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The Living Wellspring

This presentation on Francis de Sales and the Sacred Heart was given at the 18th Annual Conference on the Spirituality of St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal at the Georgetown Visitation, Washington D.C., August 3-6 2000.

The presentation is available on video and audio cassettes from DeSales Resource Center.

Dear friends!

It's very special for me to be here - to learn from you and to speak to you. I've come a long way across the ocean to be here, but this journey is just a small part of a long spiritual journey - towards the Sacred Heart, and to places deep within my own heart.

My talk will be based on the work with my master thesis, which was on the following theme: St. Francis de Sales and the Devotion to the Sacred Heart. This thesis was finished in 1996, after I spent a month of research at the DeSales Resource Center in Stella Niagara, New York.

My talk will be in two parts:

  • why did I choose this topic for my thesis
  • why do find that the thoughts of Francis on the Sacred Heart still communicate today.

Before I start on the first part, I want to share with you a short quotation from Oscar Wilde: "How else but through a broken heart may Lord Christ enter in?" [1]

This is very relevant to the Salesian spirituality of the heart, because at the center of this statement is the need for humility. If you turn the statement around, it applies to the Sacred Heart, and to what I will be speaking of: "How else but through his wounded Heart may we enter Christ?"

Part 1

The first part – why did I choose the Sacred Heart as the topic of my thesis – is quite personal:

My parents are both atheists, and I was brought up to believe in nothing supernatural. I was taught to believe in love, though - that love in the end will conquer all, and that loving and enduring is the only way to make a difference.

When I left home to study, after quite a lonely childhood, I had expected that the other students would share at least some of this ideal. I found - of course - that in this respect they were no different than highschool kids. They are mostly concerned with getting ahead and having a good time.

This realization made me feel terribly lonely. Without real companions, I saw no way that I could keep my dream - realize my ideal. I went into a long lasting crisis - until God surprised me: I discovered that love has a source, a wellspring, and if you connect to it, it will keep flowing stronger and stronger.

Shortly after this, I was baptized in the Lutheran Church of Norway. About 90% of the population are members of this church, and since I knew little about the different churches, It seemed the natural thing to do.

I soon found out that I didn't fit in. So I went about finding my own way. To make up for not having a christian childhood, I started studying theology, just a year after my baptism. This way, I could ask all the questions I wanted, and get some solid answers. This was a wonderful time of growing and reaching for something new. You could say that my teachers and my fellow students were my church.

During my studies, I came across a newly published catholic prayer book. Although it posed more questions than it answered - at the time - I found something to hold on to in my swirling search. In that prayer book I saw the outlines of the life I longed for - a life long movement towards God, nourished by the sacraments. To have the companionship of the saints also struck me as something very precious, and they became the friends I had longed for to share my dream and my longing.

For the feast of the Sacred Heart, I found a prayer by William of St. Thierry, a cistercian monk who lived from 1085 to 1148:

´The treasures of your glory, Lord, were hidden in your heaven. But when your Son, our Lord and redeemer was hanging upon the cross, the soldier opened his side with the spear and the sacraments of our salvation poured out as blood and water. Now we do not only place our finger or our hand in his side like Thomas did. We enter through the open gate, all the way in to the shrine of your soul where all the fullness of God dwells, and all our comfort and salvation. Lord, open the gates of the ark and let your chosen ones enter. Open the door of your body, that all who desire the secrets of the Son can enter. And let them drink of your hidden wellsprings, and let them taste the price of redemption.ª[2]

This prayer seemed to me to be about my own experience: My questions and doubts were like Thomas', and what I had found was the wellspring of the fullness of God, that William describes.

About the same time, I went to Paris for the first time. I have never been so confused about faith as I was then, but still I made a secret pilgrimage to the basilica of the Sacred Heart. I had no words - almost no faith, but thinking of William of St. Thierry's prayer, I said my own prayer without words - and things started to happen.

A year later I became a catholic. It wasn't the end of my search, or my questions, but I was home.

At this time, I had to find a subject for my master's thesis. I wanted to write about the Sacred Heart, but in all the libraries of Norway, there wasn't a single book on the subject. Norway is a protestant country and the Sacred Heart is a catholic phenomenon.

My last chance was to find an author who had written prayers, letters and so on about the Sacred Heart - someone who was to be found in the libraries. I had four or five names, all great saints, and I found one book: The one on the letters of Francis and Jane that Fr. Joseph Power, Wendy Wright and Péronne Marie Thibert did for the Classics of Western Spirituality series.

