On this journey through infertility, I find myself looking to Mary in a new way...begging her to show me how to handle the grief that comes as a result of being unable to conceive a child. Whereas most of my time previously has been contemplating her “fiat” at the annunciation, I now look to her at the foot of the cross, and beg her to teach me with her own witness how to balance the human emotions of grief and despair with the simple faith and spiritual joy in the resurrection and God’s plan. I see her kneeling there at the foot of the cross and I contemplate what her own emotions must have been. There she was at the height of her human pain, watching her only son die a tortuous hideous death. Did she feel abandoned by God? Certainly she had to wonder why this had to happen and how this could be part of God’s plan. And yet at the same time, we know from her entire life that she was wholly surrendered to God. When I was in Rome in February 2009, I spent a great amount of time in St. Peter’s Basilica before Michelangelo’s Pieta meditating on Our Lady’s balance of grief and surrender that he managed to capture out of a piece of stone. Her head bowed down in sorrow, yet her left hand open as if to say, “Lord, I take what you give and I give what you take.” This is the joyful surrender I desire.
I continually ask her for her intercession, that she will help me be a woman full of grace, and even as she does, my own questions still flood my mind. Why are you withholding this gift from me? Lord, what am I doing that you don’t want from me? What am I not doing that you do want? Why is it that when I’ve tried my entire life to be faithful to you and your teachings that you deny me this gift and yet grant life to those that throw that precious gift of life away or go about obtaining life in a way not in keeping with the Catholic faith. Why when we desired to use our own lives as a witness to the effectiveness of Natural Family Planning by showing that it does work when trying to postpone children, was that opportunity dismissed from our lives when we couldn’t get pregnant at all? My entire life…long before I was Catholic, I somehow instinctively knew of the inherent physical, psychological and spiritual dangers of birth control and had promised God…”give me one human being and I will give you as many as you want.” Now here I was with my wonderful husband, facing the question…”what if the answer is none?”
Romans 9:20,21 But who indeed are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Will what is made say to its maker,"Why have you created me so?" Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for a noble purpose and another for an ignoble one?
“Be it done unto me according to thy word” sometimes seems like an impossible and very bold prayer. It would take courage to do even if I could see Him, but when the face of Christ is hidden in the darkness of my heart, then it requires all the heroism of Our Lady’s fiat. It would be easier for me to sacrifice some big things to God, to impose some hard rule upon myself or choose for myself what I sacrifice for God… it is much more difficult to say, “Do what you like with me.” But this is exactly what God asks of us and what Mary patterns for us with her life. Mary is truly the model for discipleship. She gave her fiat and we each must give ours.
It is a popular devotion in the Catholic Church to pray and contemplate the seven sorrows in Mary's life, and below I have listed them along with a mixture of Fr. Bob's homily from this morning and things that I see her teaching us through her example in bearing these sorrows.
1. The Prophecy of Simeon over the Infant Jesus. (Luke 2:34)
Simeon told Mary that a sword would pierce her heart. She teaches us that no matter the sorrow, we can commit it to her Son, place it in His hands and consecrate that sorrow to Him. When we were preparing for marriage, I came to know through prayer that like Mary, a sword would pierce my own heart. To be honest, I was scared. Terrified. I didn't know what it was, but I was sure I didn't want it. It took the wise counsel of my spiritual director to help me see that in many cases it is exactly this "sword" which is our path to holiness, our road to salvation. It is by enduring the piercing of this sword that we grow in love for and trust of God. Mary showed us this with her own life in how she committed herself completely to God even with the prophecy of Simeon in mind.
2. The Flight into Egypt of the Holy Family. (Matthew 2:13)
Mary teaches us to go trusting, to grow in faith. Even when we are in darkness we can press on. Even when we can't see where we are going or why, we can trust in His plan.
