In one of my previous jobs, occasionally I used to drive past a nearby Roman Catholic church that had a sign carved above its entrance that always caused my eyes to roll upwards in irritation. I would not react quite so contemptuously these days, being somewhat older and wiser (I hope), and understanding a little more of what lay behind it.
So what was it about that sign that provoked such a negative reaction in me at the time? I should point out that it was nothing to do with the actual wording, which I could happily and wholeheartedly endorse: the sign bore a perfectly commendable message of four simple words, that read: ‘In all things love.’ Yes, absolutely!
No, my problem was not with the message, but with the symbol that accompanied it. Which was the line drawing of a heart with an arrow through it. The kind of symbol that you see in graffiti on bus-stops, penned by love-lorn teenagers, keen to let the world know that Amy fancies Jorden.
The drawing of a heart pierced by Cupid’s arrow has become the classic symbol of romantic love in our society – indicating the pain of love-sickness; and the wound of uncontrollable erotic desire. You will doubtless have seen any number of examples on cards and in the advertising materials leading up to St Valentine’s Day today. But what on earth was a sign like that that doing outside a Christian place of worship? At the time, it seemed to me not only inappropriate but (if I can be forgiven for saying so) rather naff.
However, as I indicated a moment ago, I know more now than I did then. And I certainly understand more about the story behind that particular symbol. Because although its association with romantic love seems to have its origins in the Middle Ages, there is another tradition behind its use that is also Mediaeval, but is profoundly theological, linked with the imagery of the five wounds of Christ at the crucifixion. Certainly by the fifteenth century, the image of the heart of Christ pierced by a sword, sometimes replaced with an arrow, became part of that iconography.
And this tied in with another strand of mediaeval Catholic devotion, focussing on the sacred heart of Jesus: a symbol that gave tangible and visible symbolic form to the concept of God’s boundless and passionate love for us, and the long-suffering love and compassion of Christ.
As a good Protestant Anglican, I must confess that, although I can make sense of it at an intellectual level, the notion of a specific spiritual devotion to the sacred heart of Jesus, and the particular symbolism that has come to accompany it, has never really done it for me.
What I do comprehend completely, however, is the profoundly costly nature of the life of love. Because the very word ‘compassion’ means to ‘suffer with’ – to feel the pain of another. And, far from being ‘romantic’, even in the broadest sense of the word, sometimes the true heroism of a life of love remains completely hidden from view.
I cannot help but think of parishioners I have known throughout my ministry, whose tireless devotion and dedication to caring for a sick loved-one over many years, cost them everything, and outwardly at least give them little in return. And yet, that is the precisely the place where the refiner’s fire can transform the fickle superficiality of romantic love into a love that truly is of Christ.
The Benedictine nun Sister Mary David once said of those experiences of friction and frustration that I am sure we all recognise within our relationships: ‘These difficult situations with others are the very means by which we are invited to transform our natural love into Christ’s love. The necessity of practising forbearance, patience, kindness when we don’t want to or feel like it, forces us to work at turning (or rather letting God turn) our love into Real love … and the process always involves a kind of death.
A compassionate heart will always feel pain. In Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, The Secret Life of Bees, one of the characters, May, is traumatised by the suffering of others, even by events that appear on the news. Her sister explains that May lacks the protection around her heart that most of us have – so that all the suffering of the world enters her, and May feels that pain and tragedy so acutely that it seems to be happening to her. She simply can’t tell the difference any more.
Reflecting on that, I was reminded of a story that I heard many years ago in a little parish church in Brisbane. The story went like this:
A group of theological students turned up to one of their regular classes and were surprised to discover that on each of their desks had been placed a blank sheet of paper and a pencil – and (stranger still) pinned to the board at the front was the paper image of a dartboard. They had no idea what was going on, or what to expect. And they were even more perplexed by the task that their tutor then set them.
‘What I want you to do’, he said, ‘is to think of someone whom you really, really dislike – someone you hate. Someone who has wronged you, or abused your trust, or betrayed you – either recently or many years ago. And I would like you to draw the face of that person, as best you can, on that piece of paper in front of you.’
Predictably, there were complaints from those students who said they were rubbish at drawing, and from others who couldn’t think of anybody they felt that strongly about – but after a few minutes they had all started work, and indeed became increasingly absorbed in the task. One of them drew the face of his abusive step-mother, who had made his childhood a time of utter misery. One of the female students drew the face of a guy that morning who had barged into her and then followed it up with a torrent of sexist abuse. And so it went on. And their pictures became increasingly detailed, as they became increasingly involved in that task.
Eventually, when they had all drawn their pictures, the tutor invited one of the students to come up to the front, and to pin his drawing onto the dart board picture. He then handed him three darts and said – ‘Now, here’s your chance to show what you really think about him.’
Still slightly baffled, the student did just that, and it so happened that the third of his darts struck his image right between the eyes, which evoked a mighty cheer, and cries of ‘bullseye’ from the rest of the class. From which point onwards the whole group became more and more engaged, cheering enthusiastically every time one of those hateful individuals got it in the eye or right in the middle of the forehead. Yay!
Finally, when the last of the students had hurled her three darts at the image of the person whom she loathed, and had returned to her seat, and the shouting and applause of her peers had died down, the tutor went to the paper dartboard – which by this time, as you can imagine, was almost completely shredded. And he unpinned it, and he took it down from the board.
In that instant the entire group of students fell silent. Because unbeknown to them, concealed behind the paper dartboard was another image. It was the image of the face of Christ. A face that was now torn and disfigured until it was almost unrecognisable, damaged by every single one of the darts that had reached its target.
It was perhaps the most powerful reminder that any of them had every experienced that when we wound one another, however justified we may feel we are in doing so – it is Christ who ultimately bears the pain of that aggression and violence; it is the flesh of Christ, torn and bloodied, that bears the marks of our own anger and rage and our desire to get our own back; to cause harm; to get even. And in the same way, the heart of Christ is pierced by the sin of the world. How could it be otherwise, for the compassionate heart is a heart that feels pain, and as we sing in one of our most well-loved hymns, ‘Jesu, thou art all compassion.’
St Valentine was a Roman priest, said to have been martyred on this day in the year 269. His association with romantic love is probably to do with the date, 14th February: and a legend that birds begin to sing on this day, and choose their mates, or possibly the fact that it coincided with a pagan fertility feast.
But the image of a heart pierced by an arrow – suggests so much more than that.