Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Why the Sorrow?

From our class discussion in the last class, there seemed to be one overarching theme regarding Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows. The readings all attempted to make Mary very personal and relatable; many of the authors wanted to be able to experience everything that happened to her and see what she saw. The Mary we are encountering in these readings is one that we want to take the place of; WE want to be next to the cross, WE want to see him dying. What we see specifically in these readings is an emphasis on sharing in Mary’s pain and sorrow at the cross. My question is: Why? Why the sorrow?

Here’s what I can come up with. We are to be imitating Mary as best we can because she is the closet human to the Holy Trinity (as one person from our class has put it in an earlier post). What is Mary full of? Grace. Because she was full with grace, she found favor with God. How do we achieve this? I would like to propose that based on these readings and their emphasis, suffering like and WITH Mary is essential and crucial.

Now this is not to say that we should not attempt to imitate the Christ; He is, after all, God Himself. But that is the issue. We can see that he is fully man because he walked with people, conversed with them, ate and drank with them, had physical, personal, intimate relationships with those around him. However, he was also fully God and, as the same person that I paraphrased above said, this is “a mystery of the faith” so a lot of the temptations and extraordinary patience that He faced and had may not come to us in the same manner because of our sinful natures prohibiting us from reaching that stage of grace and holiness. Yet we run into a similar problem with Mary. Because she was so full of grace that she found favor with God, the goal of mimicking her in that because more difficult. However, it is something we can attain because she was solely fully human.

Because we want to imitate as best as possible the human side of both Mary and Jesus, we want to make that aspect come out as vivid and obvious as possible. Here is where we introduce John of Caulibus’s Meditations and put it in comparison with the Gospels. What we see in the Gospels is a very brief description of the crucifixion and the events leading up to Golgotha. More specifically, we get the following from all the Gospels combined:

·         A description of Jesus’s arrest
·         Jesus’s “trials” in front of Jewish and Roman leaders
·         “Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him.”
·         His sentencing
·         A brief description of his walk to Golgotha
·         “They crucified him”

In the six or eight chapters across the Gospels that refer to this event, there is not much more else in terms of details that arise. There is no description on how wet Judas’s kiss was, how tightly they tied Jesus when they arrested him or even how, whether it was just his hands or his whole body, as seen in the Mel Gibson’s Passion. We don’t know exactly how the trials went in terms of if there was an order or complete disorder, an exact number of how many people were at each. We get nothing more than “Pilate (or the Gentiles) took Jesus and flogged him.” His sentencing is also quite short and not as drawn out as I’m sure John of Caulibus might have done. The walk to Golgotha has nothing more than the interaction with Simon to carry the cross for Jesus. Finally, as was mentioned in class, “they crucified him” is about as detailed as the four Gospels get. John of Caulibus’s Meditations go into more detail about the flogging and crucifixion than the whole of the Gospels do about the whole narrative.

Why? Some might argue, and did in class, that it could be an issue of audience, that those whom the Gospel writers were writing for and to had a more familiar knowledge of crucifixion that John of Caulibus did. However, because it doesn’t really explicitly say that John of Caulibus was writing to anyone, and therefore was probably writing for himself, I would agree more with the idea that a big reason for (or at least a huge consequence of) this elaborate retelling of the Passion narrative is to bring across Jesus’s humanity. We can see that in the art of this later period. This humanization is also why suddenly tears, grief, and loss appear on the face and countenance of Mary in later pieces of art. There is an attempt to make Mary appear more human, and therefore, attainable as a role model.

Bringing all of this back around, part of making Mary appear more human is making her more grievous during the crucifixion. And in our attempts to mimic her, we must also attempt to mimic her sorrow. We see that in the Stabat Mater.

“At the cross, your sorrow sharing,
All your grief and torment bearing,
Let me stand and mourn with you…

Fairest maid of all creation,
Queen of hope and consoloation,
Let me feel your grief sublime…

Virgin of all virgins blest!
Listen to my fond request:
Let me share your grief divine…” (Bolding and italics added for emphasis)

Again, we see this longing throughout Anselm of Canterbury’s Prayer to Christ. He makes a point to bring out the grief the “most merciful Lady” (pg 96) while all throughout wanting to be there at the scene of the crucifixion.

