart of Jesus in representation of that love is not too much of a stretch. Those who want to grow in holiness therefore, are those who want to enter into that love in such a way as to participate in extending it outward to those who may not be aware of the vast, unending love of God. The holy ones, the Saints, are those who have entered deeply into the love of Jesus and are so filled with it that they cannot contain it. They are loved sinners, no different than you or me. But what sets them apart is that they have so fallen in love with God that their response of love transforms them to the point that the Heart of Jesus is visible in their acts of love.
Holy people are not all the same ‘type’ and there is not a one-size-fits-all criterion or description. The details of their lives vary, but what they all possess is living Christian values heroically and attempting to bring God’s love into places where it is not. While some died as martyrs and imitated Christ literally unto death, not every saint is a martyr. Some suffered greatly even if they did not die at the hands of those who consider themselves enemies of God; in fact, how they handled their various sufferings is what led many into sanctity. Thankfully, suffering is not a criterion for becoming holy, but since there is no such thing as a life without some suffering, it is a road that all of us will have to navigate in some way. Regardless of the details of our lives, what does help us to grow in holiness is falling deeply in love with God and responding to that love in some way.
To respond to God’s love with love is a habit which we can grow into as we spend time in prayer; additionally we can foster this growth by immersing ourselves in the gospels and other New Testament writings. It is also vital that we remember that the Saints were holy within the parameters of their unique personalities and the situations of their lives, be that a certain era in which they lived, the political climate, their socio-economic circumstances, or their family situations. In other words, we are called to be most deeply who we are in our attempts to love like Jesus and not to produce a ‘self’ that is false or which is contrary to who we are called to be. In other words, holy people are authentic in presenting themselves as they are.
A way of loving, and an often overlooked quality possessed by many of the saints, is to have a sense of humor. Indeed a sense of humor is a gift from God. Lest we forget, God has a sense of humor, something evident in numerous biblical stories that we sometimes read with far too much seriousness. We must not miss the story in 1 Samuel 5-6 in which God ‘has a bit of fun with’ the Philistines (after they had captured the Ark of the Covenant) by choosing to knock over their statues and smite them with hemorrhoids when He could have killed them just as easily. (I do not intend to say that hemorrhoids are funny, but the story itself is actually hilarious.) And who can forget when Peter got out of a boat to walk on water toward Jesus only to remember where he was and therefore began sinking into the sea? (Matthew 14:22-33) If we read that story carefully we will see that Jesus ‘rebuked’ Peter for having little faith, but in my imagination I have always pictured Jesus’ tone as lighthearted and His remark made with His head thrown back while laughing uproariously. He was definitely not berating Peter for being human, but was caught up in the humor that entered into a moment previously quite serious. (For the record, I also visualize Peter laughing as well, once he regained his composure.) Indeed it is a funny scene if we allow ourselves to realize that Jesus liked to laugh, too. That He was invited to so many dinners and parties indicates that this must have been so.
There are many stories of holy ones with quick wit, such as St. Lawrence who quipped about “being done on this side,” requesting to be turned over while he was being tortured on a gridiron. Whether he really said that is not the point: his remark in the midst of a very ‘un-humorous’ situation shows us that rather than spewing invective at our enemies, we can show strength even in the midst of weakness. To be holy means loving without being dour, as demonstrated by St. Teresa of Avila who often made humorous remarks in order to get a point across. And of course humor does not always have to involve laughter, but can be a way to keep serious situations from becoming overwhelming so as not to become debilitated by them. An example of this is in the life of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton who truly had to struggle through continual hardships and setbacks. Being human, as all Saints are, she obviously had her limits. She is purported to have said at one such challenging moment: “If it isn’t one damn thing, it’s another!” Though she was clearly frustrated, it shows that she was able to blow off steam in a way that, in the end, is rather humorous. Her remark shows that humor can put things into better perspective when we seem to have lost our focus. This is not to say that we are to laugh when others suffer, or that we should be able to laugh at our own suffering. That is not realistic, and in fact it would be cruel. Rather, what the holy ones teach us is that compassion truly means to enter into the situation of another: to suffer with the suffering and to cry with those who weep, but also to laugh and share joy with the jubilating as well.
