Apologies to regular readers of this blog, who will notice the absence of a post this morning, as a result of needing time away from the screen and keyboard.
Normal service will resume this week.
Consider the scene - Mount Calvary is topped with three crosses, and beneath them stand the cruel executioners of Christ. They cast lots for His garments and fill the air with their profanities, whilst above them the Saviour of the Universe pours out His blood for the salvation of mankind. Passing almost un-noticed by the mocking crowd of soldiers and townspeople, stands a woman. She is found next to the cross of Christ, her eyes gazing up at Him and her hand extended to touch the wood of the cross. The blood from His pierced and flagellated body falls down the beams and onto her hand as it rests on that sacred tree. She remains there, unflinching in the face of the torturous death of her Son, not filled with hate for his enemies, but freely offering herself with Him. She sacrifices her own will for the sake of God’s: she rejects the natural desire to wish Christ's preservation and instead unites her will to His in willing that His sacrificial death be the cause of salvation. This is the Woman of sorrows, her hand never moving from the cross, her will never wavering in its resolve. She thus unites herself to Christ in a manner which none else can do. Her heavenly crown is won here, on this bare hill, where she and Christ offer themselves for the salvation of souls and the glory of God. Such is our Mother of Sorrows.
Holy Mother Church follows the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, the instrument of Christ’s passion, with the great feast of the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady, or Our Lady of Sorrows. It is most fitting that these two feasts should be so situated in the Church’s liturgical year. Just as Mary and Christ were so united in their lives, especially in their suffering, so must the Exaltation of the Cross, that instrument of His suffering, be accompanied by the exaltation of Mary’s sorrows. The union between Christ and His mother cannot be understood if one does not realise the deep union which is formed through their joint suffering. Christ offered Himself on the cross: Mary offered Him but also herself with Him. It is for this reason that she is hailed as the Co-Redemptrix, and consequently when we honour the passion of Christ, we rightly honour her also.
Yet it seems strange perhaps to use such a term as the ‘exaltation of Mary’s sorrows’, for how can it be right to rejoice so in the sufferings of another? St. Alphonsus Ligouri mentions that her sufferings were so great that she is called the Queen of Martyrs, a title by which we hail her in the Litany of Loreto. Her sorrows were so great and so profound that she is likened to those who have died for Christ, but how then can this great sorrow be a cause of joy for the Church? One answer to this is to remember the role of suffering in the spiritual life and to further state that it is only through the suffering and death of Christ that we have access to heaven. Suffering is indeed the gateway to union with Christ, since it is the way by which one dies to self and imitates his Lord. This truth Mary knew more perfectly than all, and it was this which moved her to will her suffering.
For indeed, the sorrows which she endured were all voluntary. She willingly accepted the honour and the sacrifice of becoming the Mother of God, fully aware of the trials and the awful pain which this would cause. It was in the face of this realisation that she offered her fiat to the heavenly messenger at the Annunciation. This does not mean that her life was spent in sombre expectation of the dread moment of the joint passion she was to undergo with her Son. Her life was one of sorrow, yes, but it was also one of joy. Fr. Keen mentions this fact: “Mary’s life never ceased for a moment to be a life of intoxicating joy. Mary’s life was one of intense union with God”.(1)
It is through this complete union and willing of the Divine will that Mary spent a life in joy and blissful union with God. Fully conscious of the torments that she would suffer along with her Son, this thought did not overwhelm her because she knew that such sacrifice was perfectly in accord with the will of God. He so wished that she should be united with Christ in the act of redemption. Indeed, the Catholic life is one of suffering, but sufferings united to God so that they became joys. Perfection is found in imitation of the life of the cross: Mary was the most perfect imitator of the way of the cross and in this suffering she found the heavenly joy which comes only from doing the will of God. Thus, whilst St. Alphonsus describes her sorrow as being all encompassing and without ceasing, we can also state that her life was one of heavenly joy.
