Several years ago, I was speaking with a friend coming into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. As we talked about the day-to-day spiritual life of Roman Catholics (as if such a singular thing existed), he asked about the Sacred Heart, a devotion that to his Evangelical upbringing seemed beyond the pale, even if not distasteful. Off the cuff, I didn’t know how to explain why Catholics would adore one of Christ’s organs. Really, the devotion is to the physical organ as the physical sign of his spiritual affection and divine love. To me it had always just made sense.
Coming back to the Church of my youth as an adult, the Sacred Heart stood out to me as the religious devotion that collapsed the great dualities of human life: Christ’s Heart brought together the divine and the human, eternity and time, the infinite and the bounded in one great ocean of mercy and compassion. At the risk of sounding incredibly naive, it hadn’t occurred to me that other Christians wouldn’t see it that way.
Little did I realize that what attracted me in all this was an over-1,000-year evolution of popular devotion and theology in the western Church. I suppose if I had stopped to think about it, I would have figured that this devotion to Christ’s physical body went back to St. Francis of Assisi. And certainly, St. Francis and his followers brought devotion to the poor, suffering, human Christ to a new prominence in the popular imagination. However, the Franciscans’ (and Dominicans’) focus on Christ’s Sacred Humanity actually found its roots in earlier monastic liturgical offices and private prayers and developed alongside the Benedictine and Cistercian mysticism of Sts. Bernard, Gertrude, and Mechthild. This monastic devotion to Christ’s Sacred Humanity is less visible in the modern Church than that of later medieval saints and in writers who tend to be more accessible. But the roots run deep and can still shape Christian spirituality in beautiful ways.
Where did this devotion come from? During the first millennium or so of the Church’s devotional life, the view of Christ as the divine Conqueror developed in east and west, a monarch seated at the Father’s right hand in glory. (Think the Byzantine Pantocrator.) But, after St. Helen’s “finding” of the True Cross in the fourth century, a parallel devotion to the cross slowly began to grow in the western Church. By the tenth century, the veneration of the cross on Good Friday was an ascendant devotion, as were early liturgical “votive offices” of the cross and collections of private prayers expressing intense devotion to Christ’s sacrifice on the wood of the cross. This growing focus on the crucifixion led to increasing attention toward the body that hung upon that cross. The thinking was, apparently, that if the “precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet 1:19) spilled on the cross was the price for our salvation, then it is worthy of deep attention. If Christ is truly God and truly Man in one Person, then that blood and the body from which that blood flowed are also worthy of adoration.
Since its heyday in the late medieval and early modern worlds, the most conspicuous forms of devotion to Christ’s Sacred Humanity have fallen off appreciably, even in the Roman Catholic communion (devotions like scapulars, chaplets, and images of the Sacred Heart). And yet, wherever the Way of the Cross is prayed, wherever the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary are prayed, wherever Good Friday services venerate the cross, wherever crucifixes are hung, and wherever the Eucharist is celebrated, Christians continue to focus their devotion and adoration on Christ’s Sacred Humanity, his body and his blood.
This persistent, yet more subtle devotion, with its emphasis on compassion and empathy for the poor through the suffering body of the Savior, should train our spiritual senses.. In this devotion, I hope we take special notice of the human body’s intrinsic worth and profound dignity, attending to Christ’s willingness to take on and elevate human flesh to the seat of divinity. There, I hope we find devotion to peace and non-violence, in imitation of the Savior who “was harshly treated” and yet “submitted and opened not his mouth” (Isa. 53:7). There, I hope we find a care for the poor and dispossessed beyond human tallying and score-keeping, modelled on the Lord of the Universe, who lived a poor and itinerant life in order to “rescue the poor when they cry out…for precious is their blood in his sight” (Ps. 72:12, 14). There, I hope we find the impetus for practical care and concern for the non-human members of the natural world, among whom Christ deemed his Sacred Humanity worthy to live. There, I hope we find the bridge between Christ’s Sacred Humanity and the inner chamber of the human heart, where the Blessed Trinity can be spied in mystical contemplation.
To honor and to illustrate the earliest tradition of monastic devotion to Christ’s Sacred Humanity, I’ve included below a translation of a Latin devotional text found in the prayerbook of Abbot Ælfwine.1 Its directives might seem foreign, but they are one example of the early wellspring of devotion to Christ’s human body.
Ælfwine lived in the eleventh century and was abbot of the New Minster, a Benedictine monastery in Winchester, England. Ælfwine and his monastery were part of an important movement in England that made the monasteries what we think of as “Benedictine” today. His personal prayerbook includes many different kinds of texts: some of the first “Little Offices” that monks sang after the Liturgy of the Hours,2 small scraps of religious trivia, and information on how to calculate moveable feasts like Easter.
