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Our Lady of Sorrows

Fr. Lou DelFra | Thursday, September 8, 2011

“Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother.” (John 19: 25-27)

This passage from Jesus’ Crucifixion — an icon of Our Lady of Sorrows, patroness of Holy Cross, whose Feast Day we celebrate next week — never fails to elicit from me strong and contending emotions. I feel, of course, awe at Mary’s strength, at her ability to stand by her son’s mutilated and dying body, hanging in disgrace.

But mostly, whenever I allow the full weight of the scene to penetrate my heart, I feel dread, even a touch of nausea, as I imagine the helpless terror of this interaction between mother and dying son. There was nothing for her to do. Didn’t that reality, combined with the suffering of her son, drive her to the point of utter despair?

One always hears the explanation that everyone else had fled in fear of being associated with the state’s hanging criminal, the Jewish rebel. Or that they trudged away in despondence, their hopes that Jesus was the Messiah finally and completely dashed. Surely, these explanations are true.

Yet, I wonder too if many fled — as I would have — simply because they couldn’t bear the pain. It is extremely difficult to watch another person suffer, especially a person we love. Even this morning, I read through the news articles of the drought and starvation deaths in Somalia with a furtive rapidity, as if to catch the utterly senseless suffering and my relative helplessness before they sink in. It is so much easier to turn away.

Last week, I stood behind the altar during the funeral mass of a student’s father. His death was unexpected and the grief and emotion of the funeral was heavier and more palpable than most. In the front pew the mom and her three children were seated. The youngest of the siblings, who caught my eye immediately, was a teenager with Down syndrome. At times throughout the funeral Mass, as was true for every person in the church, the emotions seemed to overwhelm him and he needed some outlet.

At these times, he would invariably exhibit the same, unusual behavior — he would crane his neck around his siblings and stare from an awkward angle into his mother’s face. And whenever a tear would drop from one of her eyes, he would conspicuously reach out and rub it away. Then he would draw back his hand, but not his face, and stare again, waiting for another tear. He seemed not to blink; he barely moved, staring at her. Minutes would pass and he remained locked in this position, until another tear would arrive and he would reach out for her face again.

At first, I was distracted by this unusual behavior. In fact, at moments, I felt troubled by … what? What others in the church were thinking — that they, or I, were embarrassed by a person who did not know the “proper” ways to express grief? That he was distracting his mom and siblings from their grieving? That this was not “normal” behavior?

But, if not normal, then what precisely was abnormal about it? Is it “abnormal” to be so attuned to another’s suffering that you can bring yourself to do nothing but faithfully, indeed, adamantly, be with that person? Yes, perhaps in our culture such willingness has increasingly become abnormal….

Since the funeral, as I reflect on this son and my own reactions to his responses, I realize that I was troubled, at least in part, by the appearance of his “invasion” into his mother’s pain, in such a public setting no less. Somewhere along the line, I have apparently learned that suffering and pain are strictly private matters. Each person should have the space to deal with suffering on their own — in their own way, on their own terms. Yet I wonder if everyone in the church that day also realized how abnormally far we have gone in “giving others their space.” And furthermore, whether some of our “giving others their space” is actually a convenient excuse for us not to have to deal with their suffering. For as I reflect on the funeral that morning, I no longer interpret this son’s actions as abnormal behavior but as extraordinary love — the most free and human response I witnessed that day.

As I recall the scene from that morning, I find myself learning from the son — he has been preaching a homily to me over these last several days. I have grown not only more comfortable with his actions but also more uncomfortable with mine. How ready am I to stand by, to be with, one who is suffering? Especially if there is not much I can do to “fix” it?

It is one thing, and not an easy one, to relieve someone of their suffering. We can feel the accomplishment of “doing something good,” or “succeeding.” We can feel the reward for our compassion. But perhaps at the foot of the cross, or in this son’s unexpected attentiveness to his mom’s grief, we gain an insight into the heroic courage and love of Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, a title our culture seems to find increasingly difficult to understand. It is a person of singular grace and the deepest humanity who can stand with one who suffers.

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

Fr. Lou DelFra, CSC, is the Director of Pastoral Life for the ACE Program and a member of Campus Ministry. He can be reached at delfra.2@nd.edu