When we speak of offering “heartfelt sympathy”, or of having a “heart to heart talk”, or of believing something “from the bottom of my heart”, we are not simply referring to the affective dimension of the human person, working in harmony with the intellect and will. We are talking about the basic reality of who we are, our personal identity. In ancient times, both in the Bible and in the writings of the early Fathers of the Church, like Saint Augustine, that is what the symbol of the heart meant in its fullness.
When, in Exodus, the heart of Pharaoh is hardened, it means that he himself is hardened. In Psalm 95, which is often prayed at the beginning of the day in the Liturgy of the Hours of the Church, God challenges us to hear his voice, referring to the time in the desert when Moses would not trust God to provide water for his people: “do not harden your hearts as at Meribah, as on the day of Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.” (Psalm 95: 8-9) When we reject God’s will, and get trapped by our ego, then we harden our hearts, we harden ourselves. When Samuel chose David, least among his brothers, to lead the people he said “the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (I Samuel 16:7)
We can become so self-satisfied, but that only leads to spiritual mediocrity, and none of us can afford that in a world as challenging as the one in which we live. The first message of both John the Baptist and of Jesus was a call to repentance, to a heartfelt turning away from slavery to the ego, and a turning to the way of freedom which God offers: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2; 4:17). He had offered that freedom to Moses and the Hebrews, who were comfortable in their slavery in Egypt, but needed to be set free. He offers now to set us free from our slavery to pride, anger, envy, greed, laziness, lust, and gluttony.
We all need conversion, repentance: a deep change of heart. That is not easy. When God says to the House of Israel through the prophet Ezekiel “I will give you a new heart, and a new Spirit I will put within you, and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26) he is calling for a deep transformation, a change that goes right to the heart.
In the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “Blessed are the pure in heart.” (Matthew 5:8) He is calling for integrity at the very heart of each of us. An integer is whole; it is not divided like a fraction. That is what integrity means, to be pure of heart. In so many ways, throughout scripture and certainly in the spiritual heritage of the disciples of Jesus, the heart represents the innermost sanctuary of our human self.
Our hearts must become pure, and they are purified when we encounter the love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, whom we discover in the Gospel. That is one reason why we should prayerfully read a small portion of the Gospel every day. We can so easily create a false image of Jesus which has no basis in the actual Jesus we meet in the inspired words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and in the Sacraments of the Church which he gave to us.
That is the real Jesus whom we encounter in our prayerful meditation on the Sacred Heart, especially if we spend time in adoration of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, a practice which is central to the Sacred Heart devotion. Accept no substitutes, no false “Jesus” of my imagination, who is a nice person who never challenges me but who smiles in approval of whatever I want to do. Especially in the midst of our struggles, we need to meet Jesus himself, our Lord and our God, who calls us to repentance, and challenges us to embrace the life of holiness shown in the Sermon on the Mount, but who also calls us to be not only servants but friends.
So we need to know Jesus, personally, and deep in our hearts. Focusing on the Sacred Heart leads us to the very heart of who Jesus is, the divine person who took on our humanity, who journeys with us, who meets us on the road, as he did with the discouraged disciples on the road to Emmaus. He so personally connected with them, heart to heart, that they later said “did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32) We need that intense experience of encounter, that will change our lives, and we can find it in the Sacred Heart devotion, especially since it leads us to the Gospel and to the Eucharist.