There’s an expression in English: to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve. What it means, essentially, is to be open, to be vulnerable, to be genuine, to be transparent. What you see is what you get, as another expression would have it. It means showing, and feeling, the essence of the person.
Despite my growing up in France, where so many churches and cathedrals are named for the Sacré Coeur, I never had much attraction to the devotion. As a child, I found the Sacred Heart image frightening—and, honestly, a little gruesome. I didn’t understand why there was a devotion to Jesus’ heart, per se—why not, simply, to all of him?
I knew a woman who spent years working with the Peace Corps in Malawi, a grueling job that included the realization of just how much she had been blessed by being born where she was—and not in Africa. She saw preventable children’s diseases ravage families. She saw babies too hungry to even cry. She saw the horrors that over half the planet lives with every day, and “it broke my heart,” she said to me.
It was just an expression, I thought. We’ve all talked about experiencing a broken heart, haven’t we? But for Tasha it was real: she experienced an actual heart attack through the constant worry and concern she experienced for “her” kids, and she died. Tasha’s love tore her heart right out of her. Her heart was truly broken, and I’ve never used the term pejoratively again.
If one person can be that brokenhearted for those she loves who are in pain or distress, I wondered, brokenhearted unto death, then how much more so must Jesus feel brokenhearted for the pain of the world?
And the next questions followed… what does it mean, to follow Jesus on his path of love? Do I, like Tasha, like Jesus, need to have my heart broken?
That’s where the imagery comes in, for me. It’s not the fact of a heart: it’s the fact of a heart that gives everything. A heart that makes itself vulnerable to everyone in order to keep loving. Tasha’s family and friends all urged her to give up, to return home, to turn her back; she wouldn’t—her heart was in Malawi with the children she was treating. And as we know, Jesus also had plenty of opportunities to turn back, to go home, to let the world take its course. He wouldn’t—his heart was and is right there, with us, for us, in us.
Choosing to let your heart be broken—even to death—is a risky and terrible choice. Because if we really do wear our hearts on our sleeves, like Tasha and Jesus, then we give up the guarantees of a safe life. If we open our hearts to the poor, we can end up suffering as they do. If we open our hearts to injustice, we can end up ignored, ostracized, even killed. If we open our hearts to the sick and the dying, we can end up haunted by their fears and pain.
I was thinking of the cost of opening our hearts recently when I read of the Indigenous children’s bodies found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. My heart aches for them, and for their families, who never knew what became of their little ones—and for my Church, too, which was responsible for the children. What alternate outcome could have been possible, had those who took them from their communities worn their hearts on their sleeves? How many of those young ones would have survived if their wellbeing had been “taken to heart”?
There’s no compromise here. Either we share in Jesus’ vision, in Jesus’ love… or we don’t. In a sense, the image of the Sacred Heart has changed from being a painting on the wall to the greatest challenge of all time.
Yet this is its reality. It’s the reality of the Incarnation and it’s the reality of the Sacred, sacrificial Heart. Look closely at the image, and what do you see? Fire, a sword, the crown of thorns. It is not an easy path we’re being asked to walk. It’s the ultimate in vulnerability.
The Sacred Heart is, at its core, a representation of how Jesus loves us: completely, radically, sacrificially. The Sacred Heart invites to consider the most important questions of life: What would it mean to love the way Jesus did? What would it mean for me to have a heart like his? How can my heart become more “sacred”?
So… what do we do?
The corollary to Jesus’ death is, of course, the resurrection. The Eastern Churches sing, “Christ is risen from the dead: trampling down death by death.” Just as we die, we will have eternal life, the ultimate contradiction. Love is stronger than suffering, stronger than doubt, stronger than cruelty, stronger than death.
I am willing to wear my heart on my sleeve, to take the chance, to stand up for the innocent and the weak, to risk being broken—so that I can rest in that beautiful sacred heart, and live within it forever.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir
Image credit: Tacho Dimas via Cathopic