Thursday, October 29, 2015

A Problem of Pain: Mary as the Mater Dolorosa

            In the readings for Tuesday, I was struck by the seeming paradox of Mary’s excruciating pain at the crucifixion and the authors’ assertion that Mary was the only one of Jesus’s followers to maintain hope in the time between his death and resurrection because of her foreknowledge of the latter event. She many times throughout begs that she might die too with her son because her pain is just too great to bear. However, John of Caulibus tells us in Meditations on the Life of Christ that “Our Lady, however, stood fast with a tranquil and settled mind, for she had a most firm hope in the resurrection of her son.” These two reactions to Jesus’s death that we are told Mary experiences feel incompatible to me, and I especially appreciated the chance to hear other people’s opinions on it in class.
            One point that I thought was very important was that everything the figures in these prayers and meditations do is heavily grounded in scripture—whether or not you agree with the way they are interpreting and using those scriptures. Anytime we see Jesus speak, it’s a composite of snippets from Psalms, the Gospels, etc. If the works are so deeply entrenched in their source material, then, we may be able to use the Bible to explain Mary’s experience at the Passion. One place the writers themselves commonly turn to in order to explain their depiction of Mary’s suffering is Simeon’s prophesy to her in Luke 2:35, that “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” There is no doubt that the Mary of Tuesday’s readings fits this description well. However, I was especially interested in the idea that it is okay for Mary to feel this deep pain—even though she knows that the resurrection is coming—because Jesus himself modelled a similar behavior when he wept at the tomb of Lazarus shortly before miraculously recalling him to life. If we take this viewpoint, then, the tradition of Mary serving as a way to see or experience Christ’s behavior so that we too can see Christ’s behavior is alive and well in these readings.
            The writers themselves, though, would probably find more convincing that Mary feels this pain because she is so strongly linked to Jesus himself. The reasoning they give for this goes back to the extraordinary circumstances of Jesus’s birth and heritage. Because Mary is his sole parent and has remained a virgin, they are in fact the only family that either of them has, and with Jesus’s death Mary is left completely alone in the world (hence why Jesus tasks John with caring for her). This point is, I think, seriously problematized by the points in the Gospels which refer to Jesus’s brothers and sisters. However, in some ways it does echo the grief of the widow at Nain whose only son is miraculously resurrected in Luke 7:11-15. This foreshadows both Jesus’s death and resurrection and Mary’s grief, but it may also suggest that there is some characteristic of the bond between a mother and her only son—Luke is careful to note that this is the widow’s only son—that is somehow special, that God particularly cares about such a bond. In addition, Jesus is of course not at all like any other son, because he is at the same time Mary’s Creator, Savior, and God. Indeed, no one better than Mary should understand the true weight of who exactly is being crucified during the Passion; in that sense, the authors argue, she has to feel a distress far beyond that of the other ordinary observers.
            Then, of course, as was suggested in class, there is always the possibility that these authors are incorrectly interpreting the texts, and that such a depiction of Mary’s pain is excessive. Indeed, how could a bunch of medieval monks truly grasp Mary’s experience witnessing the crucifixion of her son and God? They themselves understand that this is intrinsically impossible, and as a result constantly bemoan their inability to summon up tears or the proper feelings in response to the events they seek to describe. “Bernard” pleads with the Virgin herself in his Meditation on the Lamentation of the Blessed Virgin, asking that she will reveal to him a true, more interior version of the Passion so that he can better grasp the emotional implications of it. Acknowledging his emotional failure, he says, “I greatly wish to weep, for nothing would please me more; but I am a wretch with a stony heart, and I cannot weep.” There is, for each of these men, a fundamental impasse between them and the mindset of the Virgin, one that they try desperately to overcome. This desperation, then, may well lead to an excess in their descriptions.
Why, though, are they so desperate to understand Mary’s position in particular during the Passion of her son? Throughout these texts, there is a deep desire to accurately grasp the meaning of the death of Jesus, who is at once both human and divine; this search is of course one we have seen time and again throughout the Marian tradition. Jesus’s sufferings are described in gory detail, highlighting what has been called Christ in his humanity. However, there is still the question of his divinity, and, as the authors know and argue, it is completely, intrinsically impossible for humans to comprehend the mystery of the eternal God suffering physical pain and death. In Meditations on the Life of Christ, John of Caulibus starts his “Meditation on the Passion at Terce” by exhorting his readers to first consider Jesus as solely human experiencing these things, then reintroduces his divinity to show how truly mind-boggling such events seem to him. Jesus’s position is impossible to experience or comprehend, but Mary, being fully human, may well be a different story. The tradition of Mary serving as an intermediary for us to experience Jesus is, I think, very present in their desire to understand her point of view during the crucifixion.

In addition, just as has been seen throughout the course, these authors see Mary as the model for what proper Christian behavior should look like. As she answers in Meditation on the Lamentation of the Blessed Virgin, “What you seek inspires compunction and is very sorrowful; but because I have been glorified, I cannot weep. You, however, write with tears those things which I have pondered with great pain.” Here, she directly charges us all to place ourselves as entirely as possible into her perspective because hers is the proper reaction to the events described. Just like almost all of the Marian tradition thus far, these authors’ use of Mary is really supposed to tell us how to respond to and experience her son. And, they argue, this interiority is completely necessary because it is only through feeling correctly that we can understand correctly, just as we saw Bernard argue that experience is the necessary factor for proper understanding. Mary’s pain should be our pain because it is only through this pain that we can grasp the singularity and importance of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross.


  1. Very nice attention to the many layers of description at play in our texts, especially the way in which the authors use the Scriptures as keys to imagining how Jesus and Mary felt, and to the concerns that the authors have about how properly to respond to Mary's pain. I appreciated particularly the way you moved from the affective response to the theological understanding that our authors were grappling with and the way in which they hoped their readers would respond. RLFB

  2. I enjoyed how you connected the readings to Scripture, certainly the authors would have done so, and it's always useful to try to reach back to this Scriptural bedrock which underlies everything they're doing. Interesting also was your description of desperation as driving the excesses of the texts, there is this sense of pleading that we get from, say, Anselm that does smack of a sort of desperation, a feeling that no matter how hard we try, even with divine help, we still just can't quite get it. We might wonder how much these meditations and prayers were intended to bring about, through their highly emotive descriptions, this precise type of desperation, a feeling of utter despondency and inadequacy that leaves the reader with no where to turn but God (and which, as we seen in Anselm's Proslogion, often leads to profound spiritual insight).