The Flowering of Love for the Heart of Jesus in the Middle Ages

“More Brilliant than the Sun," a weekly series by Robert Stackpole, STD, Director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy 

The series so far:
PART 1The Plan of the Heart of Jesus to Drive Back the World's Darkness
PART 2  What Do We Really Mean By “The Heart of Jesus”?
PART 3:  Devotion to the Heart of Jesus and its Roots in Holy Scripture
PART 4  The Heart of the Savior in the New Testament
 The Heart of Jesus Manifest in His Tender Affections and Compassionate Love
 The Heart of Jesus in the Garden and on the Cross
PART 7:  From Easter Onward: The Heart of Jesus Lives in His Church

PART 8: The Flowering of Love for the Heart of Jesus in the Middle Ages

At the dawning of the second millennium A.D., the Holy Spirit began to unveil to the friends of God the deepest mysteries of the Sacred Heart. Although we cannot always understand the workings of Divine Providence, in this case, in retrospect, it seems clear that the blossoming of explicit devotion to His Heart was perfectly timed to spread throughout the cloisters, monasteries, and friaries of the Catholic world, just as the first wave of the tragedies of the second millennium began to strike Christ’s Body and Bride on earth, the Church.

For example, in the 11th century, the divisions between Eastern and Western Christianity reached a crisis point, and ended in schism. In the 12th and 13th centuries for the first time Christians began to use systematic persecution and judicial execution as a way to compel people not to abandon the faith. Later, witch hunting and the sale of indulgences added to the moral corruption of Christendom. In 1303, the pope was taken captive and made a puppet of the French monarchy. In the 15th century, western Christendom was shaken to the core by three rival claimants to the papacy.

Add to all this the spread of the Plague (“The Black Death”) throughout Europe, and the 100 Years’ War between Britain and France, and it’s not hard to see that the Catholic world desperately needed, first of all and above all, for human hearts to be drawn back to the love of the Heart of our Savior.

The Love of His Heart
To begin with, the Holy Spirit inspired the medieval saints to contemplate more deeply the wounded side of Christ, and find in it His wounded Heart of love.

Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1033/1034-1109), for example, wrote of the pierced side of Jesus on the Cross: “That wound has revealed to us the treasures of His goodness, that is to say, the love of His Heart for us” (Liber Meditationum et Oratium 10 in O’Donnell, p. 93).

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1070-1153) writes more broadly of the Sacred Heart, seeing it manifest in all the mysteries of His birth and Passion: “I will say with David, ‘I have found my heart to pray to my God’ (2 Kings 7:27); yes, I have found there the heart of my Lord, my Friend, of my Brother, that is to say, of the Heart of my amiable Redeemer” (Vitis Mystica in O’Donnell, p. 94).

Richard of St. Victor (1110-1173) wrote eloquently of the tenderness of the Heart of Jesus:

Weigh if you can the sweetness of a Heart which no bitterness could disturb or weaken. In the midst of His suffering, He pitied His enemies more than He felt the pain in His own members. More than all others, our Emmanuel had a Heart of flesh to compassionate, for never has there been a heart more tender in loving kindness. (De Emmanuelle, quoted in Margaret Williams, RSCJ, The Sacred Heart in the Life of the Church. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1957, p. 35).

Mystical Exchange of Hearts
Saint Lutgard of St. Trond
(1182-1246) was the first to speak of experiencing a mystical “exchange of hearts” with Christ: a spiritual phenomenon in which our Lord symbolizes for the devout soul the depths of mystical union with Himself through the image of a mutual transfer of hearts. In the writings of Blessed Hermann Joseph (1150-1241), we find the first devotional hymn to the Sacred Heart, including passages such as this one:

Gentle Heart, I love thee dear;
To my own heart bend and incline,
Till my heart can cling to thine
Devoutly, pressing close to thee. …
Let us live so, Heart to heart,
Wounded, Jesus, as thou art ….
Put my heart within thine own,
Hold me, leave me not alone
(Summa Regis Cor, in O’Donnell, p. 96).

In the 13th century, two new religious orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, swept across the Catholic world, in many places fostering authentic renewal of hearts and minds in the love of Christ. It is not surprising to find, therefore, that the early saints of both orders also developed a tender devotion to the Sacred Heart.

Saint Albert the Great (1206-1280), for example, the great Dominican pioneer of science and philosophy, often writes of the Heart of Jesus: “The water from his side and that which he poured forth from his Heart are witnesses to His boundless love” (Sermo 27 de Eucharistia, in O’Donnell, p. 102).

