immaculate heart

(cyprian)

Today is our titular feast. Even though our official name is New Camaldoli Hermitage, we were consecrated under the Immaculate Heart of Mary. So this is a solemnity for us. Liturgically it bumps even the Birth of John the Baptist.

The Scriptures that we have for this feast give us an image that is obviously very appropriate for us, one that resonates especially with our relationship to the Word of God, our lectio divina, and makes of Mary the image of the monk, how she treasures all these things in her heart. I think it’s notable that Mary’s heart is referred to twice in the Gospel of Luke, and both times it’s in the infancy narratives. (Three times if you count Simeon telling her that her soul would be pierced.) There is the gospel reading that we heard today: after Mary and Joseph have found the child Jesus in the Temple and returned to Nazareth, his mother kept all these things in her heart. The other time this image occurs is earlier in the infancy narrative, right after the shepherds come and make known all that they had been told about this child… and Mary kept all these things reflecting on them in her heart.[1]

(Liturgical nerd moment: That, by the way, is the scripture verse that the Church offers as the communion antiphon today. I went back and looked it up in the old Liber Usualis, because I thought that it would be a beautiful antiphon to sing, but there actually is no setting for this verse in the old chant books. Before the reform of the liturgy there was a different verse used, from the gospel of John about Jesus entrusting Mary to John as his mother­––Ecce filius tuus… In little things like that you can see how the Church sometimes shifts ever so slightly to put a different emphasis on certain feasts, wanting us to accent now more Mary’s contemplative stance, reflecting on these things in her heart.)

This is where prayer comes in and one of the strongest images spoken of in the Eastern Christian tradition. Here we are again at the specifically monastic-contemplative theme for this feast. I go back again to that image of Theophane the Recluse, that prayer is “standing before God with the mind in the heart.” And so the Church offers us this second reading from Galatians,[2] chosen perhaps because it makes a brief mention of Jesus being born of a woman, but even more to the point, because it mentions that as proof that we are children [of God], God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out “Abba, Father!” Does Mary already experience in her heart of hearts what Paul promises to followers of Jesus after the resurrection? Does she already experience the prayer of her spouse, the song of the Spirit, murmuring in the depth of her being? Are the ears of her heart, that St. Benedict speaks of, so clear an attuned to her own depths that she can hear this song of the Spirit praying in the depths of her being already?

I do not have an immaculate heart, but part of my work in life and as a monk has been to cleanse my heart––the heart of my body, the heart of my mind, the heart of hearts, my spirit––of all that is not godly, to cleanse my heart of all that God did not put there, to cleanse my heart of all that is extraneous to my real self. Psalm 50 has us pray each Friday––Create a clean heart in me, O God. How does a heart get made clean? How do we get this clean heart?

In my experience it happens at least two different ways. The first is totally positive. One way to clean a dirty vessel is to pour something clean and pure into it until it washes away all that is impure. All of my hearts––the heart of my body, my mind, my soul––they could all use the same thing. I can eat cleansing foods and drink cleansing fluids for my body. I can fill my mind with good things so that there is no room left for the rotten stuff, the trivia, the gossip, the 24-hour news cycle and the mental junk mail. Best of all, and most highly recommended, I can fill my mind with lectio divina––with sacred scriptures and other wisdom. I can give my obsessive-compulsive mind something good to mull over instead of its usual obsessions, perhaps a prayer word such as the one Paul mentions, what I like to think of as one of Jesus’ own mantra––Abba, Father––and let that pure inpouring cleanse my body, my mind, and my soul of all that is impure. What am I pouring into my heart––into the heart of my body, my mind, my soul?

And there is one other way that we get purified, if we let it. The most common image of the Immaculate Heart is of Mary’s heart being pierced with a sword, which is based on the scriptural image from Simeon also at the end of the infancy narratives in the Gospel of Luke. (Actually the scripture say that it is her “soul” that will be pierced, not her heart, but the popular imagination renders that as the heart, too.) This gets back to that original devotional image of the Sacred Hearts of both Jesus and Mary, Jesus’ pierced heart out of which flows the saving blood and water, and the heart of Mary, too, being pierced as she watches her own flesh and blood wander off on his own and ultimately––as we see in the gripping images of the Pietà––stands at the foot of the cross. As the scriptures say about Jesus—Son though he was, he learned obedience through what he suffered; so with Mary might we say, “Immaculate though she was––pure and without sin though she was––she too learned something through what she suffered”? “On the cross,” we sing, “Christ entrusted us to you, to be your children…” Is this when Mary becomes the mother not just of Jesus but of the new humanity, when she endures this all-too-human suffering?

And so for us, suffering in both senses of the word: that which we accept and endure––the annoying daily exigencies of life, the struggles of being human; and then those things which really do cause us pain, unmerited and unexplainable suffering, such as disease, violence, poverty. All of which can make us bitter––or can purify us if we are able to say with Jesus his other mantra, ‘Thy will be done,which is almost the same as Mary’s mantra––‘Be it done to me according to your word.These are purifying words, words hat purify us as we say them.

In the popular images, Mary’s heart is surrounded by roses, often seven of them for the Seven Sorrows, or a thorny branch out of which a beautiful flower blooms. Then sometimes there is a flame shooting out the top of her heart, the flame of pure love that has become pure prayer, the pure prayer that rings in a heart whose ears are inclined, the pure heart silent enough for the song of the Spirit to chime through, the pure heart that is the virgin point where God’s Word is planted––in sighs too deep for words––that then becomes prayer in us, and is made flesh again through us, with us and in us.

What a beautiful image for a contemplative monk! Lord, give us a heart like Mary!

[1] Lk 2:19, 52.

[2] Gal 4:4-7.

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1 Comment

  1. Dear Father Cyprian,
    Thanks for your Homily.
    It brought joy, inspiration and guidance.
    Reading it and …ruminating it made me also feel like I were up in the Monastery, among my Brothers and Sisters and closer to the
    Holy Trinity.
    Thanks and Pax, Matilde Maria Gianferrara

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