When I consider the proper Christian disposition to suffering, the words of St. Paul usually come to mind first: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” I often judge my own reaction to trials by this standard. Do I consider this testing a joy? Am I an example of Christian joy to my family and friends? Shouldn’t knowledge of the Resurrection change my perspective of this situation? We are an Easter people, after all. Nevertheless, I usually fall short of my own ideals. Sorrow overwhelms the joy. Yet this should not be cause for discouragement, for there is another valid response to suffering, another image of a Christian living in a fallen world—the Pieta, the Heart Pierced by Seven Swords, Our Lady of Sorrows.
Today marks the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, suppressed this year because it falls on a Sunday, yet worth reflecting on particularly in light of today’s Gospel of the Prodigal Son (in the longer option). Emphasis is often and rightly put on the father’s joy and forgiveness upon the son’s return. Yet I imagine that the memory of the son’s departure, of those years of waiting and of seemingly unanswered prayers, brings sorrow to the father’s heart long after his son’s joyful return.
Before my firstborn was conceived, my husband and I experienced more than four years of infertility. With time and perspective—and the blessings now of three children—I can view those years with a certain degree of gratitude for the other fruits they bore, St. Paul’s perseverance being one of them. Yet I doubt that I will ever look back on that time without sorrow. It is through reflection on Mary’s pierced heart that I have finally come to accept that sorrow can be something holy, where for so long I regarded it as something less, as a failure to trust God, as fear, anger, doubt, and despair.
During that trying time, I had difficulty approaching Mary, exalted as the perfect example of Christian womanhood. She was Virgin and Mother; I was neither. But during one especially powerful prayer period, I had the striking sensation of an arrow piercing my heart. When I described this experience to my spiritual director, he suggested that it was the work of Our Blessed Mother, sharing with me her heart pierced by swords. I took little consolation in that explanation then, but I can now see that Mary was forging in me a mother’s heart.
For the swords in her heart mark moments when she must have viewed herself, like I did then, not as a mother, but as a failure. During the flight into Egypt, she is the mother of a homeless child. While searching for Jesus in Jerusalem, she is the mother of a lost child; on the road to Calvary, the mother of a suffering child; at the foot of the cross, the mother of a dying one; and at the grave, she is the mother of a dead child. Our heart’s desires are to protect, nourish, and give life to our children. Today’s feast, therefore, commemorates those times when Mary failed to do the very things a mother longs to do. Thus, when we are overwhelmed by sorrow, when the fallen world has brought suffering upon our children, let us turn to Our Blessed Mother, who knows well our wounded hearts. Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us.