We tend to think of the heart as either the physical, vital, beating organ, or as the place where our emotions reside – or as the central part of something – the heart of the matter.  “Heart” (Heb: lebab/leb/ לֵב;  Gk. kardia καρδία) is the most often quoted anthropological term in the Bible but it does not refer to the physical pump that drives the blood.  Nor does it simply refer to the seat of the emotions, our feelings.

The Heart in the Biblical World
‘In the biblical world it more likely meant the affective centre of our being and the place where moral desires are formed.  In Hebrew, the heart is the center of human thought and spiritual life. We tend to think that the heart refers mainly to our emotions, but in Hebrew it also refers to one’s mind and thoughts as well.’ (Lois Tverberg)  Someone described that as “desire-producer that makes us tick” (G. Archer), the place from which we establish who we really are.  ‘To appreciate this rich symbolism of the heart, we must remember that in Judaism the word ‘heart’ represented the core of the person.  While recognized as the principle life organ, the heart was also considered the center of all spiritual activity.  Here was the seat of all emotion, especially love.  As the psalms express, God speaks to a person in his heart and there probes him.  This notion of the heart is clear when we read the words of Deuteronomy 6:5-6: “Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.” (CERC – Understanding the Sacred Heart Devotion)

In the Hebrew Scriptures we find that David, in particular, is referred to as a ‘man after (God’s) own heart’ (I Sam.13:14) and it becomes abundantly clear that the centre of God’s very being – the heart of who God is – is gracious and compassionate.  As Isaiah prophesied the Lord saying: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.  See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.” (49: 15-16)  But the heart can be corrupted – it can become deceitful – which is why the scriptures constantly tell us to above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. (Prov. 4:23)   And why the psalmist prayed: ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God; and put a new and right spirit within me.’  (51:10)

And, of course, Jesus recognises the need for a ‘right’, renewed heart when he pronounced that it those who have a pure heart who will see God. (Matt.8:8)

The Sacred Heart
One of the great images that remind us of this truth – that God loves us with an everlasting love – is that of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Unfortunately it’s an image with which most non-Catholics are unfamiliar although the first Franciscan community for men in the Church of England was dedicated to the Divine Compassion.  And that is just another way of speaking of the Sacred Heart.  The Society of the Divine Compassion was founded at a time when devotion to the Heart of Jesus was becoming ever more popular and one of the three founder members of the Society, Fr. Andrew SDC, had a particular devotion to the Sacred Heart.   As he wrote in one of his meditations:

To rest a tired head upon Thy Heart,
And to be still –
To come to Thee from the whole world apart
And learn Thy Will –
And in that will, because it is Thy will, to live and die,
Knowing Thy love and will are one eternally.
that be my way of prayer –
That brings me where Thou art –
Heaven is there

He also wrote the hymn ‘O dearest Lord thy sacred head, with thorns was pierced for me’ which concludes with this verse:
O dearest Lord thy Sacred Heart
with spear was pierced for me;
O pour thy Spirit in my heart
That I may live for thee

‘Divine Compassion … strikes at the very heart of the Good News.  We sense that God is worshipful and, indeed, we are sanctified by his presence and his touch as we dwell in him.  But what Jesus has shown of the Divine nature is true of the numinous Being of the Father: He is above all compassion-ate, deeply caring, gentle as a Mother, and ready to heal, restore, forgive.’ (Br. Damian SSF)

‘The Sacred Heart’ said the Jesuit priest and writer, Jim Martin ‘is nothing less than an image of the way that Jesus loves us: fully, lavishly, radically, completely, sacrificially.  It invites us to meditate on some of the most important questions in the spiritual life: In what ways did Jesus love his disciples and friends?  How did he love strangers and outcasts?  How was he able to love his enemies?  How did he show his love for humanity?  What would it mean to love like Jesus did?  What would it mean for me to have a heart like his?  How can my heart become more “sacred”?  For in the end, the Sacred Heart is about understanding Jesus’s love for us and inviting us to love others as Jesus did.’

But the image of the Sacred Heart; bright red, crowned by the cross, surrounded by fire and encircled with the Crown of Thorns, can be a little too explicit for some Anglicans – too graphic, especially when Jesus is shown holding it out for our gaze – too ‘foreign’ and ‘emotional’.  Yet it clearly touches and provokes a response.  When asked during a School Retreat why Jesus’ heart should be shown outside His body, one child: “Because he loves us so much that he can’t keep it in!”

Yet that Sacred Heart is the mirror reflection of God’s own Heart which Jesus encountered through prayer.  The scriptures witness to the way our hearts need to be remade in the likeness of the Father’s Heart and how God wants to do this for us: ‘A new heart I will give you’ God says to Ezekiel, ‘and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.’ (Ez. 36:26)

O Heart of Jesus, Sacred, Passionate,
Anguish it was, yet anguish that was bliss,
To love them heart to heart, each selfish heart,
To clasp them close, and pray in utter truth –
‘Father, forgive, they know not what they do.’

One was the heart of him that ground the poor,
Poor weary heart, so blinded and misled!
One was the heart of her that reeked in shame,
Poor weary heart, so blinded and misled!
One was my heart, that wasted half its years,
And knew so little how to use the rest
To God’s sole glory, and the love of men,
Poor weary heart, so blinded and misled!
Fr. Arthur Shearly Cripps
(Anglican priest, poet, writer and missionary; ‘S. Francis of the African Countryside’ whose Shrine is located in Maronda Mashanu, Zimbabwe)

Fr. John Croiset SJ wrote about the nature of devotion to the Sacred Heart in these words: “The particular object … is the immense love of the Son of God, which induced Him to deliver Himself up to death for us and to give Himself entirely to us. . . .  The end which is proposed is, firstly, to recognize and honour as much as lies in our power, by our frequent adoration, by a return of love, by our acts of thanksgiving and by every kind of homage, all the sentiments of tender love which Jesus Christ has for us . . . .

Divine Heart and the Church of England
Deepening our awareness of and devotion to the Divine Compassion of God can enable us to grow in renewal of our own heart.  Perhaps the Church of England needs this renewal through a deepening appreciation of God’s compassionate love for each member.  The Divine Heart – the deepest part of God’s being – burns with love for each one of us and we, in turn, are to be set ablaze with love for Him as we seek to love our sisters and brothers – and our very selves in obedience to His word.