Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Devotion To the Sacred Heart: Part II

by P. Milward, S.J.


In this continuation from a previous article, Peter C. Milward goes on to explain, "The next stage in the development of the devotion to the Sacred Heart must be attributed to the spiritual genius of St. Augustine; it concerns the teaching associated with the opening in the side of Christ."

Larger Work

The American Ecclesiastical Review



Publisher & Date

The Catholic University of America Press, July 1960

The next stage in the development of the devotion to the Sacred Heart must be attributed to the spiritual genius of St. Augustine; it concerns the teaching associated with the opening in the side of Christ.

In this, as in so many other matters, Augustine indicated the main lines, which were to be followed in the subsequent tradition of the West. For it is he who first makes the vital connection between the idea of the Church born from the side of Christ on the cross and another concept which has now to be examined in detail.

In his commentary on the passage of John 19:34, he finds particular significance in the word "aperuit," which is used in the Latin version of the Gospel, apparently unaware that the Greek word attested by the best manuscripts is "enuxen"--"transfixit." Yet, by means of this happy fault he directs our attention, for the first time, from the stream of blood and water flowing without to its hidden source within:

A watchful word the Evangelist has used, when he says not "Pierced His side," or "Wounded," or anything else, but "Opened": that there a gate of life might be opened, whence the sacraments of the Church have flowed forth, without which there is no entrance to the life that is truly life. 1

He also elaborates this idea in the same passage, by making a comparison between the wound in Christ's side and the door in the side of the Ark. Nor is this a mere passing comparison: for he returns to it on two occasions in his controversy against Faustus, 2 and it occurs again in the course of his beautiful description of the Ark in the De Civitate Dei:

The Ark is without doubt a figure of the city of God wandering in this world, that is to say, the Church which is saved by means of the wood, on which hung the mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus. . . And the door it received in its side is surely the wound made in the side of the Crucified when pierced by the lance, by which those enter who come to Him; for from it flowed the sacraments in which believers are initiated. 3

The direct influence of this idea can, moreover, be clearly seen in the sermon of St. Avitus of Vienne, already quoted:

One of the soldiers, snatching a spear, opened His side. Thus he did not break, nor pierce, nor throttle to death, but (he says) opened; that we might recognize in the gate of life made by this powerful thrust, not the mark of a wound, but the entrance to salvation. For that Ark also, in whose safe protection Noe alone, when all others were perishing, rode the swelling floods of the world and the unchecked triumph of death, is described as being fitted with a door in its side, by which entrance is made to salvation and exit to the light of day. . . Let us consider, therefore, first what proceeded thence, and next how the Christian enters in. 4

In a later age, St. Bede as a faithful follower of St. Augustine makes frequent references to the Ark in this connection, as in his Commentaries on the Hexaemeron and on Genesis, 5 but he elsewhere alters and enriches the comparison by a preference for the symbolism of the door in the side of Solomon's Temple. Here, for instance, is a passage from his small treatise De Templo Salamonis:

The door in the midst of the side was in the right part of the house; for when the Lord died on the cross, one of the soldiers pierced His side with a lance. And appropriately in the right part of the house; since it was His right side that the soldier opened, according to the belief of Holy Church. Here also the Evangelist makes use of an apt word, when he says not "Struck," or "Wounded," but "Opened," that is, the door in the midst of His side, through which the way to heaven might be opened to us. 6

There is yet a further elaboration of this comparison in the writings of the venerable Doctor, who seems to penetrate more deeply than his predecessors into the opening of the side. The reason for this is precisely his preference for the symbolism of the Temple, in which he notices a certain detail, which is beautifully described in his Commentary on the Books of Esdras and Nehemias:

The door in the midst of the side was in the right part of the house . . . leading through the interior of the same side by a hidden way to an upper dining-room; for Our Lord and Saviour wished to open for us a gate of salvation in the right side of His Body, so that, washed and sanctified by His sacraments, we might enter the upper room of His heavenly kingdom. For we ascend by the door in the midst of the side to the upper dining room when, consecrated by the water of baptism and the cup of the Lord, we pass from this earthly conversation to the life of the souls in heaven. 7

This thought of St. Augustine receives a new development in two sermons, which are doubtfully ascribed to the Doctor, though they probably belong to a later period. In them we see more clearly that movement from the exterior to the interior, from the sacraments of blood and water to their source within the opening of the side--a movement, which is fundamental to the subsequent growth of devotion to the Sacred Heart.

