Mother of Sorrows and Sorrowing Mothers
Fr. Peter Murphy gave this meditation at the recent Life and Family National Conference 2016 in Albury, New South Wales, organised by Family Life International. (Please visit their website here to find out more about this wonderful Australian pro-life group!) Fr. Murphy serves on the FLI Advisory Board and is also a great support to the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants in Albury. He very kindly gave his permission for me to reproduce his talk here for all of you. And thanks to Paul Hanrahan from FLI!
Devotion to the Mother of Sorrows is as old as the Church itself. The Church is not a thing. The Church is not a building. What is the Church? It is our Mother! The notion of holy mother Church is ancient and somewhat forgotten today. This concept reveals a feminine dimension that was given form and identity by Mary, the Mother of God. We assert the title Mother of God because she is the Mother of Jesus who is God and Man. She is also daughter of the Father and spiritual spouse of the Holy Spirit.
One title among many that is attributed to Mary is Mother of Sorrows. Though the devotion has always been part of Catholic piety, it was not until the 13th Century that it began to flourish. In Florence, Italy, seven holy men of noble birth left the city seeking solitude on Mount Senario and together formed a community dedicating their lives to prayer and penance with an ardent devotion to Mary. On Good Friday in 1239, while meditating on Our Lord’s Passion and her sufferings, they sought to promote the devotion to her sorrows. These men became the founders of the religious Order of the Servants of Mary or Servites and are canonized saints today.
So in this context we turn to the Church to assuage the significance and meaning of the Mother of Sorrows. It is also within this paradigm that we learn how a mother is sorrowful. With the abortion rate at 25% of expectant mothers – one in four – motherhood is wounded and filled with sorrow. No wonder then that Melinda Tankard Reist entitled her book on the plight of post abortion women: as Giving Sorrow Words.
I pay tribute to the openness and generosity of every woman who shared the most intimate details of her life with me. I am indebted to every woman who laid her emotions bare to bring the most intense of pain to light, for this book, for herself and because the wanted to help other women give sorrow words. (p. 6)
The question some may pose is why do I draw a link between Mary of Nazareth and mothers who have had an abortion? The answer is simple yet subtle. In the back ground of all suffering lies a wounded heart. The heart is the source of love and hate, joy and sorrow. In Scripture, when the divine Heart was wounded for sin, wounded for every sin, wounded for every abortion we find that she was there: “Now there stood by the Cross of Jesus his Mother” (John 19:25). Not only was she there then, but in some spiritual way is here now. Here for us, here for every mother, every wounded heart.
In his unique last words in agony from the Cross, the Lord Jesus says: “Behold your mother!” When Jesus entrusted Mary as Mother to Saint John, he entrusted her sorrowful maternal heart to all mothers. So every woman who is suffering can turn to her in their time of need. In learning from her how she coped in suffering we can help those who are wounded and suffering now. Let us now examine the seven sorrows.
1st Sorrow: The prophecy of Simeon
“And Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary his mother: Behold this child is set for the fall and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted; And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that out of many hearts thoughts may be revealed.” Luke 2, 34-35.
How great was the sorrow to Mary’s heart at hearing these bitter words, in which holy Simeon told of the horrific suffering and death of her Son. Those words released a torrent of images that were foretold down through the centuries and recorded by the prophets concerning the sufferings of the Messiah, the Redeemer of the world. Then, suddenly Simeon adds, a sword shall pierce your heart… the sword shall cleave her soul in two. The word for sword as poμφαια, a javelin. On Calvary both the divine heart and the human heart were pierced by a lance: one physical and one mystical.
In spite of the multiple opinions on the text, both regarding the piercing by the sword and the laying bare the thoughts of many, I am inclined to favor the insights of Saint Gregory, namely, that the sword of sorrow regards the suffering of the Blessed Mother as she beheld her own Son suffer the agony of death on the Cross. We may also see in this prophecy a biblical basis for Mary’s cooperation in the work of salvation.
CONTEXT – words of sorrow
With this first encounter the Mother of Sorrows was filled with grief and fear. Simeon did not do anything. It is not what he did but what he said that caused her sorrow. In like manner, it is words spoken by the specialist or the non compliant partner that cause sorrow to mothers who have just conceived. The words: “You are pregnant!” may plague and haunt a woman day and night. Words are power. And words change our lives. When those words are reinforced by a medical profession claiming to diagnose the potential health of a child or negative comments from a relationship that is already fragile, then those words become potent and life changing. Such words release a torrent of images, fears and unrevealed sorrows.
