Friday was the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. At my paternal grandmother’s house there were several “sacred heart” pictures with Jesus baring His open chest to reveal an iconic heart-shaped organ with beams of light shining out. As a child these pictures freaked me out, and they still do. This is not an image to which I easily relate, so I mentally disregard it, as I do with many of the “old school Catholic” stuff my parents grew up with.
However, I can relate to the images in yesterday’s readings. The description of God as shepherd in both the Old Testament and Gospel parable are much more comfortable and palatable than those weird sacred heart paintings. That is, until I actually comprehend the words of those two scripture selections.
“I myself will pasture my sheep;
I myself will give them rest, says the Lord GOD.” Ok, that sounds nice, doesn’t it?”The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal . . .”
What a wonderful God! But then there’s this: “The sleek and the strong I will destroy, shepherding them rightly.” It’s spiritual whiplash. It goes against everything for which I am striving- to look good, live healthy, have a good job, a nice house, financial and emotional security, well-behaved children. It slaps me and my perfectionism down, hard.
Jesus drives the message home in the corresponding Gospel. “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance,” He says. And I’m all like, “Excuse me?!?! Then why am I trying so hard to be good?”
Actually, I know the answer to that question. My perfectionism is not about attempting to earn God’s love. I know better; I do understand that salvation is a gift I cannot earn, freely given because God is love itself and He cannot withhold that which is His very essence. No, my perfectionism is the last stronghold of my ego as I attempt to align myself with the will of God.
It is Christ’s desire and pleasure to help me, but have you ever tried to help someone who doesn’t want your help, no matter how much they are struggling? I do, on a daily basis. I have three children at three different stages of physical and psychological development, and all three of them want to do things on their own without help, whether its putting on their shoes, doing a cartwheel, or writing a book report. Only when they reach the point of total frustration do they reach out for help, and if I offer before that point, I am rebuffed, hard.
And their egos are younger and weaker than mine.
Being imperfect, weak and vulnerable is what keeps me humble enough to allow God in. Accepting my imperfection, weakness and vulnerability crushes my ego and my pride, which are the very things which block me from connecting to God.
There are some vestiges of the old school Catholic faith that I’ve found helpful in combatting my ego without beating myself up in the process. There’s a simple prayer that my mom taught me. “Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place my trust in you.” It is meant to be said as a mantra. I used it when I was in labor with my first child. I’ve said it on sleepless nights when anxiety kept me more wired than caffeine. Sometimes I pray it in yoga class, sometimes in the Blessed Sacrament chapel, sometimes when I’m waiting at a stoplight.
I place my trust in the God who died for me not because I am perfect, but precisely because I fail to attain perfection on my own. The paradox of my faith is that only when I accept my own perpetually fallen nature do I open the door to receiving God’s perpetual grace. As long as I remain sleek and strong (or pretending to be), the door is shut.
Not that I shouldn’t strive for excellence. But “trying to be perfect” is an activity of my ego, and it’s an attitude of pride. Instead, I need to cultivate an attitude of humility, which balances a realistic acceptance of who I am with an abiding faith in God’s power to transform me ever closer into the likeness of Christ as I open and empty my heart. When I understand Christian “perfection” as striving toward wholeness rather than flawlessness, I am adopting a much healthier, humbler attitude.
I think that is what the Sacred Heart picture means to me. Another word for sacred is “holy.” Jesus had the first “holey heart,” pouring out love and light through His vulnerability and trust in His Father and finding wholeness by emptying Himself.
Holey heart of Jesus, I place my trust in You. Wholly heart of Jesus, I place my trust in You. Holy heart of Jesus, I place my trust in You.