The Church counts seven sorrows of Mary: the prophecy of Simeon; the flight into Egypt; the loss of her Son in the temple; her meeting with Christ on the way to Calvary; the death of Jesus; the piercing of His Sacred Side and His descent from the cross; Christ’s burial. All of these dolours are united by one point in particular - they are directed to Christ. Mary’s sorrows are not sorrows for her own account, as opposed to the majority of the sufferings which we undergo in daily life. Certainly, she felt a natural and just sorrow at all these events, particularly when witnessing the passion and death of her Son. But more than this is the sorrow she felt which was a sharing in Christ’s sorrow. At each one of these seven occasions, it is concern for her Son which moves her. She gives no thought to herself at all, but unfailing wishes to join herself to Christ. It is for this reason that St. Alphonsus writes thus: “To show the sufferings endured by other martyrs they are represented with the instruments of their torture…Mary is represented with her dead Son in her arms; for He alone was the instrument of her martyrdom, and compassion for Him made her the Queen of Martyrs”.(2)
The sufferings of this sweet, virgin Mother of God are thus transformed into the means by which demons flee and sin is vanquished. With and through Christ, Mary becomes the Co-Redemptrix of the human race, the Mediatrix of graces and the Exterminatrix of heresies. She is the woman who crushes the head of the serpent (cf Gen 3:15) and the humble new Eve who acts with the New Adam. Thus the Epistle of today’s Mass applies these words to the Mother of God: “the Lord hath blessed thee by His power, because by thee he hath brought our enemies to nought”. (Judith 13:22) In dwelling upon each of the seven dolours of Our Lady, we are not commemorating some mournful event, but rather a signal triumph over the devil. Every sorrow endured by that humble Co-Redemptrix serves as a vicious blow to the devil, as Mary united her will to God’s. Through the sorrow she endured at the prophecy of Simeon, the flight into Egypt and the loss of Christ in the temple, she brought glory to God and confounded the devil. Through her willing and loving co-operation with Christ in the entirety of His passion, she planted her heel firmly upon the head of the serpent as she became the channel to the world for the graces which Christ won upon the cross.
Just as God led the Israelites from Egypt with the pillar of cloud and fire, so Mary leads her children through the darkness of temptations and assaults. Thus, in the words of St. Lawrence, “behold the twofold object for which Mary is given to us; to shelter us, as a cloud, from the heat of the sun of justice, and, as fire, to protect us all against the devil”.(3) Her name has become a source of terror to the demons and her virtues, a scourge to the evil spirits. Well then can we pray the words of the Memorare: ‘Remember O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known, that anyone who fled to protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession, was left unaided’.
Verily, Mary’s glory is found in her dolours and her sufferings. In turn, these sufferings and her life of sacrifice are centred upon God and the performance of His holy will. Christ was crowned mockingly with a helmet of thorns in his passion: Mary received no such physical torture but her heart was pierced with a sword that was keener than any earthly blade. He endured all and died so that He might perform the will of the Father and ransom fallen man from the slavery of sin. To this Mary united herself completely, not in a subdued or reluctant manner, but joyfully willing that she might receive her sorrows for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.
In this manner, Our Lady of Sorrows becomes the mother of us all. Her sorrow can be understood only by understanding the immensity of her love for God. In fostering a devotion to her under this title, the Church exhorts us to thus imitate her in this virtue. St. Alphonsus teaches that “Mary’s whole martyrdom consisted in beholding and pitying her innocent and beloved Son, who suffered so much. Hence, the greater was her love for Him, the more bitter and inconsolable was her grief”.(4) This is great glory and joy of the dolours of Mary - for they are sorrows precisely because of her perfect love of God and the sorrow she endured from seeing Him so treated. This is the reason why faithful Catholics can and must take such joy and glory in the seven dolours of the Blessed Mother, because each moment of agony she endured was also a moment of perfect union with the will of God, of heavenly joy in being so united with Him, and a moment of absolute rejection of the devil.
