Here is My Heart: Meditating on Christ’s Love through His Wounds
Happy Valentine’s Day! If you’re like me, you might be feeling a little depressed about the lack of love in the world (especially if you’re on social media, which can so often feel like a hell-hole of sniping and hot takes). How can we increase our love? Medieval Europeans had an unusual strategy: meditating on Christ’s wounds.
In the late Middle Ages, meditation on Christ’s passion was considered perhaps the most effective way to increase one’s own love for Jesus and neighbor. Richard Rolle, the medieval hermit and popular devotional writer, recommends that one focus on Christ’s wounds because they will allow your heart to “burn” for love. This love, Rolle argues, will purge the sin from your heart in its burning passion, and lift your heart to heavenly contemplation.
This process was meant to be deeply personal, an encounter with the suffering Christ, one-on-one, for the sake of winning your love and communicating his own. In English lyric poetry, many poems imagined Jesus speaking from the cross directly to individual readers as if they were passers-by of the crucifixion, showing his wounds to them and pleading for their love in return. Here’s one that appears in a variety of forms and manuscripts:
O man unkynde Have thou in mynde My passion smerte Thou shall me fynde To thee full kynde Lo, here my heart.
-Anonymous, Trinity College, Cambridge M.S. O.2.54, fol. 69.r
For the reader, Jesus’s side wound is a direct path to Jesus’s heart, as if the spear revealed his heart for all to gaze upon and see the veracity of his love for themselves. The wound both symbolically and literally shows his love by stripping away all covering to his heart. The word vulnerable comes from the Latin word for wound, vulnus—in offering his heart, Jesus is utterly vulnerable, wounded, and undergoing not only the lethal wounding of the cross, but the wound of love given and rejected. Yet he does not stop offering his heart to us, the sinners gathered at the cross in the poem.
In some medieval prayer books, there are even illustrations of Christ’s wounds from his passion. Not Christ as a whole himself—just his wounds, often surrounded by the weapons that inflicted them. Each wound prompted the supplicant to remember the love of Jesus, and to pray to receive the kind of love that Jesus gives freely in his willingness to suffer for humankind.
My valentine for you all is this image from that tradition, in a manuscript now kept at Princeton University. We see the heart of Jesus, his side wound, as the “well of lyfe.” The text at the top reads, “Well of lyfe that ever shall laste / My herte in thee make it stedfast.” It’s a little prayer, meant to accompany gazing upon the heart of Jesus.
This image breaks a little bit from contemporary tradition in it only includes a bit of blood. It’s also different the later Sacred Heart imagery with its lack of flames and crown of thorns. Instead, flowers, likely roses, are growing out of it, reflecting the growth and fecundity of Christ’s suffering. The flowers are labelled pity, love, and charity. I love how the roses break through the crown and add to its beauty, just as the utter power and divinity of the Second person is glorified by Christ’s humble human nature. The image tells us that Christ offers his heart to us.
The little prayer at the top invites us, like the roses of divine virtue, to be “stedfast” in love—a word which literally breaks down to fixed in place, rooted in Christ’s open heart. His wounds are like cultivated, turned over, opened up earth. Farmers break the soil and turn it over so that weak and tender sprouts can emerge to the light of day and nutrients and water more easily filter down to the roots of plants. Otherwise the ground can be too hard. My heart is broken and ready for you—come and grow, Jesus beckons. This image gives me hope, too, that as I try to follow Christ, out of my wounds flowers will grow in those vulnerable places. I am praying for that blooming, for myself and for those I love, this Valentine’s Day.
(By the way, medievalists today call this whole tradition, including meditation on the wounds, “affective piety,” if you’re interested in learning more but not sure what to google!)
What I’ve been up to this month:
The newest Old Books With Grace episode features Dr. Jessica Hooten Wilson, professor and author of The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints. We had a fascinating discussion on twentieth-century literature and the strange demands of holiness. Listen anywhere you get your podcasts. Next week, I welcome writer and MFA program director Sophfronia Scott to the podcast, author of The Seeker and the Monk (one of my favorite books of 2021!) on her reading encounters and conversations with the twentieth-century monk and peace activist, Thomas Merton.
I’ve been working on the Lent series that arrives on Ash Wednesday to Old Books With Grace. It’s on medieval ideas about the virtues and vices, and how these conceptions speak to us today. I’ve been completely fascinated and befuddled, to be honest, by this project. I can’t wait to share it with you.
Some big news is coming down the pipeline… stay tuned!
What I’ve been reading this month:
Nonfiction: Joan Chittister’s The Liturgical Year. Spiritual and informing, warm and smart. Perfect for both readers for whom the liturgical year is an old friend, and for those who would like to learn more about the church’s seasons. It would be a great read for Lent, which is approaching rapidly.
Fiction: Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. This novel, on two sisters—one sold into slavery and shipped off to America, another who stays in Africa—and the generations of their descendants in their respective lands, is haunting, harrowing, and beautifully written. I have not finished it yet—taking it slow.
Medieval/Medieval-adjacent: I reread Geoffrey Chaucer’s Valentine’s Day poem, The Parliament of Fowls. I wanted to include some in this newsletter, but it’s too long. Such a fun dream vision about Venus gathering together the birds on the Feast of St. Valentine to choose their mates!
Article: This wonderful piece by Barbara Newman on the history and production of medieval manuscripts, discussing three new books out on the subject, in the London Review of Books. I, a trained medievalist, learned that the Book of Margery Kempe was found by a schoolboy during a ping-pong tournament! How is this not more widely known and celebrated?
A Prayer from the Past
In honor of Black History Month, I wanted to highlight a Black voice from the past. I was knocked down by the raw honesty of preacher, former enslaved woman, mother, and activist Sojourner Truth (d. 1883) in this prayer. One of her last life efforts was lobbying for land for former enslaved people—in other words, reparations. Read about her valiant, bold, faithful life here.
Oh, God, you know I have no money, but you can make the people do for me, and you must make the people do for me. I will never give you peace till you do, God.
A special note behind Truth’s plea for help to God: You may feel called to be the hands and feet of Jesus. As a white woman, I’m keenly aware that for people with my background it’s easy to let something like Black History Month become empty lip service for the sins of the past and present, but it can be more: communal remembrance and action that honors the image of God in Black Americans. Perhaps you might add your own words or response to this prayer, and prayerfully consider how you can give your money or time to honor the legacy of Truth and other Black heroes this month. Here are a few organizations I’ve mentioned before:
The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, the oldest anti-death penalty organization in America. Black Americans are disproportionately sentenced to Death Row (statistics).
Moms of Black Boys, which advocates for a safer future for the lives of black boys, disproportionately affected by violence, in the United States.
Here’s a list of Black-founded nonprofits, which cover everything from the arts to legal advocacy, that might help you find something to which you feel called to give or volunteer.
Peace and love for your February,