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Saint Gertrude the Great and the Sacred Heart

St. Gertrude the Great“O Sacred Heart of Jesus, fountain of eternal life, Your Heart is a glowing furnace of Love. You are my refuge and my sanctuary. O my adorable and loving Saviour, consume my heart with the burning fire with which Yours is aflamed. Pour down on my soul those graces which flow from Your love. Let my heart be united with Yours. Let my will be conformed to Yours in all things. May Your Will be the rule of all my desires and actions. Amen.”

~St. Gertrude the Great

Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus

sacre-coeurTwo of my friends, one from France and another from the Swiss Cantons, hadn’t heard of the reasons for the devotion to Sacred Heart or of the persons of Saint Margaret Mary and Saint Claude. Even the image of the Sacred Heart was puzzling to them. Both of these people are young, and one is a convert. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that today’s feast is one of the most theologically profound of the year. The Preface for the Mass (Novus Ordo) reads:

Father, all-powerful and ever-living God, we do well always and everywhere to give You thanks through Jesus Christ our Lord. Lifted high on the cross, Christ gave His life for us, so much did He love us. From His wounded side flowed blood and water, the fountain of sacramental life in the Church. To His open heart the Saviour invites all men to draw water in joy from the springs of salvation.

The Preface for the 1962 Missal reads:

It is truly meet and just, right and availing unto salvation, that we should in all times and in all places give thanks unto Thee, O holy Lord, Father almighty, and everlasting God; who didst will that Thine only begotten Son should be pierced by the soldier’s lance as He hung upon the Cross: that from His opened heart, as from a sanctuary of divine bounty, might be poured out upon us streams of mercy and grace; and that in His heart always burning with love for us, the devout may find a haven of rest, and the penitent a refuge of salvation.

Our theology of the Heart of Jesus revealed in this one phrase: “Unus militum lancea latus eius aperuit, et continuo exivit sanguis at aqua.” And we know from St. Justin Martyr (d. 165) that “We the Christians are the true Israel which springs from Christ, for we are carved out of His heart as from a rock.”

Ultimately, what the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart teaches us that we have been given the grace that we should not let the enemies of true religion set the agenda of life. So often the image of the divine secularists point to is an abstract god who has no relation to humanity in any way. The Christian’s response is that we believe in a God who is love, revealed in the Incarnate Son, Jesus. For the French there is the reminder of  the Vendée and for the Mexicans there are the Cristeros…indeed, we have the Lord.

What follows is a anthology for the feast:

The Sacred Heart is shown wounded, encircled by a crown of thorns, surmounted by a Cross, and aflame with love for mankind. This symbol springs from the vision of the Sacred Heart had by St. Margaret Mary Alacoque.

“There is in the Sacred Heart the symbol and express image of the infinite love of Jesus Christ which moves us to love in return.” — Pope Leo XIII

The heart has always been seen as the “center” or essence a person (“the heart of the matter,” “you are my heart,” “take it to heart,” etc.) and the wellspring of our emotional lives and love (“you break my heart,” “my heart sings,” etc.) Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is devotion to Jesus Christ Himself, but in the particular ways of meditating on his interior life and on His threefold love — His divine love, His burning love that fed His human will, and His sensible love that affects His interior life. Pope Pius XII of blessed memory writes on this topic in his 1956 encyclical, Haurietis Aquas (On Devotion To The Sacred Heart).Below are a few excerpts which help explain the devotion:

54. …the Heart of the Incarnate Word is deservedly and rightly considered the chief sign and symbol of that threefold love with which the divine Redeemer unceasingly loves His eternal Father and all mankind.

55. It is a symbol of that divine love which He shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit but which He, the Word made flesh, alone manifests through a weak and perishable body, since “in Him dwells the fullness of the Godhead bodily.”

56. It is, besides, the symbol of that burning love which, infused into His soul, enriches the human will of Christ and enlightens and governs its acts by the most perfect knowledge derived both from the beatific vision and that which is directly infused.

57. And finally — and this in a more natural and direct way — it is the symbol also of sensible love, since the body of Jesus Christ, formed by the Holy Spirit, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, possesses full powers of feelings and perception, in fact, more so than any other human body.

58. Since, therefore, Sacred Scripture and the official teaching of the Catholic faith instruct us that all things find their complete harmony and order in the most holy soul of Jesus Christ, and that He has manifestly directed His threefold love for the securing of our redemption, it unquestionably follows that we can contemplate and honor the Heart of the divine Redeemer as a symbolic image of His love and a witness of our redemption and, at the same time, as a sort of mystical ladder by which we mount to the embrace of “God our Savior.”

