Our Catholic Faith reaches up to heaven, out to our neighbour, and down into the depths of the soul. These three dimensions seem to divide our efforts into three separate tasks, liturgy, love of our neighbour and contemplation, tasks which keep on getting in each other's way. However, for those who persevere to the end, they are seen to be inseparable, all three being dimensions of any authentically strong relationship with God, all three leading to the same goal and doorways into the same place. In this essay we are going to look at the heart and discover how it connects us to heaven, to earth and to the whole cosmos. We shall then be able to see the relevance of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Let us start with three quotations from Thomas Merton.
We must begin by frankly admitting that the first place in which to go looking for the world is not outside us but in ourselves. We are the world. In the deepest ground of our being we remain in metaphysical contact with the whole of that creation in which we are only small parts. Through our senses and our minds, our loves, needs, and desires, we are implicated, without possibility of evasion, in this world of matter and of men, of things and of persons, which not only affect us and change our lives but are also affected and changed by us…The question, then, is not to speculate about how we are to contact the world – as if we were somehow in outer space – but how to validate our relationship, give it a fully honest and human significance, and make it truly productive and worthwhile for our world.“ - From Love and LivingIn the deepest ground of our being we remain in metaphysical contact with the whole of that creation of which we are only small parts. Thomas Merton goes further, going on to describe what , according to Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Eastern Christianity calls the "heart" or "deepest self".
“At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely ... I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is every- where.” ― Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
This was not Thomas Merton's philosophical theory, his abstract belief, or some monastic dogma: it was his direct experience, as well as a monastic theme in Catholic Tradition of East and West. He recounts his own experience.
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .
This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.” ― Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
The problem is that we live in a fallen world and in a fallen humanity that re-constructs the very being of things to serve ourselves, thus creating a false world and a false self, causing the "isness" of things to become opaque to the presence of God. Created Being, once it became reflectively conscious in human beings, denied its own nothingness and simply left no room for God. Thus the transformation of created being by sharing in God's life through the Incarnation, which was God's plan for creation from the beginning, could only be achieved by Christ's "obedience unto death". Christians are those who share in that obedience by dwelling in Christ and permitting Christ to dwell in us. The place where he dwells when we receive him in communion is our "heart" which is "like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven." It is here that we are united to everyone and everything else. Our heart, in metaphysical contact with the whole of that creation of which we are only small parts, becomes a monstrance of Christ's presence shining in the heart of creation. It is the Church's job to shine, deep down in the depth of things, with the light of Christ.
St Peter Damian also sees the heart as the centre of Christian unity. In "On the Dominus Vobiscum", written to Catholic hermits to explain why they say, "Dominus vobiscum...Et cum spiritu tuo" in the solitude of their cells when they pray the Divine Office. He says:
Indeed, the Church of Christ is united in all her parts by such a bond of love that her several members form a single body and in each one the whole Church is mystically present; so that the whole Church universal may rightly be called the one bride of Christ, and on the other hand every single soul can, because of the mystical effect of the sacrament, be regarded as the whole Church.
The cohesive force of mutual charity by which the Church is united is so great that she is not merely one in her many members but also, is some mysterious way, present in her entirety in each individual…..By reason of her unity of faith, she has not, in her many members, many parts, and yet through the close-knit bond of charity and the varied charismatic gifts she shows many facets in her individual members. Through the Holy Church is thus diversified in many individuals, she is none the less welded into one by the fire of the Holy Spirit.
And so the priest before he offers sacrifice and prayers to God shows by this mutual greeting that he is bound to the faithful by the bond of brotherly love; he does this so that he may make this commandment of the Lord clear by his outward actions, as well as keeping it in his heart. Because of this, he sees as present with the eyes of the spirit all those for whom he prays, whether or not they are actually there in the flesh; he knows that all who are praying with him are present in spiritual communion. And so the eye of faith directs the words of his greeting and he realizes the spiritual presence of those whom he knows to be near at hand. Therefore let no brother who lives alone in a cell be afraid to utter the words which are common to the whole Church; for although he is separated in space from the congregation of the faithful yet he is bound together with them all by love in the unity of faith; although they are absent in the flesh, they are near at hand in the mystical unity of the Church (Chapter 18, 73-74).
Because of the mystical unity of the Church which unites the many in the heart of the one and allows the hermit to be the voice of many in prayer, our vocations complement each other so that the vocation of each glows with the beauty of the vocations of all the rest. No one understood this better than Saint Therese of Lisieux who believed that her vocation "to be love at the heart of the Church" would give courage to the martyrs, zeal to priests, perseverence and patience to those suffering trials etc. She wrote:
Her desire to live all vocationsTo be your Spouse, O Jesus, to be a Carmelite, by my union with you to be the mother of souls, should content me... yet it does not... Without doubt, these three priviliges are indeed my vocation: Carmelite, spouse, and mother. And yet I feel in myself other vocations—I feel myself called to be a soldier, priest, apostle, doctor of the church, martyr. Finally, I feel the need, the desire to perform all the most heroic deeds for you, Jesus... I feel in my soul the courage of a crusader, of a soldier for the Church, and I wish to die on the field of battle in defense of the Church...
