Dermot Mansfield SJ takes this phrase from the “Breastplate of St Patrick” to highlight a way of getting very close to Jesus and God’s everlasting love.
Towards the end of the last article, I quoted some words from Scripture that for some people are among the most important words they might ever hear. They are words of God that can be burnt into our hearts: ‘Do not be afraid, I have called you by your name, you are mine’ (Is.43:1), and ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love’ (Jer.31:3).
For myself, those words have carried me through many a dark day. And, in my retreat work, I have seen how very many people have got light for their lives through them.
These words of truth and love are from the earlier part of the Bible, the Old Testament. But it is within the New Testament that they find their greatest manifestation, for they are literally embodied in the person of Jesus. He is, after all, the very human presence of God among us.
Presence in the Gospel
If you open the gospels, you will see how Jesus moves among people, teaching and healing them. Listen to him as he says, ‘Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened’ (Mt.11:28). Notice that he is the Good Shepherd, calling each of us by name, leading us to green pastures (Jn.10:11.16). And, finally, he is the one who, ‘having loved his own in the world, loved them to the end’ (Jn.13:1).
Here, then, we have the focus of our Christian prayer. It is the presence of Jesus that is before us, with us and among us. Jesus is the one who looks on me and who speaks those words to me: ‘Do not be afraid, I have called you by your name, you are mine. I have loved you with an everlasting love’. Once I stop, enter into my heart and hear him speaking to me in this way, I am nowhere else but in deep prayer.
Gaze of love
In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius leads us into prayer by this way and no other: ‘I must ponder and consider this reality: how our Lord and God is looking on me’. St. Teresa of Avila takes up the same theme. ‘Prayer,’ she tells us, ‘is nothing other than you looking at the One who is looking at you.’ Each looks at the other. I look with reverence and with loving humility, for I have raised my eyes in response to the gaze of love that is the presence of Christ to me.
The Sacred Heart Messenger you are reading now came into being because of that mystery of presence and love, expressed historically in devotion to the Sacred Heart. The picture of the Sacred Heart and the little lamp burning beneath it have been a source of warm faith in homes across Ireland and in many other countries.
At a dark time of severity, when people were assailed by doubts about God’s love, there was revealed to St. Margaret Mary a new vision and understanding of the loving Heart of Christ. Parents and children then could look at that portrait in their homes, and realize that Jesus was lovingly present to them day and night. That very image of the Sacred Heart elicited over the generations an abiding prayer of love and confidence, and it still elicits that in our hearts today.
Devotion to the Heart of Christ also directs us to prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. In our churches and oratories we have the Eucharistic presence, the real presence of Jesus amongst us, a presence that is inseparably linked to the Mass. There, too, I am drawn to prayer. And how often people have drawn strength there, and received healing and peace!
That place of prayer expands my heart out to the whole world, to people near and far, whose needs I make my own. As I mentioned before, at the Church of Our Lady of Grace in London, where I help out each summer, many people go there to pray and to gain strength; in turn they go out to be of service to others in their need.
Finally, I like to point out that your own heart, and mine too, is also the place of the real presence. Jesus is not only present in the Blessed Sacrament. He is truly present where believers gather together, or where you or I act in love. He is present in our hearts. He has come to make a home in our hearts, as he promised he would (Jn.14:23).
I say this because it is a great strength and consolation in life to know that, wherever I am, Christ is intimately present with me, closer to me than I am to myself. I can be travelling somewhere, or waiting at a bus stop, or wearily climbing stairs with my shopping bags, and, in a moment’s space, prayer wells up within me, because he is there. And, just then, I can offer my weariness or concerns to him, ask his help, or fill my heart with gratitude.
It is all summed up in the Breastplate of St. Patrick: ‘Christ beside me, Christ before me, Christ within me, Christ in every heart that speaks of me…’ What indescribable consolation this is!
I leave you this time with a memory. Many years ago, an older Mercy sister used to come to our retreat house here at Manresa for her annual retreat.
One year, she was with me as I her director. She had, however, very little to say when she came to me for our daily chat on how her prayer was going. But I noticed that often she sat in our chapel, and seemed to gaze at the cross above the altar.
So, I asked her what she did as she sat in the chapel. She admitted, ‘I just look at the cross there’. I then asked her what happened as she did that, and she answered, ‘I hear the words, “I have loved you with an everlasting love” ‘.
I have never forgotten that. It was as if her whole life was summed up in what she did there, and in what she heard there before that cross. She heard the words, ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love’. And all of our
faith and all of our prayer could be summed up in those words too.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (September 2006), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.