Devotion to The Sacred Heart of Jesus is one of the most well-known Catholic practices. Most people think of this devotion in terms of its modern form derived from St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. However, predecessors to this devotion arose much earlier, and in which Cistercians played a prominent role.
One of the defining elements of the Cistercian movement of the 12th century was the emphasis on the Sacred Humanity of Jesus, on relating to Christ in his human dimension. The Cistercian Fathers were eloquent about the sweetness of Jesus and about cultivating a tender, close and loving personal relationship with Him. It was important to feel His human love. St. Bernard emphasized meditating on His Passion and said that the piercing of Christ’s side/heart revealed His goodness and the charity of His heart for us. St. Lutgarde, St. Mechtilde of Helfta, and St. Gertrude the Great developed this Cistercian devotion later in the Middle Ages.
Why is the tender human heart of Jesus such an important Cistercian theme? We are human, and we come to God in and through our humanity. God in His Awesome Divine Love made Himself a real and fully human person through the Incarnation, JESUS, so that we could personally relate with Him on our level and thus, through this, He could lift us up into participation in His Divine life. It sounds paradoxical, but it is the teaching of the St. Teresa of Avila, St. Bernard, and other mystics that we only reach the highest levels of contemplative prayer through the Sacred Humanity of Jesus. Our humanity is taken up to the Divine in His Humanity.
Cultivating and treasuring this loving friendship with Jesus continues to be a central pillar of Cistercian spirituality today. As the Constitutions of the Order say, “[It] is only through the experience of personal love for the Lord Jesus that the specific gifts of the Cistercian vocation can flower. Only if the brothers prefer nothing to Christ will they be happy to persevere in a life that is ordinary, obscure and laborious.”