I feel in me the vocation of a priest! With what love, O Jesus, would I bear you in my hands, when at the sound of my words you came down from heaven! With what love would I give you to souls! But alas, just as much as I desire to be a priest, I admire and envy the humility of St. Francis of Assisi, and feel the call to imitate him in refusing the sublime dignity of the Priesthood....
Dreaming of the tortures in which Christians are to share at the time of the Antichrist, I feel my heart thrill, and I would like these tortures to be kept for me... Jesus, Jesus, if I wanted to write all my desires, I would have to take your Book of Life, where the deeds of your saints are recorded: all these deeds I would like to accomplish for you....
Each person has their own giftAt prayer these desires made me suffer a true martydom. I opened the Epistles of St. Paul to seek some relief. The 12th and 13th chapters of the First Epistle to the Corinthians fell before my eyes. I read, in the first, that not all can be apostles, prophets, and doctors, etc., that the Church is composed of different members, and that the eye cannot also be at the same time the hand.
Therese finds her vocation in charityThe answer was clear, but it did not satisfy my desires, it did not give me peace.... Without being discouraged I continued my reading, and this phrase comforted me: “Earnestly desire the more perfect gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way” (1 Cor 12:31). And the Apostle explains how all gifts, even the most perfect, are nothing without Love... that charity is the excellent way that leads surely to God. At last I had found rest.... Considering the mystical Body of the Church, I had not recognized myself in any of the members described by St. Paul, or rather, I wanted to recognize myself in all... Charity gave me the key to my vocation. I understood that if the Church has a body composed of different members, the noblest and most necessary of all the members would not be lacking to her. I understood that the Church has a heart, and that this heart burns with Love. I understood that Love alone makes its members act, that if this Love were to be extinguished, the Apostles would no longer preach the Gospel, the Martyrs would refuse to shed their blood... I understood that Love embraces all vocations, that Love is all things, that it embraces all times and all places... in a word, that it is eternal!
To be love in the heart of the ChurchThen in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: “O Jesus, my Love, at last I have found my vocation, my vocation is Love!... Yes, I have found my place in the Church, and it is you, O my God, who have given me this place... in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be Love!.... Thus I shall be all things: thus my dream shall be realized!!!”
I am a child... It is not riches or glory (not even the glory of Heaven) that this child asks for... No, she asks for Love. She knows but one desire: to love you, Jesus. Glorious deeds are forbidden her; she cannot preach the Gospel or shed her blood... But what does that matter, her brothers work in her place, and she, a little child, stays close to the throne of the King and Queen, and loves for her brothers who are in the combat... But how shall she show her love, since love proves itself by deeds? Well! the little child will strew flowers, she will embalm the royal throne with their fragrance, she will sing with a silver voice the canticle of Love.
Yes, my Beloved, I wish to spend my life thus... I have no other means of proving my love except by strewing flowers, that is to say, letting no little sacrifice pass, no look, no word--profiting by the littlest actions, and doing them out of love. I wish to suffer out of love and to rejoice out of love; thus I shall strew flowers before your throne. I shall not find one without scattering its petals before you... and in strewing my flowers I will sing (can one weep in doing so joyous an action?) I will sing, even if my roses must be gathered from among thorns; and the longer and sharper the thorns, the sweeter shall be my song.
The opposite is also true: if the holiness of each reflects the many-faceted holiness of all, if like Thomas Merton we are united to everyone deep in the heart where God's presence shines, and if our separateness is an illusian, we must also come to realise that we cannot separate our sin from that of others, and our sins are coloured by the many-faceted sins of the human race. As Thomas Merton points out, "Through our senses and our minds, our loves, needs, and desires, we are implicated, without possibility of evasion, in this world of matter and of men, of things and of persons, which not only affect us and change our lives but are also affected and changed by us." This leads us to Dostoevsky in his Brothers Karamazov and the teaching of the staretz Zosima. If our own vocation, when properly lived, contributes to the holiness of all, our laxity and sin can, at a certain level lead to the weakness in temptation by bad example, by lack of good example, by the lack of support for others in prayer, by making Christ's presence less visible in the world. If, however, we are united to Christ in the heart where humankind is most truly one beyond the reaches of sin, then, with St Therese, our love can become, in some mysterious way, the love of all who follow Christ, and, with Father Zosima, our own repentance can become the repentance for all who sin. We can be "responsible for all to all" because we identify with all in Christ at the heart of humankind. Father Zosima says:
"Love one another, Fathers," said Father Zosima, as far as Alyosha could remember afterwards. "Love God'speople. Because we have come here and shut ourselves within these walls, we are no holier than those that are outside, but on the contrary, from the very fact of coming here, each of us has confessed to himself that he is worse than others, than all men on earth.... And the longer the monk lives in his seclusion, the more keenly he must recognize that. Else he would have had no reason to come here. When he realizes that he is not only worse than others, but that he is responsible to all men for all and everything, for all human sins, national and individual, only then the aim of our seclusion is attained. For know, dear ones, that every one of us is undoubtedly responsible for all men -- and everything on earth, not merely through the general sinfulness of creation, but each one personally for all mankind and every individual man. This knowledge is the crown of life for the monk and for every man. For monks are not a special sort of men, but only what all men ought to be.
