Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Our Lady of Sorrows: Faith of the Grieving








Today, 15 September, is the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.

Yesterday, we meditated on the cross, and we arrive today at the effects of that cross, not just on Jesus, but on his mother.

Today is the day that Christians remember that Mary was a mother- the same mother of the Christmas story.  But today, we come face to face, not with a new mother, with the mixture of joy, relief, hopes, promise, responsibility, and perhaps even the apprehensions of every new mum. 

That is gone. Today, there is only hysteria, blood, death, and grief;

Endless, relentless grief…



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Two reflections have come out of devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows; the most common is a Catholic reflection on the nature of suffering and its intrinsic benefits to the human soul. Reflecting on suffering and grief, both our own and Christ’s, so says this line of thought, build and perfect us and bring us closer to Christ.

I understand where this is coming from, but it worries me, in that I think it runs the risk of making grief and pain a spiritual discipline or a theological abstraction.

There is, of course, also a socially conscious reflection that draws attention to Mary being a mother of a man tortured to death in public after an unfair trial by an oppressive regime, and that this state of affairs continues in many parts of the world today. Mary is seen as a participant in that struggle, in solidarity with the suffering. 





It’s a credible and necessary reflection- certainly more so than the first example- and to a large degree, I embrace it. How could I not, with the theological work I do?

But these days, I’m more cautious about it.

I’m afraid it might obscure Mary’s personal grief and loss… 

The kind of personal grief and loss that we will actually encounter in this life...

Mary's grief was real and personal, and anyone who has experienced grief and loss- 

the death of a loved one; 

a catastrophic illness; 

the end of a relationship; 

a friend or family member caught in addiction- 

can relate to accounts of Mary’s grief.





Grief is more than sadness, a bad mood, or a frustration of plans.

Grief feels like a cancer that attacks a person’s ability to hope.

Grief is like steel, like a knife- hard, sharp, and cold, scraping at the rib cage, trying to get at the heart…






Anyone who has grieved- truly grieved- will be able to relate to C.S Lewis’ description of his own grief at the death of his wife, Joy:


No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep swallowing… 

There are moments, most unexpectedly, when something inside me tries to assure me that I don’t really mind so much, after all. Love is not the whole of a man’s life. I was happy before I met Joy. I’ve plenty of what are called ‘resources’. People get over things. Come, I shan’t do so badly. One is ashamed to listen to this voice but it seems for a little to be making a good case. Then comes a sudden jab of red-hot memory and all this ‘common-sense’ vanishes like an ant in the mouth of a furnace…

I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief…

The act of living is different all through. Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything…


Rarely have modern Christians engaged with grief as lucidly and starkly as Lewis did in these texts. It was not an abstract theological exercise but a seemingly-relentless, ever-present condition of the heart, head, and body... 

where Jesus says in the Gospel text, if we need to be reminded, is the setting for our love of God...

To not grieve is to not be human.

Our Lady of Sorrows is Mary at this moment of human grief, real and ongoing.

We don’t know if Mary ever got over her grief, moved on from the horrific loss by the death of her son, but the terms ‘got over’ and ‘moved on’ are, in themselves, callous and offensive, implying that the best course for grieving people is to allow deep and delicate parts of their psyches to go numb...

I believe Mary functioned.

She lived.

John, one of Jesus’ closest friends, looked after her for the rest of her life.

Perhaps, over time, John became like a son to her…


‘Like’ a son…


Acts 1 and 2 relate that Mary remained with the disciples, and that she was present at Pentecost.

Perhaps that encounter with the Holy Spirit of God was strength and comfort to her…


'Strength'... 'Comfort'...


We can only speculate, and grieving people can indeed, if not ‘move on’, then move forward...

But over the centuries, Christians have given us this picture of Mary in the midst of grief; 


Our Lady of Not Coping Well At All;

Our Lady of Falling Apart;

Our Lady of the Ache of Loss;

Our Lady of Not Wanting to Get Up in the Morning and Dreading the Long Nights;

Our Lady of Painful Memories;

Our Lady of the Panic of Loneliness…


The world is full of trauma, and people are caught up in it.

The Christian faith can help us manage the grief that erupts from human existence.

It will not make it go away;

But it can help make it bearable.


Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us…


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