Our Lady of Sorrows: Problem or Solution?

The feast of Our Lady of Sorrows comes the day after that of the Exaltation of the Cross. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it concentrates on the Crucifixion and Mary’s sharing in the suffering of her Son. The gospel reading is John 19. 25–27, in which the Beloved Disciple is entrusted to Mary, and Mary to him. For generations the liturgy of the day has provided comfort to those who mourn and reassurance to those who feel helpless in the face of suffering and death. We have in Mary a loving mother who understands, who has experienced what we experience. 

I do not dispute any of that. Indeed, I have sometimes tried to express what Our Lady means to me and ended up thinking how clumsy and inadequate my words were and taken refuge in the poetry or visual images of others. This morning, however, I was prompted to think about the limitations imposed by seeing Mary only as a sorrowful mother and how that affects our understanding of the Church and women in general.

Many of the heroes of Christianity — the saints — are seen though a single lens. We focus on Peter as the blundering ‘first pope’ and forget he was also a husband and almost certainly a father, too, that he had a life that was not all liturgy and councils. No doubt Mrs Peter had quite a lot to say to him about what he should be doing at home, no matter how important his role in the nascent Church. I rather like the idea that unbeknown to us, descendants of St Peter probably still walk this earth. I also like the idea that the lyrical Mary of the Magnificat is one and the same as the grieving Mary of the Stabat Mater. That is to say, the joy and sorrow of her life are entwined. She is one and the same person. It is her glory to be the Mother of God, but she is also the strong-minded Jewish woman who took the lead when Jesus went missing in the temple and did not scruple to call him to account at the wedding-feast in Cana.

One of the problems the Church has to face is that she still tends to see women solely as mothers. I bridle when told that Mary is the model for female contemplatives and that contemplatives should express the maternal dimension of the Church (cf Cor Orans). Quite apart from the fact that this ignores the long tradition of female monastics (which is how we would define ourselves), there is only one model for any Christian of any sex and that is Christ. Mary is an inspiration, but not our model. Moreover, I do sometimes wonder what conception of maternity some of those who most delight in exalting it actually have, not excluding Pope Francis who says many nice things about mothers my own mother and I daresay many other mothers would have pooh-poohed with alacrity. At the risk of inviting shrieks of outrage from many who find great depth and comfort in the notion of spiritual motherhood, may I say that I think it is a difficult concept that causes as many problems as it solves. Apart from anything else, it locks women into a one-dimensional role as nurturers and carers. We should all be nurturers and carers, whether male or female, but there are other roles to be performed, as St Paul reminds us in today’s first Mass reading (1 Corinthians 12.12-14, 27-31), and surely women have a contribution to make there as well.

So, where does that leave us? I think it leaves us needing to reflect more deeply on the role of Mary in the Church and possibly working hard to free ourselves from an unreal and sentimental piety that blinds us to her true stature as Mother of God, the mulier fortis, the woman of grace blessed above all others, at whose feet I gladly lay my love and prayers for a broken and unhappy world.


11 thoughts on “Our Lady of Sorrows: Problem or Solution?”

  1. Years ago I had a book entitled “Down From The Pedestal’. The position in the RCC created by men for Mary makes it an untenable situation for many, if not all, of us. It’s all about the taming of womanhood.
    (Hoping I’m not adding to the flame)
    Thank you for this post. I’ll be reflecting on it for a while.

  2. Brilliant! Nurturing and caring are admirable qualities indeed, but not exclusive to women, and the church would do well to promote these qualities to men. My daughter never, ever speaks about ‘motherhood’. Parenting is the term she uses.
    Indeed, we don’t know much about Mary from the Gospels, but as you say she wasn’t backward in reprimanding her son for going awol and she was there at the end facing up to the horrors of a messy and appalling death. It seems to me that her assertiveness and bravery are the qualities to look to.
    And for women who are not mothers, and have no desire to be, why see motherhood as ‘the maternal dimension of the church’? I would suggest that it’s an easy way of putting women in their place. Tucked away in the house where they won’t cause any trouble or suggest difficult ideas. Surely, bravery, using their intellect and generally doing good in the world, in whatever way, seems best, is the way to go.

