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  • Our Lady of Sorrows reconsidered

    If you’ve been Catholic long enough, you’ve surely seen an image of the Virgin Mary with tears in her eyes and seven swords, or just one, piercing her heart. She’s often dressed in black or navy blue, and sometimes holding the body of Jesus or her hands clasped tightly to her chest. Her name is Our Lady of Sorrows. 

    Seven events from Scripture form the foundation of this devotion. The seven sorrows of Mary are: the prophecy of Simeon; the flight into Egypt; the loss of Jesus in the temple; Mary meets Jesus on the way to Calvary; Mary stands at the foot of the cross; Mary receives the body of Jesus; and Jesus’ body is placed in the tomb. 

    The image may seem a bit much at times. Or it may make us uncomfortable. Perhaps we want to turn away. 

    That’s natural. And there’s nothing wrong with meditating on something else. Yet, there’s something important about this image. It isn't solely about honoring Mary’s pain. It’s about God lifting up the lowly and scattering the proud. It's about cultivating empathy and compassion. It’s about helping everyone who carries a heavy load know that the Mother of God is on their side. 

    I came to see the seven sorrows of Mary in this light after attending a recent retreat led by Immaculee Ilibagiza, an author and survivor of the Rwandan genocide, at St. Leo the Great School in Fairfax. After surviving the unthinkable, Ilibagiza began to teach others the Seven Sorrows Rosary, a devotion that originated centuries ago, but took on new popularity after Marian apparitions in the 1980s in Kibeho, Rwanda. 

    As I’ve prayed the Seven Sorrows Rosary over the last few weeks, I’ve come to see Our Lady of Sorrows in a new way. 

    The seven sorrows are for the times when you know something terrible is on the horizon. How many years did Mary turn over the words of Simeon in her heart? “This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, and many others to rise. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.” 

    The seven sorrows are for every mother and father terrified of losing their child. They are for every parent who walks hundreds or thousands of miles in hopes that they can save the most important person in the world from a terrible fate. They’re for every person haunted by a child’s traumatized eyes. Mary, the new mother who made a terrifying journey to evade soldiers hunting down newborns, carried the same wounds. She is with that child. 

    The seven sorrows are for everyone terrified of losing a loved one too soon. They’re for the person whose child may be physically absent, but always there. Mary, who anxiously searched for Jesus in the temple, wants to help every person place their trust in God whatever the outcome. 

    The seven sorrows are for everyone who’s been betrayed. A devout mother saw religious leaders among the crowd of people calling for her son’s violent death. Did she recognize anyone? Were former friends among the crowd? Did she see some of the same people who joyfully welcomed him into Jerusalem spitting and jeering at him as he fell from the weight of the heavy wooden beams? 

    Mary stood at the foot of the cross, watched Jesus die, then held his lifeless body. Did she prepare his body for burial? Or did she have friends to help her through it? What did she feel as his body was placed in a tomb donated by Joseph of Arimathea — perhaps a friend, but perhaps a stranger?

    The seven sorrows are for everyone who has watched as a loved one suffers under the weight of an addiction or another disease. The seven sorrows are for everyone who has watched another person die, perhaps slowly or painfully. The seven sorrows are for the person who must not only make sure their loved one is properly buried but spend the ensuing weeks and months shifting through their loved one’s paperwork; choose what to throw away, give away and keep; and try to care for friends left behind. 

    Our Lady of Sorrows knows the pain. But Our Lady doesn’t want us to suffer. As Ilibagiza said at the retreat, Mary is there to give us something to hold on to while we work through the sorrows of the world. Sept. 15, the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, is a good day to thank her. 

    © Arlington Catholic Herald 2021