We took all this for granted. We grew up with the devotion and were exposed to pictures and statues of the Sacred Heart so that they just became part of our religious background. We were not taught to read them as symbolic or to reflect on what they might mean apart from showing that God loves us and was willing to die for us. Some people even thought they were indications of what Jesus looked like. I once had a class of students who were amused by pictures of Hindu deities because they had multiple arms and when I asked them to tell me what people would think if they looked at a picture of the Sacred Heart, they replied they would think Jesus was an ordinary man – really? With a heart outside his body? One of the things that interreligious dialogue can do is to teach us a lot about our own faith and in this case help us interpret the symbolism of this devotion and see it for what it is – a finger pointing to a reality beyond itself, just as pictures of the Hindu deities do.
I have recently been rereading Adyashanti’s book ‘Resurrecting Jesus’ in which he mentions the Sacred Heart. Adyashanti is a Zen Buddhist teacher who acknowledges that although he is a Zen Buddhist that the Christian transmission has informed his spiritual path and life. For Adyashanti Jesus is a revolutionary mystic and he sees the heart of Jesus as “radiating forgiveness to all of humanity” and “one of the most potent symbols of the whole Christian spiritual tradition. It’s Jesus’ greatest gift, the most powerful healing balm that exists.” Adyashanti’s approach to the story of Jesus is to so enter into it that we become the story and if we can do this then we can “resurrect it from all the old ways it has been presented to us by those who seek to control us more than set us free as Jesus had intended it to do.” This is not a new approach to the story of Jesus. As someone brought up on Ignatian spirituality and encouraged in retreats to pray the scriptures and enter into the stories in an imaginative way I do know the experience of realising that the scriptures are my story and tell me something of myself as much as Jesus. This is also true for ikons so favoured by the Eastern Orthodox Church but also used within the Western Church. The approach to these stylised paintings of Jesus, his mother Mary or saints is to read and contemplate them so that the reality to which they point is revealed and their invitation to how we should respond becomes clear.
The pictures of the Sacred Heart are popularly rather sentimental without the artistic quality of ikons so it is rather easy to dismiss them and catholic homes no longer display them in the way they did in these post- Vatican II days. But Adyashanti’s book shows that the image reveals something important about Jesus and about us. The Sacred Heart shows us that Jesus was a man, wholly human, through whom the transcendent shone and who shows us the divine in human form. Here is a man with a heart on fire with love for humanity, a love which is ready to suffer for others. There is no separation between the human and the divine so that to embrace our humanity and all that is involved in living out our lives is to touch divinity, to touch God. Adyashanti suggests that if we surrender back into life whatever it throws at us then we are like Jesus. Whatever we can say about Jesus can be said about us. So, a text such as John 3:16 which says that God so loved the world that he sent his Son to redeem the world can be applied to us. The question for each of us is ‘can I so love the world that I pour myself into it as a loving sacrifice in order to redeem everything that was hurt, in pain and confused about my own incarnation?’. This, suggests Adyashanti, is the way of engaged realisation as compared to the way of transcendent realisation of the Buddha. It is freedom which is found in a deep engagement with the world, a gift to all. And it is to be found in the Sacred Heart of Jesus if only we have the eyes to see and understand it.