What words are truly enough to properly describe each of the sorrows which Mary underwent? Many tomes could not do justice to the awful weight of the suffering and martyrdom which she endured. Nor could they properly convey the truth of the reason for such willing suffering, namely the perfect and most intimate love and union with God. The pages provided for us by the saints, particularly Sts. Alphonsus Ligouri and Louis-Marie de Montfort, are full of immense beauty and can nurture many hours of fruitful meditation. But even these great Marian saints freely proclaim that their words do nothing to truly present the truths about the Queen of Martyrs.
The dolours of Mary the Co-Redemptrix are the glory of the Church. The bitter sorrows which she willingly undertook became her sweetest joys in unison with Christ. Through these, the seven sorrows of Mary, Holy Mother Church calls us all to foster a deeper union with our heavenly Mother. We are urged to meditate often upon the dolours, because by doing so their mysteries will unveil themselves to the fervent devotees of Our Lady. The more that a soul contemplates these particular moments in the life of Christ and His Mother, then the more completely he is filled with an understanding of the intimate, loving, sacrificial union between them. With this knowledge, and with Our Lady of Sorrows as his guide, such a soul is able to imitate the Blessed Mother in willing all things for the sake of God.
St. Alphonsus closes his meditation on the Seven Sorrows of Mary, with this prayer, one which the Church proposes Her children make their own on this feast:
“Oh my afflicted mother! queen of martyrs and of sorrows, thou hast shed so many tears for thy Son, who died for my salvation, and yet what will thy tears avail me, if I am lost? By the merits, then, of thy dolors, obtain for me a true sorrow for my sins, and a true amendment of life, with a perpetual and tender com passion for the passion of Jesus and thy own sufferings. And if Jesus and thou, being so innocent, have suffered so much for me, obtain for me that I, who am deserving of hell, may also suffer something for love of you. O Lady, I will say to thee with St. Bonaventure, if I have offended thee, wound my heart in punishment ; if I have served thee, now I beg to be wounded as a reward. It is a shameful thing to see our Lord Jesus wounded, and thee wounded with him, and I uninjured. Finally, oh my mother, by the grief thou didst experience on seeing thy Son before thy eyes bow his head and expire upon the cross, I entreat of thee to obtain for ine a good death. Ah, do not cease, oh advocate of sinners, to assist my afflicted and struggling soul in that great passage that it has to make into eternity. And, because at that time it may easily be the case that I shall have lost the use of speech with which to invoke thy name, and that of Jesus, who are all my hope, therefore I now invoke thy Son and thee to succor me at that last moment, and I say: Jesus and Mary, to you I commend my soul. Amen.”
1: Frs. Leen and Kearney, Our Blessed Mother, (Dublin, Clonmore & Reynolds, 1947), 63.
2: St. Alphonsus Ligouri, The Glories of Mary, (London, Burns, Oates & Washbourne, 1868), 598.
3. St. Lawrence, De Laudibus Virgines, Ch 12, source in The Glories of Mary.
4: Ligouri, The Glories of Mary, 413.
September is a month liberally scattered with many feasts dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, and today is no exception. The sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost occupies the day normally given to the feast of the Most Holy Name of Mary. Days after the feast of the nativity of Mary, and again days before the feast of the Sorrows of Mary, the Church points Her children to honour the Most Holy Name of Mary.
It is the name of a young virgin, devoted only to doing all things according to the will of God, and as such is a name which puts terror into demons, scatters the forces of evil and gives glory to God. Devotion to Mary is not false devotion, which is in some way misdirected, but rather devotion to she who was without sin and who humbly united her will to God’s so as to become the virgin Mother of God. “Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in array?” (Song of Solomon 6:9)
Devotion to the virgin mother is denigrated in increasing occasions in the modern age, particularly by those who wish to fling insult and injury at God. Such souls pervert the Divine order which ordains that the surest way to follow Christ is to follow His mother, and so seek to injure Him through her. Yet no matter the injury they seek to inflict, such attacks on the Blessed Virgin can never detract in any way from the glory which she rightly enjoys at the right hand of the Divine throne.