59. Hence His words, actions, commands, miracles, and especially those works which manifest more clearly His love for us — such as the divine institution of the Eucharist, His most bitter sufferings and death, the loving gift of His holy Mother to us, the founding of the Church for us, and finally, the sending of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and upon us — all these, We say, ought to be looked upon as proofs of His threefold love.

60. Likewise we ought to meditate most lovingly on the beating of His Sacred Heart by which He seemed, as it were, to measure the time of His sojourn on earth until that final moment when, as the Evangelists testify, “crying out with a loud voice ‘It is finished.’, and bowing His Head, He yielded up the ghost.”Then it was that His heart ceased to beat and His sensible love was interrupted until the time when, triumphing over death, He rose from the tomb.

61. But after His glorified body had been re-united to the soul of the divine Redeemer, conqueror of death, His most Sacred Heart never ceased, and never will cease, to beat with calm and imperturbable pulsations. Likewise, it will never cease to symbolize the threefold love with which He is bound to His heavenly Father and the entire human race, of which He has every claim to be the mystical Head.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart has two elements: consecration and reparation:

We consecrate ourselves to the Sacred Heart by acknowledging Him as Creator and Redeemer and as having full rights over us as King of Kings, by repenting, and by resolving to serve Him.

We make reparations for the indifference and ingratitude with which He is treated and for leaving Him abandoned by humanity.

To carry out these general goals of consecration and reparation, there are quite specific devotions authorized by the Church.

Specific Devotions

From the earliest days of the Church, “Christ’s open side and the mystery of blood and water were meditated upon, and the Church was beheld issuing from the side of Jesus, as Eve came forth from the side of Adam. It is in the eleventh and twelfth centuries that we find the first unmistakable indications of devotion to the Sacred Heart. Through the wound in the side, the wounded Heart was gradually reached, and the wound in the Heart symbolized the wound of love.” (Catholic Encyclopedia)

St. John Chrysostom (b. ca. 347) in his 85th Homily on the Gospel of St. John wrote:

For “there came forth water and blood.” Not without a purpose, or by chance, did those founts come forth, but because by means of these two together the Church consisteth. And the initiated know it, being by water indeed regenerate, and nourished by the Blood and the Flesh. Hence the Mysteries take their beginning; that when thou approachest to that awful cup, thou mayest so approach, as drinking from the very side.

St. Margaret Mary Alacoque’s vision of the Sacred HeartThe waters of Baptism, and the Blood of the Eucharist, pouring forth from Christ’s side, brought the Church into existence just as Eve was formed from Adam’s side. And just as God took man and “breathed into his face the breath of life, and man became a living soul,” so at the Pentecost did the Holy Ghost come down over the Church and bring Her to life.

General devotion to the Sacred Heart, the birthplace of the Church and the font of Love, were popular in Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries, especially in response to the devotion of the Benedictine St. Gertrude the Great (b. 1256), but specific devotions became even more popularized when St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690), a Visitation nun, had a personal revelation involving a series of visions of Christ as she prayed before the Blessed Sacrament. She wrote, “He disclosed to me the marvels of his Love and the inexplicable secrets of his Sacred Heart.” Christ emphasized to her His love — and His woundedness caused by Man’s indifference to this love.

He promised that, in response to those who consecrate themselves and make reparations to His Sacred Heart:

He will give them all the graces necessary in their state of life.

He will establish peace in their homes.

He will comfort them in all their afflictions.

He will be their secure refuge during life, and above all, in death.

He will bestow abundant blessings upon all their undertakings.

Sinners will find in His Heart the source and infinite ocean of mercy.
Lukewarm souls shall become fervent.

Fervent souls shall quickly mount to high perfection.

He will bless every place in which an image of His Heart is exposed and honored.

He will give to priests the gift of touching the most hardened hearts.

Those who shall promote this devotion shall have their names written in His Heart.

In the excessive mercy of His Heart that His all-powerful love will grant to all those who receive Holy Communion on the First Fridays in nine consecutive months the grace of final perseverance; they shall not die in His disgrace, nor without receiving their sacraments. His divine Heart shall be their safe refuge in this last moment.

