“O Heart of Love, I place all of my trust in You. Although I fear all things from my weakness, I hope all things in Thy goodness.”
— St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690)
I am convinced that one of the greatest evils in the world is the misrepresentation–the painting of a false image– of God.
If a man breaks his arm, he will surely be in pain. The pain may be quite severe, but hopefully, given the advances in medicine and technology, he will be on the path to recovery. During this time, this man can pray to God and ask for healing.
If a woman loses her father following his fight with a long illness, she will certainly be in sorrow. The pain and emotional grief may be quite serious, but hopefully, given a supportive community and counseling, she will eventually experience joy and happiness again, even if there is still a wound in her heart for her father. During this time, the woman can pray to God, ask for His presence and for Him to mend her broken heart.
Tragedy enters. Someone commits evil. Natural disasters strike. In all of these, we turn to prayer, sometimes weakly, sometimes fervently. But what happens when the very essence of our fears is… God? How does someone pray to God when he or she is completely frightened by Him? Who does a person turn to when their image of God is so distorted, so grossly-misshapen, so twisted?
From the very beginning of human history, attempts were made to separate God and His children by way of fear. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, were deceived by the serpent, who tricked them into thinking that God was selfish, jealous God who didn’t want Adam and Eve to become like Him (Gen 3:4-5). In the Book of Job, Job’s friends wrongly tell Job that his suffering is due to his sinfulness, and that God is waiting for Job to repent before He offers relief. Perhaps no attempt to distort people’s perception of God was more ambitious than that of the Jansenist heresy from the 17th-19th centuries in Europe, particularly in France, Italy, and the Low Countries. Among the numerous heresies of the Jansenists, one of their chief beliefs was that Christ did not die for all, but only for an elect few. This false belief was symbolized in the crucifixes found within Jansenist churches, that of Christ on the cross with His arms stretched only narrowly. The Jansenist heresy spread like wildfire across Western Europe, distorting the faithful’s image of God as loving, gracious, patient, and kind. The Jansenist rigor also resulted in people abstaining from receiving Holy Communion– even when they were in a state of grace!
It was during this terrible time that the Lord revealed Himself to a Visitation nun, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. In contrast to the cold and distant image of the Jansenist “god”, Our Lord revealed Himself to St. Margaret Mary in a tender, loving, and merciful manner– by pointing to His Sacred Heart. He emphasized the importance of frequent reception of Holy Communion, especially on the first Friday of the month. He lamented the fact that so many reject His love and mercy, and stated His desire that Christians make acts of reparation for the ingratitude shown to the gift of the Eucharist. He offered twelve promises to those who hold a devotion to His Sacred Heart:
The Promises of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to St. Margaret Mary
- I will give them all the graces necessary in their state of life.
- I will establish peace in their homes.
- I will comfort them in all their afflictions.
- I will be their secure refuge during life, and above all, in death.
- I will bestow abundant blessings upon all their undertakings.
- Sinners will find in my Heart the source and infinite ocean of mercy.
- Lukewarm souls shall become fervent.
- Fervent souls shall quickly mount to high perfection.
- I will bless every place in which an image of my Heart is exposed and honored.
- I will give to priests the gift of touching the most hardened hearts.
- Those who shall promote this devotion shall have their names written in my Heart.
- I promise you in the excessive mercy of my Heart that my all-powerful love will grant to all those who receive Holy Communion on the First Fridays in nine consecutive months the grace of final perseverance; they shall not die in my disgrace, nor without receiving their sacraments. My divine Heart shall be their safe refuge in this last moment.