For Mary, as St. Alphonsus writes, “is more holy in the first moment of her existence than all the Saints together.” Such words are echoed by Dom Gueranger who describes the manner of her growth as a young child: “Not the holiest life, were it even of patriarchal duration, will ever attain the degree of progress made under the influence of divine power by the soul of the most pure Virgin, in these few days elapsed since her coming on earth. First, there is the progress of her intellect: not subject to the obscurity which envelopes the minds of all men at their entrance into the world, it is a faithful mirror, into which the Word of God pours floods of that light which is also life. Then the progress of love in that heart of the Virgin and the Mother, wherein the holy Spirit already delights to awake such ineffable harmonies, and to dig still deeper depths. Lastly, the progress of that victorious power, which made satan tremble at the moment of the Immaculate Conception, and which has constituted Mary the incomparable Queen of the hosts of the Lord.”
She is the Immaculate Conception and in her, sin has no hold. She, the purest of creatures, was pre-emptively redeemed by her Son, so that she might join with Him in the salvific act of redeeming mankind. Mary, the one whose name is most holy, is for us the channel of graces, and of her the Church applies the word of Ecclesiasticus 24:25 – “In me is all grace of the way and the truth.” Indeed, it is necessary that Mary be so set apart from mankind in terms of the signal graces which she received, for as St. Alphonsus notes, “otherwise how could she have interceded for all others?”
From her earliest moments, Mary’s life was one of faithful, holy and tender service to the will and love of God, so much so that many saints and theologians through the ages have suggested that she received sanctifying grace and the perfect use of her reason while in the womb of St. Anne, so that she was perfectly able to correspond to the graces which she was given.
Indeed, how could it be otherwise in she who was to bear the Son of God! How could the Holy Spirit allow His spouse to be sullied in any way, when she was to carry the Redeemer and then join Him in His acts of redemption! Well does St. Alphonsus write, that Mary thus worked from the very first moments for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. From the very beginning of her life, Mary had no desires in her heart but those which were of God.
This is the woman, then, whom Holy Mother Church calls Her children to honour and glorify, calling us to dwell upon the name of Mary, she who is without sin and joins Christ in the Redemption. In taking the Litany of Loreto, one can ably do so, examining the many graces and gifts which God has bestowed upon her and the concomitant titles under which we now have recourse to her.
Dom Gueranger also supplies this sequence in his meditation for these days following Mary’s nativity:
O holy Lady of the world, illustrious Queen of heaven! O Mary, star of the sea, Virgin Mother after God’s own heart!
Come forth, thou maiden sweet; grow verdant, thou tender little branch; for thou wilt bear the noble flower, Christ, both God and man.
Lo! we are celebrating the annual solemnity of thy birth, the day whereon, sprung from a most choice root, thou didst begin to shine upon our earth.
We who are earth-born, yet now are citizens of heaven too, have been through thee, in wondrous wise, set at peace by an honorable treaty.
Glory then and victory be ever to the Trinity, in undivided Unity, through everlasting ages.
The month of September is marked by the Church’s dedication to the Dolors of Mary, the Co-Redemptrix and mediatrix of all graces. The Church offers not just the month in general, but presents the two great feasts of the Exaltation of the Cross on the 14th, and the seven sorrows of Mary on the 15th.
There is perhaps no better manner in which to suitably open the month, and prepare for these feasts, as well as for the birthday of Our Lady, than by turning to St. Alphonsus Ligouri, whose devotion to the sorrowful mother is near unmatched.
In his beautiful work, The Glories of Mary, the great Mariologist offers numerous meditations and consideration on the Blessed Virgin, as well as on each of her dolours specifically. Such pages can be taken on their own for the month of September, but he also offers a standalone homily for the dolours of Mary, which he gave during Passion Week. DUe to the dedication of this site – Mater Dolorosa – the great saints’ texts will be used considerably throughout this month, since there are few composed texts which so wonderfully portray the mystery of Mary’s sorrowful compassion with Christ.
Her martyrdom was never equalled.
