Understanding the Heart

'One of the soldiers plunged his spear into Jesus' side, and at once blood and water poured out.' Jn 19-34  

Human life is full of variation. When we are young, we go to school and we look forward to the holidays. Afterwards, we start looking for a job, and when we are lucky enough to find one, we have our work to attend to. There is our family life, our contacts with friends, the media, etc. So many things draw our attention that it is quite possible to live outside ourselves, at the surface, without being truly ourselves. Often we have to get into some kind of personal trouble before we start sorting ourselves out. what do I really want? What is really good? What should I be doing? As long as we have not asked ourselves such questions, we are drifting along, and our life has no heart because we have not yet learned to listen to our own heart. We are still in exile. To live authentically as a person, to become our true selves, we have to draw on those inner resources, which God has given us: self-awareness, some light within, our deepest longings, our conscience, our hope. This is what Holy Scripture calls our 'heart'. In our times, we may speak of the core of the person, our inner self, interior life, spiritual life; but also the word 'heart' is still frequently used in its deep sense.

To quote an example:

In its penetrating analysis of 'the modern world', the second Vatican Council reached that most important point of the visible world that is man, by penetrating like Christ the depth of human consciousness and by making contact with the inward mystery of man, which in biblical and non-biblical language is expressed by the word 'heart'. Christ, the Redeemer of the world, is the one who penetrated in a unique and unrepeatable way into the mystery of man and entered his 'heart'.

(Pope John Paul II, in Redemptor Hominis, AAS 71, 1979, p. 273)

Click  Our Lady of the Sacred Heart for information on Our Lady


Holy Scripture pays much attention to the mystery of the heart: and there are over one thousand texts in the Bible which use the term 'heart', and the majority refer to the human heart. God takes a special interest in our heart: in his eyes, the quality  of a person depends on the quality of his or her heart. In the context of the promise of a new exodus, a new covenant, a new heaven and a new earth, God has spoken of what this means. In the New Testament we find indications that God renews our heart by his Son and by his own Spirit.


Throughout the ages, christians have often looked upon the Heart of the One whom they have pierced (Jn 19:37). They felt that the source of the new life was there. the father of the church had their vision of the birth of the Church from the side of the new Adam. In the second millennium the mystics discovered the love of Jesus' Heart. This mysticism was rich and beautiful, but the theoilogical expression of this vision was usually rather poor. Instead of looking at the heart of the new Adam as a hidden and deep mystery, eventually his heart was taken as an external symbol of love, thus forgetting the deep biblical meaning of the word. The human heart is hidden and deep; when we make it an eternal symbol, like in some advertisements, we run the risk of becoming superficial. It may be given to us to know the heart of someone, when he reveals himself to us by what he says or does, but then we have to be touched by his words or actions. The heart of someone else cannot be known dirctly. It is superficial to say 'heart' means, 'love'; what does on in the heart of a person could be something quite different.


In the Western world we often say that we reason with our head, and that we feel and love with our heart. This is of course a correct way of speaking, but is not the complete truth. We also like to quote Paschal: 'The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of'. When speaking along these lines we should rather say that 'thinking with the head' refers to a particular kind of thinking. Maybe we do not listen enough to the reasons of the heart. It is good English to say: 'In his heart he does not really agree', then we take 'heart' in a deep sense. to refer to some other cultures: it seems that in central Africa 'heart' is taken in a sense that comes close to the Biblical sense; the same is true of the Upanishads of the Hindus, and of the Koran of the Muslims.


When speaking of a 'spirituality of the heart', we are not reacting against recent emphasis on 'structural change' in society. On the contrary we believe that the coming of the Kingdom requires structural change, but it should be emphasized too that structural renewal of our heart. New structures can be introduced democratically only when our hearts are in the process of renewal; otherwise they would have to be imposed by force. Only hearts renewed by the compassion of Our Lord can envision a society in which justice dwells. Hence: a new heart for a new world. Biblical renewal is one dimension, but the spirituality of the heart has other dimensions. If we want a new heart for a new world, we have to listen as well to our own heart and to 'the heart of the world', to the deep longings of our time. There is the prayer dimension, the missionary dimension, the personal dimension, the social dimension, the dimension of art. I will try to make a contribution to a renewed biblical vision of the 'spirituality of the 'heart', by studying the Scripture texts that use the term 'hear'. Admittedly there are many other relevant texts: texts about the soul, the spirit, about love and mercy. But the texts about the heart are so many that by themselve they are already a very wide field of investigation, and when put together, they provide a surprising vision of God's plan to renew our hearts. some have said: Why do you speak of a spirituality of the heart? There is no other spirituality! In a way this is true: all spirituality demands a new heart. 'Spirituality' life refers to life in the Holy Spirit, the paschal gift of the pierced Heart. Still it is customary to distinguish different spiritualities; we speak, for example, of the Franciscan spirituality, of a Eucharistic spirituality. Now, we all need the spirit of evangelical poverty; we all need the Eucharist. When we speak of different spiritualities, we speak of forms of Christian spirituality, distinguished by some particular accent. The spirituality of the heart is the christian spirituality with some special attention for the human heart, finding its centre in Jesus; Heart and, ultimately, in the Heart of God.


Towards a spirituality of the heart

In the solemn words of Vatican II there, were many indications that now was the time for the followers of Christ to create a new heart. In this context, some started to look at the Heart of Christ in a new way. do we not find here the new heart that god promised to give us? How can we present the Heart of Christ in a way that it again means 'life' for us? How are our hearts renewed by his? What is the relationship between a 'new world' and the kingdom? In 1972 after the general council of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart a letter was published in which a 'spirituality of the heart' was recommended as a characteristic way of living the faith in our apostlic community. The letter suggested that we take from Father (later Bishop) E.J Cuskelly MSC some important contributions to such a spirituality of the heart. In the first place, he defined the meaning of the word 'spirituality': it is to be distinguished from devotional practice. A person may have various devotions, but we speak of spirituality 'when a person's central intuition comes into a person's life and under its special light transforms all things else that make up the whole of one's spiritual life'. Secondly, Fr. Cuskelly gives an outline of how he sees the spirituality of the heart - This terminology suggests several elements: it suggests that our 'religion of the heart' has become interiorised and habitual. 

Furthermore it indicates that:

We follow Christ who 'loved with a human heart as Vatican II reminds us; he shared our humanness that we might know that over us all is the  everlasting love of the Father. In God's good time the omnipotent love of God will have its way. it is this love in which we have learned to believe. 


Father Dennis Murphy MSC later wrote:

'When Jesus began to preach he called for conversion, for a change of heart. he continues to do the same today. His call for a change of heart is based on God's coming to us as a Father who loves us. This love is revealed not only in the words and actions of Jesus, but particularly in his own deepest attitudes and values, that is in his 'heart'. These two movements of revelation and conversion take place in the heart of an individual, but of necessity they go beyond the individual too, for they change relationships between people and hence should create a new form of society. Thus there is a third movement in the teaching of Jesus - mission into the heart of the world.



These three movements (revelation, conversion and mission) do not take place in chronological order. Each implies the others and they continually interact. If any one of them was neglected, we would be untrue to the teaching of Jesus. they sum up also what Father Chevalier saw in the Heart of Christ and what we speak of today as a 'spirituality of the heart.' (Cor Novum, no. 1, 1983, pp. 8-9)




In his writing POPE JOHN PAUL II has spoken frequently of the human heart as the centre of the person from which springs everything that a person is and does. He takes the 'heart' in a deep sense. In his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis art. 9, we read:

'The redemption of the world - this tremendous mystery of love in which creation is renewed - is, at its deepest root, the fullness of justice in a human heart - Heart of the first-born Son - in order that it may become justice in the hearts of many human beings, predestined from eternity in the first-born Son to be children of God and called to grace, called to love.'

In his message to the young people of France during his meeting with them in 1980 we find what is in fact a gracious example of 'spirituality of the heart'.