Other holy people known for having a sense of humor are St. Padre Pio, who loved a good joke and was said to tell them frequently; Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati who was famous among his friends for being a prankster to such an extent that he and his like-minded friends formed a group nicknamed "Tipi Loschi," (the Sinister Ones); or St. King Louis IX who was the father of 11 children and was described as funny. (One would have to have a good sense of humor with 11 children!) The most famous of the saints who loved to laugh is St. Philip Neri who is remembered not only for his joking, but for exuding so much joy that it was contagious. Finally, there was St. Francis of Assisi who was known for not taking himself all that seriously, embracing poverty to the point that he was derided, but continuing to imitate Jesus as he felt called.
It is clear that our world is sorely in need of the touch of holiness. There are many who are broken, suffering, forgotten or imperiled and there are many dire situations which are in need of justice, healing, mercy, and compassion. These are serious situations and we should never attempt to laugh them away. However, we can bring light into the darkness of these areas by entering in with a heart filled with love and the joy of knowing Jesus, so that we are not brought down by the heaviness of sin or the temptation to fall into despair. If we use discernment, we can know when it is appropriate to raise the spirits of those around us with the gentleness of humor, or how to alleviate a sense of hopelessness by bringing a joyful spirit into our labors by being exactly who we are. We are not called to fake happiness or to put on a false smile; rather we are invited to find our joy in the Sacred Heart of Jesus, putting our trust in His love and then responding by extending His love outward to others. What renders one holy is not one’s gifts, but how one uses them. If we truly want to be a light in the darkness and a sign of love to those in need no matter who they are, we can turn to the Sacred Heart of Jesus where we will find enough life, mercy, and joy to share with others.
May we learn from the saints that to find the extraordinary love of God, we must immerse our hearts in the Sacred Heart of Jesus which is where all suffering is understood and all comfort is found! May we use the gift of humor wisely in our efforts to love, using it to heal and comfort, rather than to divide and cause pain! May we find hope in the midst of suffering, and joy in the midst of challenge, knowing we are never separated from the love of Jesus! And may we grow in holiness as we follow the lead of the Holy Spirit who is always present to guide us! Let us meet in the Sacred Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Next post on July 17.
1. This painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is one I grew up with, so unfortunately I have no idea who the artist was. I remember this image being framed and sitting on top of my bookshelf. I loved it because no matter where in the room I went, His eyes followed me. Some people may find that thought rather disconcerting, but for me it was incredibly comforting. This is because the photo seemed to say what I already knew: Jesus is always watching over me, sending me blessing. His right hand is raised in blessing and His left is pointing to His Sacred Heart as if to say, "I have a home for you right here. Do not be afraid, I have you covered!" I loved that our eyes always seemed to meet.
2. This is a painting by Bl. Fra Angelico called All Saints. I chose it here because it shows Saints in all sorts of shapes, sizes, genders, age, etc. It fits my description that each Saint is incredibly unique. Thank God for that!
3. This photo of a rough sea is one of mine, though I admit it is not the Sea of Galilee. Rather it is the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Maine. I chose it for two reasons, one practical and one aesthetic: first, my Sea of Galilee photos all show a calm sea and so that would not have worked well here, and second, this one really shows the sea roiling the way it might have as Peter attempted to get out of the boat and join Jesus on the water. While we were in Galilee last year, we were told that the Sea does get like this and that it can happen in an instant. Therefore my substitution does work.
4. This painting of St. (Mother) Elizabeth Ann Seton hangs at the National Shrine dedicated to her in Maryland. You can find information on the Shrine at https://setonshrine.org/. Also here is a link to a brief description of her life with a link to a longer biography which you can download if you desire. https://setonshrine.org/elizabeth-ann-seton/.
5. This is an icon of called Saint Louis IX with His Son Philip III written by Fr. William Hart McNichols. I chose it because it not only shows St. (King) Louis, but also one of his eleven children. It is actually a very tender depiction of St. Louis with his arm around the shoulder of his son. It is not an icon that one might see often, and I thought it would be good to let readers see someone they may not be familiar with. St. Louis is one of a number of saints who were royalty. If you are interested in a copy of this icon in one of a variety of mediums, you can find it at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-louis-ix-with-his-son-philip-iil-046-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
6. This is one of my photos, taken in Rockport, Texas. It may seem odd to have a pelican end a post about the Sacred Heart of Jesus, but the pelican is actually a Christian symbol, used by many communities in the early Church! The pelican is a symbol for the sacrifice and love of Jesus who let His blood be poured out in love for us. The mother pelican does the same for her children if she cannot find food: she pierces her own breast and feeds the children with her blood so they will not die. While pelicans might be amusing to watch, their heroic love is truly amazing.
Heart Speaks to Heart