The image of Jesus that greets me as I walk into the school is familiar. His arms are opened wide in a gesture of welcome. The heart that is carved on his chest is surrounded by thorns and flames. Bright morning sunshine pours through the window behind him.
In many ways, I’ve grown up in the shadow of this image of the Sacred Heart. Prayer cards with Jesus’ bloody, exposed heart were constantly turning up in the papers on the counters of my Catholic home or taped to one of the sections of the kitchen wall devoted to my mother’s spirituality. During the summers of my childhood, my family worshiped at the Church of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Years later, I was the fourth generation in my family to be married in that church under a painting of Jesus and Mary pointing to the hearts on their chests. This fall I am beginning my tenure at Sacred Heart Prep. I see now that the Sacred Heart has been the writing on the walls of my life.
But I have not paid attention. Devotion to the Sacred Heart has struck me as odd, at best, and even a bit repulsive. As a young feminist, I have been eager to move beyond the bloody vestiges of pre-Vatican II spirituality that the Sacred Heart image signified to me. I simply did not understand its appeal—nor did I want to.
In June a close friend of mine returned from a trip to Haiti broken with sadness. Bryan travels to Haiti several times a year to work with a grass-roots organization in Cité Soleil, the poorest slum in Port-au-Prince. The reality of global poverty is not new to him, so his sadness was not the shock that many North Americans feel upon returning from an initial trip to the third world. Instead, it was rooted in the fact that the men and women he works with have become his friends. When they tell him they have not eaten all week or that they have spent the day trying to find a little bit of food to bring home to their children, Bryan’s heart is broken and he is unable to turn away. “It’s no longer O.K. that they have not eaten this week and I am eating three times a day,” he tells me, crying. “I can no longer put my heart back on the inside. I will not protect myself from feeling that pain.” In place of detachment, Bryan chooses solidarity, knowing that the price of friendship with the poor is pain.
A woman friend of mine recently met her beloved walking along her path. Last spring Sharon received a letter from a man she has known casually for a few years. In the words of that letter, Sharon finally heard the invitation she has longed to hear her whole life. It was an invitation to love and to be loved by the beloved, not just in the mystical realm, but in the everyday as well. As I have listened to the miraculous details of this unfolding relationship, I have celebrated with my friend and basked in the glow of the love that flows through their relationship into the world. I have marveled at how the love of the beloved effects healing that is at once intensely personal and profoundly public; the more my friend has had her deepest wounds healed by her beloved, the more of a healer she has become.
Recently, however, she called me to share some fears and doubts about the relationship. The couple had moved beyond the initial excitement of discovering the beloved in each other and were beginning to face some of the very difficult, human issues that come up in any relationship. My friend was angry and scared. She spoke about packing up her things and moving out of her apartment, which is in the same neighborhood as her beloved’s home. As I listened to her fears and frustrations, I began to sense that she was running away. “Why is it,” I asked her, “that when God finally gives you what you have longed for, you want to run away? You know that this man is your beloved—the one you have been waiting for. Instead of running away, why don’t you try keeping your heart on the outside?”
Next week, my friend Judy will attend a retreat with a community of which she has been a part for the past two years. In many ways, this community is the answer to her prayers. Judy has no family and has suffered from a profound sense of alienation her entire life. She has longed to belong to a community where she could love and be loved in all of her messiness. The “Beloved Community” that she is a part of is God’s answer to this prayer. But belonging to this community is not easy. The more Judy is known and loved—“warts and all,” as she says—the more she wants to run away. Still, Judy will attend the retreat with her vulnerabilities front and center. This time, she will bring her car, so that she knows she can leave if she needs to.
Another friend of mine is facing the possibility of losing his wife and his family. For years, he has let himself believe that all was well at home, even though he was aware of a profound sense of dissatisfaction with what looked from the outside like a very happy life. A recent crisis in his marriage has forced him to take a serious look at his relationships with his wife, with himself and with God. He has discovered, to his great surprise, that he has been running from himself and from God for most of his life. In the current crisis, his defense mechanisms urge him to keep running from pain by donning an attitude of spiritual transcendence. But he resists the temptation to reject his humanity and allows himself to feel his despair, trusting that God will birth new life from his pain.
It is November, and I am eight months pregnant with my second child. This pregnancy has been more difficult than the first. The veins in my right leg have not been able to stand the pressure of the increased blood flow in my body and have popped out, forming a lumpy track all the way down the inside of my leg. Watching my body change, I have often felt disgusted and have fantasized about having these varicose veins “taken care of” after the baby is born. Last week, however, I finished Wendy Wright’s book, Sacred Heart: Gateway to God. In the final paragraphs of the book, she reflects on the scars her three pregnancies have left on her body: “Each child impresses upon waxen flesh the unique imprint of its life. Inscribes one’s own life with an image all its own.... Each child occupies its own space and in growing presses and pushes out the bounded contours of one’s heart.” Wright’s words make me look at my body in a new way. Now I see that the marks on my flesh are the way my children’s names are set as a seal on my body; they are the visible signs of my love for my children.
As I stand in the hallway of the school looking at Jesus and his Sacred Heart, I hear him inviting me to follow him along the path of love. I know that the love Jesus offers to me is infinitely sweet and that it is the love I have longed for my whole life. I hear Jesus inviting me to receive that love and to pour myself out into the world as love. I want to say yes.
But I hesitate. I am afraid. I know that following the Sacred Heart leads right into the fire of divine love with all of its passion, its pain and its vulnerability. Though it is clear to me that Jesus does not want me to suffer abuse and that he honors my instincts to take care of myself, it is equally clear that there are no guarantees. Choosing to keep my heart on the outside means that I will lose control. If I open my heart to the poor, my heart will be scarred by their hunger. If I choose to let my love for the poor direct my life, I may even get killed. If I choose to believe that I can love the beloved in a human being, I may have my heart broken by his humanity. If I enter into a committed community with my heart exposed, all of my flaws will be known and I will be totally vulnerable. If I love myself enough to allow myself to feel all of my emotions, I will have to confront my deepest pain. If I love my son with great passion, I will experience profound sadness when he leaves home and will have to live with the pain of knowing that I cannot protect him. This is the reality of allowing ourselves to love the infinite in the finite and to be loved by the infinite through the finite. This is the reality of the incarnation. This is why the Sacred Heart is marked by fire, the crown of thorns and the sword.
Still, I find the Jesus standing in front of me totally irresistible. I know that he is offering me the living water. I know that he is showing me the path of eternal life. I know that whatever scars this path will entail will be marks of life not death. I know that surrendering to love—allowing it to flow through me into the world and back from the world into me—is the life I long to live. So, I take a deep breath, and remember that “love is as strong as death.” I put my heart on the outside and step forward—into the open arms of Christ.