MARY'S SORROWS - Dominican Nuns Ireland

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Recently one of our sisters wrote this beautiful icon of ‘The Mother of Hard Hearts’ under the guidance of Icon Master Mihai Cucu, while attending an icon course hosted by the Redemptoristine community in Drumcondra.

The Mother of Hard Hearts is one of the few icon types where the Mother is shown without the Child. It is a relatively recent development in Orthodox iconography and reveals evidence of the increasing influence of Western religious painting and concepts. This iconographic type represents Mary’s meditation on the Passion of her Son and has its origins in the Western representations of the Mother of Seven Sorrows, in turn inspired by the words of Simeon to Mary during the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple …”and a sword shall pierce thy heart” (Lk 2:55).

The seven swords in the icon each designate one of the following sorrows:

– the prophecy of Simeon
– the flight into Egypt
– the Boy Jesus leaving his parents to visit the Temple in Jerusalem
– the Mother of God’s meeting her Son on the Via Dolorosa
– the Crucifixion of Christ
– the deposition from the Cross
– the Entombment of Jesus
First Sorrow: 'A sword shall pierce your soul'
To the young Mary these words must have evoked great fear of the unknown in her heart, true, Gabriel at the Annunciation told her to fear not – but after nine months of wonder, anticipation, and fulfilment these words were unexpected and harsh.

Mary knew her Scriptures and must have heard Isaiah description of the Suffering Servant; “Like a sapling he grew up in front of us, like a root in arid ground, without majesty – a thing despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering, a man to make people screen their faces, harshly dealt with he bore it humbly”. (Is. 53) Was this really a description of her baby, so tiny, and helpless, a bundle of joy and love “a man to make people screen their faces”? Oh no, it couldn’t be and yet the “more deeply she penetrated its meaning the more clearly she began to see what Redemption must mean for herself and her son – began to see the shadows of the cross closing in on him and to understand what evil would do to him. (cf Gerard Vann OP.- The Seven Swords)

And yet we just wonder at her unflinching courage – when visiting Elizabeth she had sung ‘my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour’. And then came a few months later Simeon’s bewildering prophecy – ‘a sword shall pierce your heart’. We are told that she ‘pondered these things in her heart’ – and somehow believed that all would be well; HOW, she did not yet understand and had many lessons to learn before that glorious Easter morning when he stood radiant before her.

Mary will teach us too, to look beyond our immeasurably smaller crosses, teach us how to trust, not because we may feel secure in God’s love, but more deeply from the fact that forgetting our own fears we can share in his redeeming work as she shared in it. With Mary we can become associates of Christ in his Redemption-all our little sufferings gathered up into the immensity of his sufferings and made available to us . Mary is the perfect ‘Associate of Christ the Redeemer. This too can be our vocation.
Second Sorrow: The Flight into Egypt
The Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph – “Arise take the Child and His mother with you and escape into Egypt and stay there until I tell you, because Herod intends to search for the Child and do away with Him”. (Mt 2:13)

It was night; it was dark; it was cold.

John of the Cross has a lovely few lines about ‘going out into the night’ referring to the light which burned in his heart he continues:

“It lit and led me through more certain than the light of noonday clear /To where one waited near / whose Presence well I knew, / there, where no presence might appear.”

But for Mary and Joseph there was nothing poetic about that night – there was “no one waiting near whose presence well they knew”

“Take the Child and His mother – take the Child and His mother” Joseph must have repeated it over and over again! Was he dreaming? It was no dream but stark reality! Rise NOW and go – but where? to Egypt! leave his little home which he had so lovingly prepared for Mary and Jesus! Must they leave it? and at once? and how would they live? – he had no work. Well would he have understood St. Patrick’s cry when he was taken as a slave to Ireland “this is where I am now in all my insignificance among strangers” (Confessions of St. Patrick). Joseph, obedient man that we have seen him to be already, wakened Mary and together they made swift preparations quietly so as not to wake the Baby. What a heart-breaking moment this must have been as “in darkness they stole away – no one saw my plight – no other guide or light – save Him who in my heart burned as bright as day” (John of the Cross)

What were Mary’s thoughts as they rode away into the night? We have only to look at her face in this icon of ‘Mother of Hard Hearts’ to sense the anguish, the bewilderment, yet her dignity and courage too as she asked herself: “Is this what Simeon meant when he told her “a sword shall pierce your heart”. Lines from the Stabat Mater come to mind – “Oh how sad and sore distressed / was that mother highly blessed /of the sole begotten one / can a human heart refrain / from partaking in her pain / in that mother’s pain untold”

Mary and Joseph went wearily into a foreign land and today how often we hear of similar circumstances – thousands of men and women and children escaping from to-day’s Herods. All of us are asked sometimes in our lives to leave behind some cherished dream and go out into the unknown. and when this happens it is good to remember what Gerald Vann wrote: “When God’s mercy takes us to the land where darkness has no entrance, no dominion; this land where there is no sorrow, no homesickness, but only the light and wonder of the Eternal Presence, the glory and joy and peace of God” – There with the Holy Family we will be in our Fathers Home forever.
Third Sorrow: The Loss of the Boy Jesus
“After they had completed three days of the feast and were returning home, the Boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem without His parents knowing it. After three days they found Him in the Temple, seated in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” (Lk 2:43-46, 48-49)

I wonder if the words of psalm 68 came to Mary’s mind during these terrible days of loss – “worn out with calling, my throat is hoarse, my eyes are strained, looking for my God”. We know the story well.

Jesus was twelve years old now and was naturally allowed to mingle with the other young boys of His age. However when evening came He was nowhere to be found. Mary and Joseph retraced their steps to Jerusalem, asking at each caravan they met if they had seen the Boy? They hurried into the city dreading the worst. Had Simeon’s sword finally fallen on the Lad? Where can He be? and finally they found Him in the Temple among the Doctors. It is easy to imagine the pent-up frustration and anxiety of the parents, only to receive in answer to Mary’s question “Son why have you done this to us?”, the rather enigmatic and harsh reply: “why were you looking for Me?”

“The revelation of His mystery as Son wholly dedicated to His Father’s affairs proclaims the radical nature of the Gospel, in which even the closest of human relationships are challenged by the absolute demands of the Kingdom. Mary and Joseph fearful and anxious did not understand His word.” (John Paul 11)

Twelve wonderful years had just passed and perhaps they thought the worst dangers were over, but this wholly unexpected sword-thrust from their very own Son was a shocking revelation to them.

It is true that in the end they found Him, but these three days were like a preview of the three last days of Holy Week – the mock trial, death, and burial of Jesus.

And then quietly Jesus went down to Nazareth and was subject to them. It was an austere lesson – an anti climax – and once again Mary had to ponder these things in her heart. It is a lesson He wants to teach us too.

Years later He was to say during a sermon “Seek and you shall find.” Gerald Vann could have been commenting on these words when he wrote: “If after all the trials and discouragements in our life we are ready at last to love Him, we will find Him, and He will go down with us as He went down with Mary and Joseph to Nazareth AND WILL GIVE US IN FULL MEASURE, AS HE GAVE TO THEM, AND EVERLASTINGLY, HIS COMPANIONSHIP AND JOY AND PEACE.
Fourth Sorrow: Jesus Meets His Mother on the Way to Calvary
Perhaps we all have seen photographs of the narrow streets of old Jerusalem, with the crowds shouting and pushing each other as they hurry by. It was here that tradition tells us that Mary came face to face with her son. She sees him now – a Man despised, the One whom the people can’t bear to look at so disfigured does He look. She is not now listening to the Rabbi reading the prophet who speaks of the Suffering Servant. No here before her eyes that prophecy is being fulfilled – the jostling crowd jeering at Him, the soldiers trying to pull her back – be off with you woman they shout at her, this is no place for you, – no place for her! Of all places this is where she is most urgently needed. For it is in this moment, wordless in their grief for each other that “there is a ceaseless and incomprehensible breathing between them” – just as the air receives the rays of sunlight so Mary, because of her oneness with Him was able to penetrate His Heart with courage and love. No words were spoken – they would have only been an intrusion. They were conscious only of each other. Mary the mother longing to spare Him from the torture that awaited Him on the hill No she must not do this, her place was to help Him to carry on, in spite of His weakness, in spite of the prods the soldiers gave him with their spears. She must strengthen Him to fulfil the Father’s will to the bitter end. She knows that her Son has need of her and she is there waiting. Devotion St. Thomas tells us means the will to give oneself readily to God’s service. Mary you have surpassed all in your readiness to say again, though in very different circumstances “Here I am Lord I come to do your will”.

What was the grief and pain in the heart of the Son to see His mother suffering so deeply? – He said nothing, but that last long look conveyed an inexpressible gratitude to her for being ‘there’ – for her faith in Him. He asked the greatest faith from His mother and she gave it, and gave it again and again during the coming days.

