Symbols and Imagery in the Sacred Heart Devotion—Part 1: Origins

O Sacred Heart of Jesus

Dear Lector, as I remarked last time, the long series on Valentin Tomberg will be continuing. First, though, I should like to intersperse a little series which – with a few adaptations – is mainly extracts taken from my upcoming book: Cor Jesus Sacratissimum: From Secular Materialism and the New Age to the Catholic Mystery.

Today I begin the book extracts, once again quoting Valentin Tomberg:

Devotion to the sacred heart of Jesus had the task of rekindling the heart. Thereby the light, warmth, and life, streaming from the heart of Jesus, was to counteract the will-to-power and the intellect serving this will.

Be that as it may, the soul — understood as the most refined and deepest life of the heart — is by no means certain of survival, not even within Christian, civilised mankind.

All kinds of dangers threaten, and destruction is an ever-present danger. The life of the soul has to be cultivated and stimulated, as took place (and is still taking place) with the help of devotion to the sacred heart of Jesus.

What deeply moving moral deepness and beauty can be seen and experienced through devotion to the sacred heart of Jesus!

Valentin Tomberg, Covenant of the Heart, p. 254

As it happens, these were among the last paragraphs that Valentin Tomberg left to this world, coming as they do from an unfinished manuscript that breaks off barely a few sentences later. (This is now published in a collection entitled Lazarus Come Forth).

Yes: before he died, Valentin Tomberg was concerned indeed with the Soul of the World being suffocated by the tidal wave of materialism and so-called “intellectual enlightenment.” And in these final words, he points to the continued need for the Cult of His Most Sacred Heart …

As profound as these indications are, Tomberg was hardly the first to speak of the Sacred Heart in the context of the need for warmth in a world grown cold.

Indeed earlier authors also speak of the particular timing of the Cult of the Heart of Jesus in this regard.

Among these, we can turn to Bishop Bougaud, author of The Life of St Margaret Mary Alacoque. For Bishop Bougaud confronts a certain mystery of the public revelation of His Sacred Heart.

For Bougaud notes with astonishment, how in the centuries previous to St. Margaret Mary, there had indeed been numerous revelations of the Cor Jesu Sacratissimum. Thus he engages a long list of saints prior to St Margaret Mary, who nonetheless had revelations akin to hers.

Yes: the similarity is striking – yet St Margaret Mary is unlikely to have known of these. This is because the reports of the previous visions were buried and obscure. Before St. Margaret Mary, the Saints who beheld his heart tended to keep silent.

Thus here is the mystery that confounds Bougaud:

But what does astonish me, O holy lovers of Jesus, is your silence. Why, though so inflamed with love for this Sacred Heart, have you revealed its beauty to none? We seek among you apostles and evangelists of the Heart of Jesus, but we find only contemplatives, on fire, ’tis true; but silent.

Emile Bougaud, The Life of St Margaret Mary Alacoque

Your silence we should be unable to explain; for from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, had not one of you taught us the mysterious reason.”

Bougaud is referring to a report of a mystical encounter between St Gertrude and St John the Evangelist:

Once St. Gertrude asked the beloved disciple St. John why he, who first had the happiness of reposing on the Saviour’s breast, had taught us none of the secrets of the Adorable Heart.

St. John answered that God had reserved to Himself to make them known in a time of great coldness, and that He held back these wonders to rekindle the flames of charity at a time in which it would have grown cold and almost extinct. [Emphasis mine]

Emile Bougaud, The Life of St Margaret Mary Alacoque
Sacred Heart devotion - Symbols and Imagery
The Sacred Heart of Jesus appears to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque

Thus it was that until the time of the revelation of St. Margaret Mary in Paray-le-Monial in 1673, there was no popular Cult of the Sacred Heart within the Catholic Church.

But now after the revelations to Saint Margaret Mary, public prayers, litanies, books, literature and more began to flood forth, exhorting the Faithful to relate themselves to His Sacred Heart.