Meanwhile, the great Franciscan theologian and spiritual writer St. Bonaventure (1217-1274) frequently referred to the Heart of Jesus in his writings, and above all in this famous passage from his work The Mystical Vine (Chap.3, in O’Donnell, p. 101):

The heart I have found is the heart of my King and Lord, of my Brother and Friend, the most loving Jesus … I say without hesitation that His heart is also mine. Since Christ is my head, how could that which belongs to my head not also belong to me? As the eyes of my bodily head are truly my own, so also is the heart of my spiritual Head. Oh, what a blessed lot is mine to have one heart with Jesus! … Having found this heart, both Yours and mine, O most sweet Jesus, I will pray to you, my God.

Bringing delight
In addition to this general spread and deepening of appreciation for the Heart of Christ throughout the Middle Ages, many spiritual writers in this era also began to speak of something relatively new. They wrote of bringing “delight” to the Heart of Jesus in Heaven; they sincerely seek to assuage His “burning desire” and “ardent longing” for the good of souls. Other writers speak of Christ being “comforted” or even “consoled” by the building up of His Mystical Body, the Church; by the practice of virtue and piety; and by all those Christians who share in His work of redemption by their service and their sufferings.

Here, then, is the second part of the strategy of the Sacred Heart to drive back the world’s darkness: He wants us clearly to appreciate what we have already seen expressed implicitly in Holy Scripture: that we actually can bring joy to the Heart of Jesus by returning His love with our own.

In her book of meditations titled Showings, Bl. Julian of Norwich (d.1442) tells us that the glorified Christ has a “thirst” for our salvation — a thirst that binds Him closely to His Mystical Body on earth (New York: Paulist Press, Classics of Western Spirituality Series, 1978, p. 229-231):

And so Christ’s spiritual thirst will have an end. For this is Christ’s spiritual thirst, his longing in love, which persists and always will until we see him on the day of judgement. ... Therefore this is his thirst and his longing in love for us, to gather us all here into him, to our endless joy, as I see it. For we are not now so wholly in him as we then shall be. ...

For insofar as Christ is our head, he is glorious and impassible; but with respect to his body, to which all his members are joined, he is not yet fully glorified or wholly impassible. For he still has that same thirst and longing which he had upon the Cross, which desire, longing and thirst, as I see it, were in him from without beginning; and he will have this until the time that the last soul which will be saved has come up into his bliss.

In this passage, Julian of Norwich has given us a clear statement of the notion that the glorified Christ has an affective bond with the members of His Mystical Body, the Church, and that His thirst for our salvation can be fully assuaged — and one day will be — when He has completed His saving mission at the end of time. Of course, the heavenly Christ’s “thirst” and “longing” are not literally a spiritual “suffering” on His part, nor is the joy and consolation that the glorified Christ receives from the salvation of souls quite the same as earthly consolation; thus, Dame Julian calls it a “spiritual thirst” in Christ that will one day come to an end.

Let us hasten
Similarly, St. Jane de Chantal (d.1641) wrote a series of meditations for the yearly retreats of the Visitation nuns, the eighteenth of which bears the title: “By what means the religious soul may delight the Heart of her Beloved” (Oeuvres Diverses, vol. II. Annecy, Paris: 1874, p. 42). This same theme is especially prominent in the writings of Mother Mechtilde of the Blessed Sacrament (1614-1698), the foundress of the Benedictines of the Perpetual Adoration. In a short work titled “Le Veritable Esprit des Religieuses Adoratrices,” written about 1660, she states:

Let us hasten, then, my dear sisters, let us hasten to the most Blessed Sacrament. Let us go to gratify the longing desires of that adorable Heart; to please it, let us receive Holy Communion. With our whole heart and soul let us cast ourselves at its sacred feet, and say to it with reciprocal love, the most ardent that it is possible for us to have: O divine Heart! O lovable Heart! O Heart whose excellence and goodness cannot be expressed! Let thy desires find their fulfilment in me. Draw me wholly to thee that thy desires may be completely satisfied. 

In the whole of the Medieval era (ca. 1000-1400 A.D.), however, and even into the Renaissance (ca. 1400-1550) and the Early Modern period (ca. 1550-1650), one saint more than any other was privileged to come to know intimately the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and to express loving devotion to His Heart in greater breadth and depth than anyone had ever done before: St. Gertrude the Great, the mystic of Helfta in Germany. It is to her writings that we turn our attention in the next instalment of this series.

This series continues next week with Part 9: "Saint Gertrude the Great on Bringing Comfort and Joy to the Heavenly Christ."
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