First, there is a Sermon to Catechumens on the Symbol, where, after referring to the Jews who look on the side of Christ without repentance, the preacher says:

But let their death help towards our salvation. If they despised Him, let us fear Him Who will come to judge us. Let each one hasten while he lives, that he may live; let him run to receive redemption from His precious blood. . . Here, here, while he lives, let him choose the better place. 8

The second passage is from the Sermo de Tempore Barbarico, in which the language, while based on that of St. Augustine, seems distinctly mediaeval in tone. It has however, considerable interest in itself, and the word "foramen" is particularly to be noticed towards the end of the quotation:

And now let all come who love Paradise, a place of peace, of security, of perpetual happiness, a place where we will fear no barbarian, endure no adversary, suffer no enemy; come all, enter all; there is a way by which you may enter, the side is open. . . Strive, says the Lord, to enter by the narrow gate. What is more narrow than that hole [foramen] which one of the soldiers opened by striking the side of the Crucified? And yet through this narrow hole almost the whole world has entered. 9

But for the clear expression of this movement we have to turn to the various commentaries on the Canticle of Canticles which were being written in the West after the time of St. Augustine-- notably by monks of the Order of St. Benedict. Here the relevant text is from Cant. 2:14: "My dove in the holes of the rock, in the hollow of the wall." It has a less obvious connection with the Sacred Heart than the passage of St. John's Gospel, which we have been considering; but this connection soon came to be made, largely through the influence of St. Augustine.

Reference to commentaries on the Canticle written before the time of St. Augustine, such as that of St. Gregory of Nyssa, 10 reveals no sign of this particular interpretation; but the connection is made, apparently for the first time, by Cassiodorus in the sixth century:

The holes in the rock are the wounds, which He received on the cross for our salvation, namely the marks of the nails and the blow of the lance. In these holes, then, the dove--that is, the Church--makes her dwelling; for she places all her hope of salvation in the Passion of her Redeemer. 11

The same identification is made by St. Gregory the Great in his commentary, 12 though he assigns the wound in the side to the "hollow in the wall." Later, St. Bede also takes up the theme in one of his homilies, where he makes an explicit connection with the blood and water flowing from the side of Christ:

The Church is wont to nest in the holes of the rock, in the hollow of the wall. The rock is Christ, Whose hands were pierced with nails on the cross, and Whose side was pierced with a lance, from which there immediately came forth blood and water, that is, the mystery of our sanctification and ablution. 13

Similar ideas are also to be found in the commentary of St. Bede's fellow-countryman, Alcuin of York; 14 while in that of Haymon of Halberstadt in the following century, the exact words of Cassiodorus are repeated without alteration. 15

The Wounded Heart Of Christ

During the Dark Ages, the main interest of ecclesiastical writers was to preserve the tradition of the past--a fact, which appears very noticeably in the foregoing commentaries on the Canticles, whose authors hardly do more than copy from one another. But when we emerge into the Middle Ages proper (that is, in the twelfth century), we cannot fail to be impressed by the sudden and expansive development of all the ideas we have so far considered.

No longer is the opening in the side of Christ a hidden source about whose nature one can only guess by reflecting on the stream of blood and water proceeding thence. Nor is it merely a refuge in which the Church, like a dove, shelters from the evils that flood the outside world, as in the days of Noe. Rather is it now revealed in its intimate depths, wherein we may behold the very source of light and love in the Heart of God.

Already indeed, in those early commentaries on the Canticles, there are a few hints of this new tendency, in connection with the text of Cant. 4:9: "You have wounded my heart." Thus Cassiodorus comments as follows:

When He says that His heart is wounded, He expresses the greatness of the love, which He has for His holy Church. Further, the words, "You have wounded My heart," can also be understood of the Passion of Christ: "You have wounded My heart," that is, by your love you have caused Me to be wounded on the cross. 16

This interpretation, however, does not reappear in the later commentaries, save only in that of Alcuin, 17 who gives it in a much shorter form, and adds nothing new to the idea of Cassiodorus. But it is perhaps the echo of these passages, which we hear in the striking words of St. Anselm's Meditation on the Passion--words, which afford a preliminary glimpse of the new mediaeval spirit of devotion:

Sweet is the opening of His side; for that opening has revealed to us the riches of His goodness, namely the charity of His Heart toward us. 18

The fuller development of the ideas implicitly contained in the early commentaries on the Canticle is, above all, to be found in the De Anima of Hugh of St. Victor, who expands them into the characteristically mediaeval devotion to the Wounds of Christ:

There is a safe and sure rest for weak and sinful men in the wounds of the Saviour. I dwell in them secure; the interior of His heart lies open to me through the wounds [patent mihi viscera per vulnera]. Whatever is wanting to me, I take for myself from the heart of my Lord; for His mercies are overflowing, nor are holes [foramina] lacking by which they may flow out. Through the holes in the body appear to me the secrets of the heart [per foramina corporis patent mihi arcana cordis]; there appears the great mystery of His love, the mercy of our God in which the Orient from on high has visited us. 19