This excellent book was my introduction to the Salesian universe. There I even found the address to the DeSales Resource Center in Stella Niagara, New York. I wrote a letter and got a warm response from Fr. Joe Power. My contact with the Resource Center is what made it possible for me to write my thesis. I spent a wonderful month studying in the library there, and when I was home, Fr. Joe supplied books and articles by mail across the Atlantic Ocean.

Studying for my thesis and writing it shaped my faith, and you could say that it was an answer to my prayer.

Part 2

I have now come to the second part of my talk, where I will explain why I think that the thoughts of Francis on this subject are as relevant as ever, after almost 400 years.

Let's start with the image of the heart. Why did Francis choose this image and why is it so powerful?

Francis had a wide circle of readers:

  • from the very young to the very old
  • from cloistered nuns to mothers and fathers
  • from poor maid servants to the ladies at the court of the king

He still has: look at us here today.

If they were all to understand, he had to use images that spoke to all sorts of people, images capable of representing and clarifying his deepest thoughts.

The heart is such an image – so strongly connected to human experiences in all ages that it helps Francis to communicate across the centuries.

The heart was used as a religious image by the ancient Egyptians, Incas, Hindus, Jews and Christians. To them all, the heart represents the center of the human person. Our idea of the heart – that it is a pump aiding blood circulation, a powerful muscle, nothing more – is a young one.

In fact, the theory of blood circulation did not appear until 1616, the year Francis' Treatise on the Love of God was first published. However, this theory did not lead to our mechanistic understanding of the heart right a way. William Harvey, who developed this theory, said of the heart that:

"…it is the household divinity which, discharging its function, nourishes, cherishes, quickens the whole body, and is indeed the foundation of life, the source of all action… The heart, like a prince in a kingdom, in whose hands lie the chief and highest authority, rules over all."[3]

The heart was thought to be the center not only of physical life, but of the whole person – will, intellect and emotions. The heart was the seat of the soul.

How was it possible for a man like Harvey – a groundbreaking scientist – to mix scientific facts with superstition in this way? Really he didn't. There was no strict dichotomy between body and soul in the medicine and psychology of his time. (And we are coming round today to understanding that this is a wise way of looking at it).

Mental and physical suffering were thought to be almost interchangeable. For instance, it was thought that if someone hurt your feelings really bad, this could leave a physical wound in the heart. This is why we still say today that someone has got a broken heart.

Even though our scientific theories of the heart and of the entire world today are mostly mechanistic, this still makes sense in our everyday language. We still talk of giving someone our heart, and this is obviously not a muscle we are thinking of, but our love, our care, attention and affection. Even though pink candy seems to be what many would think of when you say "heart", most people know that it is really something quite different, something precious and important.

So - how does the image of the heart speak to us today, in spite of our largely mechanistic worldview? It speaks on several levels. I will mention two:

Many will grasp the symbolic meaning of the heart. Sayings like "the heart of the matter" shows that we still see the heart as a symbol for the center, for instance of our personality. Both ancient mysticism and modern psychotherapy shows that we have to find the hidden center to reach our real destination, and that this may be a painful journey.

Moreover, the mechanistic world view is loosing ground. Modern medicine have accepted psychosomatic phenomena, for instance that cardio-vascular diseases and even some forms of cancer can be caused by stress or personal, mental distress. Through various forms of holistic psyhco- and physiotherapies, we have learned about the connections between body and soul. In this way we are closer to an understanding of the worldview of Francis and his contemporaries.

How did Francis use the image of the heart? In a lot of ways – he used it often, and in many different contexts. He speaks of the heart of God, The heart of Christ and the heart of the person, and he describes a dynamic movement of love between the tree. Have a look at this text from the third book of the Treatise. It describes a ladder between heaven and earth, from heart to heart:

"We descend from the first to the last, that is, from the fruit, which is glory, to the root of this fair tree, which is the redemption wrought by our Savior. God's bounty gives glory in succession to merit, merit in succession to charity, charity in succession to penitence, penitence in succession to obedience, obedience in succession to vocation, vocation in succession to our Saviors redemption. On this last is based that whole mystical ladder…, both at its end in heaven, since it rests upon the loving bosom of the eternal Father…, and at its end on earth, since it is planted in the bosom and the pierced side of our Savior, who for this cause died upon Mount Calvary."

To Francis, the heart of Christ is what makes our ascent to the heart of the Father possible. On earth, the ladder is planted in the pierced side of Christ, in his Sacred Heart. His wounded heart is where we start climbing.

Maybe you think that a pierced heart is a revolting image, and that something sweet and pretty would be more attractive and would make a better starting point for a tough climb. This is why many Christians through the ages shun the suffering of Christ, sometimes even claiming that Jesus promised to take away the sufferings of his followers.

