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The secret of our Lady of Sorrows

Fr. Lou DelFra | Wednesday, September 9, 2009

On Tuesday, September 15, the University of Notre Dame and the Congregation of Holy Cross will celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, patroness of the Congregation of Holy Cross. A campus-wide Mass will be celebrated in the Basilica at 5:15 on September 15.

Perhaps on first sight, the Marian title “Our Lady of Sorrows” appears anachronistic, medieval, a Church left-over from a different age – something dragged out of an ecclesiastical attic that also housed leather straps for self-flagellation and stories of saints who starved themselves for days on end. Mary, Notre Dame, as Our Lady of Sorrows. Doesn’t sound too hopeful heading into the Michigan game (though, objectively speaking, Mary’s title does not seem to preclude her inflicting sorrow on our neighbors to the north…) The question remains: in an enlightened society, and in this Land of Opportunity, who celebrates sorrow?

I am not sure that many people celebrate sorrow. It doesn’t sound psychologically healthy. On the other hand, the lines at psychologists’ offices aren’t getting any shorter these days either. In fact, the little psychology that I think I know suggests that the suppression and denial of the inevitable sorrows of our life is a common cause of depression, compulsions, addictive avoidance behaviors, and feelings of listlessness and low motivation. So, perhaps, Our Lady of Sorrows has something useful, helpful, and sound to teach us?

I suspect that several images of Our Lady of Sorrows will appear next week in honor of her feast day. If you have a chance, stop and look closely at her. You will see something counterintuitive. Not that Mary is not sad in the icon – she is. Her eyes are slightly downcast and her lips slightly downturned. But, contrary to my own intuitions about sorrow, her presence as a whole person in the icon does not present a defeated image. She is not in the least hunched over; rather, she rises upright, in a strong and serene posture. Her hands are open, in a gesture of inviting the full experience of her reality. It is the counter-image to the typical human gesture of crossing our arms in self-protectiveness when we are scared, uncertain, or hurt. Mary’s posture in this icon “speaks” not that she is not sorrowful, but – rather instructively, I think – that she is not afraid of sorrow.

A slightly downcast face, yet a strong and serene posture and open hands. TS Eliot once wrote of Mary:

Lady of silences

Calm and distressed

Torn and most whole

Exhausted and life-giving

Worried reposeful…

How could Mary not be Our Lady of Sorrows? From the scandal of her husbandless pregnancy to a several days’ flight into Egyptian exile on the eve of her delivery. From Simeon’s prophecy, soon after Jesus is born, that “a sword will pierce your heart,” to the most unimaginable fulfillment of that prophecy – watching her son nailed, crucified, dead.

This truly exquisite sorrow, however, is not Mary’s only reality. We must hold her experience of sorrow side-by-side with her profoundly joyful experiences: her visitation by an angel asking her to accept a primary role in the deliverance of her people; her fear transformed into joy when she visits Elizabeth to tell her the news, and speaks words of the deepest elation: “My soul magnifies the Lord!” Simeon, in addition to predicting the piercing of her heart, also prophecies that her son, her love, is the Messiah for which all Israel had been waiting. Before anyone else, she understands the profound joy that her son promises for the entire human race, and so with an awesome self-assurance, at Cana she directs her son to begin his ministry of transforming sorrow into true happiness by turning water into wine at a wedding. And, after the soul-ripping sorrow of the Crucifixion, what words could capture Mary’s emotions when her once-dead son visited her, raised from the dead?

Mary is not afraid of sorrow because she has directly experienced, in the most intense way, that the love of God – while it does not prevent sorrow, even tragic sorrow – is in the end more powerful than all that causes sorrow. Which means that all sorrow can ultimately be faced, indeed stared down.

Mary knows and accepts the deepest human reality. That some sorrow in our lives is real and inescapable. So she does not run from it. But she also knows in her depths the love and never-abandoning care of God for her. This knowledge gives her an ultimately triumphal courage in the face of her sorrows. Our Lady of Sorrows understands the great secret – sorrow, faced and overcome by God’s love, brings us a powerful serenity, and enlarges our own hearts to love more fully and compassionately when we encounter others’ sorrow and suffering.

As TS Eliot’s poem-prayer concludes:

The single Rose

Is now the Garden

Where all love ends.

Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us.

This week’s Faith Point was written by Fr. Lou DelFra, Director of Campus Bible Studies and ACE Chaplain. He can be reached at delfra.2@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.