“ And I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and will give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26; Douay-Rheims)
“And I will give them one heart, and will put a new spirit in their bowels: and I will take away the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them a heart of flesh: That they may walk in my commandments, and keep my judgments, and do them: and that they may be my people, and I may be their God.“ (Ezekiel 11:19-20; DR)
“Take up my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls.” (Matthew 11:29; DR)
Ezekiel’s prophecy of God’s restoration of Israel reaches a pinnacle of love and hope in the image of the dramatic conversion of each human heart. Not only will the people as a whole be purified but each person will be sprinkled with clean water (prefiguring Baptism; see note in The Navarre Bible: Major Prophets, p. 740) and fully cleansed from all uncleanness and idolatry (36:25). Each one will receive a new heart and a new spirit in their innermost being, and “I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and will give you a heart of flesh.” (36:26). For me, these verses from Ezekiel are among the most moving in all of Sacred Scripture. They call us to anticipate, and cooperate with, God’s merciful action deep within us, equipping us to walk in the His ways, follow his commandments, and learn to love as we have been loved.
How does this transformation relate to the Sacred Heart of Jesus? God is telling us through the prophet Ezekiel that he will one day remove our stony hearts, which are so often cold and incapable of showing compassion or love, and give us each a heart of flesh in its place–but whose heart? Jesus’ heart. The devotion to his Sacred Heart is so central because Jesus, the Son of Man and Incarnation of the Father’s love, already displays the “heart of flesh” of which Ezekiel speaks. Jesus’ heart of flesh is a “burning furnace of charity,” able to endure intense suffering and humiliation and transform them into the highest love, compassion, and forgiveness, and bring about our redemption from the sinful human nature that limits our love. Perhaps, he is the only one possessing a fully realized “heart of flesh” in this earthly life.
Yet, as in the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes in the feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:1-14; see “Feeding the multitude“) and the corresponding multiplication of his own body and blood in the Eucharist (e.g., Luke 22:14-20), Jesus can give his own heart of flesh to each one of us, to heal our stony-heartedness.
The Father loves us so much that he longs to give us a new heart, his own heart, through the person of his Son. Then we will know the Father’s love from the inside, shining in our own hearts–a “Living Flame of Love” (St. John of the Cross).
Many saints have reported a mystical “exchange” of hearts as they were absorbed in prayer. Two saints of the Benedictine/Cistercian monastery of Helfta in the 13th century are notable for describing this in books they penned to report the graces they received during meditation on the Lord. Saint Mechthild of Hackeborn (1241-1298), in her Book of Special Grace, wrote that the Lord told her,
“I will give you my heart as a pledge that you can always have with you. On the day I fulfill this desire of yours [to hear the call of his voice in her last hour], you will return it to me as a testimony. And I give you my heart, as a house of refuge so that, in the hour of your death, you will enter into perpetual rest by no way except into my heart.” (p. 131)
And in a letter to a widow who wrote to her for spiritual direction, Mechthild wrote:
“The Lord Jesus Christ, the lover of humankind, passionately desires to unite himself with the soul. … Jesus himself, the Son of the Father’s charity, wants to stand alone as the most beloved, intimate friend of your heart. God gave the soul his divine heart so that she could give him her own heart in return.” (pp. 180-181)
The experiences of Mechthild’s younger friend at Helfta, who became known as St. Gertrude the Great (1256-1302), were recorded in a book titled The Herald of Divine Love. In Book II, which Gertrude wrote herself, in a chapter called “Thanksgiving,” she pours out her gratitude for the favors received from the Lord despite her unworthiness and many faults, as she perceived them. These favors included “the seal put upon my heart” and the “wound of love with which you manifestly and efficaciously transfixed my heart”–and then there is this:
“In addition to all these favors, you have granted to me the priceless gift of your familiar friendship, giving me in various ways, to my indescribable delight, the noblest treasure of the divinity, your divine heart, now bestowing it freely, now as a sign of our mutual familiarity, exchanging it with mine.” (Bk II, ch 23, p. 131)
Both these women are pivotal figures in the early development of the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which in our time has become most associated with the visions of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690). Her confessor at the convent of Paray-le-Monial, St. Claude de la Colombière (1641-1682), wrote a prayer that beautifully unites the substance of Ezekiel’s prophecy with the longing for Jesus’ own loving heart:
“O God, what will you do to conquer the fearful hardness of our hearts? Lord, You must give us new hearts, tender hearts, sensitive hearts, to replace hearts that are made of marble and bronze.
You must give us Your own Heart, Jesus. Come, lovable Heart of Jesus. Place Your Heart deep in the center of our hearts and enkindle in each heart a flame of love as strong, as great, as the sum of all the reasons that I have for loving you, my God.
O holy Heart of Jesus, dwell hidden in my heart, so that I may live only in You and only for You, so that, in the end, I may live with You eternally in heaven. Amen.”
(Source: Catholic Prayer Book, with Meditations by Fr. John A. Hardon)
These are words of eternity, yet we yearn to find them fulfilled, at least in a foretaste, in our mortal lives. “A heart of flesh” seems to be a gift–however rare and immeasurably valuable–that only flesh-and-blood people can receive (if God should choose to bestow it). It is the heart we would hope to bring into our lives now, even with all their complications. Perhaps there is no contradiction in this. Madeleine Delbrêl offered this reflection, concerning the clash between God’s unchanging words and our changeable lives:
“The commands of the Lord cannot change. They require of each human being a new heart. But this heart can only beat in our old heart, and only in our own concrete personal history and only at that particular hour which we have reached in the course of our evolution as a human being. Faith does not have a life of its own outside the individual human situations and events with all their constant change and mobility.” (from The Joy of Believing, excerpted in Magnificat, December 1, 2017)
The new heart that God has prepared for us, that He longs to give us, does not take us out of our lives, but is meant, as Ezekiel prophesied, to enable us to walk in God’s statutes, with love for each other, and find our way back to Him.
The Navarre Bible: Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel). Four Courts Press/Scepter Publishers, 2005.
Mechthild of Hackeborn and the Nuns of Helfta. The Book of Special Grace (trans. Barbara Newman). New York: Paulist Press, 2017.
Gertrude of Helfta. The Herald of Divine Love (trans. Margaret Winkworth). New York: Paulist Press, 1993.
Catholic Prayer Book, with meditations by Fr. John A. Hardon. Bardstown, KY: Eternal Life publishing, 1999. (see pp. 159-176, Heart of the Lord)