Yet words are not facts. Listen to the words, hear what she is saying. Know what she is saying. Then check what she is saying: “What I hear is that ….” Words can change reality. Lies distort it. Check the facts. Are you really pregnant? Have you been properly tested? Is the ultrasound conclusive? What would your partner really say? Have you sought another medical opinion? …
Then build her up with words of assurance, support, optimism, empathy.
In the Presence of God she hears these words and mayaccept them. In silence and prayer she ponders their meaning.
2nd Sorrow: Flight into Egypt
“And after they (the wise men) were departed, behold an angel of the Lord appeared in sleep to Joseph, saying: Arise and take the child and his mother and fly into Egypt: and be there until I shall tell you. For it will come to pass that Herod will seek the child to destroy Him. He arose and took the child and his mother by night, and retired into Egypt: and he was there until the death of Herod.” Matthew 2:13-14.
Thus, after the visit of the Magi who came from the East, after their homage (“they fell down and worshiped him”) and after they had offered gifts (cf. Mt. 2:11), Mary together with the child has to flee into Egypt in the protective care of Joseph. Consider the profound sorrow which Mary felt when she had to flee by night to save her Son from the slaughter decreed by Herod. What anguish was hers, in leaving Judea, departing from her homeland and relatives with such a young child. What sorrow was hers to see God’s Son become a refugee. God was a refugee! How great her privations on that long journey! What sufferings she bore in a strange land, without friends and the comforts of a home and her faith.
CONTEXT – actions of sorrow
The first Sorrow concerned words. This Sorrow concerns actions. A flight from evil. The Holy Family fled from an evil person called King Herod. Expectant mothers may also need to flee from an evil person: medical personnel, a violent relationship. A mother filled with sorrow on account of an unwanted pregnancy needs to act. Words demand action. We can assist her in this flight by providing direction. By being available to listen. By providing support and care. By encouraging her to foster life rather than death. One may remind her that all choices involve risks. The choice to terminate is a risk. The choice to keep the child is a risk. Life itself is a risk. Dispel the myth that she can go back to the days when she was not pregnant. It has changed. She is now a mother. Whatever she decides, she will remain a mother. She will always be a mother. Withdrawal from evil is a natural and normal response. But do not choose the worst evil. Response is need driven. Be with her in her emotionally vulnerable state. Provide information on possible scenarios. Her response needs to be the best outcome for her in this situation. Assist her by reminding her that our Mother was provided for in her flight from evil. God will provide for her. All that God requires from this sorrowful mother is life and love – thus, do not separate the child from its mother.
3rd Sorrow: Losing the Child Jesus
“And having fulfilled the days, when they returned, the Child Jesus remained in Jerusalem; and his parents knew it not. And thinking that he was in the company, they came a day’s journey, and sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance. And not finding him, they returned into Jerusalem, seeking him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when they saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously. And he said to them, “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house? And they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart.” Luke 2:43-50
What dread filled Mary, when she saw that she had lost her beloved Son! And as if to increase her sorrow, when she sought him diligently among her relatives and friends, she could find him not. The absence of Jesus, was the absence of God. She who was filled with grace was devoid of the author of grace - the divine Presence. With haste they returned to Jerusalem, and for three long days sought him sorrowing - worry compounded with anxiety and fear. In addition to the physical loss of her Son a spiritual darkness engulfed her soul. A loss of the supernatural, a loss of God which is akin to mortal sin. She who was sinless felt the effects of sin. This unique sorrow troubled her very being causing her to become overwhelmed with human emotion and thus lose her grasp on the divine reality. For that very reason the Lord uttered this reality check: “Did you not know…” Finally, these days of loss were to prepare her for his death when he would be absent for three long days.
