My heart is overwhelmed,
my pity is stirred.
I will not give vent to my blazing anger,
I will not destroy Ephraim again;
For I am God and not a man,
the Holy One present among you;
I will not let the flames consume you.
Hosea 11: 8-9
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Sacred Heart. When I was very young it was a feast that I did not at all understand and appreciate. Much of the piety that surrounded it seemed sentimental and even saccharine at times. As I’ve grown older, however, I have come to be able to recognize, at least by weak analogy with personal experience, the profound insight the devotion to the Sacred Heart illuminates.
Today’s passage from Hosea is a very evocative one. If we are really alive, we have known the experience of “blazing anger” at one whom we love and who disregards or refuses our love. There is not a parent, or a sibling, or a friend, or a teacher or mentor who has not felt the pain which is often disguised as rage at one whom they love who refuses to recognize that love. To see one we love do damage to herself or himself while we stand impotently by is one of the most painful of life’s experiences. Yet, it is also a moment of deep and passionate life. If we have never suffered the experience of the pain that comes from our inability to save one we love from the harm they do to themselves and others, we have not yet really lived.
This was the life experience I lacked when devotion to the Sacred Heart was meaningless to me. Because I had not known a broken or overwhelmed heart, I could not begin to imagine a God who loves us so much, whose suffering and passion for us knows no bounds. As human beings, we have limits to the pain of love that we can bear. For God, in Jesus, love knows no limits or bounds. One of the great mysteries of the Incarnation is that the love of God could take the form of a human heart. At a point, we must close our hearts to the love and the longing if we are to survive the pain. Somehow, however, Jesus never closes his heart to the longing and passion of God’s eternal and unconditional love for us no matter our response. Jesus weeps not only over Jerusalem in the 1st century but also over our world today, and in every age.
This feast day calls us to remember, not just cognitively but with our whole being, the love of God for us and for all. It also calls us to imitate Jesus, albeit imperfectly, by doing all we can to keep our hearts open to the deep life, but also acute pain, that comes with being in love. We touch the limits of our capacity to love when we fall into cynicism and seek refuge in distancing from life. We can stretch those limits by continuing to care when we become aware that we are beginning to close our hearts in the face of a love that seems ineffective and fruitless. We learn in Jesus that it is not success but the passion that is redemptive. Today we celebrate the truth that, for whatever its pain, we are here on earth, in the words of William Blake, “to learn to bear the beams of love.”
The Black Boy
My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav’d of light.
My mother taught me underneath a tree
And sitting down before the heat of day,
She took me on her lap and kissed me,
And pointing to the east began to say.
Look on the rising sun: there God does live
And gives his light, and gives his heat away.
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning joy in the noonday.
And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love,
And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.
For when our souls have learn’d the heat to bear
The cloud will vanish we shall hear his voice.
Saying: come out from the grove my love & care,
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.
Thus did my mother say and kissed me,
And thus I say to little English boy.
When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy:
Ill shade him from the heat till he can bear,
To lean in joy upon our fathers knee.
And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him and he will then love me.