Stabat Mater Dolorosa

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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.

Why?

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.

Sarah Babbs

Sarah Babbs

Sarah Babbs is a married mother of a toddler girl, writing from Indiana where she moved for love after growing up on the east coast. Sarah and her husband, a lawyer, lead marriage prep classes for their parish in addition to daydreaming about becoming lunatic farmers. During stolen moments when the toddler sleeps and the laundry multiplies itself, Sarah writes about motherhood, Catholic social thought, and ponders the meaning of being a woman "made in the image of God". Her website is Fumbling Toward Grace.

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8 Responses

  1. As you say, everybody’s suffering is different. Mine has been what it has been. I receive relief when I remember to focus on a truth.
    “As long as I do not get what I deserve, I am good.”
    For I deserve hell and damnation for ever and ever and ever for many of my sins of commission and omission. And yes, I am forgiven these by the priest in confession. But, I still deserve hell as I hope to make it to heaven by God’s grace. Because I still really deserve hell, I really need to throw myself on His undeserved mercy everyday and whenever I die.
    So many times we focus on only part of the story, not on the whole thing. God sees all of space and time, all at once in every detail. Every cross, every thought, of everyone and everything from the beginning to the end are present to God all at once. His plan is perfect and can not be improved upon. And yes, we must still have free will, and God knows each and every choice we make inceases, when we see God face to face the present tense. So there really is no such thing as bad luck or good luck, only God’s divine providence and mercy, because of God’s infinite Goodness, inspite of our sins. So whatever He allows is best.
    In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we find;
    313 St. Thomas More, shortly before his martyrdom, consoled his daughter. “Nothing can come but that God wills. And I make me very sure that whatsoever that be, seem it never so badin sight, it shall indeed be best.”
    and at 314 ” only at the end, when our partial knowledge ceases, when we see God “face to face”, will we FULLY KNOW the ways by which God has guided His creation to that definitive sabbath rest.”

    When we see Him face to face and are like Him because we see Him as He eternally Is, when we are given truly infinite graces and still have free will, because God can not take away what He is eternally giving to each of us, our free will; and it must be truly infinite graces because we can not see the infinite without infinite help.

    When this happens, inspite of what we desrve, then we will be as thankful as we should be for the minor crosses gave us instead of the one we deserved for our sins.
    I hope this helps

  2. @Sarah: What a beautiful description of your realization of the “use” of suffering. And closing with such a beautiful and appropriate quote. Marvelous.

    Your post makes me think to a number of years ago, before I returned to the faith. Back then I was cynical, full of doubt and full of misunderstanding. I watched, cynically, while good family friend, Nancy, suffered one family tragedy after the other, despite, or so I thought, the fact that she was deeply religious and had a deep faith. Her faith stayed with her to the very end, when she herself was finally stricken down with a long, slow and painful cancer. I used to think, if there is such a loving merciful God, why does he allow her to suffer so? She doesn’t deserve this.

    I now realize that these things would have happened to her anyway. And that she was able to carry these tragedies, not only of her loved ones but also her own painful suffering, exactly BECAUSE of her deep faith. That God had given her a gift: the gift of strength to be able to carry these crosses. The gift of suffering.

    Nancy, I pray for you every day. You’ve been my inspiration.

  3. This was so beautiful, Sarah! Yes, our suffering serves a purpose that surpasses our understanding, but it does serve a purpose! It was so wonderful to share the day with you on Saturday. You are in my prayers!

  4. My uneducated thoughts on this post: Perhaps the prayer is written for two audiences. For people who have not suffered. If they pray to feel Mary’s suffering, then their heart is broken or softened and not made hard. It helps them have empathy for all of the people who have suffered or who are suffering. And for people who have suffered, this prayer helps them know that Mary is a kindred spirit who understands.
    “A supernatural use for suffering.”
    I think that in the book of Jeremiah there is something about God having plans for us. It is inscribed on a tapestry in the chapel at Riverwoods, a ministry for low income youth in St. Charles, a western Chicago suburb. I’ll go look it up.
    Thank you for writing, for prompting your readers to think and grow.

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