“We too are asked to take up as readily and as devotedly as possible the little crosses that come our way, to bear them with Him and for Him, and to go on unflaggingly – to go on if necessary to the mountain of myrrh, to the darkness and the burial: that is the way to know something of the inexpressible joy of that other, later meeting of Son and mother, when the day indeed had broken, the dawn indeed had come, and there was only joy for them now, and the shared happiness of their love, the love that, having gone down in silence together to the very depths of human agony, now rose together to the heights of more than human glory, to that joy of which no tongue can tell, but which is promised in degree in God’s mercy to all those who, in company with Mary, try to love and follow and serve her Son to the end.” (c/f Gerald Vann OP)
Fifth Sorrow: The Crucifixion of Jesus
“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing there, he said to his mother, Woman behold your son. Then to the disciple behold your mother. (John 19)

“Oh Abyss of love, O incomprehensible love ” Catherine of Siena cried out. Was it not enough that you should die for us, but then you gave us your mother too. There on Calvary when both of you were suffering so indescribably you found the strength and the breath to look at your mother through bloodied eyes and say “behold your mother”.

As Mary was standing there by the Cross Jesus proclaimed in that most solemn moment of His life, and for all the world : “Behold your mother”. There can be no mistaking the central role that Jesus gives to His mother in the life of everyone of his disciples. Motherhood means a bonding with us that is irrevocable and precious.

Jesus after Your gift to us of Your own Body and Blood in the sacrament of the Eucharist You could not have given us a greater gift. Catherine wrote: “His hunger and thirst to obey His Father were so great that He lost His love of self and embraced the Cross. His sweet and tender Mother did likewise. She willingly sacrificed the love of her Son to such an extent that not only did she – tender as she was – not wish to save Him from death, but was also prepared to act as a ladder by which He could ascend the Cross. This is not surprising, because the love of our salvation had wounded her like an arrow. (cf Letters of St Catherine of Siena).

After the soldiers had raised Jesus on the Cross exposing his lacerated Body to the harsh April winds, Mary could see into the depth of His wounds. The sound of the blows driving in the nails would long remain with her; yet she stood there by Him – some of the precious blood flowing down on her head. She heard His whispered: “Father forgive them” and His word to the good thief – “This day you will be with Me in paradise”. She quivered as she saw the soldier handing a sponge soaked in vinegar in response to her Son’s cry “I am thirsty”. She knew it wasn’t a drink He longed for just then, but our love, the love of every human person in the world, and the crushing realisation that many would turn away. After some time she heard Jesus say: “Father into Your hands I commend My Spirit” and bowing His Head He died. “Oh mother let me share with thee His pain,/ who for all my sins was slain/ Who for me in torments died.”

“My God how the reality differs from the figure of Abraham with his son Isaac still alive descending from the place of sacrifice. But Mary descended from Calvary after she saw Him die – for God decreed that the sinner should live instead of the Beloved Son; and further that he should be acknowledged as the Son”. (Louis Chardon)

We all have experience of being with a loved one who was dying but a mother waiting by the death-bed of her only son is very particularly poignant. When David heard that Absalom his son had been killed” he shuddered and went to his room and burst into tears and weeping he said, My son Absalom, my son My son Absalom would that I had died in your place, Absalom, my son, my son.

As Mary leaves that mountain of grief she too could cry out Jesus, Jesus my son my son. At this moment does she remember the prophecy made in those early days so far away now, He will be great and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. She is witnessing now the complete negation of these words. Jesus is indeed on a royal throne – one from where healing and love and forgiveness flows down to all humankind.

Jesus and Mary we thank you.
Sixth Sorrow: The Body of Jesus is Taken Down from the Cross
“After this Joseph of Arimathaea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because he was afraid of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him remove the body of Jesus. Pilate gave permission, so they came and took it away” (John 19).

Though John doesn’t mention the presence of Mary she was surely there with them. Michelangelo immortalised this scene in his famous Pieta in marble – God’s Mother holding her dead Son in her arms.