CONTEXT - reality of sorrow
Worry and anxiety fogs the intellect and we can lose touch with reality. Being unconnected is dangerous because it can lead to a state of denial. Denial is a virtual world of deceit. The actual world becomes distant or remote and we start to believe falsehoods. I am not a mother. It is not a child – just some cells. It is a simple medical procedure that is harmless. Besides, it is not wrong, it is not against the law. Everyone does it and who cares! A reality check is required. A wake up call is needed. To help one tune in with reality so as to dispel myths and fiction, one needs an ultrasound. The visual image of the unseen world of the womb is a most effective reality check that in an instant confirms the reality of life. If such technology is unavailable then images or pictures depicting developmental stages of fetal growth are useful and effective tools for our sorrowful mother.
4th Sorrow: Way of the Cross
“And there followed him a great multitude of people, and of women, who bewailed and lamented Him.” Luke 23:27
Our sorrowful Mother, so tender and gentle, now encounters her beloved Son, who is bruised and battered, crowned with thorns and streaming with blood as he bears his heavy cross. What bitter sorrow enters her heart. What grief tore at the depths of her soul. This encounter differs to the other sorrows that happened to Mary. I say happened because she was involved in them, in as much as they happened to her as the Mother of Jesus. On this occasion, she is one of the multitude of women who actively follow the Lord. She could have remained just one of the women in the background immersed in prayer, but she didn’t. Our Lady departs from the comfort of the other women and breaks forward in the crowded street, amid the bewildered and angry mob, to meet him, to encounter him face to face, to be physically present to him. Prayer is one thing and presence is another. She combined both in active pursuit. When they met, perhaps at the turning of a corner or after one of his falls, their eyes engaged. What consolation her loving gaze must have been to the Lord in his pain and sorrow. Words needed not to be uttered, the look from her heart to his was all that was needed. Our presence and sometimes a look, a glance from the depths of our soul, paint a portrait more powerful than words can convey.
CONTEXT – presence of sorrow
We all admit that abortion is a hideous crime. It wounds women, it scourges the moral fibre of our society and our future. But what can we do? How should we react? Many follow the women from afar with prayerful intercession but no involvement. We, however, in step with our heavenly mother, go forward and bolstered with courage are physically present at the clinic. We meet Christ on his way. We encounter the victim on the road to their Calvary. The innocent victim is the silent one, the little one, the unwanted child, the hidden life, the life unseen by most yet loved by God. These individuals, be they members of the Helpers or generous souls who are present along the way, risk all possible abuse, intimidation and scorn of the mob. Such persons realize, as did Mary, that at times only the physical presence of being there, along the way, is all that matters. Being ready to console the mothers or even to convince them otherwise… if we can. Just to be there.
5th Sorrow: Death at Calvary
“They crucified him. Now there stood by the cross of Jesus, his Mother. When Jesus therefore had seen his Mother and the disciple standing whom he loved, he said to his Mother: Woman: behold thy son. After that he said to the disciple: Behold thy Mother.” John 19: l8-25-27.
Can one imagine what pain filled her very being at Calvary? Watching his writhing in agony as they nailed his hands and feet. His utter exhaustion with each breath and gradual suffocation on the cross. Then suddenly filled with strength he prays to his Father for them: “Father forgive them for they do no know what they are doing.” Do they not know? Are they not trained for this very task? Are they not professional soldiers? Was not crucifixion a common form of capital punishment for the Romans? Yet, ‘they do not know…’ They see only with their eyes and see not what they do. They do not see that this is God atoning for their sins. They do not know who he is. They do not see him as the innocent Lamb led to the slaughter. Yet, she knows and she sees. He sees her and she sees him. The Mother of Sorrows also hears the mocking of the crowds, the abuse of the Jews, the harsh and brutal behaviour of the soldiers. She hears and her heart fills with sorrow and bitterness. In spite of it all, not a word is uttered by her for she offers herself in victimal prayer. Being there in prayer is all that she does and that is all anyone can do. So the question is posed: Is the price of motherhood also one of victimhood?
CONTEXT – victimhood of sorrow
Outside the clinic, we watch as the innocent victim is led, silent and captive to their slaughter. Do these mothers see the full extent of their actions - their choice? We see what happens yet they do not.