“Behold we are about to consider a new kind of martyrdom; we have to consider a Mother condemned to see her innocent Son die as a malefactor on an infamous gibbet. This mother is Mary, who indeed, with too great reason, is called by the Church the Queen of Martyrs; yes, for Mary in the death of Jesus Christ suffered a more cruel martyrdom than all other martyrs.”
The words of the prophet Jeremias explain my meaning in this point: “To what shall compare thee? or to what shall I liken thee, O daughter of Jerusalem? . . . for great as the sea is thy destruction who Shall heal thee?” No, the acuteness of the sufferings of Mary are not to be compared, even with those of all the martyrs united. “The martyrdom of Mary,” says Saint Bernard, “was not caused by the executioner’s sword, but proceeded from bitter sorrow of heart.” In other martyrs torments were inflicted on the body; but Mary’s sorrow was in her heart and soul, verifying in her the prophecy of Saint Simeon, “Thy own soul O sword shall pierce.”
Arnold of Chartres writes, that “whoever had been on Mount Calvary, to witness the great sacrifice of the Immaculate Lamb, would there have beheld two great altars, the one in the body of Jesus, the other in the heart of Mary; for on that mount, when the Son sacrificed His body by death, Mary sacrificed her soul by compassion.” So much so, says Saint Antoninus, that, whereas other martyrs sacrifice their own lives, the Blessed Virgin consummated her martyrdom by sacrificing the life of her Son, a life which she loved far more than her own, and which caused her to endure a torment which exceeded all other torments ever endured by any mortal on earth.
“All the wounds,” says Saint Bonaventure, “which were scattered over the body of Jesus were united in the heart of Mary, to torment her in the Passion of her Son;” so that, as Saint Lawrence Justinian writes, “the heart of Mary, by compassion for her Son, became a mirror of His torments, in which might be seen faithfully reflected the spittings, the blows, the wounds, and all that Jesus suffered.” We can therefore say that Mary, on account of the love she bore Him, was in heart, during the Passion of her Son, struck, scourged, crowned with thorns, and nailed to the very cross of her Son.
The same Saint Lawrence considers Jesus, on His road to Calvary, with the cross on His shoulders, turning to Mary, and saying to her, “Alas, my own dear Mother, whither goest thou? what a scene wilt thou witness? Thou wilt be agonised by My sufferings, and I by thine.”
But the loving Mother would follow Him all the same, though she knew that, by being present at His death, she would have to endure a torment greater than any death. She saw that her Son carried the cross to be crucified upon it; and she also took up the cross of her sorrows, and followed her Son to be crucified with Him.
Hence Saint Bonaventure considers Mary standing by the cross of her dying Son, and asks her, saying, “O Lady, tell me where didst thou then stand--was it near the cross? No, thou wast on the cross itself, crucified with thy Son.” On the words of the Redeemer, foretold by the prophet Isaias, “I have trodden the wine-press alone, and of the Gentiles there is not a man with me,” Richard of Saint Lawrence says, “It is true, O Lord, that in the work of human redemption Thou didst suffer alone, and that there was not a man who sufficiently pitied Thee; but there was a woman with Thee, and she was Thine own Mother; she suffered in her heart all that Thou didst endure in Thy body.”
To show the sufferings endured by other martyrs, they are represented with the instruments of their torture; Saint Andrew with a cross, Saint Paul with a sword, Saint Lawrence with a gridiron; Mary is represented with her dead Son in her arms; for He alone was the instrument of her martyrdom, and compassion for Him made her the Queen of Martyrs.
Saint Bernardine of Sienna even says, that ‘“he sufferings of Mary were such, that had they been divided amongst all creatures capable of suffering, they would have caused their immediate death.” Who, then, can ever doubt that the martyrdom of Mary was without its equal, and that it exceeded the sufferings of all the martyrs; since, as Saint Antoninus says, “they suffered in the sacrifice of their own lives; but the Blessed Virgin suffered by offering the life of her Son to God, a life which she loved far more than her own.”
Apologies to regular readers of this blog, who will notice the absence of a post this morning, as a result of needing time away from the sc...