3. The Loss of the Child Jesus for Three Days. (Luke 2:43)
Mary couldn't find the Christ child for three days. Imagine being a mother who has lost her child in a very busy crowded area for three days. She had to have been panicked and probably thought that the prophecy of Simeon had come to pass. While I have never experienced this pain of losing a child firsthand, I did get to witness it in a unique way with a friend and her son. While living in Austria, we were able to go to Rome with a large bus full of people for the viewing of the late Pope John Paul II. If you remember, the crowds were enormous and the streets were a mass of people. As I was continuing on my way I suddenly realized that my friend's young son was "swimming upstream" in the crowd. I grabbed him by the hand and asked where he was going. He told me he was trying to find his mom. Afraid that he would get lost in the crowd on people, I told him that he needed to stay with me and that we would find his mom. I honestly can't remember how long it was before we met up with them, but it seems to me that it was well over 15 minutes. When we finally located his parents, his mother was beside herself and when she saw him threw herself on her needs to wrap him in her arms. Her pain at losing him was so intense and her mother's sorrow so great, that in that instant I saw in her a reflection of what it must have been like for the Blessed Virgin.
4. The Meeting of Jesus and Mary along the Way of the Cross. (Luke 23:26)
Our Lady had to see Jesus carrying our cross...the cross of our sins. How difficult this must have been. Yet, as she came to know the will of the Father more and more, she grew in hope of God's glory and grew in her trust that Jesus knew what He was doing. I think the movie Passion of the Christ portrays this sorrow beautifully, when Mary rushes to Jesus' side after he falls under the weight of the cross, all the while images of his childhood replaying in her mind, and looks at him in confusion and awe as he says to her, "see, mother, I make all things new." Hard hard it must have been for Mary to learn the lesson of Jeremiah 29:11-13 (For I know well the plans I have in mind for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare, not for woe! plans to give you a future full of hope. When you call me, when you go to pray to me, I will listen to you.
When you look for me, you will find me. Yes, when you seek me with all your heart,
you will find me with you, says the LORD, and I will change your lot.) and yet, full of trust and faith, Mary continued on, following the steps of her son to Calvary.
5. The Crucifixion, where Mary stands at the foot of the cross. (John 19:25)
What exactly did Mary pray at the foot of the cross? How could she even find it within herself to pray when she was filled with such intense sorrow and pain? Perhaps it was the Lord's prayer. Perhaps it was calling upon God her father in the prayers Jesus had taught her...."they will be done." It was this prayer and her act of faith in calling upon God the father that gave her the strength to press on. So it must be with us.
6. The Descent from the Cross, where Mary receives the dead body of Jesus in her arms. (Matthew 27:57)
When she received his body, she grew in love. When she held him, she probably remembered the first time she held him as a newborn baby in Bethlehem. In fact this is one possible way that Michelangelo's Pieta has been interpreted...that it is really an image of Mary holding the baby Jesus. This interpretation states that "Mary's youthful appearance and apparently serene facial expression, coupled with the position of the arms could suggest that she is seeing her child, while the viewer is seeing an image of the future." Perhaps. Whatever way you interpret the sculpture, it is powerful. I have always loved Michelangelo's Pieta, but on a recent trip to Rome, I spent a great deal of time praying before it, asking Our Lady to help me bear my sorrow with as much grace as she bore hers.
7. The Burial of Jesus. (John 19:40)
What really can one say? He was gone to her. While she certainly would have trusted that what He had promised would come to pass and that he would come again, her baby boy was gone to her. Fr. Bob talked about how the Jewish tradition when in mourning is to give God praise and how the prayer of the Mourner's Kaddish is a beautiful example of this:
Now say: Amen.
This beautiful prayer of praise is recited in Jewish custom by the son of the deceased every day for 11 months after the burial. It makes me wonder, did Our Lady, the sole remaining relative of Jesus recite this prayer each day after His burial? Was a prayer like this what gave her strength to continue praising God in the pain? In my own experience with sorrow, I guess my modern day Kaddish has become the song "Blessed be your Name" by Tree 63. In the darkest of times, I sing this and continue to praise God. I highly recommend it. It's worth the listen.
Yes, I can relate to Our Lady of Sorrows and I am so thankful that as our spiritual mother, she shows us her sufferings and guides us through every dark valley of our lives. No matter what our sorrows are, she is there as a model and a guide...constantly leading us to her son and the victory He promises us.
Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us.