Devotion to the Sorrows of Mary ( Our Lady of Sorrows ): A Reflection
The New Testament does not tell us that Mary was present during the most awesome moments of the life of Jesus.But it does tell us that she was there at the foot of the Cross in a time of shared suffering.Just as she had said yes to become his mother, now she lived the reality of his being torn away from her in deadly agony.Shared sorrow from crib to Cross, as one mystic reported.Is there any sorrow like her sorrow?In embracing the reality of the Cross with Mary Catholic spirituality challenges us to go beyond weepy sentimentality.Its goal is contemplative participation, a thoroughly transformative encounter with the healing heart of the Christian mystery.The fruit of this life-changing encounter blossoms as true compassion, an ability not only to weep with Jesus and Mary, but to suffer emphatically with every part of God’s creation that is in trouble as well.In one way or another we are all connected.
Our Christian forebears learnt that the royal road to such empathy and compassion was to honor the New Testament texts that attract us to meditate on and pray into the sorrows Mary suffered with her suffering Son.John 19:25 and Luke 2:35 are key texts.More recently the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium confronts us with the picture of Mary sharing her Son’s sufferings as he hung dying on the Cross (61). Lumen Gentium also reminded us that she “faithfully persevered in her union with her Son unto the Cross, where she stood, in keeping with the divine plan, enduring with her only begotten Son the intensity of his suffering” (58). The document also underlines the fact that Mary’s consent in faith to God never wavered despite the horrors of the Cross (62).
Meditation and prayer on Mary’s sorrows parallels and is shaped by another tradition.Anointed reflection on the seven last sayings of Jesus as he died on the Cross to save the world, that dreadful tree of torture, humiliation and disgrace, is a model for all other approaches to transformative interior prayer.Originally, devotion to Mary’s sorrows focused on her presence at the foot of the Cross, but quite soon it grew to embrace all of her sufferings, her trials at the beginning and end of her Son’s life.By the end of the fifteenth century seven sorrows had been clearly identified.Why seven?This is a biblical way of saying that Mary encountered her full share of suffering!Deep personal sorrow was her way of sharing the suffering of Jesus her Son.
The invitation to mediate on and pray into the sorrows of Mary shares two historical roots dating back nearly eight hundred years.The first can be traced to the apparitions to the seven founders of the Servants of Mary who were called on August 15th 1233 to preach the sorrows of Mary. The second is traced to St Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373), the mystic of the north, who is co-patron saint of Europe and an important figure in contemporary ecumenical dialogue. Pope John Paul II called her a woman of unity. It is reported that Mary said to her, “There are few who remember my sorrows.” Bridget has also been called the patroness of failures.
The devotion to Mary’s sorrows was given new impetus during the eighteenth century by Pope Benedict XIII and Pope Clement XII.Pope Pius VII extended the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows to the whole Church on his return from captivity in France in 1814.In 1913 the liturgical celebration was fixed for September 15th, the day following the feast of the Triumph of the Cross. In his 2003 encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, Pope John Paul II draws the link between Mary’s suffering and the Eucharist: “Mary, throughout her life at Christ’s side and not only on Calvary, made her own the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist” (56).
Pope John Paul II also teaches us that “Mary experienced a kind of ‘anticipated Eucharist’–one might say a ‘spiritual communion’– of desire and of oblation, which would culminate in her union with her Son in his passion, and then find expression after Easter by her partaking in the Eucharist which the Apostles celebrated as the memorial of that passion… For Mary, receiving the Eucharist must have somehow meant welcoming once more into her womb that heart which had beat in unison with hers and reliving what she had experienced at the foot of the Cross” (56).We are invited to do the same.
Interior prayer and meditation are principal ways today of honouring Mary’s sorrows.For example, you might like to sit with that short line from Psalm 38:17b and imagine Mary opening it up for you:my sorrow is continually before me. Other translations use the word pain instead of sorrow. There are other ways to honour Mary’s faithful sorrow. In central Europe, for example, a custom developed of serving a soup made of seven bitter herbs as part of the celebration of the feast day of Our Lady of Sorrows. The herbs used are watercress, parsley, leek, nettle, sour clover, primrose and spinach. Perhaps a little fasting from things to which we are over attached would not go astray: the mobile phone, chronic busyness, the internet, TV soaps, the avoidance of prayer, the escape from silence and stillness….
Why contemplate the sorrows of Mary?To melt our wintry hearts!To discover that all sadness, fear, and dread can be transformed into love by the grace and mercy of God!Meditation on Mary’s sorrows reminds us that in her we have one whose loving compassion has been tempered in the furnace of personal sorrow and suffering.St Augustine reminds us that suffering of itself is a barren thing; but in the hands of God, through grace, suffering can fertilise the seeds of painful experience that blossom into great love.That is why we contemplate the sorrows of Mary.That is why we pray the sorrowful mysteries in the rosary.In his 2002 Apostolic Letter on the rosary Rosarium Virginis Mariae Pope John Paul II teaches that meditation on the sorrowful mysteries not only helps us to contemplate the passion and death of Jesus. They also invite us to stand at the foot of the Cross beside Mary, to enter with her into the mysterious depths of God’s love for humankind and to experience all its life-giving power (22).
Mary stood sorrowing on Calvary with Christ, the God who humbles himself out of love “even unto death, death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). In Rosarium Virginis Mariae (11) Pope John Paul II invites us to become like Mary, our eyes fixed on Christ, treasuring everything he said and everything he did: She kept all these things, pondering them in her heart (Luke 2:19; see also Luke 2:51). May God help us to grow strong in a contemplative love like hers. May we learn how to stand at the foot of the Cross with her, to enter with her into the depths of God’s love for the whole of creation, and to experience God’s life-giving and creative energy, the flow of divine grace, in every aspect of our lives. She is after all, a sure guide for our steps, the radiant dawn of the promises of hope.