In the back of the church where we are members there is a statue of the sacred heart of Jesus that we pass on the way to take the kids to the bathroom (which seems to happen frequently, usually right in the middle of the homily). My kids, who are four and two years old, seem oddly intrigued by it. They almost always ask me, “Is that Jesus?” One time I tried to explain how he was pointing at his heart because he had a lot of love and compassion for all people. And I have memories, particularly from my very Catholic grandmother, of those cards or bookmarks with the image of the sacred heart of Jesus on them (like the one pictured here).
The readings for this week all seem to focus on the violence and suffering of being human. I was just at a meeting with a group of professional colleagues, and we wondered out loud if anyone can make it through this life and our culture without experiencing some kind of trauma? These can be overt acts of violence, but there is a more subtle form of violence – the kind that slowly, almost imperceptibly, convinces us that we need to close ourselves off to our bodies, our feelings, our deepest aspirations, our natural sense of compassion for others, just in order to survive this life. The author of Hebrews seems to be expressing this challenge when he writes that “destruction and violence are before; there is strife, and clamorous discord.”
The response and the call from the Psalm is to “harden not your hearts.” But how do we do this? How do we maintain an open heart when that exposes us to pain and suffering, our own and that of others whom we love? Well, the scriptures seem to make the answer pretty simple – faith. The author of Hebrews is given a vision of some kind but he can only see this vision “because of his faith.” And the disciples in Luke ask Jesus, “Increase our faith.” So simple, and yet impossible on our own. Faith is possible only because of “the strength that comes from God” (2 Tim 1:8) – in moral theology we call this the infused virtue of faith, bestowed on us by the grace of Christ through the Holy Spirit.
Faith is the only possible way not to close down our hearts, but to keep them open even amidst pain and suffering. I tell my students over and over again that one of the two greatest challenges to the Christian/biblical worldview today is the struggle to reconcile our awareness of the great suffering of humankind with a God who is unconditional love. (In case you’re wondering, the other is how to reconcile the view of God as active in the world with the scientific paradigm that leaves no room for divine causality, which is also related to the first challenge.) But following St. Paul’s progression from faith to hope to love (1 Cor 13), faith makes possible a hope that is sustained by a vision of something different. And as Pope Francis noted in his recent interview in America magazine, Christian hope is not the same thing as optimism.
I’ve done some fascinating research recently on the effects of emotion on mind-states, studied mostly by psychologists and neuroscientists. What we now know beyond a shadow of a doubt is that when we are afraid and when we feel threatened, our focus is narrowed (to prepare for the flight-or-fight response) and we focus only on the immediate surroundings and our own survival. In that state we are more likely to respond selfishly, defensively, and violently. But faith and hope take us into a wider space in which God is in control (theologians call this divine providence). And when we step into that space, then what naturally arises is a love that loves God above all else, and loves all of creation as God loves them, even to the point of love of enemies. This love seeks the good of all, the common good, not just my good. And this love – in the biblical Greek, agape, and in the Latin, caritas – is the pinnacle and ultimate goal of the moral and spiritual life.
When we see that image of the sacred heart of Jesus it is not just a nice image of the “barbie” Jesus (that’s what I call the blonde-haired, blue-eyed artistic representation of Jesus), but an invitation to step into that space where faith, hope, and love are made possible by trust in God even amidst the most difficult of times.