Discovering a prayer that can heal in more ways than one
It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye. — Antoine de Saint-Eupéry, “The Little Prince”
I first came across the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus when I was a boy. After years of my family living in the basement of my maternal grandmother’s home, my parents finally saved enough money to put a down payment on a house of their own.
It was an old, creaky, three-story, broken-down colonial with a secret staircase in the kitchen and dreadful gray wood paneling that made all the rooms feel like the inside of a matchbox. My parents called it charming. My sisters and I called it haunted. But that’s a story for another time.
My young mother — she was 23 by the time I was 7 — was a devout woman, and as a way of blessing our new home she hung a number of images of Jesus around the house. They were, she said, reminders of God’s constant presence in our lives.
She had one particular image of Jesus with his burning heart exposed that she kept in our living room. It was a 5-by-7 picture of Christ on a blue background.
In my young mind I thought this image resembled a class photo, and for years I imagined Jesus posing for his picture in the school auditorium or in a Sears portrait studio somewhere on Long Island.
Popularized in the 17th century by French Catholic mystic St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus can be, to the uninitiated, a bit bizarre and macabre.
In this image, Jesus is usually depicted with an exposed heart that has been pierced with an arrow and is encircled by vines of entwined thorns. Flames emanate from the crown of the heart and the heart itself is sometimes crowned with a cross.
The thorns represent the pain and suffering Jesus experienced on our behalf before he was crucified. The cross is, of course, a symbol of his death and resurrection.
The light emanating from the heart symbolizes Christ’s love for everyone who gazes upon this image and who meditates on its sacred mysteries.
The image of the Sacred Heart always brings back memories of growing up, of happy birthdays, merry Christmases and sometimes cheerless and destructive arguments between my parents.
Still, the radiance of Jesus and his loving and sometimes concerned look made me feel warm and secure, whatever the situation. Often, when my parents fought, I would remove the picture from its perch in our living room and keep it close.
Somehow I felt protected, as if nothing could harm me so long as that picture was in my possession. I now know it wasn’t the picture that kept me safe, but the person the image represented.
During my 20s and 30s I suffered from cluster headaches, the granddaddy of all migraines. These headaches “cluster” together over a week’s time, only to have them vanish for up to a year or two and then return with a vengeance just as suddenly as they vanished. They felt like someone was stabbing me in the eye with an ice pick.
One weekend some years ago while on overnight retreat, I got hit with one of those suckers. I found myself pacing my room, trying my best to take my mind off the pain.
On my desk was a prayer card of the Sacred Heart. After doing a set of push-ups (for some strange reason exercise would temporarily ease some of the pain), I gazed upon the image and began repeating to myself the prayer printed on the back of the card: “Sacred Heart of Jesus I trust in thee. Sacred Heart of Jesus I trust in thee.”
Over and over again I repeated these words, even while I was on the verge of throwing up. Clusters can last up to a couple of hours, but that day the pain subsided within 20 minutes.
Was it a coincidence that I prayed this prayer and felt better in record time? Maybe. But I don’t think so. To this day I credit that prayer for working a tiny miracle in my life.
I had suffered cluster migraines for many years, and this unusually quick recovery was something I had never experienced before.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not telling this story to endorse prayer over medical treatment, but I believe that focusing on Jesus’ Sacred Heart and his healing love that day allowed my body to be healed sooner rather than later.
Out of our minds
I overthink everything, from my job to my marriage to my relationship with my sons. I make my brain hurt. But, devotions like the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in their innocent and visual nature, give the head some time to rest from all its questioning and analyzing.
It’s a type of prayer that appeals to the creative, artistic and emotional nature of our beings, in other words, the heart.
Ever notice that in Catholic iconography we never see the Sacred Brain of Jesus? Remember when Gabriel revealed to Mary that she was going to be the mother of Jesus? What did she do? She didn’t think about what the heavenly messenger said. No, she pondered those words in her heart.
Our Christian faith is a faith of the heart, especially when it comes to prayer. Too often we approach prayer as an intellectual exercise, and while this may benefit some people, I know that when I forget about my words and tap into an image, feeling or an emotion, the Holy Spirit moves through me in surprising ways.
This is not to say that we should neglect the intellect in our lives, prayers and devotions. We live in a real world with real demands and very real consequences and we need to be educated, informed and critical.
Yet, very often our minds get in the way of our faith. Do atheists feel that there is no God, or do they think there’s no God?
Doers and feelers
Jesus’ apostles weren’t professors or scribes; they were people who worked with their hands, who did the dirty work of everyday life — fishermen and tradesmen who smelled of sea and sweat. They were doers and feelers more than thinkers, and for that they were given a special revelation of Jesus.
Our thoughts about God can inch us closer to an experience with him, but having a Ph.D. in theology doesn’t mean you know God any better than does a frail Italian widow with rosary beads tearfully chanting a litany of Hail Marys in the back of the church.
Often that woman knows more about God than entire schools of smarty-pants who can quote the Bible at any given moment.
So I invite you to lose your mind a little the next time you pray and spend some time with the Sacred Heart. Focus on the image and envision Jesus’ heart becoming one with yours.
Allow them to beat together. Allow the Sacred Heart to give you strength and healing. Repeat the words, “Sacred Heart of Jesus I trust in thee” for a couple of minutes in the morning and night and then return to your daily life. Try it for a week and see what happens. I think — no, I have a feeling — your heart will thank you.
Gary Jansen is the director of Image Books at Penguin Random House and the author of “The 15-Minute Prayer Solution.” His most recent book is “Life Everlasting: Catholic Devotions and Mysteries for the Everyday Seeker” (TarcherPerigee, $17).
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