Many people today avoid suffering at any cost. The suffering they do experience, they repress without trying to integrate it. They hope that if they are careful, suffering will not find them - some even seek out Christian faith in a misguided effort to be spared suffering.

On the contrary, Christ shows us that suffering is an unavoidable part of life, even necessary, and when the going gets tough, sweet and pretty will not get you far.

By this, I do not mean to say that either Francis or Jesus teaches that suffering in it self is good or meaningful. My point is that Francis sigles out the wounded Heart of Christ as a starting point for spiritual growth. By this he wants to show us that suffering - which may seem meaningless in it self - can be turned into something strong and meaningful.

Let's return to the Oscar Wilde quotation: He implies that a broken heart has an opening that makes it possible for Christ to enter. This is what suffering can do: by making us realize our own weaknesses and limitations, it can open us to our fellow men and women through empathy and compassion. After all, the word compassion means "suffering together".

William of St. Thierry's prayer showed us that Christ's wounds opened him to us and made his innermost secrets availiable. Francis knows this, too, as we shall see.

I think this is the brilliance of Francis – that he knows how hard it can get, and yet he doesn't try to sweeten the pill. He doesn't try to cover up the wounded heart of Christ, because he knows that many of his readers – most of them, I should think– carry a wound in their own heart. We are wounded in different ways, but we all find something we recognize in the wounded heart of Christ, and we are always strengthened by it. See how Francis utilizes this fact in a letter to Jane:

"In your imagination, see the crucified Jesus Christ in your arms and on your chest, and say a hundred times while kissing the wound in his side: "Here is my hope, here is the living wellspring of my happiness, here is the heart of my soul, here is the soul of my heart. Nothing shall separate me from his love. I hold him, and I will not let him go until he has brought me to safety."[4]

This is what I most of all want to share with you today. To me, this text holds the secret of Francis' devotion to the Sacred Heart. It is from a letter that Francis wrote to Jane when she was very sad and frightened. So Francis wrote to her and told her to imagine that she was kissing the wound in the side of Christ. In the wounded side of Christ lies his Sacred Heart. This is where Francis sends her to find comfort.

You remember that she had experienced a lot of sorrow and pain - Her husband had died in a terrible accident when they were still quite young, and she was left with four children. Then she had to cope with her father in law, who was very mean to her.

What the letter says, between the lines, is this: "Jesus knows how you feel. His heart, too, was pierced by fear, then by the lance. When all seemed to be lost, when he was dead, and his dead body was desecrated by the soldiers, the story had only just begun. This was the start of the resurrection, the victory of love.

So the secret of the wounded heart of Christ has two parts. The first part is about the wounded person finding company in the wounded Christ. The second part is that the pain is only half the story – After the heart of Christ was pierced, it was glorified. When we are wounded, this can be the start of something new.

In another letter, Francis tells Jane that: "The grace and peace of the Holy Spirit is always at the bottom of your heart. Place this precious heart in the pierced side of the savior, and unite it to the King of Hearts."

So, if we hold him and do not let him go, as Francis told Jane, we will reach that point deep within our hearts, where the Holy Spirit reigns, and we will be united to the King of Hearts, that is, to the Heart of Christ.

Francis' advice to Jane is written to someone who knows woundedness, by someone who knows the transforming potential of suffering. Francis had his own share of troubles – even desperation.

From this he learned that Calvary is the true school of love, and the center of our faith. This is why the pierced heart of Christ is the wellspring of our happiness. He explains this in the final chapter of the Treatise:

"The children of the cross glory in this, their wondrous paradox which the world does not understand: Out of death, which devours all things, has come the food of our consolation, and out of death, strong above all things, has issued the all-sweet honey of our love. O Jesus my Saviour, how worthy of love is your death, for it is the supreme effect of your love!"[5]

Calvary, in my opinion, is the center of the Salesian universe. But it is not just the Salesian family that is at home on Calvary. A larger, secret family has got Calvary as their meeting place and their true home. They are the children of the cross, that Francis mentions in the text. Jane was one of them, and I'm sure that some of you who are here today are, too. To us, Francis is a never failing guide, and the Sacred Heart is the living wellspring of our happiness.

See also Susanne's paper on St.Francis de Sales and the Dynamics of Love, given at the first annual seminar on Salesian spirituality in Annecy, France 1996.


  1. Oscar Wilde: The ballad of Reading Gaol
  2. Bønnebok for den katolske kirke (Prayer book of the Catholic Church of Norway) p 283, my translation.
  3. Stephen F. Mason: A History of the Sciences, p 221.
  4. Deutsche Ausgabe, tome 5, p 130
  5. Deutsche Ausgabe, tome 5, p 260.

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