15 September 2017

Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows (Our Lady of Compassion)

I think it is sometimes difficult for us to allow Mary to truly accompany us in our struggles. That is because we Catholics have the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception the affirmation that somehow, through the merits of Christ's own death and resurrection, Mary was preserved from the state of original sin and sometimes it has been suggested that she cannot, therefore, suffer. It is important to understand however, that theologians recognize four forms of suffering which are inherent in human life even apart from any situation of estrangement and alienation from God. Every one of us experiences these forms of suffering because they are part and parcel of human existence. They are necessary if we are to grow to maturity in our truest vocations, namely being authentically human with and from God. The Scriptures tell us Jesus grew in grace and stature; Mary did the same and shows us what it means not only to be a Woman of Sorrows but also a woman of great faith, hope, and compassion (this feast was originally named after Mary as Our Lady of Compassion). As such she is a model of our own vocations and one whom we trust to be with us in every difficulty.

The four forms of suffering which exist apart from any state of sin are 1) aloneness or loneliness, 2) limits, 3) anxiety, and 4) temptation. It is possible to look at the Creation and Garden of Eden narratives in Genesis and find each of these present before any sin enters the picture; again, they are necessary if we are to grow in grace and stature. Aloneness is necessary if we are to be moved to fellowship, to community or union with others. As Douglas John Hall** comments. [[love presupposes the element and experience of separation]] or again, [[Thus, loneliness which is certainly a cause of much human suffering, is at the same time a kind of prerequisite of what Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 names the "greatest" of all creaturely capacities, the capacity of love.]] The experience of limits is necessary if we are to experience transcendence or the reality of being gifted. Without limits we could not dream; we could not experience wonder, surprise, or gratitude. Anything and everything at anytime would be the rule and we neither would nor could significantly develop the capacity for self-control or sacrifice under such a rule. Everything would be ours; we would have a right to anything at anytime. Nothing would ever truly be a gift to us. We would never learn to prioritize our desires or needs, nor would there be any need to work towards something, share with others, or sacrifice our own needs for the needs of the other. Growth and transcendence as well as generosity and selflessness presuppose the experience of limits and though this experience causes us suffering, it is inherent in human life.

The third form of suffering which is similarly inherent even apart from sin is temptation. Since our humanity is a task set before us, something we must achieve in the decisions we take and the choices we make --- most particularly in the choices we make for God, for the good, loving, and true, we will also be faced constantly by alternative realities and the possibility of choosing other than that which is worthy of us. We create the persons we are called to be precisely by meeting the reality of temptation, discerning what calls us to greater wholeness and holiness, and choosing this reality. Our capacity for morality makes temptation necessary. Our capacity for freedom does the same. We must know temptation if we are to grow more deeply rooted in the God who calls us to love freely. Temptation is the presupposition for achieving integrity and even nobility as human persons. Temptation is clearly present in the Garden of Eden narrative in Genesis. Adam and Eve are told, "You may eat of every tree in the garden EXCEPT the tree of knowledge of good and evil (note the imposition of limits and the possibility of choices here)." And Eve is tempted. Her long dialogue with the serpent (an externalization of what she is thinking here) is thus an externalization of her temptation to do other than God wills; in fact this dialogue or bit of theologizing is a paradigm of what temptation looks like for us!

The fourth form of suffering inherent in the human life even apart from original sin is anxiety. At every moment we are threatened by death in all of its degrees and forms.**** We are threatened by non-being. Our capacity to act courageously and affirm life and God in the face of this threat; to choose these rather than other lesser (less ultimate), more immediate, and less mysterious forms of security, matures as we embrace our anxiety and trust the promises of God instead. To become people of genuine hope means to take on the threat of non-being, to believe in the God that is Being-itself and embrace more and more completely the Gospel in which sin and death are defeated precisely in weakness and kenosis (self-emptying). Today's readings, but especially the responsorial psalm, make clear the transcendence and ultimate security that comes only from affirming (trusting in) God in the face of death: [[I bless the LORD who counsels me; even in the night my heart exhorts me. I set the LORD ever before me; with him at my right hand I shall not be disturbed. R. You are my inheritance, O Lord. You will show me the path to life, fullness of joys in your presence, the delights at your right hand forever.]] Like temptation, anxiety in the face of death in all of its degrees and forms is essential if we are to grow as human beings who live in dialogue with God and look to Him for the peace nothing and no one else can give.

Mary, Our Lady of Compassion and also Our Lady of Sorrows knew all of these forms of suffering very well. If you look at the seven sorrows which marked her life it is easy to distinguish these forms. Mary knew genuine courage, had pondered in her heart the will of God which grounded her courage, and again and again chose to trust (him) who "brings good out of all things for those who believe". In every situation in spite of terror and pain and even personal "inadequacy" in the face of Sinful existence, Mary chooses to hang onto the God who promises to redeem all of reality by bringing it to fulfillment within himself. In other words, time and again Mary says yes to an ongoing, constant dialogue with God as she embraced the task of  becoming fully human. She does indeed grow in grace and stature to become the one we identify as a paradigm of authentically human faith, courage, hope, and compassion. Thanks be to God!

** Hall, Douglas John, God and Human Suffering I cannot recommend this book by Douglas John Hall more highly. Hall's work is generally focused on the Theology of the Cross, especially as it takes shape in a Northern American context. I first read this maybe 30 years ago and have reread it several times. It is a fine introduction to the nature and theology of suffering and a call to become people who can suffer with courage and faith.

***The painting at the top of the post is Brother Mickey McGrath's Madonna of the Holocaust. I used this painting today in a service I did for the parish as part of my reflection on the feast and readings. The second illustration is Mickey's painting of the fourth station of the cross and one of the seven sorrows. I love this image. Mary is mountain-like and immovable in faith and compassion. She is wounded by the same crown that encircles and pierces her Son's head, yet she consoles him. Jesus rests in her lap for the moment and the moment seems timeless. Jesus holds onto her as she hangs onto God and God's promises, tightly, desperately, in both peace, and terrible pain. Both paintings are perfect images for this feast of Our Lady of Sorrows/Compassion and are available in various forms and sizes from Trinity Stores.

**** While we are threatened by death in all of it's forms and degrees, the form and degree of death uniquely associated with sinful existence is "godless death" --- also known as eternal death or second death. It is death in which one is eternally separated from God and the life of God. Mary knew anxiety because she was threatened by natural (not sinful) death, a natural and transitional form of perishing.