Sometimes, the voice of a saint echoes clearly to us down through the centuries. As a young adult, I found myself struggling, in the ordinary way of young people, with feeling alienated from God.
In a fit of teenage rebellion, I had told God to get out of my life and leave me alone. Now, entangled in patterns of sin that I was powerless to unravel, I needed God’s help but didn’t know how to get it. I didn’t even know if it was possible.
At this time, I was in the habit of running every evening. Night after night, as the miles slid by, I tried unsuccessfully to reason my way out of the guilt, sorrow, and hopelessness I felt. I would even imagine ways God could miraculously deliver me—even though I was never really confident that he would.
One fragrant May evening as I ran, I passed a Visitation convent whose parking lot was unexpectedly full. Inside, the nuns and their guests were making a novena to the Sacred Heart. I tiptoed in, thinking I would pray briefly.
Something there touched my heart, and for the next three years, I attended that novena—nine consecutive Friday evenings of prayer each May and June. Outwardly, I said the prayers; inwardly, I poured out my heart to the Lord. As I did, Jesus began to soften and heal my hard heart.
He also poured out his heart to me, revealing his inexpressibly tender love for me, a young woman who felt hopelessly bound up in sin. No longer did I merely want to resolve my difficulties, I began to have the wisdom and ability to do so. A desire grew in me to love and serve God, and he began to show me how.
Three Streams. I didn’t know it then, but six hundred years earlier, a young Visitation nun had written some words that described my experience with the Sacred Heart almost exactly:
“Three streams flow ceaselessly from Jesus’ divine heart. The first is a stream of mercy for sinners, giving them a spirit of contrition and repentance. The second is a stream of charity, which brings help to all in need, especially those who seek perfection and need help overcoming difficulties. The third is a stream of love and light, which flows into those with whom our Lord wants to share his knowledge and commandments so that they, each in their own way, may devote themselves wholly to promoting his glory.”
My heart positively leapt when I first read those words—some twenty-five years after my first novena!
The writer was Sister Margaret Mary Alacoque, a nun who lived in the Visitation convent at Paray-le-Monial, France. On the surface, Margaret Mary might strike us as a puzzling, unappealing choice for the mission of spreading the good news of God’s great love. She suffered incredibly throughout her life, performed no miracles, and left no lengthy writings. In some ways, she wasn’t even a model nun. Outwardly, her life offers little that one would want to imitate.
But Margaret Mary was the perfect vessel for the Lord. Her suffering taught her how to open herself to the three streams of God’s love and channel that flow of love to others. As she opened her heart, God filled her with a love so compelling that she willingly embraced more suffering. Her burning desire was that people everywhere would be saved and that the whole world would respond to Jesus’ love.
Countercultural Witness. Margaret Mary Alacoque was born in France in 1647, when the monarchy, under Louis XIV, was on the verge of absolute power. She grew up during the age of Richelieu and Cromwell, of Newton and Galileo. It was an age of exploration and discovery: the Jamestown colony was formed, and The Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. The telescope and pocket watch were invented; champagne was created, and ice cream was served for the first time.
However, in this bold, exciting age, love for God—and knowledge of his love—had grown cold. A strong current of skepticism was at work in French society, undermining belief in God and loyalty to the Church. Many who did believe were influenced by the heresy of Jansenism, which taught that human nature is depraved and that Jesus died to save only a chosen few. The situation may have looked grim, but God’s love never wanes. Out of this unpromising setting, he raised up a compelling, countercultural witness to his love and mercy.
Margaret Mary was a lively little girl who loved to play. She was also extraordinarily aware of God’s presence and love and would frequently steal away to pray. Sometime in early childhood, she made a vow of perpetual chastity. Commenting on this years later, she said that she had not understood what the words “vow” and “chastity” meant! She knew only that, in her awe for God, she felt “continually urged” to say those words to him.
Her father died when she was eight, and relatives promptly took over the estate. Margaret Mary was sent off to boarding school, where she contracted an illness that left her unable to walk for four years. All remedies having failed, Margaret Mary consecrated herself to the Virgin Mary, vowing that if she were cured, she would become one of Mary’s “daughters” one day. Scarcely had she made the vow when she was healed.