Thus, Hugh is not content with merely looking on the "foramina corporis" from without; but he enters within, and there discovers the "arcana cordis." This discovery he was able to communicate to his contemporaries, largely through the incorporation of this part of his De Anima in the Manuale [or Mediaeval Book of Devotion], which came to be ascribed as a whole to St. Augustine. 20

It is not surprising, therefore, to find his very words reproduced by St. Bernard in the second half of the same century, when he gives his own magisterial commentary on the crucial text of Cant. 2:14 in his famous Sermons on the Canticle--which represent a real climax of thought and devotion in the Middle Ages:

Blessed openings, which effect faith in the resurrection and in the divine nature of Christ, "My Lord," he says, "and my God." Whence was obtained this oracle, save from the holes in the rock? In them the sparrow finds a home, and the turtle dove a nest wherein she may lay her young; in them the dove finds refuge and looks without fear on the hawk hovering above-- Truly, where is a safe and sure refuge to be found for the weak, save in the wounds of the Saviour? -- The iron passed through His soul and reached to His heart, so that He cannot now be ignorant of my infirmities. Through the holes in the body appear to me the secrets of the heart; there appears the great mystery of His love, the mercy of our God in which the Orient from on high has visited us. For where could it have been more clearly revealed than in your wounds, that you, O Lord, are gentle and meek and full of mercy? 21

The following sermon of St. Bernard shows yet a further development of thought, parallel to that which St. Bede had suggested concerning the door in the right side of the Temple. For in this new context of the Canticle, he is able to show how rich are the implications contained in this mystery of the side of Christ, through which man ascends from earth to heaven:

The Church is a dove, and therefore she rests; a dove, because innocent and sighing. And she rests in the Word, that is, in the rock; for the rock is the Word. The Church dwells, then, in the holes of the rock, through which she peers in and beholds the glory of her Spouse; yet she is not oppressed by His glory, for she does not appropriate it to herself. 22

The Theological Synthesis

St. Bernard has been called the "last of the Fathers," but he also stands at the beginning of the great age of Scholasticism, as the contemporary of Peter Abelard, Hugh of St. Victor, and Peter Lombard--the Master of the Sentences. This new age, while containing much that is original, is pre-eminently one of synthesis; and it is not surprising, therefore, to find the different ideas which we have been following singly now placed together in a fuller and more fruitful combination.

Thus in the following century, St. Albert the Great makes more explicit the connection between the idea of the Church, formed from the side of Christ, and the Dove of the Canticle. The passage in question is from the Commentary on St. John's Gospel, and opens significantly with the very words of St. Augustine:

He pierced His side with a lance, so that the truth might correspond with the shadow; that just as from the side of the sleeping Adam was formed his spouse Eve, so from the side of Christ sleeping the sleep of death on the cross might be formed His spouse, the Church. For this reason He Himself said in Cant. 2:14: "My dove in the holes of the rock, in the hollow of the wall." This means the purity and simplicity of the Church, which rests in the holes of the nails through her faith in Christ, Who is the "rock," and in the hollow of the wound in His side, which is the "wall." 23

From St. Albert we might naturally expect to proceed for a fuller synthesis to his great pupil, St. Thomas, in whose writings we often meet with various of the above-mentioned ideas, particularly with that of the Church formed from the side of Christ. 24 It is, however, not St. Thomas, but his friend and rival, St. Bonaventure, who first gathers together all these ideas and relates them explicitly to the devotion of the Sacred Heart. For in the great age of Scholasticism, he stands out as the great exponent of this devotion; and in its light he makes a synthesis of the three principal stages outlined above: namely, the sacraments of blood and water, the Church formed from the pierced side of Christ, and the secret of His Heart hidden within.

In the first place, he presents the doctrinal synthesis in his treatise on the Lignum Vitae:

In order that the Church might be formed from the side of Christ sleeping on the cross, and that the Scripture might be fulfilled which says: "They shall look upon Him Whom they have pierced," it was ordained by divine providence that one of the soldiers should pierce with his lance and open that sacred side; so that in the blood flowing out with the water, the price of our salvation might be poured forth --thereby from the very source (namely the secret of the Heart) imparting abundant power to the sacraments of the Church for conferring the life of grace, and for bestowing on those who already live in Christ a cup of living water springing up into eternal life. Behold the lance has now made a hole in the rock and a hollow in the wall, as it were a dwelling for doves. Arise, then, beloved of Christ, be like a dove nestling in the opening of the hole; there cease not to watch like the sparrow who has found her home, there like the turtle-dove hide the offspring of your chaste love, there place your mouth to drink water from the sources of the Saviour. 25

