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.

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