“I will adjust my graces to the spirit of the Rule [of your religious order], and I want you to give it priority over everything else.” ∼ revelation of Christ to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque
St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690) is well known as the nun whose revelations helped popularize devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Without denying the devotion’s scriptural, patristic, and medieval foundations, it is safe to say that its modern western form sprang primarily from Margaret Mary’s visions. In other words, this obscure nun of the obscure French town of Paray-le-Monial helped make the Sacred Heart a ubiquitous part of Roman Catholic culture, not merely in private devotion but in public veneration, especially through a major liturgical feast. At least sixteen of the countless Catholic churches dedicated to the Sacred Heart—from Istanbul to Paris to Lisbon to South Bend to Pondicherry, India—are ranked as Basilicas. Rarely does an individual’s mystical experience receive the Church’s blessing as worthy of belief. More rarely still do such private revelations attain such nearly-universal popularity. In order to understand how St. Margaret Mary’s visions became so influential, we must attend to the saint’s seventeenth-century French context, regarded under three aspects: the growth of rigorism, the importance of mysticism, and the growth of the Visitation.
Much of French Catholic spirituality had taken a rigorist turn in the course of the seventeenth century. The rise of the Jansenist movement in France—as delineated by particular doctrines, texts, persons, and institutions—has become shorthand for this story, but it is not the whole story. In order to understand this milieu, a loose working definition of rigorism is a more useful barometer than say, formal adherence to Jansen’s doctrines on grace. Early modern Catholic rigorism was most clearly manifest in pastoral approaches to the sacraments of Confession and Communion. Rigorist priests routinely withheld absolution, in the belief that few penitents demonstrated sufficient precision and adequate contrition. They also pushed hard against the movement for frequent Communion, holding that few were prepared to receive worthily. This put rigorists in direct opposition to most of the Jesuits, who had strongly promoted frequent Confession and Communion since their founding, and the Jesuits had been far from alone in this effort. By the time Jansenism itself came on the scene around 1640, these contentions within the French Church had already produced a broad spectrum of positions, and the center subsequently shifted even further toward the rigorist side.
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To opponents of this rigorist turn, the Sacred Heart devotion was a shot in the arm. Margaret Mary described the Heart of Jesus as “an inexhaustible fountain from which three streams are continually flowing,” and the first of these was “the stream of mercy, which flows down upon sinners.” Jesus had communicated to her abundant love: “My divine Heart is so impassioned with love for humanity, and for you especially, it cannot contain the flames of its burning charity inside.” Moreover, this merciful love was to be mediated through the sacraments above all, including through frequent Communion. Margaret Mary’s key revelations took place while she was praying in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, and Jesus commanded her to receive Communion “as often as obedience allows.” The revelations commanded reception of the Sacrament on First Fridays and on the Feast of the Sacred Heart, which was to follow immediately upon the octave of Corpus Christi. It is no coincidence that Jesuits were the most important clerical promoters of the devotion, beginning with Margaret Mary’s own spiritual director, St. Claude de la Colombière.
In order to understand why these visions were found acceptable by their patrons, we must place them in the context of mysticism in France at the time. As in any age, mystical experience was no guarantee of orthodoxy or sanctity. Many publically-known mystics left ambiguous legacies, in writings neither approved of and nor condemned by Church authorities. Others found their works put on the Index of Forbidden Books and even directly condemned as heretical. The Spiritual Catechism of Jean-Joseph Surin—a Jesuit mystic-priest who, in performing an exorcism, offered himself as a receptacle for demons and then suffered from years of possession, mental illness, or both—was posthumously placed on the Index.
Perhaps the most famous condemned mystic of the century was Madame Guyon, a contemporary of St. Margaret Mary and a standard-bearer of the Quietist heresy. The two women contrast on many points, the most important being their attitude toward the Incarnate Word. Guyon’s Quietism sought to reach God directly and spiritually, with little or no recourse to the Person of Christ. She declared that her visions were “never of God himself, and almost never of Jesus Christ,” but that they were purer “intellective visions,” visions of “an angel of light … represented to the soul.” Given the chance to comment on Margaret Mary’s mystical experiences, Guyon would have called them “spiritual sentimentality” for being so fleshly, focused on something as physical as the Heart of Christ. Equally concerning to the Church was Guyon’s advocacy of “indifference” to salvation. According to her lights, pure love of God was utterly “disinterested” in its own good, abandoning even the desire to be with God in eternity. St. Margaret Mary, by contrast, emphasized the mutual desire for an eternal loving relationship between the God-Man and every human being. Msgr. Ronald Knox once described Quietism as “the error of a few incautious souls,” who meant well but ended up “getting it wrong.” In a century of such Catholic spiritual dynamism, missteps were inevitable, and the Church found in the Sacred Heart revelations a much-needed corrective.
Finally, on a more personal level, the context of St. Margaret Mary’s revelations was her life as a Visitation nun. The Visitation Order embodied the spirituality of douceur (“sweetness” or “gentleness”) advocated by its founders, St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal. Not coincidentally, heart imagery was an integral part of that spiritual way. Francis de Sales had once described prayer with the phrase “heart speaks to heart.” In other words, the soul’s heart was in a loving conversation with God’s own heart. In a moment of unchecked zeal (for which Francis later rebuked her), Jane had branded the name of Jesus on her heart with a hot iron. In the congregation’s early years, Francis wrote this to Jane: “Truly our little congregation is the work of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary. The dying Savior has given birth to us through the opening of his Sacred Heart.”
In taking up the Heart of Jesus in this way, Francis and Jane were simply adopting and adapting a continuous tradition from scripture (especially John 19:34-37), the Church Fathers, and the medievals. Sacred Heart devotion existed quite independently of St. Margaret Mary. Yet her revelations served to highlight this Heart tradition, to confirm that the divine favor was upon it, and to concretize it with a set of devotional practices. It was not at first easy to be the recipient of revelations, and many of the saint’s fellow Visitandines were wary of her purported mystical experiences. Over time, and with the help of St. Claude de la Colombière, the Paray community was won over and the Sacred Heart devotion, as Margaret Mary described it, spread throughout the network of Visitation monasteries in France. From these monastic nesting places, the devotion spread to clergy, religious, and laity alike, especially through Jesuit patronage.
In sum, the Sacred Heart devotion in this form spread both because it was needed as a corrective within the Catholic spiritual tradition and because it enhanced what was best in that tradition. It was a corrective to the zeal of the rigorists and the Quietists, and it gave definite shape to the Incarnational, Eucharistic devotion to the Heart of Christ that stemmed from early Christian readings of John’s Gospel. The time was right for a widespread diffusion of devotion to the Sacred Heart. Yet when the world had first been prepared for the Gospel, the Word had awaited a young woman’s fiat before taking up a human Heart. Almost seventeen centuries later, the Heart chose first to be received into the heart of an unknown Visitation nun, in anticipation of being received into the heart of the universal Church.
Author’s Note on sources: the author is especially indebted to the research presented in Wendy M. Wright, Heart Speaks to Heart: The Salesian Tradition (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2004) and Richard Parish, Catholic Particularity in Seventeenth-Century French Writing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).