Catherine of Siena and the OG Sacred Heart devotion
As we celebrate the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, our minds usually turn to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and her heroic Jesuit confessor, St. Claude de la Colombière. St. Margaret Mary, a humble Visitation nun, received visions of Jesus in her monastery in the small village of Paray le Monial in central France. It was St. Claude who believed her testimony and dedicated himself to spreading the devotion.
But long before Margaret Mary and Claude, there was love for the Sacred Heart, although not precisely as St. Margaret Mary had shared it. (Indeed, through her instruction, devotion evolved to the form most of us know best, which includes: consecration to the Sacred Heart, an hour of prayer on Thursday nights to share in Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane, and the reception of Communion on the first Friday of the month.)
Medieval saints in particular prompted a flourishing of devotion to the Sacred Heart. They loved seeing Christ’s heart as emblematic of his humanity. And while the Franciscans spread devotion to the Five Wounds (emphasizing the wounded side) we Dominicans had St. Catherine of Siena.
—Catherine and the wounded side
For Catherine, souls are nourished at Christ’s side, the way a mother nurses a child. In imagery that might shock a modern reader, she writes about wanting to drink deeply from the blood pouring out of Christ’s side (a reference to the crucifixion). She even longs to be bathed in the blood of Christ, as if in a “bath” from his side.
Part of the reason Catherine is so much fun to read is that she’s full of these striking images. In another place, she talks about wanting to stow away in Christ’s side. She writes in a letter: “Do you want to be safe? Then hide yourself within this side.” His open side is full of “delight” and sweetness.” It’s an “open storehouse” that souls will never want to leave.
Both the idea of hiding in Christ and being nourished by his precious blood reveal that Catherine knows that the love of Christ will sustain her. She can’t love on her own. She wants Christ to love through and for her.
—The exchange of hearts
Another extremely moving account in Catherine’s writing is the report of a vision. She had been praying passionately the words of Psalm 51: “Create in me a new heart, O God.” Then it was revealed to her, mystically, that Jesus had taken her heart from her side and exchanged it with his own heart. After the exchange, she felt like a new person, able to love in ways that she had not before.
This union of hearts symbolizes the union of wills. To love with the heart of Jesus is to love in accordance with God’s plans. Living this way is the goal of Christian life!
—The secret of the heart
But the greatest revelation of Catherine is what’s commonly called “the secret of the heart.” She didn’t coin the phrase. It was St. Bernard of Clairvaux who wrote, “The secret of his heart, therefore, is laid bare in the wounds of his body.” And what is that secret? His love for us! The secret of Jesus’ heart is the depth of his mercy, made clear for all by his death. So great was his love that he took on himself the weight of the world’s sins.
Catherine said: “Hide yourself in his pierced side where you will see the secret of his heart. The First Sweet Truth shows that whatever he does to us is done with the love of his heart; and you should respond with love.” And that is the greatest lesson of all. What do we do with the secret of the heart? We do the only thing we can: offer our hearts to him in return.
Father Patrick Briscoe, OP, editor of Our Sunday Visitor.