There are some people in the world who are simply scared of God. Whether it was because of family upbringing, a poor Christian education, or simply because of mental and emotional conditions, the fact remains that a number of people have a distorted and unhealthy fear of God. Nowhere is this more painful and burdensome than in the hearts of those who suffer from scrupulosity and obsessive-compulsive disorder. For them, their “image” of God in their mind has been tainted by obsessive thoughts, fears, and darkness. God is seen as a ruthless overlord, casting down hyper-specific blueprints for this person to follow, and if they do not follow it, their soul is doomed to eternal damnation. Phrases like “God’s will” carry within it crippling anxiety, as if God’s will is the exact opposite of their deepest, holiest desires. The very act of prayer is in itself an act of faith– an assent to divine truth that, even though they do not feel Him, they believe that God is listening to them. For the scrupulous, the sacraments only brings some relief. For example, some scrupulous persons will go to Confession, and then ask themselves, “How do I know that my sins are truly forgiven?” “What if I forgot some sin?” “What if I wasn’t truly contrite?” They are in a state of grace, yet they fear that their reception of Eucharist is a sacrilege. Healthy, awe-like fear of the Lord is replaced with a nervousness the Lord would never, ever demand from them. For those who suffer from OCD, it is not enough to simply reassure them, “No, God is a God of love!” While that is true and may bring momentarily relief, the “thoughts” return with a vengeance. And so, for scrupulous and for all of those who suffer from emotional crosses, it cannot be emphasized enough that they should seek the help of medical professionals, including psychiatrists, therapists, and even medicine. As the Catholic bishops in California wrote in their recent letter, Hope and Healing: “Mental illness is neither a moral failure nor a character defect. To suffer from a psychiatric disorder is not a sign of insufficient faith or weakness of will. Christian faith and religious practice do not immunize a person against mental illness.”
The image of a God who is constantly anxious, writhing his hands, screaming internally at every move we humans make is simply a false image of God. And yet, this idea remains locked in the brains of many innocent faithful. This is one of the reasons why today’s Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is so important. The idea that “God will love me when…” is erroneous in and of itself. God already loves us. Think of the greatest love a person here on earth has shown to you. God’s love for you is infinitely greater. The same God who created you, redeemed you, and sanctifies you, cares deeply for you. This is not mere sentimentalism– this is the Catholic faith. We believe that Christ loves us, despite our weaknesses and sinfulness. He offers Himself to us at every Mass, offering His very life to our body and soul as nourishment on this life journey. In the many images of the Sacred Heart, Our Lord points to His Most Sacred Heart, as if to draw our attention to the fact that, yes, He truly loves us with a human and divine love united in His divine person. His love for us precedes, and leads us to, our love for Him. As Pope Pius XII states so eloquently in his encyclical, Haurietis Aquas:
And so we can easily understand that the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, of its very nature, is a worship of the love with which God, through Jesus, loved us, and at the same time, an exercise of our own love by which we are related to God and to other men. Or to express it in another way, devotion of this kind is directed towards the love of God for us in order to adore it, give thanks for it, and live so as to imitate it; it has this in view, as the end to be attained, that we bring that love by which we are bound to God to the rest of men to perfect fulfillment by carrying out daily more eagerly the new commandment which the divine Master gave to His Apostles as a sacred legacy when He said: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you… This is My commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.”
Pius XII, Haurietis aquas, 107.
Today, on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, I want to express my thanks to you all, many of whom have graciously prayed for me over the past few weeks since my return to Boston. I am happy to tell you all that I am doing a bit better, and it appears as if the worst has passed. All I can say is this– if a priest or any religious authority tells you to get off your medication (medication approved by multiple medical professionals and your spiritual director), do not listen. The Church does not reject the good that comes from medicine and technology. Again, as the California bishops write, “Clergy and health care professionals, families and mental health advocates should work together to encourage a “both-and,” rather than “either-or” approach to psychological and spiritual healing.”
In many ways, I still feel weak and tired. But that’s okay. Because even in our weakness, Our Lord loves us. In many ways, our weakness becomes strength, because it is when we are weak that we rely more and more on God. The majority of my prayer the past 9 days has been in front of an image of the Sacred Heart. I prayed the novena, softly and slowly. Every night, upon finishing the last of the prayers, I would just sit with Jesus. I didn’t feel the need to say anything, and in many ways, I was afraid to. I just rested upon His breast, trusting that He knew what I needed. Anytime my mind wandered or anxiety spiked a negative image, I would just stare at the Sacred Heart, breathe deeply, and let it go. The Sacred Heart has, quite literally, saved my life. When all else fails, when my worries consume me, when I feel like a failure, and yes, when the very idea of “God” triggers a spike of anxiety in my mind, I turn to the Sacred Heart, and take refuge in Him.
God is good. God is loving. God is faithful. God’s love for us is unconditional, and essentially unfathomable. The Sacred Heart is both the symbol and the channel of God’s abundant desire to be one with us, as we, moved by grace, strive to be one with Him. For those who suffer from scrupulosity or any other mental illness, perhaps the image of the Sacred Heart will help.
It certainly has helped me.