'You are also worth what your heart is worth... Whatever use human make of it, the heart - the symbol of friendship and love - has also its norms, its ethics. To make room for the heart in the harmonious construction of your personality has nothing to do with mawkishness or even sentimentality. The heart is the opening of the whole being to the existence of others, the capacity of divining them, of understanding them. Such sensitiveness, true and deep, makes one vulnerable. That is why some people are tempted to get rid of it by hardening one's heart.'

The same year the Pope wrote the encyclical, 'Dives in Misericordia in which he presents Jesus as the Incarnation of Mercy. The love of God is a merciful love, and it is the mission of the Church to bring it to suffering mankind. The Church will only be able to do that by turning to the mystery of the Heart of Christ.'

In 1986, Pope John Paul II wrote in his letter from Parayle-Monial to the General Superior of the Jesuits, in a passage about the civilization of love:

'In contact with the Heart of Christ, the heart of man learns to know the true and only meaning of its life and destiny to understand the value of a genuinely Christian life; how to guard itself from certain perversions of the human heart, and how to join together love of God and of neighbour. This way - and this is the true reparation requested by the Heart of Saviour - it will be possible to build upon the ruins accumulated by hatred and violence, the civilization of the Heart of Christ.'

The building of a new world is presented here as a work of 'reparation'; even as 'the true reparation requested by the Heart of the Saviour'. The contemplative mysticism of the Sacred Heart is becoming a spirituality fit for pastors and for people living in the world. For centuries, theologians spoke of the 'natural lapsa et reparata' of man; the world shared deeply in the Fall; it is high time that it also shares in the 'reparation'. The Kingdom of Christ, in contact with our suffering brothers and sisters, our heart learns its implications.




And our present Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI has written with great warmth and genuine love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In his book 'Beloved the Pierced One', while still Cardinal Ratzinger, he wrote:

'And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, 'Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' (MT 27: 46). The church, imaged in the Mother of Jesus, the beloved disciple and the other holy women at the foot of the Cross (cf. Jn 19: 25), prays the psalm through to the end to discover in its triumphant final verses (cf. Ps 21-31) the promise of a banquet for the affilicted and the hope of the resurection: 'The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; and those who seek him shall praise the Lord! May your hearts live forever' (Ps 21: 26) Psalm 30 gives the verse, 'into your hands I commit my spirit' (Ps 30: 5). Praying it from the Cross an the hour of his death, Jesus adds a single word, a word that rises out of the depths of his Heart and utterly transforms the psalmist's prayer into one by which the Son entrusts everything to the Father. 'Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, 'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!. And having said this he breathed his last' (Lk 23: 46).


'Jesus died praying . . . Although the Evangelists' accounts of the last words of Jesus differ in details, they agree on the fundamental fact that Jesus died praying. He fashioned his death into an act of prayer, an act of worship . . . The last words of Jesus were an expression of his devotion to the Father . . .  His cry was not uttered to anyone, antwhere, but to Him, since it was of his innermost essence to be in dialgue relationship with the Father (Pp 22: 24). Cardinal Ratzinger asks if, atfer the death of Jesus, there is anything more needed. 'After the tearing of the Temple curtain and the opening up of the heart of God in the pierced heart of the Crucified, do we still need sacred space, sacred time, mediating symbols? Yes, we do need them, precisely so that, through the 'image', through the sign, we learn to see the openness of heaven. We need them to give us the capacity to know the mystery of God in the pierced heart of the Crucified' (Spirit of the Liturgy, p 61). And again in his book on the Pierced One he wrote: 'In the Heart of Jesus, the centre of Christianity is set before us. It expresses everything, all that is genuinely new and revolutionary in the New Covenant. This Heart calls to our heart. It invites us to step forth our of the futile attempt of self-presevation and, by joining in the task of love, by handing ourselves over to him and with him, to discover the fullness of love which alone is eternity and which alone sustains the world (p 69).       


MSC Daily Prayers.pdf