Very significantly amongst all of this, symbolic imagery of His Heart started to appear in all manner of places. All across the (Catholic) world, there emerged the visual representation of the Human Heart of God.

It appeared not only in churches, monasteries, schools, it was privately mounted in countless homes. There were even movements to place the image of the Heart of God on the flags of nations – most notably that of France, but also Ireland and Belgium …

See My Two-Part EWTN Interview—Or Continue to Next Part Below

Series Guide: This is the first of four published parts. Here are links to all parts of the series:

  1. Symbols and Imagery in the Sacred Heart Devotion Part 1: Origins
  2. Symbols and Imagery in the Sacred Heart Devotion Part 2: St. Margaret Mary Alacoque
  3. Symbols and Imagery in the Sacred Heart Devotion Part 3: On the Edge of Modernity
  4. Symbols and Imagery in the Sacred Heart Devotion Part 4: In Tridentine Catholicism
Books from Roger Buck

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10 responses to “Symbols and Imagery in the Sacred Heart Devotion—Part 1: Origins”

  1. Linda O'Brien Avatar

    I would be interested in this book you mentioned. It has been on my heart to form a Sacred Heart Society or perhaps a Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary society at my parish. I am in an above average parish but what we lack are devotions and I am thinking of how to change this and to add back what we have lost over the years.
    Ave Maria!

  2. roger Avatar

    Linda – thank you for commenting here.

    I take it you mean The Life of St Margaret Mary Alacoque. (The other book I mention has only one very potent paragraph on the Sacred Heart). Anyway the Life is so wonderful – and is actually a bit mistitled because if 2/3 of the book is about the life of the Saint, the other third is about the entire history of the devotion. If you do not know I have a review of it here

    Your interest gives me a certain sense of relief.

    I know there are people interested in a number of the books I review here. Copies of them even sell sometimes.

    But so far noone has indicated any interest at all in this wonderful title. Nor The Heart of the Redeemer by Timothy O Donnell (also reviewed here) – these I think are the best books in English for understanding the historical context of the entire Sacred Heart devotion and I am heartened to see somebody express interest – at last!

    I am sorry if the above seems like a sales pitch. But I am being real. I have felt real frustration over time, how very little interest there seemed to be in these books – frustration because of “what we have lost” as you put it and its preciousness ….

    God bless you and my prayers for what you want to do in your parish … It is so needed.

  3. kelly Daugherty Avatar
    kelly Daugherty

    For over six years I have been blessed with divine love in my heart. Prior, I had no idea that God could put
    this type of love in one’s soul on Earth. I wasn’t religious, didn’t go to church, but I have always loved God. When this happened to me, I though I must be going mad, but I have never felt so “sane”, and I do talk about having this love in my heart with others. The one’s who discouraged me from talking about it were the priests…! Go figure. Much love to all in knowing God exists beyond religion, for love is much greater. x

    1. roger Avatar

      Kelly, thank you for taking time to share of your obviously heartfelt experience here – which reminds me of my own experience for much of my life.

      I am also very sorry to hear that how discouraged and disserved by priests you have felt …

      My views on the things you raise here are significantly different in certain respects and without wishing to argue with you – I wonder if I might share my own experience/perspective here as a kind of “other side of the coin”.

      Which is to say not to negate your “side of the coin” but simply to add another perspective to it.

      Simply share for you or anyone else to do with as you will …

      God certainly exists beyond religion, as you say.

      It was this insight that inspired me in twenty years of committed work for what I would call “religion-less spirituality” – or at least the aspiration to this. I speak of effort towards New Age spirituality in places like Findhorn …

      At the heart of this commitment, I think was like yours a rich interior experience that I had completely outside the Church.

      It was the now -proverbial “no-brainer” to me that people had no need of the Church, when there people like yourself who were evidently experiencing the kinds of things you describe.

