Unlike most converts from various strains of Protestantism, I never had much of a problem with the Blessed Virgin Mary. Perhaps it was because my Christian background was more or less nominal and lacking a good deal of Christian catechesis. In that void, in which there were no misapprehensions about Christianity to be overcome, I readily accepted the Blessed Virgin’s role in the Christian life. Or perhaps it was because I had a natural attraction to the idea of saintly intercession and the communion of the saints.
Whatever the reason, I did not have difficulty accepting the Marian dogmas, and I enjoyed the folk piety of ordinary lay Catholics. For example, the folk story of the Blessed Mother letting people in the back door to heaven was comforting to me, not repellant, even though I fully understood and accepted that it was a pious tale of maternal love and not a theological formulation of salvation. In fact, I can occasionally become a bit impatient with Catholic scruples about the Blessed Mother. That may be one reason I’ve gravitated to Bl. John Paul II‘s devotion to Mary. By his own account, he started out wary of being “too devoted” to Mary—until he read St. Louis de Montfort and came to the conclusion that the way to grow in devotion to Jesus Christ was precisely by growing in devotion to his Mother.
But there was one aspect to Marian devotion that I did not quite get. Why would anyone be devoted to the Blessed Virgin under the title Our Lady of Sorrows? As important as it is to understand the Virgin Mary’s union with her Son’s suffering and death and to know of her own suffering that was inflicted by the sword the prophet Simeon predicted would pierce her own soul (Luke 2:35), I did not understand why a Catholic would find inspiration in devotion to a period in the Virgin’s life that seemed to me to be transitory. Shouldn’t focus be placed on her joy in heaven and not her sorrows while on Earth? Could the Blessed Virgin even experience sorrow in heaven, while at the same time experiencing the Beatific Vision?
And devotion to the Sorrowful Mother is indeed a strong influence on the spirituality of many Catholics. Although commonly believed to be an older devotion lost by the wayside after Vatican II, the Sorrowful Mother pops up in surprising places. In San Diego, the cross at the center of a nationwide church-state conflict is atop Mount Soledad, which is named after Our Lady of Solitude, whose memorial is on Holy Saturday, the day after her Son’s death and before his Resurrection. Catholics who fought to save the Mount Soledad Cross specifically prayed a novena to Our Lady of Solitude for her intercession—a novena that was answered in a way that many supporters of the Mount Soledad Cross understood to be providential. The Oblates of St. Martha, a modern Mexican congregation of religious sisters, who spend their lives praying for priests and tending to household duties for priests, has Our Lady of Sorrows as a patron, focusing especially on her years of solitude.
Then the other day I was reading the Facebook page of a prominent mommy blogger who has been very open about the tragic death of her teenage son a couple of years ago and the long struggle toward healing she and her family have endured. Sometimes she shares quotes from grief literature that she has been reading. This one struck hard at me:
In my living, my son’s dying will not be the last word. But as I rise up, I bear the wounds of his death. My rising does not remove them. They mark me. If you want to know who I am, put your hand in (Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff).
I have not read this book myself, but in my research online I found that the author is a philosopher and emeritus professor at Yale. He wrote Lament for a Son after losing his own young-adult son in a climbing accident. The quote the blogger spotlighted was written in the context of Christ’s Resurrection.
My first thought upon reading it was the Blessed Mother. Now, to the extent that someone who is not a mother could, I “got it.” Even with the hope of the Resurrection that she undoubtedly had, the Mother of God—who spent a lifetime pondering in her heart (Luke 2:19, 2:51) what it would mean to see her Son save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21)—was irrevocably marked by her Son’s suffering and death. She who was conceived immaculately, and thus had no stain of sin to cloud her understanding, remained forever changed by the passion and death of her only child. (Yes, she is now the spiritual Mother to billions of Christians, now and throughout the centuries since Calvary; but, in a real sense, it can be said that Christ is her only-begotten Son.)
So, how do we understand the Blessed Mother’s sorrow? It wasn’t that the Sorrowful Mother remained emotionally downcast, depressed, or weepy. Rather, like her Risen Son, she bore the marks of his Crucifixion. He bore them on his hands, feet, and side (cf. John 20:27). She bears them in her heart and upon her soul (cf. Luke 2:35).
What is the purpose of the marks of death on Christ and on his Mother? This side of heaven, we can not know fully, but perhaps we can speculate a bit. Christ lives to make intercession for us (Heb. 7:25), standing in heaven as though slain (Rev. 5:6). And we also find an image of the suffering, sorrowful Mother in heaven as well (Rev. 12:1-6). Christ’s death marks witness eternally to the Father on behalf of redeemed mankind, “See how I love them.” The Sorrowful Mother’s wounds may well continually say to the Father, “See how I love our Son.”
By “suffering deeply with her only-begotten Son and joining herself with her maternal spirit to his sacrifice, lovingly consenting to the immolation of the victim to whom she had given birth,” in this way Mary “faithfully preserved her union with her Son even to the cross.” It is a union through faith—the same faith with which she had received the angel’s revelation at the Annunciation. At that moment she had also heard the words: “He will be great . . . and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32–33) [Bl. John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater].