Southern Burgundy is rich in the architectural treasures of the Church’s glorious past. There are a number of exquisite Romanesque churches, the ruins of the abbey of Cluny and the beautiful 12th-century Basilica of Paray-le-Monial, which today is a place of pilgrimage second only to Lourdes. It was here that, in 1673, St Margaret Mary Alacoque, a nun in the town’s Visitation convent, had her visions of Jesus pointing to his flaming heart and assuring us of his burning love for all humanity. At first, she was treated with scepticism, but Margaret’s Jesuit confessor, St Claude de la Colombière, believed that her visions were genuine. So began the cult of the Sacred Heart, which saw plaster statues of Jesus pointing to his flaming heart in Catholic churches throughout the world.

Until I went to Paray-le-Monial, I had been puzzled by these statues, dismissing them as embarrassing examples of repository kitsch. Even when I had learned about St Margaret Mary, I still did not understand what her visions added to our understanding of Jesus. Was his all-encompassing compassion not clear from the start? Why was it that, in the mid-17th century, we had to be reminded of his love of all humanity?

To understand the significance of St Margaret Mary’s visions, one has to go back to the early years of the 17th century, and another nun, Mère Angélique Arnauld, abbess since the age of nine of Port-Royal-des-Champs outside Paris. We are in the reign of Henry IV, the cynical, debonair, amoral monarch who brought the French Wars of Religion to an end by converting to Catholicism. At the time, most convents were repositories for aristocratic young women with no religious vocation whose parents could not afford dowries. Another Angélique, Angélique d’Estrées, abbess of Maubuisson, the sister of Henry IV’s maîtresse-en-titre, Gabriele d’Estrées, had 12 children by 12 different men.

Aged 17, Angélique Arnauld had a vision of the suffering Christ, and decided that thenceforth she and her community would abandon their worldly lifestyle and live according to the strict Cistercian rule. The severe regime at Port-Royal appealed to many throughout France, scandalised by the decadence of the court, and the ease with which the sins of kings and courtiers were forgiven by their Jesuit confessors.

Devout postulants, among them four of Angélique’s sisters and an intellectually brilliant young woman, Jacqueline Pascal, joined the order; male “hermits” settled outside the convent’s enclosure – two of Angélique’s brothers, a nephew, and Jacqueline’s brother, Blaise Pascal.

In 1635 Jean du Vergier de Hauranne, the Abbé de Saint-Cyran, became the spiritual adviser to the nuns of Port-Royal. Saint-Cyran had been the patron and friend of the Dutch theologian Cornelius Jansen. For four years the two had studied the work of St Augustine of Hippo at Bayonne. Jansen’s posthumously published Augustinius claimed that St Augustine had believed in predestination – God’s arbitrary choice of souls to be saved and souls to be damned. This teaching accorded with Angélique Arnauld’s own observation that on occasions God withheld his grace from a penitent for reasons known only to Him. The Jesuits condemned the Jansenists of Port-Royal as heretics. Pascal mocked the laxity of the Jesuits in his brilliant Provincial Letters.

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