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Our Lady’s Sorrows – and Graces

The Gospel of St. Luke tells us several times (in chapter 2 alone) how much Mary had to keep in her heart. At the joy of the Nativity, she treasured what the shepherds came to say, and pondered it all in her heart. At the joy of finding Jesus in the temple (after the anguish of being separated from Him – which we all experience through sin), she kept His words and actions in her heart, even if she did not understand everything He was doing.

But Mary also had to hold ominous things in her heart at least since the day Simeon told her that “a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” This first of Mary’s seven sorrows magnifies by way of dreaded anticipation the most bitter of sorrows to come. Most of us recognize in hindsight that worry or anxiety about some future event is often worse than experiencing it. Possessing certain knowledge of future agony to be inflicted upon the child she loves naturally as her own son and supernaturally as her God must have compounded exponentially the anguish of the crucifixion itself.

St. Alphonsus Liguori’s splendid discourse on Mary’s Sorrows – a veritable tour de force which contains his own reflections and a compilation of observations from other saints – is somewhat lengthy, but to read even a brief portion of it selected at random is to perceive more keenly the magnitude of Mary’s sorrows, which is to say the magnitude of her love, and to be moved by her epic heroism – the furthest thing imaginable from an “epic fail,” to use that trendy phrase du jour.

He cites revelations given to St. Bridget which indicate that Mary did know what was in store for her Son; earlier than we might suppose, then, “began her great martyrdom.” Liguori stresses that Mary’s martyrdom was greater than any other by virtue of its duration and its intensity. Not only was her martyrdom drawn out over time by the anticipation, witness, and searing memory of the crucifixion, Mary suffered hers not in body but in the depths of her heart and soul.

Martyrs down through the centuries were able to endure impossible physical torment with remarkable equanimity. Think of St. Lawrence, being grilled over an open flame, announcing he was done on one side and ready to be turned over, and being tortured, declaring “mea nox obscuram non habet sed omnia in luce clarescunt” – my night has no darkness but all things break forth in light because they were “inebriated with the wine of Divine love.” Yet this very love of God which consoled the martyrs in their trials was itself the source of Mary’s own particular martyrdom: “the love she bore Him” – not a cruel tyrant – “was her only and most cruel executioner.”

           Our Lady of Sorrows, El Viso del Acor, Seville

Though we may appreciate that Mary suffered more greatly in her heart and soul than even viciously persecuted martyrs, an underappreciated reality for the rest of humanity, all of us not spared of the effects of original sin by virtue of the Immaculate Conception, is that moral sufferings that afflict the heart and soul are vaster than physical sufferings. John Paul II notes in Savlifici Dolores that they are also less reachable by therapy (N.5). In our age of unprecedented health and longevity, great attentiveness to physical well being is paired with relative neglect of this much deeper pool of human suffering which Christ, who came to call not the righteous but sinners, alone can heal.

“On the tree of the Cross,” St. Francis de Sales wrote, “the Heart of Jesus beheld your heart and loved it.” Is there a more succinct explication of why the Church insists on proclaiming without compromise the value of each individual life in the public square? Christ’s self-emptying act of love on the cross is “a shocking mystery,” John Paul II wrote in his 1987 encyclical on the Mother of the Redeemer (Redemptoris Mater).

Although Mary, in witnessing the crucifixion, experiences what might seem to be the complete negation of the promises the angel gave her at the Annunciation, she holds firm; her faith was greater – more enlightened – than that of the disciples who fled (N. 18). At the foot of the Cross, Mary “is perfectly united with Christ in his self-emptying.” John Paul II describes this, in one riveting line, as “perhaps the deepest ‘kenosis’ of faith in human history.” (Kenosis refers to that act of self-emptying).

Mary so identified with her Son – the spurned man of suffering who bore our pain, was pierced for our sins, and heals us by his wounds, as Isaiah, sometimes called the fifth evangelist, so unforgettably put it – that she was “satisfied rather to endure any torment than that our souls should not be redeemed, and be left in their former state of perdition.” Liguori goes on to write that Mary’s “only relief in the midst of her great sorrow in the Passion of her Son, was to see the lost world redeemed by His death, and men who were His enemies reconciled with God.”

Such manifest greatness makes the phrase “Mary is a loving Mother” – true as it is – seem like a wild understatement.

By virtue of the “immense love” Jesus feels for His mother, regularly honoring Mary’s sorrows can reap immense spiritual benefit. Many Catholics, however, may not be aware that Mary promised (through St. Bridget) specific graces to those who recall her seven sorrows – including peace within families, constant protection, and visible help at the hour of death.

You’ll want to take a look at these consoling graces – and to take a moment to remember Mary’s sorrows today. Perhaps every day.

Matthew Hanley

Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.