When I was a kid, I was pretty scared of the classic painting of the Sacred Heart that hung on the wall of my grandparent’s home. You know how the eyes of people in some paintings seem to follow you wherever you go? Well, I felt like that bleeding heart wrapped in the crown of thorns followed me. That’s pretty unnerving when you are a little kid.
Fortunately my understanding of the Sacred Heart of Jesus has developed a little over time. There are two scriptural images that are the biblical foundation for this devotion. The first is the image of the beloved disciple resting his head on Jesus’ heart at the Last Supper. It’s a wonderful icon of intimacy with Jesus, and tells us something vital about discipleship. Following Jesus involves becoming his close companion.
Then there is the image of the blood and water flowing from Jesus’ heart after the soldier has pierced his side with the lance. The symbolism here is raw and visceral. The very life-force of Jesus is poured out for the world, for us. Devotion to the Sacred Heart takes us to the very centre of the Redemption. He sheds his blood so that we might share in his life.
The meaning of these two scriptural images come together in an experience of St Margaret Mary Alacoque. She was praying before the Blessed Sacrament one day when she experienced Jesus take her heart and place it in his own, burning heart. He then returned her heart to her, only now hers was burning too. To debate what actually happened to Margaret Mary is to miss the point, because her experience is really Christianity 101. Our hearts are supposed to be set on fire by Jesus’ heart. Filled with the burning love of God.
A few years ago I spent some time on retreat in the town of Paray-le-Monial, where St Margaret Mary Alacoque received her visions of the Sacred Heart. I wrote the following poem as a result of the experience.
Paray- le- Monial
“The disciple Jesus loved was reclining next to Jesus…”
I wonder, do you pilgrim when you come,
exhale at the ordinariness of it all?
Pews, altar, ambo, tabernacle –
Solid if not stolid, and altogether unremarkable?
Do you wonder:
“will great graces be bestowed upon me here?”
for if not here then where, you
reason, little realising that grace does strike twice.
Are you awaiting wonders and signs in this
House of Apparitions
or do you nakedly seek the Christ
who did bear his heart here once?
Tell me, what manner of wonder
marks your passing pilgrim?
do you catch your breath, then inhale
the peace and power?
Have time and space whittled away to a needle-point
to this moment, at which a new unveiling is taking place?
Do you shudder, anticipation and agony
As truth runs you through
like a rapier-thrust of light
both unforgiving and merciful
Or are you blind to your apocalypse, my friend?
Do not fear, if all or part is hidden still,
Simply tell me this:
Can your heart keep time with his?
You need no other vision.
Seeing Swans is a reference to a poem by the Australian James McAuley. It is titled “Nocturnal“, and consists of a dialogue one evening between the poet and a swan that seems to be flying away, forsaking the world below.
The swan is a symbol of the Holy Spirit (a favourite image of McAuley for a favourite theme of his). The poet cries out anxiously to the Swan,
Do not depart,
bright image of desire
if you forsake us
dishonour in our deeds, death in our art
will overtake us
Then the poet seems to hear the swan reply, telling him not to complain “if absence rules the season”, because the “works of men” are secretly moved by a power beyond this world that, like the tide, ebbs and returns in order to “fight the wars of love”.
The poem gathers together some themes that are important to me, and that I intend to reflect upon in this blog: the brutality and ugliness that ensues when human beings try to live as if God did not exist; the enduring presence of the Spirit, especially when all around us seems dark; and that there is something in this world which is worth fighting for. And that, of course, is Love. Seeing Swans is thus an exercise in cultural exegesis – becoming aware of the Spirit who renews creation, even when night seems to have fallen.