By Erin Daly
Let me tell you about the time a religious sister used the term “Jansenism,” an old (but still present in some hearts, apparently) heresy in the Church, to describe a pattern of thinking I had fallen into.
I recently made a three-night personal retreat with a local community of contemplative sisters. On the second day I sat down with one of the sisters to ask for guidance on a few things. I told her about a particular desire that had been burning in me for awhile, but I was wondering if it was okay for me to follow it. The sister said that this desire was a God-given grace and that I should absolutely follow it without fear. I knew in my heart of hearts that she was right, but I also shared with her that I had been struggling to believe that my desires were good. I had somehow convinced myself that my desires were inherently at odds with God’s will for me and that God didn’t want me to be happy if being happy meant following my desires.
“Oh, no, that’s Jansenism!” the sister said in reply when I shared that.
If you’re not familiar, Jansenism is a heresy that pervaded the Church in Europe, particularly in France, in the 1600s. It emphasized the depravity of human nature and its teachers and preachers taught that Christ only died for a select few and that God gave grace to some but not to others. As a result, people began to doubt the Lord’s goodness towards them, and many were led to believe that they must stay away from Holy Communion because they believed that the Lord only allowed a select few, perfect souls to approach Him in the Eucharist. I think it’s safe to assume that Jansenists were miserable!
Maybe I wasn’t buying into the falsehood that the Lord had predestined me for damnation and that His grace wasn’t with me, but Jansenism clearly taught that people shouldn’t get their hopes up about the goodness of God. And that’s what I was describing to the sister I talked to on my retreat. Really, that conversation was the third in about a month that confirmed an awful wound in me: the fear that the Lord doesn’t want me to be happy. A few weeks earlier I had disclosed another struggle to another religious sister, who described the tendency I was sharing with her as “stoicism,” the belief that those who are truly wise are indifferent to both pleasure and pain and therefore don’t seek to change a situation that’s causing them to be unhappy. And not long after that, I met with my spiritual director,* who reminded me (as he often does at our meetings, God bless him) that the Lord does, indeed, want my happiness and that it’s okay to pursue things that I think are good for me and will give me joy.
All of this sounds perfectly reasonable and obvious as I write it. God wants me to be happy. It’s okay to want what I want, provided it’s good for me and won’t hinder my relationship with the Lord. But I don’t know why I constantly need the reassurance that that’s true.
I began pondering my troubling Jansenistic tendency a lot as the Church approached the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart this year; devotion to Jesus’ Heart took off in a new way in response to Jansenism, after all! As Europe was suffering under the weight of the Jansenist heresy, Jesus began appearing to Sister (now Saint) Margaret Mary Alacoque, a French Visitation nun. In His visits, He showed her His Heart aflame with love for humanity and He complained of His deep sadness over the fact that so many souls didn’t trust His goodness. In response to Jansenism’s portrayal of an angry God who scrutinizes His creatures’ every move and only cares about a select few perfect souls, the Lord revealed the deep love of His Heart for humanity. Not a hand-wringing, scrupulous attention to our sins and faults, but His love and tenderness. Talk about good news!
I’ve always felt an interest in devotion to the Sacred Heart, even before I had a relationship with the Lord. There’s something about Jesus’ love and His desire to be loved that have always touched my own heart. But even as I’ve grown in understanding of and intimacy with Him, I’ve never been quite sure what devotion to His Heart should look like. But seeing wounds in myself that mirror the wounds that Jansenism left, the wounds that the Lord so graciously responded to by revealing His Heart to St. Margaret Mary, has inspired me to get serious about my personal devotion to Jesus’ Heart. In fact, I can’t think of a better devotion for my own melancholic temperament, with its tendency towards negativity and doubt, than to the sweet Heart of my Savior.
Yes, devotion to the Sacred Heart, as the Lord revealed to St. Margaret Mary, involves a spirit of sorrow and reparation for the sins that most wound His Heart. But the Lord has revealed to many saints and visionaries that the sins that wound Him the most are those of distrust in His love, mercy, and goodness, some of the things I struggle with the most. The heart is symbolic of a person’s entire interior and emotional life, their feelings, if you will. And the Lord’s feelings for me are nothing but tenderness and love. He desires my joy. He wants to give me good things and to respond to the longings of my own heart. Devotion to His Heart must include a deep trust in that goodness, especially on those days when I’m fighting to believe it.
The Heart of Jesus is for you, sister. It’s for me. It’s for all of us. Perhaps in a special way for those of us with anxious and doubt-filled hearts. The Sacred Heart has already conquered the heaviness and misery of Jansenism in the wider Church. Let It speak life and peace into those parts of your own heart that may still be clinging to those lies.
*Have you ever thought of getting a spiritual director? Look at the amount of wisdom that came for Erin through talking with the religious.