Though Margaret Mary reveled in the pleasure of no longer being bedridden, life at home had become truly miserable. The relatives who had seized their home now tyrannized it, treating her and her mother as servants. Margaret Mary responded by immersing herself in prayer. “I spent the nights as I had spent the days, shedding tears at the foot of my crucifix,” she said.
Quite understandably, Margaret Mary’s mother reacted by begging her daughter to find a husband. That way, she reasoned, she herself would have a place to live and escape the relatives. In fact, Margaret Mary was attractive enough to have had several suitors, despite having no dowry or inheritance. She struggled intensely between wanting to please her mother and wanting to live up to her earlier vows.
Heart Speaks to Heart. While Margaret Mary agonized over the choice, she came to know, without entirely understanding it, that God wanted to be the “absolute Master” of her heart. She experienced his love as a “powerful goad” prompting her to become his alone. “I therefore asked him to teach me and to show me what he wanted me to do in order to please him.”
God did show her, inspiring her to take care of the poor and infirm, to dress their wounds, and to give away what food and possessions she had. Just as her self-denial and suffering at home taught her obedience, the love she experienced from God aroused an “ardent desire” to respond in kind. God was faithful and gentle with Margaret Mary, frequently consoling and encouraging her when she struggled against self-will. Eventually, she found the peace to follow his voice—and the real desire of her heart—into the convent at Paray-le-Monial.
Margaret Mary was not beloved there. The other sisters viewed her as clumsy, stubborn, self-aggrandizing, and too absent-minded to be any practical good. She found it difficult to pray according to the order’s established format. At the same time, she spent all her leisure moments before the Blessed Sacrament in the intimate conversation with the Lord that she had always practiced.
There, in December 1673, she experienced Jesus opening his heart and telling her of his love: “My heart is so inflamed with love for human beings, and for you in particular, that it must spread that love by means of you.” Three similar revelations followed over the next two years. Again, the message focused on Jesus’ love: “Behold the heart that has so loved!”
These extraordinary revelations left Margaret Mary “on fire and inebriated” with divine love to such an extent that she was unable to speak or sleep. But the more she experienced God’s awesome fullness, it seems, the more scorn and contempt she experienced from the sisters in her convent.
Patiently, always encouraging obedience to her superiors, Jesus led Margaret Mary to revive and promote devotion to his love. This she did by urging the other sisters to ponder the love in Jesus’ heart. Whenever her strength or wisdom flagged, Jesus reminded her, “I am a wise and learned director who knows how to lead souls safely when they abandon themselves to me and forget themselves.”
The Fire of God’s Love. All that the Lord showed Margaret Mary about his heart might never have become known had it not been for a priest who spent a year in Paray as her director. Father Claude de la Columbiere recognized the work of God in Margaret Mary and encouraged her to write down everything she thought the Lord was telling her.
Fr. de la Columbiere died in 1684. Two years later, a book of his sermons was published, in which he mentioned Margaret Mary’s revelations without specifically naming her. When these sermons on the Sacred Heart were read in the convent, the nuns got the message. The deceased priest’s authoritative backing brought an end to their opposition, and very quickly, Paray-le-Monial became the hub of a devotion that spread rapidly to other Visitation convents and then to the world.
Even as the devotion to the Sacred Heart spread, Margaret Mary herself remained relatively unknown. Never vibrantly healthy, she died in 1690 at forty-three, and wasn’t canonized until 1920. Undoubtedly, she would have preferred to disappear completely in the radiance of God’s love.
By her humble, hidden life, Margaret Mary delivered an invitation from God to a world that desperately needed to hear it—an invitation to know his love in a new and dynamic way. This invitation is also for us, because in every century, the human heart thirsts for God’s love. Devotion to the Sacred Heart brings us face to face with the truth that God loves us and delights in showering us with forgiveness and mercy. Like any loving father, he will help us when we struggle; he wants us for friends with whom he can share his heart. All he asks is that we share our hearts with him.
As we do, the fire of his love is kindled in us. We experience forgiveness and mercy, deliverance from difficulties, new knowledge of God. We find ourselves, as I did years ago, with a burning desire to love and serve him.
Ann Bottenhorn is a frequent contributor to The Word Among Us.