Fostering a Devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows
Our Blessed Mother is praised and lauded for her heroic faith, unshakeable trust in God, and her Immaculate Heart. Among all the titles for Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows might be a lesser known one. Yet once we sit at her feet in prayer, she offers us an incredible witness to the power of faith in suffering. Is it even possible what Mary did? How could she witness the horrific torture and death of her Son, and still have faith? The answer is yes, it is possible—and we have more than a guide. We have a loving mother to show us the way.
The Seven Sorrows of Mary is a beautiful devotion in good times and in bad; but it’s of special comfort in the hard times. For all the glorious pictures and statues of Our Lady, we can’t be under the illusion that her life was perfect. Although sinless, she was still human, and had the same emotions that we do. Sometimes we only need someone to sit with and cry with. The Seven Sorrows are the perfect means to sit and cry with Our Blessed Mother. The Seven Sorrows of Mary are the prophecy of Simeon, the flight into Egypt, the loss of Jesus in the Temple, the ascent to Calvary/Jesus meets Mary on the Way of the Cross, the Crucifixion and death of Jesus, Jesus taken down from the cross, and Jesus laid in the tomb. An instruction on how to pray the devotion can be found here. We may not have a messianic Son, but the Seven Sorrows are still very relatable to us all.
Suffering Amidst Joy: the Prophecy of Simeon (Luke 2:34-35)
Mary and Joseph heard these words immediately after Simeon rejoiced in the Holy Spirit, confirming the identity of the Messiah. As Mary and Joseph climbed the temple mount in Jerusalem, they likely recited one or more of the Psalms of ascent (Psalms 120-134). “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” (Ps 122:1) This was to be a day of great joy! The Messiah was coming to His temple to be circumcised according to the law of Moses.
Then like a bolt of lightning, Simeon unexpectedly comes up to the Holy Family, speaking in the Holy Spirit. He confirms the identity of Jesus as the Messiah, but continues in an even more surprising tone. “A sword will pierce your own heart also,” he said to the Blessed Mother (Luke 2:35). Mary had to carry this with her the rest of her time in Jerusalem. Right in the middle of this joyful event, it was her task to deal with this while being away from home, navigating a different place for a few days, and caring for an infant.
We don’t know what exactly Mary and Joseph did next, other than fulfilling the precepts of the Law and returning to Nazareth (Luke 2:39). Sorrow did not prevent them from being faithful to the Law. Neither did the sorrow prevent Mary from keeping all of that day, the good and the difficult, in her heart.
Scary & Unexpected Situations: the Flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:13-21) and the Loss of Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41-50)
Wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters disrupt many lives more often than we think. In my area of the country, wildfires have ravaged towns and forests. Many people have lost their farms, homes, and livestock. They were given short warning to pack up and evacuate, all the while knowing that they would likely lose everything they didn’t take with them.
Mary must have had quite a shock when Joseph woke her up after his dream. They left immediately for Egypt—right in the middle of the night. If I try to put myself in Joseph’s shoes, the prospect of my son coming to harm would be terrifying. The next prospect of travelling at night would be similarly scary. In the ancient world, one of the main reasons that travelers journeyed in caravans was for safety. Travelling on their own and at night required a tremendous amount of trust on the part of both Mary and Joseph. They modeled what we need to do: listen, obey, and move ahead. God provided the rest.
When Jesus decided to stay behind in the temple and not go back home to Nazareth, his parents’ hearts sank. Not only did they lose the Messiah, but they had lost three days of distance from Jerusalem. They had no way of knowing what had happened to Jesus as they backtracked. All they could do was hope and pray as they searched.
Feeling Crushed: the Ascent to Calvary (John 19:17), Crucifixion and Death of Jesus (John 19:18-30), and Jesus is Taken Down from the Cross (John 19:39-40)
When Mary met Jesus on the way to his death, I’m sure she experienced the same heart-wrenching feeling that every mother feels when they see their child hurt, but on an even deeper level. Even worse for Mary was knowing what awaited Jesus at the top of Calvary. When it was finished, everything was poured out… everything. A soldier’s lance emptied Jesus’ body of what little fluid remained. The gospels are silent as to whether Jesus was placed in His Mother’s arms, but St. John places her at the foot of the cross along with Mary of Clopas, Mary Magdalene, and the beloved disciple (traditionally identified as St. John himself). But who else would have wanted to hold Jesus’ body more than His Mother? Who loved Him more than she did? Michelangelo’s Pietá depicts this scene with mastery.
Mary’s examples in these moments are especially heroic. She didn’t hide or run away, like so many of the disciples did. Almost as instructive is the fact that she didn’t try to fix or fight it. What Mary offered was a steadfast heart that stuck with her Son until the end. She didn’t let the pain win! Her love was so immense that the devil’s worst on Good Friday could not overcome it.
Emptiness and Abandonment: Jesus is Laid in the Tomb (John 19:39-42)
Having been to many funerals, there’s a difference in tone between the funeral Mass and the interment. The Mass has familiar rituals and a pointing of our gaze toward heaven; there is some degree of comfort in that. At the gravesite, however, the burial carries a weight of finality. Additionally, Jesus’ closest friends, apostles, and disciples were all gone save for a few. Mary had likely become close with the apostles as well; not only did they abandon their Lord, but they abandoned her, too.
Here, Mary’s love takes on an almost stubborn character. Suffering could not take it away. Scary things and unexpected situations could not quench it. Feeling crushed could not overcome it. Now the worst of all, feeling abandoned. Still she persevered! We know that because after the resurrection of Jesus, the Scriptures record that she lived with the apostles and other disciples in Jerusalem. She stayed with the Church in its darkest hour. Final score: Mary 7, Satan 0.
One of the great paradoxes of the Christian life is joy amidst suffering. Or, in a word: the cross. If the cross is burdensome and hard to understand—better yet, when the cross is burdensome and hard to understand, run to Our Lady of Sorrows. Mary walked the same road of suffering that we do and will accompany us along the way.
Romano Guardini had a great insight into Mary’s simple strategy for handling suffering: “What is certain in life and death—so certain that everything else may be anchored in it? The answer is: The love of Christ. Life teaches us that this is the only true reply…. Certain is only that which manifested itself on the cross” (The Lord, pg. 400). Developing a devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows can help us pick up our daily crosses. And as with all Marian devotions, Our Blessed Mother seeks only to bring us closer to Jesus; in this devotion, she draws us closer to Christ crucified. Now more than ever, we need to learn how to suffer well and turn to Mary.