Sometimes sanctity feels like an impossible goal. I can admire and love the holiness of the saints but, like the achievement of the professional athlete or Nobel prize winner, I know that it is not something readily within my reach. It seems to be a rare gift or a special privilege, so it is easy to console myself with the seemingly humble admission of how far I fall short of such a lofty ideal.
Being a saint is a gift and a privilege, so we would be right to attribute such holiness to God’s grace! But drawing closer to the saints themselves reveals something more about holiness and the quiet daily struggle of love. Saint John Eudes, whose Memorial we celebrate today, is remembered chiefly for his devotion to the hearts of Jesus and Mary. But this devotion wasn’t an abstract concept or merely a personal predilection. It was a concrete way of expressing God’s transformation and transfiguration of humanity through the event of the Incarnation. And in the image of the heart, the fullness of human sanctity is revealed.
Saint John Eudes, like so many other saints, wrote many wonderful spiritual works. What stands out in his thought, however, is the intertwining of a meditation upon the holiness of Christ’s life and the necessary holiness of life to which all Christians are called. If I feel intimidated by the holiness of the saints, then I feel infinitely more intimidated by the challenge of truly imitating Jesus’ life! And yet that is exactly what Saint John Eudes encourages us to do. Union with Christ through faith and the sacraments is not a nice sentiment or empty metaphor, but rather a concrete connection to the reality of his Incarnate life. Taking inspiration from Saint Paul’s affirmation that “in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church,” (Col 1:24), Eudes argues that every Christian is joined to Christ’s life in a similar way through grace:
“Thus, when a Christian prays, he continues and accomplishes the prayers of Jesus Christ. When he works, he continues and accomplishes Christ’s laborious life. When his relations with his neighbor are inspired by charity, he continues and accomplishes Christ’s public life. When he takes his meals or his rest in a Christian fashion, he continues and accomplishes the subjection to these necessities that Christ willed to have in Himself.” (The Life and the Kingdom of Jesus in Christian Souls, pg. 6)
Like Saint Paul, Saint John doesn’t mean to imply any deficiency in Christ’s earthly life or the efficacy of his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Rather, he reminds us that Jesus’ true humanity sanctifies ours in a radical and comprehensive way. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “Christ enables us to live in him all that he himself lived, and he lives it in us” (§521).
Does this make holiness seem any more achievable? Saint John Eudes, while still recognizing the difficulty, saw it as a means of drawing the ordinary in our lives (prayer, work, meals) into the realm of Christ’s true human life of ordinary holiness. In his further meditations and exercises, Eudes encourages all Christians to sanctify every action of each day, each week, each month, and each year. Every moment of our lives is changed by Christ’s life, because Christ is truly human and truly divine, the “Word made flesh” in all the specificity of what it means to “dwell among us” (John 1:14). Every moment of our lives is potentially transfigured because God has lived our life even in its quiet struggles and hidden joys.
This is sometimes hard for me to remember, when life seems too complicated, too busy, or too ordinary. But drawing close to the saints reminds me of their humanity and, through them, the humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ. As Saint John Eudes teaches us, this shouldn’t be a way of excusing our sinfulness and limitations as merely human. Instead, it should be a way of seeing even the least things in ourselves as a continuation of Christ’s transfiguring love.
There are few religious images that hold more significance for me than that of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. My grandmother, a pillar of faith in our Mexican-American family, kept a framed copy of the image in her bedroom, adorned with numerous prayer cards, mementos, and old palm branches. For a young child walking by the door, that image seemed both mysterious and comforting. What was it actually depicting and why should it be a focus of such devotion? Who was this Jesus who stared out at me, gesturing to the flaming heart in his chest, poised as if to offer it out through the frame of the picture?
Only years later would the full meaning of the image become apparent, as I learned more about the history of Christianity and the fundamental meaning of the Incarnation. Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which developed particularly in 17th century France from earlier medieval devotions to Christ, is about much more than the image itself. Given particular shape by the writings and experiences of figures such as St. John Eudes and St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, the devotion is a way of contemplating more deeply the mystery of God’s love for humanity expressed in the true human existence of the Son of God as the Incarnate Word. Ultimately, the image and devotion remind us that the God we confess as Christians is not a powerful yet distant God. Rather, the God who so loved the world (Jn 3:16) loved us in such a way that he truly entered into human life, becoming a human being not merely in appearance but complete with body and soul, mind and heart.
In a certain way, the devotion trains our minds to resist passing over the Incarnation as simply a well-worn article of doctrine, affirmed as a matter of course but rarely considered more closely for its radical implications. Christianity is not ultimately a belief in formulas but rather an encounter with God in faith expressed, preserved, and remembered authentically through such fundamental doctrines as the Incarnation (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church §170). As Pope Benedict XVI wrote so beautifully in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, §1).
The devotion to the Sacred Heart, and the strikingly concrete image of a human heart, presents this encounter in high relief. Jesus Christ is much more than a moral teacher or religious sage. He is much more than a simple mode of communication between God and human beings, or a courier of divine knowledge and commandments. He is, instead, the Good Shepherd who has come to us, whose heart is moved with pity. He is the Bridegroom who has loved us with a human heart and given himself completely for us. He is the God who is Love (1 Jn 4:8), who unites to himself a human heart in the Incarnation and transfigures it with the fire of divine love as the heart of the Incarnate God.
This good (and truly astounding) news is depicted in the gaze and kindled heart, the crown of thorns and the cross, of the image of Jesus that hung in my grandmother’s bedroom. The image and devotion, so widespread now as to feel fundamentally traditional, invites all Christians to return in awe to an encounter with this God who has loved us and humbled himself so much for our sake, “becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). On this Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, may we turn to Jesus, who is turned to us and always has his eyes fixed lovingly upon us (cf. St. John Eudes, Letter 9), so that we may “know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge… [and] be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19).