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.” — Matthew 11:29

Saint Gertrude the Great

S Gertrude helfta.jpg

One a few saints with the title “the Great” Saint Gertrude (1256-1301/2) is clearly a woman with a mission. Given by her parents to the Benedictine monastery at Hefta (some say it was a Cistercian house), a monastery known for its learning and saint-making, Gertrude excelled in her studies. One day, around the age 24, she realized that the excellence she had in secular learning was not what she needed, in fact, she considered this way of living vain, and therefore she was called to do by the Lord: to live singularly for Him. Was it earthy wisdom that saved, or heavenly wisdom? She began to change her modus operandi and followed the advice of the Apostle to be totally concerned with heavenly wisdom. 
Before it was a popular devotion, Saint Gertrude was known for her devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Eucharist.
Saint Gertrude’s extant writing includes “The Herald of Divine Love,” The Life and Revelations,” and the “Spiritual Exercises.”
May Saint Gertrude’s greatness inspire us to live more intensely for a deeper communion with the Lord, in this life so as to be with Him in the next.
“My heart has said of you, I have sought your presence Lord. 
It is your face, O Lord, that I seek.”

Saint Gertrude the Great

St Gertrude the Great.jpg

A pivotal figure in our theology of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is Saint Gertrude the Great (1256-1302). She was a nun of the Abbey of Helfta. Saint Gertrude is the only woman on the liturgical calendar to hold the title “the Great.”

Gertrude was an extraordinary student, she learned everything that can be learned of the sciences of the trivium and quadrivium, the education of that time; she was fascinated by knowledge and threw herself into profane studies with zeal and tenacity, achieving scholastic successes beyond every expectation. If we know nothing of her origins, she herself tells us about her youthful passions: literature, music and song and the art of miniature painting captivated her. She had a strong, determined, ready and impulsive temperament. She often says that she was negligent; she recognizes her shortcomings and humbly asks forgiveness for them. She also humbly asks for advice and prayers for her conversion. Some features of her temperament and faults were to accompany her to the end of her life, so as to amaze certain people who wondered why the Lord had favoured her with such a special love.

Gertrude was an extraordinary student, she learned everything that can be learned of the sciences of the trivium and quadrivium, the education of that time; she was fascinated by knowledge and threw herself into profane studies with zeal and tenacity, achieving scholastic successes beyond every expectation. If we know nothing of her origins, she herself tells us about her youthful passions literature, music and song and the art of miniature painting captivated her. She had a strong, determined, ready and impulsive temperament. She often says that she was negligent; she recognizes her shortcomings and humbly asks forgiveness for them. She also humbly asks for advice and prayers for her conversion. Some features of her temperament and faults were to accompany her to the end of her life, so as to amaze certain people who wondered why the Lord had favoured her with such a special love.

She had a vision of a young man who, in order to guide her through the tangle of thorns that surrounded her soul, took her by the hand. In that hand Gertrude recognized “the precious traces of the wounds that abrogated all the acts of accusation of our enemies” (ibid., II, 1, p. 89), and thus recognized the One who saved us with his Blood on the Cross: Jesus.

From that moment her life of intimate communion with the Lord was intensified, especially in the most important liturgical seasons Advent-Christmas, Lent-Easter, the feasts of Our Lady even when illness prevented her from going to the choir. This was the same liturgical humus as that of Matilda, her teacher; but Gertrude describes it with simpler, more linear images, symbols and terms that are more realistic and her references to the Bible, to the Fathers and to the Benedictine world are more direct.

Read the whole of the Pope’s October 6, 2010 address on saint Gertrude the Great.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus: What does the Church teach?

It bears reading and knowing what the Church advocates with regard to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Why? Because we are meant to be in relationship with God through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. We live in relation (communio) to Jesus –as Savior, brother, Redeemer, lover– through whom we see the face of God. In The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy tells us:

The Roman Pontiffs have frequently averted to the scriptural basis of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Sacred Heart8.jpg

Jesus, who is one with the Father (cf. John 10, 30), invites his disciples to live in close communion with him, to model their lives
on him and on his teaching. He, in turn, reveals himself as “meek and
humble of heart” (Mt 11, 29). It can be said that, in a certain sense,
devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is a cultic form of the prophetic and evangelic gaze of all Christians on him who was pierced (cf. John 19, 37; Zac 12, 10), the gaze of all Christians on the side of Christ, transfixed by a lance, and from which flowed blood and water (cf. John 19, 34), symbols of the “wondrous sacrament of the Church.”

The Gospel of St. John recounts the showing of the Lord’s hands and his side to the disciples (cf. John 20: 20), and of his invitation to Thomas to put his hand into his side (cf. John 20: 27). This event has also had a notable influence on the origin and development of the Church’s devotion to the Sacred Heart.