One notable example, immediately following a full-page illustration of the Crucifixion, is a series of private prayers to the cross. In this set of prayers, the instructions direct one to sing one psalm and then recite one short prayer toward one part of Christ’s body, before moving on to the next. This set is followed by a series of short invocations, like a litany in miniature (If you recite this with someone else, one person can read the first line while the other person recites the second line in a call and response.) This small set of prayers reveals a poignant moment in both Christian devotion in general and monastic prayer in particular. From the Liturgy of the Hours it borrows the form of psalms, short prayers like collects, and a “litany” of call and response. Yet it is focused intently on Christ’s suffering on the cross as the peak event for the Christian’s affection and attention. This is one example of the pivot between earlier liturgical forms focused on Christ in glory and later popular forms focused on the poor and suffering Christ.
While medieval devotions like this might seem arcane, I am always floored by the way that prayers like this offer us a small window into the mind, spirit, and body of a person from centuries ago. Ælfwine actually held his prayerbook in his hands and said the following prayers before a crucifix, (though he would have said them in Latin). Note how these are not simply words to say. The text directs the one praying to look at different parts of Christ’s body as they sing the psalms, and then to say the prayers that seek mercy and peace. There is a concern for identifying with the body of the crucified Lord, in linking the recitation of Scripture and private prayers with not only Christ’s imagined body but also the body of the person praying, too. As we pray these prayers, we don’t just imagine Christ in our mind, but we look with our physical eyes at different places on the crucifix, engaging not only our imaginations and voices but also our eyes. And Ælfwine did too, as, presumably, did others in his world. This is a unifying prayer, bringing together the faculties and body of the one praying, unifying the one praying with the Lord in his most vulnerable and pitiable state, and unifying Christians from very different times and cultures. I invite you to pray this series of prayers from the ancient monastic world to see how such devotion might be fruitful for you, as well.
From Ælfwine’s Prayerbook
If you want to pray before a crucifix, sing these psalms.
Toward his right foot:
Prayer: O cross more splendid than all the stars, honored throughout the world, greatly loved, and most dear—you who alone were worthy to bear the world’s ransom! Sweet wood, sweet nails, bearing the sweetest burden: save me, your servant, who am daily devoted to your praises. Amen.
Toward his left foot:
Prayer: Hail our King, Son of David, Redeemer of the world! The holy cross supported you in your death’s devastation. You took on that death for our salvation, when on that cross you became the sacrificial offering to God the Father for salvation. All the saints waited for that moment from the foundation of the world. In veneration of that same cross we offer sweetest praises, that we might merit to praise you in heaven with all your saints. Amen.
Toward his right hand:
Prayer: You are my redeemer, O Christ, whom I adore, whom I love, whom I worship, whom I confess. Do not permit me to leave this body, until you have forgiven my sins. Amen.
Toward his left hand:
Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, good Teacher: receive my spirit in peace when the moment comes for me to pass on from this life in whatever way you have decreed. Amen.
Toward his mouth.
Prayer: O kind Jesus, eternal Word of the Father: rescue me from this valley of lamentation, and bring me into your mercy. Amen.
Toward his breast:
Prayer: Kind Jesus, when I arrive at the final day of my life and the end of distress, O good King, having daily desired and ever prepared an ardent soul, I will adore you through the wood of the holy cross, through which you conquered the cruelest enemy, the prince of this world. Proving yourself the conqueror of death, I beg you with tears most faithfully that at that moment you will not let my enemies prevail over me, but that I will be at peace. I ask, O God, that you command my spirit to be received, that I might rejoice with you, whom I have sought to love in eternity. Amen.
Toward his ears:
Psalm 3:5: I have cried to the Lord with my voice, and he has heard me from his holy mountain.
Prayer: O cross of verdant wood, since the Redeemer of Israel hung upon you! O wood how sweet, nails how sweet, carrying how sweet a burden! O wood how precious, gems how precious: you merited to carry Christ, upon you he was made the salvation of the world!
You who suffered when you came on our behalf:
—Lord, have mercy.
Christ the Lord was made obedient even unto death,
—death on a cross.
You who promised prophetically: O Death, I will be your death:
—Lord, have mercy.
You who stretched out your hands on the cross, drawing all generations to yourself:
—Lord, have mercy.
Life died on the wood; he despoiled hell and death:
—Lord, have mercy.
Christ the Lord became obedient even unto death,
—death on a cross. Amen.
- Permission to translate from Ælfwine’s prayerbook is given by the publisher of the only modern edition, the Henry Bradshaw Society. Beate Günzel, ed., Ælfwine’s Prayerbook (Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 1993).
- Translated in my The Saint Benedict Prayer Book (Paraclete Press).