In a world of suffering, rejection, and hate, how can we increase our love? Medieval Europeans had an unusual strategy: meditating on the wounds that Jesus suffered on the cross.
From the twelfth century onwards, contemplation on Christ’s passion was considered perhaps the most effective way to increase one’s own love for Jesus and neighbor. Richard Rolle, the medieval hermit and popular devotional writer, recommends that one focus on Christ’s wounds because they will allow your heart to “burn” for love. This love, Rolle argues, will purge the sin from your heart in its burning passion, and lift your heart to joyful, heavenly contemplation.
This process was meant to be deeply personal, an encounter with the suffering Christ, one-on-one, for the sake of winning your love and communicating his own. In English lyric poetry, many poems imagined Jesus speaking from the cross directly to individual readers as if they were passers-by of the crucifixion, showing his wounds to them and pleading for their love in return. Here’s one that appears in a variety of forms and manuscripts:
O man unkynde
Have thou in mynde
My passion smerte [painful]
Thou shall me fynde
To thee full kynde
Lo, here my heart.
Christ offers his heart to the “unkind” viewers, for he is fully kind, fully loving. For the reader, Jesus’s side wound is a direct path to Jesus’s heart, as if the spear revealed his heart for all to gaze upon and see the veracity of his love for themselves. The wound both symbolically and literally shows his love by stripping away all covering to his heart. The word vulnerable comes from the Latin word for wound, vulnus—in offering his heart, Jesus is utterly vulnerable, wounded, and undergoing not only the lethal wounding of the cross, but the wound of love given and rejected. Yet he does not stop offering his heart to us, the sinners gathered at the cross in the poem.
In some medieval prayer books, there are even illustrations of Christ’s wounds from his passion. Not Christ as a whole himself—just his wounds, often surrounded by the weapons that inflicted them. Each wound prompted the supplicant to remember the love of Jesus, and to pray to receive the kind of love that Jesus gives freely in his willingness to suffer for humankind. Though this tradition largely died off in Protestantism after the Reformation, it lingered in different forms in Roman Catholicism, like the Sacred Heart tradition today.
There’s a particularly lovely image of Christ’s heart, in a manuscript now kept at Princeton University. We see the heart of Jesus, his side wound, as the “well of lyfe.” The text at the top reads, “Well of lyfe that ever shall laste / My herte in thee make it stedfast.” It’s a little prayer, meant to accompany gazing upon the heart of Jesus.
This image of Christ’s wounded heart breaks slightly from contemporary tradition in it only includes a bit of blood. It’s also different from the later Sacred Heart imagery of early modern Roman Catholicism, with its lack of flames and crown of thorns. Instead, flowers, likely roses, are growing out of it, reflecting the growth and fecundity of Christ’s suffering. The flowers are labelled pity, love, and charity. The roses break through the crown and add to its beauty, just as the utter power and divinity of the Second person is glorified by Christ’s humble human nature. The image tells us that Christ offers his heart to us.
The little prayer at the top invites us, like the roses of divine virtue, to be “stedfast” in love—a word which literally breaks down to fixed in place, rooted in Christ’s open heart. Looking at the image, we begin to understand that not only are those divine virtues emerging from the heart of Jesus, these roses are also representations of ourselves. Traditionally, farmers and gardeners break the soil and turn it over so that weak and tender sprouts can emerge to the light of day and nutrients and water more easily filter down to the roots of plants. Otherwise, the ground can be too hard. We are the roses in his wounds, which are like cultivated, turned over, opened up earth. My heart is broken and ready for you—come and grow, Jesus beckons.
This tradition of gazing upon Christ’s wounds also reminds us that we imitate Jesus and take up his cross (Matt. 16:24-26) through our own vulnerable love of one another. In love, we open ourselves up to suffering with another person, to being affected by their joys and sorrows, to grief and loss. An anonymous Middle English poem from the fifteenth century boldly asks to be wounded by the love of Jesus:
Jesus, my love, my joy, my rest,
Thy perfect love close in my breast
That I thee love & never rest;
And make me love thee of all things best,
And wound my heart in thy love free,
That I may reign in joy evermore with thee.
Christ’s passion, his love given freely that is closer to me than my own skin, breaks up the soil of my hard heart. Can the flowers of mercy and love for other people grow out of my wounded places, too? This is the promise of resurrection, of the coming spring, of Jesus’s mercy. I am praying for that blooming, for myself and for those I love, this Valentine’s Day.
 Anonymous, Trinity College, Cambridge M.S. O.2.54, fol. 69.r
 British Library Add. MS. 37049, lightly translated by myself.
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