These and other texts present Christ as the paschal Lamb, victorious and slain (cf. Apoc 5,6). They were objects of much reflection by the Fathers who unveiled their doctrinal richness. They invited the faithful to penetrate the mysteries of Christ by contemplating the wound opened in his side. Augustine writes: “Access is possible: Christ is the door. It was opened for you when his side was opened by the lance. Remember what flowed out from his side: thus, choose where you want to enter Christ. From the side of Christ as he hung dying upon the Cross there flowed out blood and water, when it was pierced by a lance. Your purification
is in that water, your redemption is in that blood
” (ed. emphasis).

Devotion to the Sacred Heart was particularly strong during the middle ages. Many renowned for the learning and holiness developed and encouraged the devotion, among them St. Bernard (+1153), St. Bonaventure (+ 1274), the mystic St. Lutgarda (+1246), St Mathilda of Marburg (+ 1282), the sainted sisters Mathilda (+ 1299) and Gertrude (+ 1302) of the monastery of Helfta, and Ludolf of Saxony (+1380). These perceived in the Sacred Heart a “refuge” in which to recover, the seat of mercy, the encounter with him who is the source of the Lord’s infinite love, the fount from which flows the Holy Spirit, the promised land, and true paradise.

In the modern period devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus underwent new developments. At a time when Jansenism proclaimed the rigours of divine justice, the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus served as a useful antidote and aroused in the faithful a love for Our Lord and a trust in his infinite mercy symbolized by his Heart. St. Francis de Sales (+ 1622) adopted humility, gentleness (cf. Mt 11, 29) and tender loving mercy, all aspects of the Sacred Heart, as a model for his life and apostolate. The Lord frequently manifested the abundant mercy of his Heart to St. Margaret Mary (+ 1690); St. John Eudes (+ 1680) promoted the liturgical cult of the Sacred Heart, while St. Claude la Colombière (+ 1682) and St. John Bosco (+ 1888) and other saints
were avid promoters of devotion to the Sacred Heart.

Devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus are numerous. Some have been explicitly approved and frequently recommended by the Apostolic See. Among these, mention should be made of the

  • personal consecration, described by Pius XI as “undoubtedly the principal devotional practice used in relation to the Sacred Heart”;
  • family consecration to the Sacred Heart, in which the family, by virtue of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony already participating in the mystery of the unity and love of Christ for the Church, is dedicated to Christ so that he might
    reign in the hearts of all its members;
  • the Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, approved for the whole Church in 1891, which is evidently biblical in
    character and to which many indulgences have been attached;
  • the act of reparation, a prayer with which the faithful, mindful of the infinite goodness of Christ, implore mercy for the offences committed in so many ways against his Sacred Heart;
  • the pious practice of the first Fridays of the month which derives from the “great promises” made by Jesus to St. Margaret Mary.

At a time when sacramental communion was very rare among the faithful, the first Friday devotion contributed significantly to a renewed use of the Sacraments of Penance and of the Holy Eucharist. In our own times, the devotion to the first Fridays, even if practised correctly, may not always lead to the desired spiritual fruits. Hence, the faithful require constant instruction so
that any reduction of the practice to mere credulity, is avoided and an active faith encouraged so that the faithful may undertake their commitment to the Gospel correctly in their lives. They should also be reminded of the absolute preeminence of Sunday, the “primordial feast”, which should be marked by the full participation of the faithful at the celebration of the Holy Mass.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart is a wonderful historical expression of the Church’s piety for Christ, her Spouse and Lord: it calls for a fundamental attitude of conversion and reparation, of love and gratitude, apostolic commitment and dedication to Christ and his saving work. For these reasons, the devotion is recommended and its renewal encouraged by the Holy See and by the
Bishops. Such renewal touches on the devotion’s linguistic and iconographic expressions; on consciousness of its biblical origins and its connection with the great mysteries of the faith; on affirming the primacy of the love of God and neighbour as the essential content of the devotion itself.

Popular piety tends to associate a devotion with its iconographic expression. This is a normal and positive phenomenon. Inconveniences can sometimes arise: iconographic expressions that no longer respond to the artistic taste of the people can sometimes lead to a diminished appreciation of the devotion’s object, independently of its theological basis and its historico-salvific content.

This can sometimes arise with devotion to the Sacred Heart: perhaps certain over sentimental images which are incapable of giving expression to the devotion’s robust theological content or which do not encourage the faithful to approach the mystery of the Sacred Heart of our Saviour.

Recent time have seen the development of images representing the Sacred Heart of Jesus at the moment of crucifixion which is the highest expression of the love of Christ. The Sacred Heart is Christ crucified, his side pierced by the lance, with blood and
water flowing from it (cf, John 19, 34). (167-173).

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]yahoo.com.
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