In the grip of illness David W Parsons decided to dedicate this year to the Sacred Heart. He began by commissioning an icon of the image Ihave lost count of the number of New Year resolutions I have made and broken by January 3. But this year it has been different. For some time now I have become increasingly concerned about the sad demise of the devotion to the Sacred Heart in my lifetime and in my life in particular and so I thought it was about time I did something about it. And that was my resolution: this year would be dedicated to the Sacred Heart.
The initial reason for this was, first, a personal experience during an illness last year which opened me up to re-discovering this beautiful devotion, and in turn this renewed interest was subsequently confirmed by Pope Benedict’s visit which, of course, focused on Cor ad cor loquitur. My reflections on the Sacred Heart also drew upon my long-standing fascination with the work of the French Jesuit scientist Teilhard de Chardin, who was absolutely devoted to the Sacred Heart. (His La Messe sur le monde was such an inspiration at those times, during my illness, when I could not attend Mass.) But, despite all this, I found it all a bit of a struggle to come to terms with what Pius XI described as the “synthesis of our whole religion”. And although agreeing with John Paul II that the Sacred Heart contains “every treasure of wisdom and knowledge” I found my journey to find this great hidden treasure not as simple as I thought when I first set out. My experience of the devotion has been a source of deep spiritual renewal, but there has been one great obstacle which keeps getting in the way: the artwork which is associated with the Sacred Heart. I am sure that for many Catholics it is not a problem, but the more I reflected on the issue, and talked to people of my age and younger, I came to the conclusion that if I was to re-discover the Sacred Heart I had to reexplore the actual images which are associated with the devotion.
And so, as part of my year devoted to the Sacred Heart, I thought that I should put my money where my mouth is and commission an icon to help me uncover this treasure of wisdom and knowledge hidden deep with in this all-too familiar symbol. I contacted an iconographer at Elias Icons, and he replied that it was strange that, having never been asked to write (to use the correct word) an icon of the Sacred Heart before, he had only a day or so before been asked to paint a fresco of the Sacred Heart in a church in Jordan. We took this as being providential and he agreed to take on my commission.
Although writing an icon is normally a very private process, the artist agreed that a blog might be of value to people who were interested in iconography as well as to those interested in the Sacred Heart and/or Teilhard de Chardin. And so, using the language and methods of iconography the artist and I are engaged upon a journey of writing an icon which draws on Catholic teaching and traditions as well as the insights of Teilhard.
Our blog aims to open up the intellectual, artistic and, above all, spiritual processes which are involved in writing an icon. Reflecting and meditating on the Sacred Heart has thus served in ways I did not expect to refresh those parts of me that had been rather dry, dusty and barren for many years. I have now placed a picture of the Sacred Heart in a prominent position in our home – although it is an image which Teilhard preferred to the more wellknown kind of images that are products of l’art Saint-Sulpice. And that in itself has produced a minor but nonetheless significant miracle. Suddenly our home has regained a sense of being a holy place. For too long homes have been seen primarily as economic spaces or design spaces. But placing the Sacred Heart in the heart of the home – as my parents had done – has served to re-sanctify a space that had simply become an investment which we could makeover. But if we are to resanctify domestic space and rekindle our spiritual lives we need images which are relevant to us now, rather than the kind of baroque and sentimental images of the past which for many people – including me – don’t help so much as hinder our devotion.
The devotion to the Sacred Heart and the image of the Sacred Heart are so very closely intertwined that if we are to rediscover the treasure it contains, we have to try and reimagine it in a new and fresh way. Nova et vetera, however. It has to be an image which is wholly Catholic and is based on Catholic teaching and traditions, but which is written in the ancient language of iconography so as to produce an image which is relevant for us in the twenty first century. Of course, this is a very personal expedition to find the treasure of the Sacred Heart by exploring the images which have served to define it. But if we are to renew our devotion to the most Catholic of devotions it is a journey we all should make. You can follow ours at: http://eliasicons.blogspot.com.
David W Parsons is Professor of Public Policy at Queen Mary University of London