Saturday was the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. The celebration of Mary standing at the foot of the cross. The suffering mother of the suffering Servant.
It also happened to be the date of the South Bend-Fort Wayne Diocese women’s conference that I attended with some friends, where Scott and Kimberly Hahn were the speakers of the day. The conference started with Mass, celebrated by Bishop Kevin Rhodes. As we sat in the large conference room, listening to the readings, a sequence began. Beautiful music, courtesy of the Univeristy of Notre Dame women’s liturgical choir, filled the room.
I quietly cried as I read the words of the prayer being sung:
The greiving Mother/stood weeping by the cross/while her Son hung there.
For the sins of his people/she saw Jesus tortured and scourged.
She saw her sweet Son/dying and forsaken/as he gave up his spirit.
Oh Mother, fount of love/make me feel the force of your grief.
So that I may mourn with you/grant that my heart may burn/in loving Christ, my God/so that I may be pleasing to him.
Make me lovingly weep with you/to suffer with the crucified as long as I shall live.
To stand with you beside the cross/and to join with you in deep lament/this I long for and desire.
Who can pray these words and mean them? Do we really want to feel the force of Mary’s grief? To embrace the deep well of sorrow that comes from holding the lifeless body of her child, of her God? Who can be bold enough to utter such a prayer with any sincerity?
I read those words and my first reaction is “No! I do not want that! I want to flee the force of grief, not feel it.” I want to flee the cross, because if I get too close, I’ll be crucifed too.
Sometimes the weight of a lifetime’s suffering is suffocating. At times I believe I have “earned” the right to escape it. That because I have had some crosses for so long, I “ought” to be able to put them down and walk away.
I have carried, for over 20 years, the cross of watching, as a scared six year old girl, my mother dying in a hospital. I have been carrying the cross of a father who chose drugs over me, and who abandoned me at age 12. I carry the cross of diabetes, sub-fertility, and the loss of a child.
My arms are tired. My soul is even more exhausted.
To be certain, there have been times of tremendous joy. There always are. But they are, inevitably, just breaks. As Kimberly Hahn said in her talk at the conference, “If you aren’t in the midst of suffering, it’s a lull.”
She was so right. I had forgotten, you see. After we lost our first baby, it took us 14 months to conceive again. During the first year or so of our daughter’s life, I had let myself believe that I was “normal”. That things would be looking up from here on out. Surely we would all be healthy, happy, and the babies would flow freely? I mean, truly, hadn’t I met the quota for one lifetime’s worth of suffering?
But that’s not how it works, even when we beg, wish, and pray that it would. The truth is, we will never be able to understand suffering, and we will never fully escape it. Why people suffer, how they suffer, why some seem to suffer so much more than others. These are mysteries which, sadly for us, live up to their name.
We may never understand why we suffer in the ways we do, and in those moments, to paraphrase a friend much wiser than I, we beat the heads of our humanity against the wall of God’s divinity. As nearly every married woman around me announces pregnancy, after pregnancy, after pregnancy, some not even happy to be expecting, while I weep over cycles come and gone, I bang the head of my humanity against the wall of God’s divinity.
The question hangs in the air like an accusation. Sometimes it is.
But on Saturday morning, I saw a sliver of the truth.
“Oh Mother, fount of love, let me feel the force of your grief.”
Feel. Not understand. My intellecutal understanding of my personal suffering is not a condition of God’s using it to change my heart and form me into the person he wants me to be. But my experiencing it is. When we let the suffering in, we let our hearts be broken rather than turned to stone. The only way to feel the full force of our grief, as well as Our Lady’s, is to stop looking for the escape hatch. To finally stop running from the cross. From my cross, and yours. To be willing to stand weeping, feeling the full weight of sorrow.
“The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering but a supernatural use for it.” – Simone Weil
Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us.