All of this to say, that in order to worship and imitate Christ, we must seek after the one that was closest to Him (cf. Anselm of Canterbury  pg 112) and imitate her as best we can in all aspects. One question I do want to leave with is this: Is this prayer, the prayer to suffer like Mary, a prayer we can pray knowing we can suffer like her, or is her suffering too great for us?

-- OGC


  1. OGC, your post asks an interesting question, i.e. whether it is possible for us to suffer like Mary or if that is simply too great for us. The various readings for Monday can shed some light.
    We can see the element of Jesus and Mary being of the same flesh. In his “Prayers to Christ”, Anselm writes to Mary, asking what he knows of how seeing the flesh of her flesh suffering and then hanging on the cross must have been (96). William of Newburgh, quoted and paraphrased in Prof. Fulton’s From Judgment to Passion, argues that “through the identity of her flesh and bones with his” (i.e. Christ’s) Mary “died with him” (p.453). Through the identity of flesh that both these writers emphasize, Mary experienced a most intimate pain at the sight of the suffering and death of her son.
    Moreover, William stresses the point that Mary’s love was not simply one of a parent to a child, since “other children draw their flesh in equal parts from both parents”, but, rather, that—since “his flesh was hers and hers alone”—her maternal love transcended that of any other mother (451).
    Back to your question, then, it seems from these accounts as though we cannot in fact suffer quite like Mary. Mary suffers in a most peculiar way through both the identity of flesh with her Son and her peculiar maternal situation in giving birth to a son that came solely from her flesh. This does not stop Anselm from pleading to grieve like her, however, inasmuch as this is possible. And therefore, though perhaps we cannot grieve quite like Mary, we can still pray for to experience a bit of what she endured.
    On another note, I did want to correct a certain mistake I believe you write regarding John of Caulibus’ Meditations. You write “…it doesn’t really explicitly say that John of Caulibus was writing to anyone, and therefore was probably writing for himself…” In page 239 of Caulibus' Meditations, he writes: "Make use of these general meditations." Therefore, it seems to be the case that John indeed wrote these for the use and meditation of others. This is further supported by the fact that his account of the passion and crucifixion is divided according to the various prayer hours (i.e. matins, terce, etc). I just wanted to put forth a friendly correction.


  2. OGC: I can see *one* point of John of Caulibus’s descriptions being to highlight the humanity of Jesus, but can that be the only or even chief explanation for these gruesome scenes? To echo you, “Why the suffering?” Does the description of extraordinary suffering make Christ and Mary *more* or less “normally” human? (As you ask in your final question).

    I have sometimes wondered (yes, with The Passion of the Christ as well, though I have not actually watched it) whether such descriptions could have to do with making the enormity, indeed infinity, of Christ’s sacrifice more evident through violent detail absent from the gospel narratives. But even if this were the case, why the sense that the atonement needs to be “justified” by/through narrative? The suggestion of the purpose of these emphases being inducement to “experience” is very cogent here (as you point out in bolding “Let me stand and mourn with you,” Let me feel your grief sublime,” Let me share your grief divine” from the Stabat Mater).

    At any rate, nice approach.

  3. Something that might help cut through the mystery a little bit: note the structure that the meditations have in John of Caulibus' retelling. This is not just a narrative, but a liturgy, working through the Hours. LW is right: the meditation is cast as an exercise (the preface to the work as a whole addresses it to a Poor Clare, that is, a Franciscan nun). So it is not just that the reader is meant to imagine these scenes; she is to do so in the course of the liturgical day. Perhaps I should have emphasized this aspect of the meditations more in class, but it is arguably a large part of the reason that they are so detailed. The "experience" is meant to take place in the course of participating in the liturgy, which, now that I am thinking about it, makes it very different from the experience, e.g. of watching a movie. With a movie, one is a spectator, but the liturgy is an exercise in praising God in which one is meant to participate actively. Does this help?