Usually when we think of the heart we think of love. This is especially true when we describe a charitable or kind person as being ‘all heart.’ We often refer to the heart as the seat of love within a person, though centuries ago it was strangely thought to be the liver! This past weekend marked two special liturgical feasts which center upon the heart and on boundless love. On Friday we observed the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and on Saturday was the memorial of the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Each of these liturgies celebrates the gift of love and mercy which is offered to us by God. And each focuses on what was needed in order to bring God’s love incarnate into the world: that of the Son of God who loved us so much that He was willing to save us by entering our world in order to take on our brokenness and suffer for us, and the generous response of a woman, Mary, whose love made God’s desire to be with us a reality. As expressed in last week’s entry we see that love enkindles us as if we are afire. Maybe this is why the hearts of Jesus and Mary are always depicted as luminous and burning with love.
The goal of our lives as Christians is to become holy, which means to be consumed by love in imitation of Jesus. We have the example of the saints who are our inspirational heroes because they have done just that. They prove to us that holiness is possible for everyone, given that they all had circumstances and gifts which were unique. Mary is the Queen of Heaven and therefore is also Queen of the Saints, since her heart was (and remains) ever pure and immaculate. Like Mary, what transformed the men and women who we see as holy is the love they first received from God and to which they responded with their own ‘yes’ because their hearts learned to beat solely for love of God. They help us to see that being Christ-like is not impossible and that there are as many ways of being holy as there are people. In other words, we become holy based on the path put before us; every journey to holiness is as singular as the person on it.
The one common denominator in the lives of the saints, along with Mary, is the presence of an overwhelming ability to love. A great example of such a one is St. Philip Neri (1515-1595) whose feast day was on May 26. He lived during an era in which there were many holy people eventually named as saints such as St. Teresa of Avila and St. Ignatius of Loyola. As a young man he was filled with an immense love for God which culminated in a vision while praying in which he saw a ball of fire enter into his chest. The fire of God’s love was what entered into him and it was said that after this experience he radiated such warmth that he never had to wear a coat, even in winter. Philip was literally warmed by God’s love, and it was this love which he radiated through the works of charity he offered for many people throughout his life. It was discovered after his death that his heart was so large that it literally bent his rib cage outward to accommodate the space it needed! In other words, he was filled with so much love, (and luminosity, too) that it literally emanated from within him.
There are multitudes of saints who we could investigate to learn how their hearts beat in tune with that of Jesus and how they shared that love in their own unique way. If we desire holiness, (and well we should since all are capable of it), then we need to learn how to let our hearts be more in touch with the love of God offered to us. If we recognize how deeply God loves us, we can be filled to overflowing, too. A good place to start is to study the Bible, which is truly a book about love. And there is no love story greater than that of the gospels, which proclaim the works and words of Jesus whose very life was an offering of love for us. He truly wanted to save us, and even wept over His people, at one point comparing Himself to a mother hen who longs to gather her young under her wings. (Matthew 23:37) He allowed His Sacred Heart to be broken for us, as we can see by the depiction of His heart surrounded by a crown of thorns and bleeding from the wound of the lance thrust into his side on the Cross. The words we read in Scripture can help us to be inspired to respond to the great gift we have been given: we can immerse ourselves into the Sacred Heart of Jesus through prayer and beg Him to help us to do everything with love. That prayer, in turn, will enable our daily response to take flesh through our own words and deeds. The point of becoming holier is that our hearts transform with the love of Christ, and therefore, we begin to love heroically. It starts small and it grows into a way of life.
In doing small, seemingly insignificant things with love, we will also transform the hearts of others. This is not always easy and it is especially challenging when we are suffering, but we can, for example, learn to demonstrate patience with everyday annoyances, difficulties, and the inconveniences that pop up. Acting with patience definitely affects others around us, showing them that it is the better, more peaceful way. If we can in prayer for compassion in dealing with a difficult person, if we can forgive little offenses such as a rude comment, and if we can let go of the silly little things which in the light of eternity are in fact, silly little things, then we are learning to love better. Our small acts of love become habitual so that we begin to live mercy and charity. And when this happens even the heaviest of burdens seems to grow lighter.
