We have been having a Eucharistic season in York, starting with the feast of Corpus Christi, and concluding with our Forty Hours' Devotion on the weekend following the feast of the Sacred Heart.
Below is Fr Richard's sermon, preached at the opening Mass of the Forty Hours, on the feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus:
FORTY HOURS’ DEVOTION MASS OF THE SACRED HEART
That great sinner who became a great saint, Augustine of Hippo, wrote a series of Soliloquies, imaginary conversations between God and himself. In one of them, St Augustine imagines God asking him what he wants to know. Augustine replies that he wants to know the answers to only two questions: “Who am I” and “Who is God”. “Nothing else?” God asks. “Nothing else,” Augustine replies.
Everything else is relative to these two things. Everything else lies between these two things, just as Jacob’s ladder is pitched between Jacob and God, between earth and heaven. God and myself are the only two realities I can never escape for a single moment in time or in eternity; that is why the absolutely essential thing in the spiritual life – or in any life - is to know both myself and God. They come as a package deal; neither can be truly known without the other being known.
St Augustine’s questions remind us of St John Henry Newman’s first conversion experience, which took place in his last year at school, at the age of fifteen. Newman describes this experience in his spiritual autobiography, the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, writing that it made “me rest in the thought of two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator.”
Whenever we hear scripture at the Mass or read it ourselves we are sure from time to time to find these two expressions coming up in one form or another: “God is love” and “the Lord was angry with his people....” It is essential that we come to a clear understanding of these two phrases. What does it mean to say that God is love? What does it mean to say that he is angry? The language is metaphorical, of course, and has to be treated with caution. God’s love is infinitely beyond human love; God’s anger is nothing like human anger. But to speak of God in these ways is to speak about who God is, and who I am (my hopes and my fears) and about how God relates to me.
The image of the Sacred Heart addresses this question by making visible to us an image of divine love in a human heart.
One way of coming to an understanding of this might be to comment on three questions St Augustine raises in an early paragraph of another of his writings, his spiritual autobiography, the well-known Confessions. There are few people who have ever had a deeper understanding of God or of themselves than St Augustine.
1 “Who will allow me to find rest in you? Who will allow me to let you enter my heart and intoxicate it, so that I forget my troubles, and embrace my one and only good, namely yourself?”
Nobody understood this need for rest, or the destructive power of sin more thanAugustine, who had a very troubled early life and who was familiar with many of the same addictions that afflict the modern world.
2 “What are you to me? Have mercy so that I may speak.”
We cannot speak, we cannot do any good at all, unless God has already gone to look for us- by a prior act of mercy, like the Good Shepherd going after the sheep that was lost.
3 “What am I myself to you, that you insist on my loving you - and unless I do so, you are angry with me and threaten me with great unhappiness?” (Confessions 1.5)
God’s love is infinite, unending, beyond description. God’s anger cannot be like human anger, vengeful or moody, or needing to be pacified. How could that be in one who can never change? God is always righteous, always intending our good, always just. What we may experience as God’s anger is simply the result of the conflict that arises (and the damage that is done) when our thoughts, words or actions come into conflict with God’s intentions for us which are an aspect of his justice.
Human love is fickle and unreliable, and (unless taken up into divine love by grace) it ends with natural death. Human anger, unlike God’s is “anger” is only sometimes righteous, often not, and frequently unbridled, disproportionate and self-destructive.
What is God angry about? He is angry about all those people who do not yet know Christ, who do not even suspect the great good fortune which awaits them in Heaven. Those live like blind men looking for a joy whose real name they do not know, lost on roads which take them away from true happiness. He is angry about those who keep them from knowing and finding him.
And there are so many people (especially in the modern world) like this, deceived into false happiness, indifferent to the glory God destines for all his human creatures made for him and in his image and likeness.
God is angry because he is just. He wills that nobody should fail to reach the beatitude he destines for them; but he will not take away our freedom, even when we freely choose to reject him.
“Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, // A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many // I had not thought death had undone so many....” T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland, referencing Dante’s Inferno
To love God is to love truth, and to love truth is to love God, at least implicitly. To love God is to love yourself, since you are his child, made in his image; and to love yourself is to love the one in whose image you are made.
To love the light of truth is to love yourself, because truth is what you are made for, truth is the food of your soul. This yes or no to the light of truth is the fundamental choice. Before the Incarnation, before the gift of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, this truth and this choice were only general and abstract; but truth came into the world specifically, and particularly and concretely in our Lord Jesus Christ, God’s love in a human heart. As St John tells us, the light that made the world came into the world; but some men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. They wanted to hide, like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, deceived by a fallen angel into a false love of self and a false fear of God.
Saint Augustine, the sinner, was an honest sinner. Like King David (another sinful man), who by tradition wrote the Psalms, he longed to be searched and to be known. He wanted to be looked for and he wanted to be known. That is the surest sign that he was responding to the Father’s love. It is a consoling thought that the very fact that we are seeking God is a sign that we have been found.
St Augustine ends his chapter with a prayer summing up what Our Lord Jesus Christ is to us, the image of the Father’s love, incarnate in our flesh, risen, ascended and living for ever to love us and intercede for us, the Sacred Human and Divine Heart of Jesus in the heart of God:
Pity me! Tell me, O Lord my God, by your mercies, what you are to me. Say to my soul, “I am your salvation”.