Or are they blinded by the fear of the alternative, their loss of work, their loss of freedom, their loss of a relationship. All these fears and the deafening voices of those who claim to know drown out the voices of conscience. The insistence of the medical staff who know not what they do; the friends who accompany the mothers who know not what they do; the associates bent on perverting the course of justice know not what they do… We also hear the beeping of the horns, the abuse of drivers passing by, yelling: ‘Get a life!’ We know that they too cannot see, they too cannot hear. We bow our heads in silent prayer as our hearts are filled with sorrow. With each innocent victim offered in sacrifice for the pleasures and comforts of our world, we gasp and pray that God who sees all, will fill the empty hearts of mothers with true sorrow for those who once were and are now no longer. For in prayer the mother and the victim become one. Those ‘helpers’ become victims too. Unwanted as is the child, unloved as is the child, despised as is the child, misunderstood as is the child.
6th Sorrow: Deposition from the Cross
“After these things Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate granted permission. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus, who had first come to him by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews….” (John 19: 38-40) …
And they laid him in the arms of his Mother.
The Mother and the Victim are reunited; for love and life are now united. It began some thirty-three ago as such. In the beginning, at the incarnation Mother and Child were one. Now he who dies to give us life, in death is made one among the living. The image that comes to mind is that of Michelangelo who in his youth was inspired to craft from marble, with the blows of a chisel, the Pieta of utmost pity. What he fashioned with physical blows she actually crafted with blows unto her heart. What silence must have fallen upon Golgotha when Mother and Son were reunited in her arms, when she for the last time wrapped her arms around his pierced and open Heart. The angels must have shuddered at the sight.
CONTEXT - silence of sorrow
When a mother, any mother, every mother leaves the clinic, when she departs we fall silent. We spiritually cradle the unwanted victim in our prayerful arms, we gaze at the loss of life in the denial of death. We kneel as that vehicle collects their severed limbs and broken bodies as medical waste. We wonder how she the Mother of Sorrows coped with them, the murderers at Calvary, and we wonder how this all began and why it is still happening. Amid the agony we are silent. In moments of grief all that matters is silence. Just being there in prayer. Is not silence our only refuge – a refuge of prayer. Prayer to convert the staff, the mothers, the others. We pray because they cannot. We hope because they need to avoid despair. We offer them in our prayers a balm of tenderness in our eyes and hearts. We offer them only what God can give – forgiveness and healing.
7th Sorrow: Laid in the tomb
“Now there was in the place where he was crucified, a garden; and in the garden a new sepulcher, wherein no man yet had been laid. There, because of the Passover of the Jews, they laid Jesus, because the sepulcher was nearby.” John 19: 41-42.
When all have gone and these two men, not known by many step forward, Joseph and Nicodemus, with the women they lay him in his place. From womb to tomb, she the Virgin Mother is faithful even to the end. As she follows them being grateful for their acts of kindness and generosity does she perhaps wonder where are the others? Where is Simon Peter or James? Why are there not more helpers present? Did he not have many disciples? Why am I so numb with grief and sadness? Who will help me now, at this last stage, in my final procession? Her wounded heart, her Immaculate heart, from our mother’s womb until the tomb seeks us out. As she gazed on that lifeless body, as she watched them carry him, she recalls how she once bore him. They walk, no-one dares to talk, as she can barely cope with the pain within, yet she knows by a faint flame of hope, that somehow, somewhere it will all come to pass. With the closing of the door, with the rolling of the stone, to seal that passage, a new passage, a new door is being forged, a future filled with faith.
CONTEXT - hope of healing
We watch with sorrow, the mothers process away from death and we offer them life. It is not to be forgotten but rather forgiven. We look at them with the eyes of Mary, the eyes of hope and healing. We want to walk with them now, when all their friends have gone away. As Joseph and Nicodemus were the unknown helpers, we being unknown to them, under her maternal gaze, are there to help not to hinder. We shall walk with these mothers as they seek to be forgiven from his Heart, as he heals their hearts and as she the Mother of Sorrows helps them lay to rest their beloved ones, their little ones in a spiritual tomb of peace.
Sequence: Stabat Mater
At the cross her station keeping,
Mary stood in sorrow weeping
When her Son was crucified.
While she waited in her anguish,
Seeing Christ in torment languish,
Bitter sorrow pierced her heart.
With what pain and desolation,
With what noble resignation,
Mary watched her dying Son.
Saw him breathe his very last.
Mary, fount of love’s devotion,
Let me share with true emotion
All the sorrow you endured.