It’s my patroness’s feast day today. So when I began researching this column, I turned to my trusty Butler’s Lives of the Saints October volume to be refreshed on the details of her life.
I had read all about her when I was little but had gradually drifted away from her as she seemed far too perfect, a friendship with her feeling unimaginable to sinful, weak me. What would we talk about or connect over? Surely she’d quickly become impatient with my glacial spiritual “progress.” I’d quickly dismissed her as an almost non-human because of her spiritual accomplishments, visions, and unreal love of suffering.
Lately, though, as my husband and I have worked to help our children learn to reach out in prayer to their patron saints I’ve felt the desire to do the same myself. Even now I feel embarrassed that I’ve neglected my own patroness for so long, though I suspect that she may not have returned the favor.
Back at my comfy spot in McDonald’s two weeks ago after a cheeseburger and fries…and then a coffee and not, by the grace of God, seven pumpkin pies, I push aside my tray and open up the blue Butler’s book.
I am reminded that Margaret Alacoque was born in Janots, Burgundy in 1647, the fifth of seven children. After her father died when she was eight, Margaret was sent away to a school run by the Poor Clares. There she became attracted to the religious life, her piety catching the attention of the nuns at the school.
At the age of nine she became ill with a rheumatic illness—I stop to look that up. I thought that maybe that was a respiratory problem but smile to see that rheumatism is, of course, the swelling of joints and muscles, the beginning of which I have…okay, perhaps a whisper of which I have, but it was a start. Would there be more to bond over?
I continue reading—that rheumatic illness would render her bedridden for six years. Despite her father’s family’s wishes to see her married, Margaret decided to enter the religious life, joining a Visitation order in 1671 and taking the name of Mary.
I smile when I remember my delight as a little girl to find that another saint—a really “good” one, too—had the very same name as me. I glance up for a moment and find myself staring right at the poster for pumpkin pies and pumpkin shakes. My stomach pretends to growl and I grit my teeth, trying to focus. A nightly news show plays overhead. I don’t have to watch to know it isn’t good news.
I find my spot on the page. In the order of nuns, St. Margaret Mary faced many challenges. She was unable to use the methods of meditation taught to the novices because she was already so advanced in prayer. Margaret Mary was aware of Jesus sensibly, often crowned with thorns, and was directed by Him to ask for “humiliations and mortifications,” which manifested themselves in her manual work in the convent.
I close my eyes for a moment to imagine what it would be like spending the day with Jesus crowned with thorns always in view. How would I live my day differently? I stare at the pumpkin pie poster. Obviously it would be harder to forget Him during the day.
I keep reading. Margaret Mary was slow, absent-minded, and clumsy which resulted in her being scorned and denigrated.
Alongside these struggles, St. Margaret Mary began receiving visions from Jesus soon after joining the convent that would last for a year-and-a-half.
“She was to be the instrument, she was told, for spreading the love of Jesus’ Sacred Heart and making it known throughout the world. Then it was as though he took her heart and put it within his own before returning it “burning with divine love.” (106)
St. Margaret Mary was charged with spreading the message of the Sacred Heart to the world.
Over the next eighteen months she received further revelations amplifying this basic message. The Sacred Heart was to be depicted as a heart of flesh; she and others should make reparation for the coldness and insults Our Lord received in return for his love; a special feast should be established on the Friday after the Octave of Corpus Christi; faithful Catholics should receive Communion on the first Friday of each month and should spend an hour in prayer every Thursday evening in remembrance of his sufferings in Gethsemane. (p. 106)
I look up again, this time at a family in a booth who all seemed a little on edge. The parents looked a little rundown and the kids keyed up. I knew the feeling intimately.
I looked down on the page and re-read the main points of devotion to the Sacred Heart, grateful to Butler’s for its concise summary of the devotion. I really wanted to make the first Friday devotion happen but felt intimidated by the effort it would require of me as I imagined attending those Masses with my sleepy baby and wild lady in tow.
I perked up anticipating our re-enthronement to the Sacred Heart the evening of the feast day. Our priest friend was coming and he’d do the whole rite. We’d placed the image of the Sacred Heart in our home last year and had another priest friend say the prayers, but we hadn’t known that there was more to it than just putting the image out. I was grateful for another chance to get it right. Our friend suggested that we have baked Alaska that night.
I move on to the next page, and it was this commentary that struck a nerve:
“France at the time was, perhaps, ready for a message that stressed the love of God as expressed most obviously in the suffering human heart of Jesus; this was an antidote to the rigorism and coldness of the Jansenist tendencies that were becoming so prevalent.” (107)
I do a little research to read about Jansenism. Yes, I thought, that did sound bad, but I look up for a moment and glance around the room, at the single man on his computer, at the staff behind the counter, at the tired family, at the TVs.
Yes, perhaps seventeenth century France was bleak, but how about today? We are overwhelmed with everything that could give us pleasure, and our feeling of need to reach out to God has become so weakened that we seek Him out so infrequently. We are all starving for love. How much more, then, are we entitled to that divine love—how much He must long to give it to us? And how very much He must love us, His hungry children.
Before I put the book in my bag and close my laptop, passing by the pumpkin pie poster one last time, I read that Margaret Mary “suffered from strong temptations to despair, vanity, and self-indulgence” and I laugh. Perhaps we could be friends after all.
“This divine heart is an ocean full of all good things, wherein poor souls can cast all their needs; it is an ocean full of joy to drown all our sadness, an ocean of humility to drown our folly, an ocean of mercy for those in distress, an ocean of love in which to submerge our poverty.” (107)
Copyright 2013 Meg Matenaer