I must refer my readers to two very moving pieces written by two dear friends of mine. Both are intensely personal and both are profound meditations on the present moment as a lived reality. The first is an almost Pascalian intervention from Mr. Jackson Wolford, who writes that our first task in this crisis – before any interpretations of what is going on all around us – is to witness the suffering. The second is a quiet reflection on impending fatherhood from Mr. Nathan Goodroe. He considers what it means to face the birth of a child in the midst of suffering through an extended look at the Holy Family’s trek to Bethlehem. We may be in Holy Week, but I still found his words to be very timely. In fact, both are. Please give them a read.
St. Alphonsus on the Sorrows of Mary
As a continuation of the Lenten Spirituality Series, here is a passage from St. Alphonsus Liguori’s The Glories of Mary. The Friday in Passiontide is the Church’s traditional commemoration of Our Lady’s seven sorrows; it is a fitting prelude to the divine suffering of her Son in Holy Week. I am particularly fond of St. Alphonsus, as he was one of the greatest mystics of the eighteenth century.
As Jesus is called the King of sorrows and the King of martyrs, because He suffered during, His life more than all other martyrs; so also is Mary with reason called the Queen of martyrs, having merited this title by suffering the most cruel martyrdom possible after that of her Son. Hence, with reason, was she called by Richard of Saint Lawrence, “the Martyr of martyrs”; and of her can the words of Isaias with all truth be said, “He will crown thee with a crown of tribulation;” that is to say, that that suffering itself, which exceeded the suffering of all the other martyrs united, was the crown by which she was shown to be the Queen of martyrs. That Mary was a true martyr cannot be doubted, as Denis the Carthusian, Pelbart, Catharinus, and others prove; for it is an undoubted opinion that suffering sufficient to cause death is martyrdom, even though death does not ensue from it. Saint John the Evangelist is revered as a martyr, though he did not die in the caldron of boiling oil, but he came out more vigorous than he went in. Saint Thomas says, “that to have the glory of martyrdom, it is sufficient to exercise obedience in its highest degree, that is to say, to be obedient unto death.” “Mary was a martyr,” says Saint Bernard, “not by the sword of the executioner, but by bitter sorrow of heart.” If her body was not wounded by the hand of the executioner, her blessed heart was transfixed by a sword of grief at the passion of her Son; grief which was sufficient to have caused her death, not once, but a thousand times. From this we shall see that Mary was not only a real martyr, but that her martyrdom surpassed all others; for it was longer than that of all others, and her whole life may be said to have been a prolonged death.
“The passion of Jesus,” as Saint Bernard says, “commenced with His birth”. So also did Mary, in all things like unto her Son, endure her martyrdom throughout her life. Amongst other significations of the name of Mary, as Blessed Albert the Great asserts, is that of “a bitter sea.” Hence to her is applicable the text of Jeremias : “great as the sea is thy destruction.” For as the sea is all bitter and salt, so also was the life of Mary always full of bitterness at the sight of the passion of the Redeemer, which was ever present to her mind. “There can be no doubt, that, enlightened by the Holy Ghost in a far higher degree than all the prophets, she, far better than they, understood the predictions recorded by them in the sacred Scriptures concerning the Messias.” This is precisely what the angel revealed to St. Bridget; and he also added, `that the Blessed Virgin, even before she became His Mother, knowing how much the Incarnate Word was to suffer for the salvation of men, and compassionating this innocent Saviour, who was to be so cruelly put to death for crimes not His own, even then began her great martyrdom.”
Her grief was immeasurably increased when she became the Mother of this Saviour; so that at the sad sight of the many torments which were to be endured by her poor Son, she indeed suffered a long martyrdom, a martyrdom which lasted her whole life. This was signified with great exactitude to Saint Bridget in a vision which she had in Rome, in the church of Saint Mary Major, where the Blessed Virgin with Saint Simeon, and an angel bearing a very long sword, reddened with blood, appeared to her, denoting thereby the long, and bitter grief which transpierced the heart of Mary during her whole life. When the above named Rupert supposes Mary thus speaking: “Redeemed souls, and my beloved children, do not pity me only for the hour in which I beheld my dear Jesus expiring before my eyes; for the sword of sorrow predicted by Simeon pierced my soul during the whole of my life: when I was giving suck to my Son, when I was warming Him in my arms, I already foresaw the bitter death that awaited Him. Consider, then, what long and bitter sorrows I must have endured.”
