Sacred Heart & Immaculate Heart: Biblical Reflections

Sacred Heart & Immaculate Heart: Biblical Reflections December 3, 2016


The Heart of Mary, by Leopold Kupelwieser (1796-1862) [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license]




On the Coming Home Network board where I am the head moderator, a person (Catholic convert since 1997) wrote, asking about both the sacred heart of Jesus and immaculate heart of Mary devotions:

In several devotions attached to private revelations which have become popular over the last couple of centuries, I hear prayers being addressed to a body part or some other noun rather than to the name of a Person of the Trinity, or to a saint. Examples are:

(a) In the Divine Mercy chaplet, there is a prayer which begins “O Blood and Water…” and, I think, ends with “we trust in You”.

(b) In devotions derived from the Fatima visions, one will hear prayers addressed to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, or hear people speak of “having a devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary”.

(c) In devotions derived from the Sacred Heart visions granted to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, I hear prayers such as “Sacred Heart of Jesus, I trust in You”.

I find these usages confusing, at the least, and at worst, incredibly off-putting. If I wish to address a prayer to Jesus, to ask for His mercy based on His shed blood, I would pray, “Dear Jesus”, or “Dear Lord”, or some other direct form of address. The same with Mary – when I wish to ask for her intercession, based on the mother’s love I know she has for me, I ask her directly. Her heart is not a separate entity, nor is it capable of interceding for me, since it is not a person. Why would I address a prayer to it?

Aside from the clearly sacramental nature of the language of body parts, it is also just a convention of language. For example, if we call someone “sweetheart” we are saying they are characterized by having a sweet heart; so much so that we make that idea a sort of personification for their whole person. “Braveheart” is the same thing: a person who was characterized by bravery (William Wallace: the great Scottish national hero).

Or we will say, “he’s a brain” or speak of a “hired hand” and so forth. So the fact that this enters into Christian devotional language, too, should not surprise us. The Old Testament was very rich in such visual imagery. I have found a surprising amount of biblical material about two of the most famous “body part devotions”.

The person counter-replied (and my further response follows):

I am familiar, of course, with all those Biblical references to Mary’s heart, and the other references to Jesus’s heart. None of them try to refer to the heart as an entity, and the way they do refer to the heart makes perfect sense. I just don’t follow the conceptual leap that must have been made, some time in the early Middle Ages, from “Mary pondered all these things in her heart” to “Immaculate Heart of Mary, I trust in you.” I wish there were a way to trace the development from one to the other.

So what I deduce from this is that this type of phrasing is a spiritual shorthand to refer to concepts which might otherwise take a lot more words, and it developed in a spiritual and historical culture very different from the ones we live in now. I’m afraid I’m still going to find it a bit off-putting, but if the Lord wants me to be able to use these devotions, I’m sure He’ll show me how to get around that.

Could this not be an example of personification?

Secondly, perhaps you are familiar with the Bible sometimes using the word soul (which is the spiritual part of us only) for the whole person. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words has as one meaning of soul (Greek, psuche or psyche): “the equivalent of the personal pronoun, used for emphasis and effect.”

This is more strikingly apparent in the literary usages of the Old Testament, with the word nephesh (the usual Hebrew word for soul). The King James Version particularly brings this out (thus showing that this sort of literary device was more in use in the past). But in each case I cite below the Hebrew word nephesh is present. It is used every time soul appears in the OT in the KJV, except for one single verse (Job 30:15):

Genesis 2:7 . . . man became a living soul.

Genesis 17:14 . . . that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.

Exodus 12:15 . . . that soul shall be cut off from Israel.

Exodus 12:19 . . . that soul shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he be a stranger, or born in the land. (cf. 31:14)

Leviticus 5:2, 4 Or if a soul touch any unclean thing, whether it be a carcase of an unclean beast, or a carcase of unclean cattle, or the carcase of unclean creeping things, and if it be hidden from him; he also shall be unclean, and guilty. . . . Or if a soul swear, pronouncing with his lips to do evil, or to do good, whatsoever it be that a man shall pronounce with an oath, and it be hid from him; when he knoweth of it, then he shall be guilty in one of these. (cf. 5:15, 17; 6:2; 7:18, 20-21, 25, 27)

Leviticus 17:10 . . . I will even set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people. (cf. 17:12, 15; 18:29; 19:8)

See many many more examples.

So if a soul, which is not even the material part of a person, can be referred to as the whole person, why not also the heart, which in the Hebrew worldview was seen as the “residence” of the soul? I don’t see any difference between the two. If someone else does, I’d like to hear their thoughts. It’s an explicitly biblical notion.

There may not be anyone praying to a heart in the Bible, but the concept of part of a person being referred to as the whole person is clearly present, and thus the sacred heart and immaculate heart devotions are also of the same type of concept by analogy and deduction.

Yet another way to look at it is as an analogy to the sort of idea expressed in the statements, “those words really spoke to his heart” and “I really took your advice to heart” and (the old Hank Williams song) “my heart would know” or “we had a heart to heart talk.” Everyone knows that these are not literal statements, but we also all know what they mean.

So if we can, in this sense, speak to someone’s heart, what is the objection to praying to the heart of Jesus? I would contend that people know what this means. It is simply a more poetic, pungent way of expressing it, but it is not at all unlike language that we hear and use all the time.

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