During a chamber music concert several years ago, I noticed one of the works on the program had the unusual title of “Dehiscence.”
I confess I had no idea what the word meant. And at the risk of thoroughly dating myself, I’ll also admit that neither cell phones nor Google were around then, so (lacking a dictionary) I listened to the piece while remaining puzzled by both its name and its avant-garde style.
When I eventually had a chance to look up the term, I was struck by its somewhat varied and even contradictory definitions. In medicine, dehiscence refers to a surgically closed wound that has reopened, a complication that can occur due to poor suturing, lack of blood flow, infection, malnutrition, diabetes and other health threats.
Yet for the botanist, dehiscence signifies something much more hopeful. In certain plants, such as primroses and peas, the fruit splits apart by design to release seeds and sow new growth.
Both types of dehiscence are a bursting forth, one to death, and the other to life — and in a sense, both are present in the mysterious and moving image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Most Catholics, and indeed more than a few who do not profess the faith, are familiar with the image of Christ displaying his pierced, thorn-encircled heart, from which flames of love pour forth. According to Oblate Father Thomas Dailey, devotion to the Sacred Heart ultimately finds its origin in John’s Gospel, with the beloved apostle resting his head on Jesus’ heart at the Last Supper (Jn 13:23-25) and the lancing of the crucified Christ, which produced a flow of blood and water (Jn 19:34).
Over time, notes Father Dailey, Christians adopted the practice of contemplating Jesus’ physical heart as a door to a deeply emotional union with him. In their preaching and writing, medieval Franciscans and Dominicans pointed to the wounds of Christ, especially his speared side, and in the late 17th century, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque would be granted several extraordinary visions of Jesus in which he directly revealed his desire for devotion to his Sacred Heart.
“Behold this heart, which has so loved men,” he declared to her. “It is nothing but love and mercy!”
To the cynic — and even to those who are simply exhausted by suffering, loss, hardship and strife — such a cry may seem dubious, evoking the age-old questions of why an all-powerful God permits horrific evils, and why even the most earnest prayers often seem to go unheard and unanswered.
Yet at the center of such unfathomable agony beats a Heart like ours in every respect except sin — a Heart that indeed suffered (and continues to suffer) excruciatingly, because its love is purer than our praise and poetry can express. Emptied on the cross, that Heart still pours forth without cease, seeking even the most embittered and estranged among us.
So great a Heart has indeed been both torn and self-sundered in love — a divine dehiscence, offered for all who are willing to bow their heads, and lift up their own hearts in return.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.