Wherefore Mary might well say, in the words of David, “My life is wasted with grief, and my years in sighs.” “My sorrow is continually before me.” “My whole life was spent in sorrow and in tears; for my sorrow, which was compassion for my beloved Son, never departed from before my eyes, as I always foresaw the sufferings and death which He was one day to endure.” The Divine Mother herself revealed to Saint Bridget, that “even after the death and ascension of her Son, whether she ate, or worked, the remembrance of His passion was ever deeply impressed on her mind, and fresh in her tender heart”. Hence Tauler says, “that the most Blessed Virgin spent her whole life in continual sorrow;” for her heart was always occupied with sadness and with suffering.
Therefore time, which usually mitigates the sorrows of the afflicted, did not relieve Mary; nay, even it increased her sorrow; for, as Jesus, on the one hand, advanced in age, and always appeared more and more beautiful and amiable; so also, on the other hand, the time of His death always drew nearer, and grief always increased in the heart of Mary, at the thought of having to lose Him on earth. So that, in the words addressed by the angel to Saint Bridget: “As the rose grows up amongst thorns, so the Mother of God advanced in years in the midst of sufferings; and as the thorns increase with the growth of the rose, so also did the thorns of her sorrows increase in Mary, the chosen rose of the Lord, as she advanced in age; and so much the more deeply did they pierce her heart.
Fr. Faber on Unhappiness
As we continue through Lent, I thought I might share some edifying words from various spiritual writers every Wednesday. This week’s writer is Fr. Faber. The passages are no doubt drawn from various works, but I found them in pages 63-70 of The Spirit of Father Faber, Apostle of London (1914). Perhaps you find yourself in an unusually stark unhappiness – perhaps someone you love is ill – perhaps there is tumult in your personal life – perhaps you face doubt and despair. Meditate on the words of Fr. Faber, which brim with a supernatural wisdom drawn from his long experience of the care of souls.
UNHAPPINESS is not without mystery even in a fallen world. By rights there should be no unhappiness at all. For is not the whole world full of God everywhere, and can there be unhappiness in the neighbourhood of God ? How much goodness and kindness is there in everyone around us, if we only take a kindly view of them ourselves ! Sin is easily forgiven to those who are in earnest. Grace is prodigally bestowed. There is an almost incredible amount of actual enjoyment, and pain and suffering themselves are quickly turned to sanctity. Yet for all this the unhappiness of the world is real. Almost
every heart on earth is a sanctuary of secret sorrow. With some the grief is fresh. With others it is old. With immense numbers the unhappiness is literally lifelong, one out of which there is no possible escape except through the single door of death. With some it arises with having chosen an unfit lot in life from the first. With others it is from the unkindness, misconduct, or misunderstanding of those they love. In some cases men have to suffer for their religion, and its consequences are made by the cruelty of others to last to the end of their days. Not unfrequently it comes from men’s characters, or from their sins, or from some consequences of these. Now and then it is the burden of a broken heart, a heart which has been overweighted, and so has snapped, and thus lost its elasticity and the power of throwing off its sorrows. To much suffering time brings no healing. The broken heart lies bleeding in the hand of its Heavenly Father. He will look to it. No one else can.
SORROW is to the elect on earth, what the Beatific Vision is to the Saints in Heaven. It is God’s presence, His manifestation of Himself, His unfailing reward. We must not be amazed therefore if new efforts to serve God bring new sorrows in their train. By the supernatural principles of the spiritual life, they ought to do so. If we are able to bear them, these sorrows will come at once. Their delay is only the index of God’s estimation of our weakness. Yet we need not fear that they will be disproportioned to our strength. God’s blows are not dealt out at random. Our crosses are poised to a nicety by Divine wisdom, and then Divine love planes them, in order to make them at once smoother and lighter. But we can have no real comfort in devotion, if we are without trials. We have no proof that God accepts us, no security against delusion. We know that the stars are in their old places in the sky ; but in different states of the atmosphere they seem much farther off than at other times, or again much nearer, like teardrops of light on the very point of falling to the earth. So is it with God. Joy makes Him seem far off, while sorrow brings Him near, almost down into our bosom. When sorrows come, we feel instinctively their connection with the graces which have gone before, just as temptations so often have an odour about them of past victories. They come up, one after another, dealing their several blows upon our poor hearts, with such a modest heavenly significancy upon their faces, that it is easy to recognise angels beneath the thin disguise. As we touch them, even while the thrill goes through us, we feel that we are almost handling with our hands our own final perseverance, such solid evidence are they of our adoption, so full of substantial graces in their presence, and leaving such a legacy of blessings when they go. A heart without sorrows is like a world without a revelation. It has nothing but a twilight of God about it.