We unite ourselves to sinners, not by judging them like the pharisee, but identifying ourselves with them in their sin and repenting, with them if possible, and even for them, not as holy people for sinners, but as fellow sinners. To be a Christian is to identify ourselves with the whole race, no matter who or in what state they are: we are brothers and sisters.
Saint Therese believed herself to be so united with others that, when in the last eighteen months of her life all taste for religious practice was taken away from her, she felt cut off from God, with the emotions of an agnostic, yet she did not diminish her prayer life; and she prayed that, when God chose to deliver her from this suffering, he would, at the same time, deliver the real agnostics whose negativity she shared.
When, through living in the heart that has cosmic dimensions which are filled with divine Love through Christ's presence in the Spirit, the Christian comes to love universally:
Love all God's creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things.. . . for all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth. . . . Every blade of grass, every insect, ant, and golden bee, all so marvellously know their path, though they have not intelligence, they bear witness to the mystery of God and continually accomplish it themselves. . . . All creation and all creatures, every leaf is striving to the Word, singing glory to God, weeping to Christ, unconsciously accomplishing this by the mystery of their sinless life.
There is a purple passage in The Brothers Karamazov in which Alyosa realises the truth of Fr Zosima's teaching and, in ecstasy, embraces in love the earth, knowing he was connected to all reality.
The vault of heaven, full of soft, shining stars, stretched vast and fathomless above him. . . . The silence of earth seemed to melt into the silence of the heavens. The mystery of earth was one with the mystery of the stars. . . . Alyosha stood, gazed, and suddenly threw himself down on the earth. He did not know why he embraced it. He could not have told why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss it all. But he kissed it weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and vowed passionately to love it, to love it for ever andever. . . .What was he weeping over? Oh! in his rapture he was weeping even over those stars, which were shining to him from the abyss of space, and "he was not ashamed of that ecstasy." There seemed to be threads from all those innumerable worlds of God, linking his soul to them, and it was trembling all over . . . He longed to forgive everyone and for everything, and to beg forgiveness. Oh, not for himself, but for all men, for all and for everything. . . . But with every instant he felt clearly and, as it were, tangibly, that something firm and unshakable as that vault of heaven had entered into his soul. It was as though some idea had seized the sovereignty of his mind––and it was for all his life and for ever and ever. He had fallen on the earth a weak boy, but he rose up a resolute champion, and he knew and felt it suddenly at the very moment of his ecstasy.
Alyosa had come to love at Christ loved, identifying himself with all, even the worst sinners and with the whole of creation, like St Benedict who saw all that exists in a veil of light.
My final quotation is from St Isaac the Syrian (7th Century), a Desert Father who saw the rigours of the desert as a school where people can learn to love as Jesus loves. Here is his description:
What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.
The person who is genuinely charitable not only gives charity out of his own possessions, but gladly tolerates injustice from others and forgives them. Whoever lays down his soul for his brother acts generously, rather than the person who demonstrates his generosity by his gifts.
St Isaac teaches that God is not like us who are changeable: God can only love, and this love is without boundaries and embraces all that exists. The flames of hell are not God's punishment: they are the flames of God's love that threaten the egoism of the damned, hell thus becomes their own invention.
In this article, we have not mentioned yet the Sacred Heart of Jesus, concentraing instead on the human heart transformed by grace. If we, as humans, have such heart, Jesus, who is as human as we are and more so, must also have a human heart: and what a heart it must be!! Read once again the quotations and ask yourself how they throw light on the heart of Jesus.
Those of us who are concerned with Christian unity must remember that, before any formal negotiations and agreements, Christian unity begins and continues to exist in the heart. If it is not in the heart, no negotiations will ever succeed. The Sacred Heart actually unites East and West It does so because all who receive Christ in their heart at communion or in any other way, all take up their abode in Christ's heart. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, all who are united in his heart are also united in the hearts of each of us. This happens whether we recognise it or no. Deep in the hearts of the monks of Athos, Roman Catholics lie hidden because they are in the heart of Christ! The heart of Jesus is much wider than our prejudices.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart, and to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, that moon to Christ's sun, remind us what the Eastern monastic tradition keep telling us, that our religion at its deepest level, has its existence within us. Devotion to the Sacred Heart should not just be expressed in sentimental pictures and statues. To be authentic, we must dig down deep within ourselves, break through the rock of our egoistic infidelity, and find Christ's living heart within our own, knowing that all who are in there with us are our brothers and sisters.
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COSMIC LITURGY AND LITURGY OF THE HEART: MERTON ON SCHMEMANN & DOM ANDRE LOUF ON LITURGY OF THE HEART (both by Macrina Walker)