The biggest challenge of our times right now is the affront to love and mercy: we are taught by public figures and by what we watch on TV that rude behavior is not only okay, but that it is an entire way of life which is acceptable. We witness acts of rage, whether on the roadways or in supposed retaliation, carried out by people who have become detached from love, as if momentarily possessed. We see selfishness which is perpetuated by a society that seems to endorse becoming ‘successful’ by whatever means it takes, and which encourages us to seek out pleasure rather than the good of others. We are also aware of aggression which comes from different groups or cultures, and for that matter, we are even challenged by catastrophic natural disasters that are beyond our control. All we can do is to move against these evils or uncontrollable events by responding with the love we have been taught by Jesus. In working to build the Kingdom, Christians have fought these battles throughout history. But God has continued to empower us with the grace to stand firm in our resolve, so even if today’s issues are too big for us to counteract, we will find that resting in God’s love will help us to persevere. Love gives us the ability to trust that God will prevail in the end. Indeed, the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary teach us that the gentleness of love is the greatest strength of all.
The Sacred Heart of Jesus calls us to immerse ourselves in His mercy and love so that we can be beacons of light in the midst of a world which encroaches upon all that is good. The Immaculate Heart of Mary reveals to us an intercessor we can approach who will aid us in our quest for holiness. If we allow ourselves to be immersed in the love of God through the hearts of Jesus and Mary, we can become like St. Philip with hearts that warm others with love. Though some powers stand against love and would enjoy nothing more than to thwart it, we need to remember, as St. Paul so beautifully wrote, that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:31-39) Therefore, we have nothing to fear as we venture forth from our homes each day, desiring to live the love of God in all that we do. And if we fail along the way, as we will do from time to time, we know that His mercy will heal all our failings and empower us to dust ourselves off and try again. Let us turn to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary for safety in the storms of life, and for love, mercy, and inspiration to live courageous lives of faith.
May we rest in the Hearts of Jesus and Mary which are filled with great love for us! May we be luminous beacons of love in the midst of a world which is in great need of light! May we be courageous in our desire to spread love every day in even the smallest acts! May we trust the presence of Jesus with us as we try to stay strong in our Christian faith! And may we desire to grow in holiness and learn to find Jesus in the midst of every decision, guiding us along the path of love! Let us meet, along with our Immaculate Mother Mary and all the holy ones, in the Sacred Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The first image is the Sacred Heart of Jesus beatifically rendered in stained glass. I took this photo at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston, TX.
The second image is a bas relief of the crowning of Mary as Queen of Heaven. I chose it because I like the medium, which is wood, and I also liked that it was mostly gold, suggesting the luminosity I wrote about last week.
Next is a painting called St. Philip Neri Lead Us to Heaven. There was no artist credited with this painting, which I found as the result of a Google Search, admittedly. I chose this one from the many I found because it showed the burning heart of St. Philip. It is rare to actually see it in a depiction of him, yet it is so much at the core of his life and ministry. Truly, I cannot imagine a painting of him without his heart aflame with the fire of God's love shown in some way.
Next is an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called The Black Madonna Your Lap Has Become the Holy Table. I chose this because of the almost overwhelming radiance of Jesus within the womb of Mary which is symbolized as an altar. To me this says that in becoming pregnant with Jesus, Mary is the first tabernacle, alive with the presence of Jesus, and therefore His radiance also bursts forth from her. Her raised hands are both a gesture of praise and a reminder of her humbly saying to God: "Let it be done to me according to your word." And so, the Word becomes flesh.
This icon can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-black-madonna-your-lap-has-become-the-holy-table-060-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Next is another of my photos which is of a sunset over the Badlands of North Dakota. I chose it because the sun seemed to be a beacon of light in the encroaching darkness.
Finally is a photo I took in South Dakota of a waterfall which was not far from the road on a hiking trail in the Black Hills. I chose it because there is so much light in this photo. The bright gold of the leaves and that water seem to almost emanate light of their own.
Heart Speaks to Heart