I went to see an incorrupt heart this week. It belonged to Saint Jean Vianney (1786-1859), who served as a parish priest in Ars, France and was canonized as a saint of the church by Pius XI in 1925. Vianney was renowned for his simplicity, piety, devotion to the poor, and spiritual counsel.
According to biographers, Vianney’s spiritual counsel included reading people’s hearts and hearing their confessions. In fact, some have referred to him as a “prisoner of the confessional,” because he often spent eighteen hours a day hearing confessions in his small parish church. He also suffered from attacks by the demonic throughout his ministry.
As a relic of the church, Vianney’s heart remains intact and is being exhibited at sites throughout the United States. I saw it this week at Saint Joseph Seminary in Yonkers, New York. It is impressive both visually and for its power as an object of devotion, even for those not accustomed to such a physical expression of faith, whether Catholic or not. Admittedly, relics are not everybody’s cup of tea.
Beyond any religious, theological, or scientific significance, what does Vianney’s heart mean for us practically? What is an incorrupt heart? Does it not decompose like all other flesh? Is that even possible? Or should we look at this in a poetic or metaphoric sense? If so, an incorrupt heart might be one that doesn’t bleed, break, or burst. Wouldn’t that be nice. Or maybe it has the ability to resist temptations that vex the rest of us. Think of the usual suspects here like sex, money, and power but also vices like arrogance, pride, and sloth.
These are all possibilities, but I believe an incorrupt heart is best described as one that withstands loss and continues beating. Why? Because, as anyone who has lived past the age of eight knows, life is made up of one loss after another. They come at you like fastballs in a batting cage. Some of these are self-made (not that that dulls the pain), while others are natural like death.
Although trite, all those greeting cards at the drug store and Facebook posts to the effect of getting knocked down seven times and getting back up eight are true. I know this, because I’ve tasted enough canvas in my life. Someone also gave me a greeting card that says that.
There are different kinds of loss, of course. Some have suffered what has been described as the most grievous loss: the death of a child. Others have lost a parent or spouse. Still others have lost a relationship, a job, a home, their health. And some people know what it’s like to lose a cherished self-image forever, because they got up one morning and looked into the mirror without lying. God help you if that happens on a cold Monday morning.
It has been said that all loss–or, rather, the fear of it–derives from and leads back to our fear of death. Perhaps that is where most of our anxiety comes from today. We seem to be scared to death of dying. For most people, the permanence of death weighs heaviest. What once was is no longer and never will be again. The absence haunts us, gnaws at us. You can hear a car door slamming shut. End of conversation.
At the seminary, I stood there staring at the heart and its meaning slowly became clear. It and the belief system it represents offer us resurrection and a world without end that anyone may enter no matter what they have done or where they are in life. That’s what they mean by “Good News.” You see this in the two most important words in Scripture:
“‘Even now,‘ says the Lord, ‘turn to me with all your heart…'” (Joel 2:12). John the Evangelist repeats the promise in his Gospel (11:22). In other words, it isn’t too late to get up off the canvas. Loss and death do not have the last word. Ubi est, mors, victoria tua? So, the real miracle of Jean Vianney’s heart isn’t that it remains intact or did not go the way of all flesh. It’s that it never died.