A New Way Introduced by the Guard of Honor
In her typical modesty and self-effacement, in docility towards the movements of grace, and always obedient to the directives of the Church, Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart never intended to bring about any “novelties”. What she wished to do was to present a solidly established tradition in a new light: non nova, sed nove (“not new things, but in a new way”). She never set out to introduce novel doctrines. Her sole intention was to present the devotion to the Sacred Heart in a way better adapted to the mindset of her day, so that everyone could give It a return of “love for love.”
Throughout the 19th century, this devotion would have an even more significant extension than it had known in the previous century. This growth could be seen not only in the monasteries of the Visitations, but especially in the foundation of religious Orders, both male and female, placed under the patronage of the Sacred Heart. This is further attested to in the parishes of the time, which saw the creation of confraternities and pious associations as well as the distribution of pamphlets recommending the devotion. A special mention must be made of the Apostleship of Prayer at Toulouse.
Following is a brief overview of the sources used by Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart. As a Visitandine, she would draw inspiration from the directives given by her Founder, Saint Francis de Sales, a forerunner of the devotion to the Sacred Heart.
The Sources of Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart
In his Introduction to the Devout Life, the Bishop of Geneva, residing at Annecy, intended his teaching not only for consecrated souls or cloistered nuns, but also for people in the world: those living “in the cities, at court, and whose condition obliges them to a common life, as far as externals are concerned.”
For St. Francis de Sales, devotion was not only for those withdrawn from worldly affairs (a notion which must have seemed novel to many of his readers) – but for all Christians! Every baptized person is called to live, in his or her daily life (what he calls “common life”) to a spirituality that is simple, adapted to one’s possibilities, temperament, “state and condition”. St. Francis gives useful advice to men and women of his day, and this advice is of enduring relevance, as attested to by the success of subsequent editions of the Introduction.
Having lived for a brief time in the world, Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart was no stranger to the difficulties involved in trying to live a “devout life” in the world. She intuited that the devotion to the Sacred Heart could serve as the basis for a spirituality that could be within everyone’s reach. Everyone, in keeping with his or her “state and condition,” could live in a spirit of penance and reparation for the greater glory of God in the mere carrying-out of one’s duties.
Those who would accept the call to join the Guard of Honor could also practice a life in union with Christ: in union with His sacrifice, His Eucharistic sacrifice, in the context of their daily lives. This is what led her to ask that Associates not to take on additional spiritual exercises, but that they make an offering of their day-to-day work, during the course of a privileged hour which would be chosen by each in keeping with their way of life and their aspirations.
The Hour of Guard (inspired by Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart) does not consist of spending an hour in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. It consists rather in living the hour chosen from one’s day, without making any change to one’s usual occupation – be they familial, professional, or other – with a keener awareness of the presence of God. During this hour the Associate offers everything he or she does, everything he or she is, in a spirit of praise and reparation.
The symbolic enrollment on the dial for the hour chosen by the Associate is the sign of the commitment he or she makes to consecrate this hour of guard. In this way, little by little, the body of Associates eventually takes up all the hours of the day. Because of time differences, the 24 hours of the day will be thus covered.
Strongly encouraged by the approbations received from bishops, both French and foreign, as well as several papal Briefs, Sister Marie of the Sacred heart laid out in detail the Archconfraternity’s goals, structures and methods. She herself wrote pamphlets, billets, formulas for prayer and consecration, as well as a whole collection of canticles. For 40 years she would be in her discreet and hidden manner the “soul” of the Archconfraternity.
If the expansion of the Guard of Honor was rapid, it was not without obstacles. Opposition came from sources that Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart never could have foreseen. On the contrary, these were people from whom she expected support. The opposition was centered around the emphasis she placed upon the wound in Christ’s side and the stroke of the lance that pierced the Heart of Christ on the Cross.
The Passion narrative presents the facts with the precision of an eyewitness: after Christ sighed His final breath, because He loved us to the end, a soldier “thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out.” (John 19:34)
One might find such an emphasis surprising. After all, during the course of the Passion there were other, and perhaps even more dramatic, episodes witnessing to the cruelty inflicted upon Our Lord for our sins. His lengthy, drawn-out agony on the Cross would lead a surgeon who wrote on the Passion to exclaim: “But die already, my God!” (The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, by the surgeon Barbet)
The Church has always given a symbolic interpretation to the scene at Calvary as depicted by St. John. The water is seen as a sign of purification; the blood, a sign of the blood being offered. This interpretation would be supported by Christ Himself, who said to the Samaritan woman, “the water I shall give will become […] a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14; cf. 7:37-39)
So it follows that such an interpretation, applied anew by Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart, should not have caused any problems. However, objections were soon made that caused the Bishop of Belley to feel he must turn the matter over to theologians.
Nonetheless, in the Brief of Beatification for Margaret Mary, issued on September 18, 1864, one reads: “who, then, would not feel obliged to give a return of love for love to this Heart so gentile, a Heart pierced and wounded by the lance in order to offer shelter to our souls and a refuge against the attacks of the enemy? Who would not be moved to offer the most earnest of homages to this Sacred Heart, for the wound from which sprang the water and blood, veritable wellspring of our life and our salvation?” (Brief of Beatification of Margaret Mary Alacoque)
The theologians consulted by the Bishop of Belley were hesitant. It took a personal intervention on the part of Pope Pius IX to put an end to the debate. After he was presented with the text of the prayer, “The Precious Offering,” a prayer still cherished by the Guard of Honor today, Pope Pius put an end to the controversy. What’s more, he attached an indulgence to the recitation of this prayer, adding the following:
“Instead of arguing endlessly over the merits of this wound or the merits of the Precious Blood, we must ask rather for their efficacious application.” (Monastery Archives)
Many other papal documents could be cited in support of the position taken by Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart, for example, Haurietis Aquas or Lumen Gentium.
One may wonder why the opposition to this point lasted as long as it did.