      Yes I met many people within the broad sphere of so-called “holistic spirituality” “religion-less spirituality” the New Age who shared things that seem akin to what you have shared here … sincere, honest things.

      And I was experiencing them myself.

      What happened to me?

      How did I shift from those twenty years to being someone who now feels we desperately, desperately need the Church? That religion-less spirituality is failing our world radically?

      This is a big question – which I explore in many places in this site and in my upcoming book.

      But here is a nutshell answer. Before the Church entered my life, I knew things that were indeed rich and satisfying to me. I had a faith in God. I felt love in my heart. I had meaningful relationships.

      All these things are possible, I know, without the Church.

      What the Church did for me – through her infinitely precious Sacraments – was not to negate all of the above – but ADD to it and deepen it immensely.

      Beyond measure.

      I cannot begin to express what the Church added to my life – depths of love and awareness and solidarity – as well as a humbling revelation of the darkness of my heart and how very far I have to go (which my so-called holistic spirituality did not give me) …

      (At least the beginning of a humbling revelation. I have along way to go – my point is simply that the Sacraments I think work to confer this vision of the broken-ness of our hearts in a way I never experienced in the New Age.)

      I will not say more here. But in a series that is currently appearing in my weblog Talking to the New Age, I am and will be exploring these issues further.

      Again Kelly, thank you so much for taking time to record your honest sincere experience here.

  4. kelly Daugherty Avatar
    kelly Daugherty

    The communion I have with God in my soul is one of utter acceptance,
    utter inclusion. It is a love that truly transforms the dross of anger and
    hatred, self-importance and material ambitions and levels them in order
    to be able to see that all things are equal-equally love.

    I have had many experience within the High Church to show me that Its Priests
    and Religious teach blindly and sometimes with great insincerity.

    I understand the importance and the history behind the Sacraments.
    I am not belittling this experience, but I feel those who are dedicated to God
    should be making way in the church for its own equality, for how can the
    Church of God be an advocate for walking in godly ways when it is lacking
    equality. God is equal in all ways. The Catholic Church is not equal in major ways.

    The Church needs an over-haul and a re-teaching of Early Christian teachings
    to get back in touch with being a church again and to be helping others find
    Godly love in order to flourish.

    The spiritual love that fills my heart is nothing I can describe, but there is no
    chance I will or could keep it to myself in a world filled with inequalities, loveless notions,
    and mass delusions of material grandeur. It is a Great Love for which I feel we will all experience,
    for it is who we truly are, and this love is a fire! A fire of humility leading to wisdom and striving
    for Godly love towards all.

  5. kelly Daugherty Avatar
    kelly Daugherty


    It may be that the lack of the mystery within the church is what gave
    rise to the new age movement.

    The whole base of Church is centered on a mystery! Yet we have
    drained the mystery through our own modern demise, so now we
    have a Church of administrators not very many priests who can teach of the
    mystery in attaining Gods love.

  6. roger Avatar

    Kelly, thank you so much for taking time here to engage with your very evident idealism and searching …

    I am very pressed now – but will say more tomorrow.

    Just quickly now:

    I have great resonance when you write:

    “The whole base of Church is centered on a mystery! Yet we have
    drained the mystery through our own modern demise,”

    You also write:

    “The Church needs an over-haul and a re-teaching of Early Christian teachings
    to get back in touch with being a church again and to be helping others find
    Godly love in order to flourish.”

    These last sentiments have been shared with you by untold millions of people for five centuries in Western Christianity (but not so much in Eastern Christianity – but that’s another story!)

    This kind of sentiment lies at the root of the entire Protestant Reformation, of course:

    “Overhaul” the Church and get back to Early Christianity.

    For what very little it is worth, this is what I also believed for decades …

    But an important question for me is after 500 years of effort to try to overhaul the Church and after Vatican II and ressourcement (the Vatican II word for getting back to Early Christianity …

    How fruitful has this been for restoring the Mystery, which I agree with you – the Church is “centred on”?