“Without swooning, without trembling, you received Him into your arms and on your lap. Now you are supremely happy as having Him, though He comes to you not as He went from you. He went from your home, O Mother of God, in the strength and beauty of his Manhood, and He comes back to you dislocated, torn to pieces, mangled, dead.” (Cardinal Newman)

There is an Icon too which captures this moment, The Deposition from the Cross – mid 1700’s – Joseph and Nicodemus are on ladders loosening the nails from those dear hands, the freed Body of Jesus is leaning forward and Mary is clasping His limp hand to her head in a gesture of love and reverence. “Yes even in the humiliating circumstances of His death the divinity of the Saviour shines through in the composure of the Body. Nature too becomes a partaker in this event as it unfolds; at the upper edges the sun and moon appear, while the rocky staircase forms an amphitheatre which encloses the central theme. In this way, the iconic portrayal, far from being a naturalistic copy of reality, becomes “symbolic of the place that objects have in the world, of the relation they have with salvation” [Uspenski]

St Thomas also has some helpful words to tell us: “Christ really died on the cross, His human soul was separated from His body, but His divine Personality remained united to both His body and his soul. For this reason the dead Body of Jesus was still infinitely precious because it was still united to the Person of the Son of God, any gesture of reverence paid to it by his Mother or the holy men and women who reverently buried It, was of infinite value for the salvation of the human race.”

We think too of Mary and the searing pain that swept through her when she saw how her own people had treated Jesus – Jesus the promised Messiah, the Son of God, her Son How can I bury my Son, how can I allow Him to be wrapped in these clothes? This cold lifeless Body- is this really my Son, the One of whom the Psalmist cried out: “You are the fairest of the children of men \and graciousness is poured upon your lips\– therefore God has anointed you with the oil of gladness\ and your robes are fragrant with aloes and myrrh. (Psalm 44)

But Mary knew how copious are the fruits of her Son’s Passion. His sufferings are enough to outweigh all the evil in the world. So we too, must have tremendous faith in the Passion of Jesus, a readiness in our turn to do all we can to co-operate with Him. There is no assignable limit to the extent we can draw on the Passion except the limit of our faith and generosity.

We are associates of the Redemption; all the immensity of the Passion is available to us. Can we drink His chalice? At least in will and desire- this real sharing in the Passion is essential if I am to draw on the merits of Christ

Mary teach us the secrets of your compassion!
Seventh Sorrow: Jesus is Laid in the Tomb
“At the place where Jesus had been crucified there was a garden, and in this garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been buried. Since it was the Jewish day of preparation and the tomb was near at hand, they laid Jesus there. (John 19)

His cross stands empty in a world grown silent
Through hours of anguish and of dread;
In stillness, earth awaits the Resurrection
While Christ goes down to wake the dead.
(Hymn Holy Saturday Office)

“To-day there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence and stillness, because the King sleeps.” (Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday)

For Mary in her exhaustion there was only faith and emptiness and the question “what now?”; “what happens next?”; “how can I face the future – what future is there?”

Bishop Shanahan knew this sense of powerlessness and bewilderment when he wrote to a friend.-“how well I know that very special sense of nothingness in the presence of what looms up as an impossible and insuperable task. And yet God is there with you all the time; just one single minute, not more, of intense pouring out of one’s whole abandoned, hopeless and broken self in the presence of Jesus Christ in the little tabernacle will bring back peace, happiness, sunshine, strength, confidence and courage to take on the seemingly impossible task: because He your spouse, the lover of your soul, the Commander-in-chief of the apostolic army, tells you that all is well; stay where you are, just do what you can, and all, absolutely all, will be right, in the invisible mysterious way in which things do turn out right, and in the way and in the time God wants them to turn out right.”

In this beautiful letter the bishop could have been writing directly to Mary. Her own faith told her that all would be well, that there is a place for hope and though she turned away from that tomb crushed and heart-broken still in HER heart alone there was faith in the Resurrection. Every time Jesus spoke of his Passion, he always ended “but on the third day He would rise again”. Mary listened and now remembered. She knew that He would rise again on the third day.

The apostles also heard Him speak about “being mocked and scourged and crucified” and they heard no more. But Mary LISTENED and remembered and expected him back. She kept the faith of the Church alive from Good Friday to Sunday morning – only in her heart was faith kept alive.

We can almost hear Mary say to Jesus in Cardinal Newman’s words – “Son lie down now and sleep for a little while, dear Lord, and then wake up for an everlasting reign. We, like the faithful women, will watch around You, for all our treasure, all our life, is lodged with You and when our turn comes to die, grant, sweet Lord, that we sleep calmly too and awaken to the choirs of angels singing a glorious Alleluia, and at the centre of that splendour and radiance there sits the Queen of the Seven Swords ; and her song is still the song with which her life of motherhood began, and is the song too of all these her children whom her motherhood has helped to save ”

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit exults in God my Saviour, for He that is mighty has done great things for me and holy is His name. (Lk: 1)

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