In his other treatise on the Vitis Mystica, the Seraphic Doctor proceeds from the doctrine to the devotion of the Sacred Heart, in words whose fervor of love is hardly to be paralleled elsewhere in mediaeval literature. Indeed, the whole treatise may be termed a hymn of praise and love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, from the beginning where he speaks of the "circumfossio vitis" until the concluding exhortation to contemplate the Passion of Christ:

For this also was your side pierced, that an entrance might be opened to us; for this was your Heart wounded, that we might be able to dwell in that vine, freed from all external troubles; and for this also was it wounded, that through the visible wound we might behold the invisible wound of love. Finally, let us approach that most humble Heart of Jesus most high, that is to say, through the door in His side pierced with the lance; there without doubt lies hidden an ineffable treasure of most desirable love; there will we find devotion, thence draw the grace of tears, there learn meekness and patience in adversity, and compassion for the afflicted, and there, above all, obtain a contrite and humbled heart. 26

Here, then, more than four centuries before the revelations made to St. Margaret Mary, we discover in the Franciscan school of piety as witnessed chiefly in the writings of St. Bonaventure a full expression of the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus; and here, too, we see the outlet, as it were, of those divergent streams of Patristic meditation which we have followed from their principal source in the side of the Saviour--according to the witness of St. John. 27

Peter C. Milward, S.J.


1 Comm. in Joannem, tr. CXX, 2: PL 35, 1953.

2 Contra Faustum, XII, 8 and 16: PL 42, 257 and 261.

3 De Civitate Dei, XV, 26: PL 41, 472.

4 Avitas, Sermo de Passione Domini (frag.): PL 59, 312.

5 In Hexaemeron, Lib. II: PL 91, 89; and In Pentateuchum-Genesis, cc. V-VII: PL 91, 223.

6 De Templo Salamonis, VIII: PL 91, 753; cf. also In Libro Regum I, c. XII: PL 91, 722, and Hom. I, 22 (in Fer. II Quadr.): PL 94, 119.

7 In Esdram et Nehemiam, II, 7: PL 91, 853.

8 De Symbolo: Sermo II ad Catechumenos, VII, 17; PL 40, 647.

9 Sermo de Tempore Barbarico, VII, 9 and VIII, 9: PL 40, 706.

10 Homiliae in Cantica: PG 44, 786.

11 In Cantica, II, 14: PL 70, 1066.

12 Super Cantica Expos., II, 15: PL 79, 499.

13 Hom I, XI (in die festo Theophaniae): PL 94, 62.

14 Compendium in Cant., II, 14: PL 100, 647.

15 Enarr. in Cant., II: PL 107, 307.

16 In Cant., IV, 9: PL 70, 1076.

17 Compendium in Cant., IV, 9: PL 100, 652.

18 Med. X de Passione Christi: PL 158, 761.

19 De Anima, Lib. IV, XXI: PL 177, 181.

20 Manuale: PL 40, 960.

21 In Cantica Sermo LXI, 3, 4: PL 183, 1072.

22 In Cantica Sermo LXII, 4: PL 183, 1075.

23 In Joannem, XIX, 34: Opera, T. XXIV.

24 Cf. Part I, notes 17 and 40: AER, CXLII (1960), 365, 373; also III, q. 66, art. 4, ad 3; Suppl., q. 42, art. I, ad 3. This last is quoted in Haurietis Aquas, AAS 48 (1956), 333.

25 Lignum Vitae, Fr. VIII, 30.

26 Vitis Mystica, III, S and XXIV, 3--also quoted in Haurietis Aquas, AAS 48 (1956), 337.

27 As a final note, it should be mentioned that the example of St. John, himself, both at the Last Supper and on Calvary, has contributed in no small measure to the development of devotion to the Sacred Heart. Cf. Origen: In Joannem, I, 6 (PG 14, 31); St. Gregory of Nyssa: In Cantica Hom. I (PG 44, 786); St. Augustine: Tr. in Joannem, I, 7 (PL 35, 1382); St. Paulinus of Nola: Epist. XXI ad Amandum (PL 61, 251); St. Peter Damian: Sermo LXIII de S. Joanne (PL 144, 861)--to which might be added Bossuet's sermon on the feast of St. John, 1658 (Oeuvres Completes, VI, 277).

Related articles:

Devotion to the Sacred Heart -- Part I
Haurietis Aquas--Devotion to the Sacred Heart

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