    Interestingly all these issues will also be explored in my Talking to the New Age series going up (next installment tomorrow) …

    And I am not sure it is co-incidence you are engaging with these issues here at this site now at the same time as this series is being presented.

    Again thank you very sincerely. For the issues you raise, the searching you invoke are extremely important.

    I believe they lie at the very root of the future direction of our civilisation, of the human race …

    More soon.

  7. roger Avatar

    Kelly, I promised I would add a bit more …

    Your comments from a soul I have never met outside cyberspace generate much in me.

    More than I can say in this comments box. But I have read and studied your comments several times and I will add a little more:

    I hear you say:

    “For over six years I have been blessed with divine love in my heart. Prior, I had no idea that God could put
    this type of love in one’s soul on Earth. ”

    I do not know you … but when you write these words dating it to precisely six years ago, I have little doubt that you are experiencing something most meaningful. As when you also write:

    “When this happened to me, I though I must be going mad, but I have never felt so “sane”

    So far in my responses to you, I have focussed on the global dimension

    I.e. What does it mean for the Church and the world when there are people who come to such experience entirely without religion?

    This huge global question is at the heart of this site and my whole life …

    But in emphasising these things I did not want to lose sight of you, unknown soul in cyberspace, recording your personal and individual experience.

    I thank you for all this. There is much more I might say, but I will simply leave you with a question.

    When you write:

    “The communion I have with God in my soul is one of utter acceptance,
    utter inclusion. It is a love that truly transforms the dross of anger and
    hatred, self-importance and material ambitions and levels them in order
    to be able to see that all things are equal-equally love.”

    Are you saying that you have attained a total acceptance and inclusion – truly transformed “the dross of anger … self-importance” etc within you?

    If you were (???) saying that, there is probably very little I could say to you of meaning regarding the Church.

    Because really where I am coming from, is that although without the Church I found a spirituality that did open my heart to some extent …

    But that personally speaking I do not believe I could go far enough without the Church.

    I needed the Church to help me in burning away “the dross of anger … self-importance” etc …

    And I need it still. Because the further I go into the Catholic Mystery, the more dross I see in myself.

    Thank you warmly again, Kelly.

  8. epsilon Avatar

    I understand what Roger is trying to say to you Kelly – at least I think I do!! Fr Blake’s latest here might help –
    battlement of rubies’ blogspot might also indicate something (link to parish priest’s letter re his cancer)
    Sorry I’m only on an iPod in Ireland so can’t do any clever tricks with text links – Ireland that has gone to the dogs it’s so much into it’s own way and / or it’s own early / preChristian roots – from the rock the church has been built – we are where we are in history – it’s up to us to recognise what is true – beware of the glitter, Kelly!
    This might all come across as gobbledegook but I know what I’m trying to say:) and it seems right to me
    Priests are human beings but when they give out the Sacraments they are in persona Christi – it doesnt have to be extra-ordinary to be real

  9. roger Avatar

    Thank you once again for commenting Epsilon.

    I appreciate your alerting me to the fact that I would seem less than clear …

    Your Father Blake link with its call to frequent participation in the Sacraments gives the key to so very much.

    And as for Ireland, the heart-breaking tragedy of Ireland, just so, so, so heartbreaking for any who have even a limited sense for what Ireland has been …

    I appreciate your comments, including at your own site such as here:

    As I have intimated before Epsilon, you represent something of a rarity in Western culture as a whole.

    You have in living memory a Catholic culture unlike anything known to most of us. A Catholic culture whose last dying embers I experienced … and was moved to the core of my being.

    When you write that Ireland “has gone to the dogs” (should that be wolves?)

    You write from a perspective that very few have. A first-hand perspective that knows a culture so different from anything known to the vast majority of English-speaking people.

    If you ever wanted to collect your thoughts on Ireland then and now in a longer piece, I for one should be very interested in reading it.