  3. It is sometimes difficult to listen to or read depictions of Mary as the role model for the Mother, yes she was a mother, but also much more. She will have taught Jesus (as did Joseph) at her knee the nature of childhood and even right and wrong. I always picture the scene where Jesus was caught talking to the scribes in the Temple and her reaction, perhaps quite angry at what he had done. His reply about being on his Father’s business must have rankled as well as inspired her.

    But for me the picture of a mother is quite difficult as we lost ours when I was aged 3, she left home and not trace of her was found, even a TV program “Missing” devoted to her, found no trace. More recently, I was contacted by someone via a geneology website claiming to be a half sister, saying that our mother had remarried and had died in 1985 alone in a care home, having suffered severe poor mental health for many years. And she proved right. I found my mothers death record in 1985 in Lambeth, in a care home for people with special needs.

    I have found it difficult to cope with the idea that having left three children in the middle of the night that she had in fact gone on to have two more from a second marriage and had mothered them, much better than she had apparently mothered us (Our Care Records are a story of failure of both parents, in different care situations for my and my two siblings, from the age of 8 months for me at least).

    I have accepted that she died, but the way it happened, alone and abandoned is really painful to contemplate, when there were five children for her to reach out too, but it did not happen. And my younger sister who could not remember her mother, spent a life looking for her and died 3 years ago, without this knowledge.

    Life can be hard for mothers, and evidence is that many women suffer hugely from bad relationships, the number of Women’s refuges around the country demonstrate this, and often a blind eye is turned to such abuse. So, being a mother may well be a hit and miss risk to take.

    This is all in the context of the BVM looking on, being prayed to for help and intercession, often in hopeless cases. May Mary, intercede for the many desperate, women/mothers who suffer sorrows alongside her.

    • That’s such a heartbreaking story. For you, and all of your family. Your acceptance of the problems your mother may have had to face is a tribute to you. May the parenthood of God help you now and in the years to come.

    • Ernie, my husband’s mother rejected him at birth even though married to his father. So, he was raised by his grandparents. She and his dad then went on to raise two more children in the house next door.

      After his father’s death she moved, remarried and had yet another child in another part of the country, never returning to claim her son. We attempted a relationship of sorts (several times) after our own children were born but it never worked well. Once, while impaired, she phoned and unloaded her story, including an explanation for his healed skull fracture, suffered at age 2. “I had no maternal feelings for him” was her excuse for all.

      No closure for my husband because, after all, how does one make sense of the nonsensical? Best to accept we are all flawed to varying degrees and in different ways.

      We empathize with your pain, share your bewilderment and trust you believe, as we do, that we are God’s beloved.

    • I know I’ve got a reputation for being frivolous but my sympathies have always been the Mrs Apostles. Stuck at home cleaning and gutting the fish, checking the tax returns. Mrs Simon being a politician’s wife (no joke that) and then being marginalised at best or completely forgotten.

  4. Thank you so much for these thoughts about women in the Church. As a lay woman who desperately wanted marriage and motherhood (now facing my senior years without them), I have rejected the notion of spiritual motherhood as my primary Catholic identity. It’s been a major psychological and spiritual battle for me such that I left the Church for awhile, so relentless is its focus on young families (often to the exclusion of many other pressing ills in the world.) Heaven knows that young families need all the prayers they can get; however the Church has come to nearly idolize them, such that these putative domestic churches become largely self-centered and unable to direct their love toward anything but their own homes and hearths. It is profoundly alienating to older, single, childless lay women who also need the prayers and support of their Church…women for whom the notion of “spiritual motherhood” is ice-cold comfort. There are many of us, and our love must necessarily be directed outward to other important needs in the world; however, our contributions are often ignored by the institutional Church. We don’t fit the mold of woman as mother, and thus are invisible. This is World Childless Week, and your words today give me some hope that Heaven is listening and cheering on the contributions of all women. I hope I haven’t misstated or misinterpreted your words, but regardless they helped me a great deal. Thank you. God bless you and your Order.

  5. I have been very moved by your comments, and by the humility and frankness with which some of you have recounted painful experiences that go very deep. We are all in your debt for what you have shared. I feel sure that Our Lady has you in her prayers, and what better place could any of us be?

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