Tag Archives: St. Margaret Mary Alacoque

Musical Mystagogy: St. Margaret Mary and the Sacred Heart

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

Today marks the feast of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647–90), a Burgundian nun who experienced a series of visions from 1673 to 1675 that ultimately resulted in her petitioning Church authorities to institute a feast in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Because of her role in promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. Margaret Mary's visions feature prominently in the stained glass windows of Notre Dame's Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
Because of her role in promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. Margaret Mary’s visions feature prominently in the stained glass windows of the Lady Chapel in Notre Dame’s own Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

In addition to the feast itself, St. Margaret Mary promoted acts of devotion in honor of the Sacred Heart, chief among which was the reception of Holy Communion on the first Friday of every month, a devotion many still practice to this day. It is for her devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and her untiring efforts to spread that devotion to others that Margaret Mary Alacoque is honored as a saint, and so today’s musical piece will focus not on the saint herself, but on the object of her unwavering devotion: the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The devotion to the Sacred Heart is twofold: on the one hand, we honor the physical heart of Jesus, the pulsing heart of muscle and blood with its valves and chambers whose very existence encapsulates the mystery of the Incarnation—the heart that testifies that “the Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14); the heart that was pierced by a lance and poured forth the precious lifeblood of Him who loved unto the end. On the other hand, we also honor what the Sacred Heart of Jesus symbolizes: the sheer, unmerited gift of God’s unsurpassable, unfathomable love and mercy, offered without reservation to all who would receive it into their own hearts.

Today’s musical piece, the motet Improperium Expectavit by 18th-century Italian composer Giovanni Battista Casali, is a setting of the Offertory text for the feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, taken from Psalm 69 [68]:21–22b. Translated from the Latin, the text reads:

My heart expected reproach and misery
and I desired one who would grieve with me
and there was none:

I sought one to console me, and I found none:
and they gave me gall as my food,
and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.

The text of today’s piece draws attention to both the physical and the symbolic elements of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. From the symbolic standpoint, the heart of the one proclaiming the psalm—understood in the context of the feast as the Heart of Jesus himself—is broken; it is inconsolable, overcome with grief at the devastation of reproach and abandonment. And yet there is also an immense physicality in these lines. Hearing this passage from the Psalms in the voice of Jesus, we are reminded perhaps of his words from the Cross: “I thirst” (Jn 19: 28). Here is the one who hungers and thirsts to draw all into the communion of life he shares with the Father and the Spirit, and his longing is met with derision; his thirst for love is slaked with a drink of malice. We see the juxtaposition with stark clarity in the Reproaches for Good Friday: “I gave you saving water from the rock to drink, / and for drink you gave me gall and vinegar.”

To contemplate the Sacred Heart of Jesus is not simply to contemplate the overwhelming love that Jesus pours forth from his Heart; rather, it is to contemplate the mystery that Jesus pours forth his love for us even as we wound his Sacred Heart with our sins. We see this mystery in the way that the Sacred Heart is represented in visual art: pierced, surrounded with the crown of thorns, surmounted by the Cross which ultimately stopped its beating, and yet, even in the midst of these wounds, it is still ablaze, burning with divine love, the love of the God-man who longs for nothing more or less than perfect communion with his people.

We hear this mystery in Casili’s motet in the way that musical dissonance (clashing/grating of pitches) gives way to serene consonance (rest/resolution). This is the way that nearly all Western music operates at some level: tension arises in the music that is ultimately resolved. The dissonance somehow serves to help us appreciate all the more the consonance that resolves it. In this sense, consonance seems to purify the dissonance as the notes are brought into harmonious communion with one another in the movement toward resolution. This is what happens when we allow the dissonance of our sinfulness to give way to the love of the Sacred Heart: we ‘sour notes’ are brought into a radiant harmony with Jesus as we learn to sing with ever greater fidelity the hymn of self-giving love he intones from the Cross.

In contemplating with St. Margaret Mary Alacoque the Sacred Heart of Jesus, may we learn to give ourselves over to the ardent love of Christ as it blazes forth from his pierced Heart, that the dissonance within our own hearts may be melted away and dissolve into the consonant, radiant harmony of life in God; that, in the words of St. Paul from the proper reading for today, we may be “rooted and grounded in love, may have the strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:17b–19).

At the Feet of and Entrusted to the Heart of Jesus

Hope BoettnerHope Bethany

University of Notre Dame, Class of 2015

Echo 12 Apprentice

This writing finds me in a familiar place, though at a different stage of life. I often come to sit at the feet of the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue on campus. When I came here as an undergraduate, I liked to think about sitting here as an image of Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus—the type of quiet listening, spent sitting at the feet of Jesus, that we think of when we think about Jesus in the house of Martha and Mary.

