Conrad of Saxony’s “Mirror of the Blessed Virgin Mary” says that Mary was “absque vae,” or “without woe” (II). He describes at some length the ways in which she is “entirely immune” from woe, including “the woe of original sin, of original misery, and the woe of the punishment or pain of hell,” and the fractal-like component parts of each kind of woe. From this chapter, we might have expected Conrad to describe Mary as consistently happy, free of all kinds of woe, despite the trials of her life.
However, in the next chapter, he describes Mary according to a translation of her name: the “bitter sea” (III). One of the kinds of bitterness he ascribes to Mary is that “Mary in the Passion of her Son was filled with bitterness when the sword of sorrow passed through her soul.” He compares this to the “bitterness” Noemi describes when she changes her name to Mara to articulate the pain she feels at the death of her sons. This chapter does not mention the word “woe” at all, but it seems to describe Mary as full of pain.
I am not sure how these parts relate to one another. The pain that Mary felt at the crucifixion, if it felt like a “sword of sorrow” as Conrad describes it, certainly sounds like woe. Of course, they are different kinds of woe-- he never said that she was immune from emotional pain-- so there is no direct contradiction, but there does seem to be a complicated tension.
One of the kinds of woe he describes Mary as being immune from is the pain of “that original curse pronounced against Eve, ‘Thou shalt bring forth children in sorrow.” This strengthens the apparent tension in two ways. First, if Mary is immune from the woe of childbirth, which ordinary women also face, should she not be immune from the even worse woe in her soul at seeing her son crucified? Second, and more interestingly, the word “sorrow” is both the word in the verse about Eve and the descriptor Conrad chooses for the “sword” that passes through Mary’s soul at the crucifixion. The linguistic similarity makes it harder to explain away the tension by saying that they simply refer to totally different things.
It seems like part of this tension is a general one we have seen in other texts as well: Mary is powerful and totally unlike other women, but also has universally-recognizable maternal traits. To the extent that this is what is going on in the “Mirror,” it is not necessarily a weakness; it could be just another of the miraculous paradoxes that surround Mary as well as Christ. However, it does seem to me that something more complicated is happening here. Conrad seemed too adamant about Mary’s total exemption from woe of all kinds to suddenly forget about that and describe her woe in detail in the very next chapter, and the pain she he describes her feeling at the crucifixion is too central to that chapter to be ignored.