FURTHERMORE our sorrow must be our own. We must not expect anyone else to understand it. It is one of the conditions of true sorrow, that it should be misunderstood. Sorrow is the most individual thing in the whole world. We must not expect therefore to meet with sympathy at all adequate to what we are suffering. It will be a great thing if it be suitable, even though it is imperfect. It is a very desolate thing to have leaned on sympathy, and found that it would not bear our weight, with such a burden of sorrow upon our backs. It is very difficult to erect ourselves again. The heart sinks upon itself in dismay. It has used its last remaining strength to reach the place where it would rest itself, and now what is left for it, but a faintness which opens all the wounds afresh, and a dismal conviction that the grief is less tolerable than it was before? It is best therefore to keep our sorrows as secret as we can. Unfitting sympathy irritates us, and makes us sin. Inadequate sympathy lets the lame limb fall harshly to the ground. The denial of sympathy excites almost a querulous despair. God knows everything. There are volumes of comfort in that. God means everything. There is light for every darkness out of that simple truth. Our hearts are full of angels when they are full of sorrows. Let us make them our company, and go on our road, smiling all the day, scattering such sweetness round us as mourners only are allowed to scatter, and God will understand us, when we go to Him.
JESUS will be a cause of blessed sorrow to every one of us. There are very many happy earthly things which we must sacrifice for Him ; or if we have not the heart to do so, He will have the kind cruelty to take them from us. Persecution is a word of many meanings, a thing of countless shapes. It must come infallibly to every one who loves our dearest Lord. It may come through the hard tongues of the worldly, or in the suspicions and jealousies and judgements of those we love. In the peace of family love and domestic union it often comes from hands which make it hard to be endured; and because of religion, there is keen misery where the casual visitor sees nothing but the edification of mutual love. Who was ever let alone to serve Jesus as he wished? It is idle to expect it. The husband’s love rises against it in the wife. The mother will tear her children from the Saviour’s arms. The father looks with suspicion on the claims of God, and jealousy of the Creator will make him harsh to a child who has never given him an hour of trouble in life beside, and to whom he has never been harsh before. The brother will forego the manliness of fraternal affection, and bring the bitterness of the world’s judgements into the sacred circle of home, if Jesus dares to lay a finger on his sister. O poor, poor world! And it is always the good who are the worst in this respect. Let this be laid to heart, and pondered. Outside of us, beside this inevitable persecution, our Lord will bring trials and crosses round us, at once to preserve our Grace and to augment it. The more we love him the thicker they will be. Nay, our love of Him often gets us into trouble we hardly know how. It almost leads us into faults, into imprudences to be repented of. Suddenly, especially when we are fervent, the ground gives way under our feet, and we sink into a pit, and in the retrospect, our fall seems inexcusable, and yet how did it come to pass ? How also is it within the soul ? Are there not such things as the pains of love ? Are they not more common than its joys ?
THEN there is the worse pain of not feeling our love, of seeming to lose our love, of its for ever slipping away from us. There are also interior trials, by which self-love is put to a painful death, and a cleansing of our inmost souls by fire, which is exceeding agony. Then there are the distresses into which the love of Jesus entraps us. It persuades us to give up this world, to put out all the lights wherewith earth had made our hearts gay, to break ties, to eschew loves, to commit ourselves to hard dull lives, and then it leaves us. God hides His countenance from us. All view of the other world is shut off from us. Just as it is at sundown, no sooner has the last rim sunk below the horizon, than, as if evoked by a spell, from river-side, from woody hollow, from pastures where the kine are feeding, from meadows with the haycocks standing, there rises up a cold white blinding mist : so is it in the soul, no sooner is God’s Face gone, than past sins, ghastly things, break up from the graves in which absolution laid them, and present imperfections, and unknown temptations, and chilling impossibilities, of perseverance, all rise up together, and involve the soul in the coldest gloomiest desolation, through which no star can pierce, and it is much if a sickly whiteness tells us that there is a moon somewhere. Who does not know these things ? It is no use shuddering. They are not on us now ; but they will come back again, be sure, when their hour arrives. Thus Jesus is in us a cause of sorrow, in us He is a sign to be contradicted, in us is He set for the rise and fall of many.