Johannes Vermeer's painting of "Christ in the House of Mary and Martha"
Johannes Vermeer’s painting of “Christ in the House of Mary and Martha”

One day this past spring (maybe because of this writing job, in fact; it has made the wheels of my mind continually turn and try to catch ideas for writing), I realized that my mental picture of sitting at the feet of Jesus and sometimes trying to force the sentiments of peace that Mary might have found was overly idealistic. I hope and pray that there will be many times in my life of sitting at the feet of Jesus, quietly and at peace like Mary. But Mary of Bethany’s time at the feet of Jesus does not image for us the only time spent at the feet of Jesus.

These scenarios also did, and maybe they do so more powerfully.

The woman caught in adultery found herself at the feet of Jesus.

 

 

 

Mary Magdalen, pouring the anointing of oil on Jesus in sorrow for her sin, began by crying at the feet of Jesus and drying those tears with her hair.

 

 

 

 

And Mary, the mother of Jesus, had to spend hours at her Son’s feet while at the foot of the Cross, experiencing the agony of watching her Son die.

 

 

And so at another point, I realized that my thought process of sitting at the feet of the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue here on campus, and finding my way to it no matter what state of mind and heart I found myself, more closely mirrors the way that St. Margaret Mary Alacoque wrote about the scenarios in which we ought to entrust ourselves to the Sacred Heart of Jesus than it did to any time Mary of Bethany spent quietly at the feet of Jesus, as Martha bustled busily around the house.

St. Margaret Mary Alacoque—the saint to whom we believe that Jesus appeared and revealed his Sacred Heart—expresses the reality that our lives belong at the feet of Jesus, or, in keeping with the feast we celebrate today, entrusted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus:

This divine heart is an abyss of all blessings, and into it the poor should submerge all their needs. It is an abyss of joy in which all of us can immerse our sorrows. It is an abyss of lowliness to counteract our foolishness, an abyss of mercy for the wretched, an abyss of love to meet our every need.

Therefore, you must unite yourselves to the heart of our Lord Jesus Christ, both at the beginning of your conversion in order to obtain proper dispositions, and at its end in order to make reparation. Are you making no progress in prayer? Then you need only offer God the prayers which the Savior has poured out for us in the sacrament of the altar. Offer God his fervent love in reparation for your sluggishness. In the course of every activity pray as follows: “My God, I do this or I endure that in the heart of your Son and according to his holy counsels. I offer it to you in reparation for anything blameworthy or imperfect in my actions.”

Continue to do this in every circumstance of life. And every time that some punishment, affliction or injustice comes your way, say to yourself: “Accept this as sent to you by the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ in order to unite yourself to him.”

But above all preserve peace of heart. This is more valuable than any treasure. In order to preserve it there is nothing more useful than renouncing your own will and substituting for it the will of the divine heart. In this way his will can carry out for us whatever contributes to his glory, and we will be happy to be his subjects and to trust entirely in him.

Life belongs at the feet of Jesus, entrusted to his Sacred Heart, in all circumstances. In joy and in peace, yes: but also in sorrow, and especially in contrition for sin.

And what do the feet of Jesus and entrusting ourselves to his Sacred Heart have to do with anything about writing? Oblation editor Tim O’Malley asked Sam Bellafiore and me to write “wrap-up” pieces about what we have learned as undergraduate fellows and where we are headed. As became more and more epidemic as the year went on, I am late in writing (spilling ramen on my laptop and destroying it did not help this process; requiescat en pace, old laptop).

But I am grateful for this last year, in which I have been able to write for this blog as a job (it felt like I was cheating every time I entered hours). I am grateful for what I have learned about writing, about thinking of writing as a kind of ministry, about Tim and Carolyn’s senses of humor and patience (and the abilities Sam and I had in testing that patience). Writing can be a kind of ministry, I suppose. As I prepare to begin master’s level coursework in theology and to serve in parish ministry during the next two years, this writing—and this lesson of entrusting it all back to the heart of Jesus for his glory (and not for mine), will continue to be on my mind. Because, again, as St. Margaret Mary said:

This divine heart is an abyss of all blessings, and into it the poor should submerge all their needs. It is an abyss of joy in which all of us can immerse our sorrows. It is an abyss of lowliness to counteract our foolishness, an abyss of mercy for the wretched, an abyss of love to meet our every need.

May we give ourselves over to that “abyss of love” of the heart of Jesus more and more, entrusting ourselves to his will.