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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Bells, Our Lady of Sorrows and Hope

Yesterday I was listening to the Mass bell at Belmont and suddenly I was a world away in time and place, in the ringing chamber at Stanbrook. A peal of eight bells for a Solemnity, six for a Second Order feast, five for Sundays and Third Order celebrations; twenty doubles and three straights for ferias; twenty straights for the second toll, irrespective of liturgical rank. I always loved ringing Steadman touches, but whoever was on bell duty had great latitude in her choice. Bells are precious things, anointed with chrism and named, for they summon Christians to the Work of God. Deep down I know I cherish the hope that one day Howton Grove Priory will have grown enough to have its own peal of bells, to ring out its joy and sorrow, possibly its moments of alarm (bells rung in reverse order), but always sounding to the glory of God, always summoning us to prayer.

Today’s feast shows us Mary acting rather like a bell, summoning us closer to her Son. Yesterday we decked the processional cross with bay leaves as a sign of Christ’s victory; today, a single candle burns in memory of her lonely fidelity. It is a reminder that God did not promise us a life of unalloyed happiness in this world. To be mother of the Messiah was, surely, every Jewish woman’s dream; but for Mary, that dream meant suffering and death as well as joy, resurrection and gladness. Every human life is a mixture. We tend to rage and rail at the messy bits, the  painful bits, but every morning we begin again. Hope is a strange virtue in some ways but a very necessary one. It doesn’t lessen the sense of failure or rebellion we may feel, but it does help sustain our faith and prayer. So, think of bells again. One of George Herbert’s loveliest descriptions of prayer is ‘church bells beyond the starres heard’. Bells summon us to pray; they also summon God to listen.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail