Christians, particularly those of us of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, are known for our intimate, even mystical, relationship to our mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers in the faith, the witnesses to the way of Jesus who have gone before us. In revering them we make their journey with and to God our own, and in praising their goodness we honor the divinity to which their humanity had attained and to which we in aspire in loving, humble service.
In seeking a spiritual connection to our predecessors, we hope somehow to draw nearer to the benevolent power that transformed their lives into generous gifts of life marked by love, peace, and justice. The cult of saints across the Christian traditions is a healthy reflection and development of the naturally religious instinct to bless (and seek the blessing of) our ancestors for these purposes. Of all the saints, however, one person stands out for special recognition, and that is Mary, the mother of Jesus.
In this month alone, the postulants and friars have already observed three celebrations for Mary. First was her nativity, or birth, on Sept. 8. Next was her "holy name," that is, her title as Blessed Virgin Mary, on Sept. 12. As people invoke the honorific titles and nicknames of heroic figures who inspire them to their own pursuit of greatness, so Catholics revere and invoke the many names of Mary because her unique relationship to Jesus gives disciples comfort and support. Today, Sept. 15, we again recall Mary, this time in her relationship to us as Our Lady of Sorrows. In this observance we remember Mary as one who has seen her most precious gifts and hopes, in the person of Jesus, rejected and abandoned by the world.
I will confess that I do not participate easily in Marian devotions as a "good Catholic" does. The iconoclast in me is always on the lookout for signs of idolatry. But I am less concerned about misplaced worship in Mary than misapplied worship of God. On some days I can't help but feel that the telos, or goal, of Mariological prayer, which is to experience a birth to life centered actively in God, is nullified. As I see it, there is a tendency in Marian devotion toward suspicion of our paradoxical powerfulness in Christ. Where this tendency goes unchecked, it leads to a negation of our God-given freedom. Instead of rendering our faculties of mind and heart, the reason and the will, to God for purification, enlightenment, and perfection in Christ-centered living, we surrender them completely to an authoritarian Lord, through the regents of Jesus and Mary, for their burial. Instead of a mature dependence on God, one that is childlike in gratitude but also self-possessed for the serious responsibilities of holy, prophetic living, our prayers foster infantile submission to a severe sovereign, a submission whose spirit never rises above the childish and equates holiness practically with invalidism.
So I need to find a way into Marian prayer by which I can live. I suppose practice is the first thing I need to do, and I can trust my Capuchin brothers to stretch me. This morning, for instance, as we recited morning prayer on the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, my mind turned to the women I know, mothers and sisters, who nurture and teach children and young people, both their own and everybody's children, the daughters and sons they know and love as their neighbors -- love truly as themselves. I prayed that God would bless them and protect them and encourage them through every challenge and hold them joyfully in every joy and tenderly in every grief. For all the sufferings of women that go unnoticed, unmourned, unrelieved, I asked Mary to watch and pray for them and for the Spirit of God that once and now eternally overshadows her to graciously encloud them. Most of all, I prayed that Mary and all the saints would sorrow with our sorrow and also make us sorrow with their sorrow.
For there are a great many things for which the saints weep that we do not recognize as cause for mourning. If Mary walked the earth today, she would sorrow for a people divided and bent on their own destruction.
She would sorrow for the traumatized truth tellers whose pleas and warnings go unheeded. She would sorrow for the murdered, disappeared, raped, and tortured.
She would sorrow for the immigrant and the refugee, fleeing everywhere from Egypt but finding no Canaan anywhere.
She would sorrow for the millions of children lost too young: the starved, the mutilated, the kidnapped and conscripted, the sexually abused, the indoctrinated, and the abandoned.
She would sorrow for the millions of women and men sent on a forced march to Calvary: the enslaved, the uprooted, the impoverished, the imprisoned.
She would sorrow for the extinction of whole peoples, whole races, whole societies, whole cultures, whole religions. She would sorrow for the suicide of the human species and the homicide of the earth. She would sorrow for the death of hope, the death of meaning, the death of change, the death of redemption, the death of dreams.
She would sorrow for a world that is turning toward the death of Life itself.
She would sorrow for the forgetting, the amnesia, the revision of history.
Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us.