“How long was she conscious?” I asked as the tears filled my eyes and spilled onto my cheeks.
“Are you asking did your baby suffer?” responded my perceptive obstetrician.
I thought of all the questions pounding on my heart: Was the last emotion she knew the panic of suffocation? As her body became bruised and beaten by frantic attempts at CPR, was she aware of it? Did she feel tubes pierce her sides, punching between bones and flesh? Did she wonder where I was and why I was not there to hold her? Did she ask why she was alone, why she was forsaken?
As I nodded my head, my obstetrician gently said, “No, I do not believe that she suffered.” Relief flooded through me.
– – –
I’ve never felt particularly close to Saint Mary. In fact, of all the Saints, I tend to be most detached from Mary. There are probably several reasons for this. First, as someone who was raised Protestant, I am wary of any honor that borders on idolatry and there is no other Saint whose veneration often teeters so close to the brink of worship. Second, pride has always wormed its way into my life by disguising itself as a tendency to dislike whatever everybody else likes (think insisting on dresses and leggings when everyone else switched to jeans during elementary school and being disgusted by Titanic when every other girl in my middle school class was swooning over Leonardo DiCaprio). Unfortunately for me, if there is one Saint who everyone loves to love, its Mary which means that I instinctively want to avoid her just because everyone else loves her. Third, I believe that the way that Mary is depicted in art makes it challenging for me to identify with her. For example, it is hard to connect with a woman who looks completely clean, put together, unswollen and calm after giving birth (without pain medication) in a place where they kept animals. Suffice it to say, I gave birth in a clean, animal-free environment with about a dozen doctors and nurses standing by and a nicely placed epidural in my back, yet I don’t have a single picture of me looking clean, put together, unswollen or calm after my children were born. Exhausted but not calm.
However, I recently realized that there was a more fundamental reason that I did not connect with Saint Mary: to really identify with Mary I would have to be willing to be drenched with her sorrows and they are sorrows that my humanness wants to avoid at all costs. Nonetheless, this week I overcame this aversion when I discovered the Catholic practice of meditating on Mary’s Seven Sorrows. As I pondered the last four Sorrows, I felt that I had been introduced to the amazing Mother of Jesus for the first time. Here was a woman who knew my own pain intimately. In fact, her own pain greatly exceeded my own because, unlike my daughter, her Son absolutely suffered.
Good Friday is an ideal time for all Christians to reflect on the last four of St. Mary’s Sorrows in particular, because it was her Son’s death that caused her so much pain. Consequently, I share my own reflections on these sorrows below.
The Fourth Sorrow is when Mary met Jesus carrying His cross through the streets of Jerusalem to Golgotha. Even as a mother who has begged God to change His mind and restore life to my lifeless child, I can only begin to imagine the desperation and confusion Mary must have felt as she watched her Son carrying the horrible instrument of His own death on His back. How unbelievably awful it must have been to realize that crowds of people hated her Son enough to kill Him. She must have burned with longing to do something, anything, to help Him. She must have been filled with a desire to tear the crown of thorns from His head, to dress His wounds and to clean the lacerations on His back. She must have begged God for His help and intervention, for the protection of her Child. The Stabat Mater describes the scene thus: “Bruised, derided, cursed, defiled, she beheld her tender Child, all with bloody scourges rent. Can the human heart refrain, from partaking in her pain, in that Mother’s pain untold?”
The Fifth Sorrow is when Mary watched as Jesus was crucified and died. Her heart must have shattered as they pierced his hands with crude nails, punching between bones and flesh. I could not see my daughter as she died. In fact,I struggling with my own physical responses to surgery, I did not even know that she was dying. However, my husband watched as the doctors tried to save her and, having talked with him, I can only imagine Mary’s agony as she gazed upon her child’s body, so bruised and beaten. How she must have longed to run to Him, to hold Him as he cried out to His father, “Why have you forsaken me?” She must have wished that she could use her physical touch to show Him that He was not forsaken and to comfort Him. What horror did she know as she gazed up at her son’s face, that was contorted by the pain and terror of His last, gasping breath, unable to do anything at all except to bear witness to His sacrifice? What questions did she ask her God who silently allowed her world and the One in whom she placed her faith to be destroyed?
The Sixth Sorrow is when Jesus’s body was taken down from the cross and laid in His mother’s arms. Now, finally, I truly know her heart break for I have shared it with her. I know how anxious she was to wrap her arms around her Son’s broken, bruised body, to bathe His face with her tears, to cover Him with her kisses. I know the way she explored her Child, touched His wounds and tenderly kissed them, trying in vain to make them better. I know how good His weight felt in her arms and how she thought that she would never be able to let go. I know the cruelty of time which slowly marched forward, stealing the warmth, color, and softness from the limbs and the face of her precious Child. And I know the resignation of the moment when she realized that it was time to let go of her Son’s body because the physical changes convinced her that He was no longer there and that it was truly finished.
The Seventh and final Sorrow is when Jesus was buried. There are no words to describe the torment of a parent who is forced to bury their child. Even if Mary was experiencing shock and numbness, she no doubt felt the horror of her loss. While she must have trusted that God would raise her Son as He had promised, as she gazed at the stone rolled across the tomb, she must have also felt the excruciating absence of her Son. Did she, like me, feel that her heart was weeping blood? Did she wish she could catch all of her precious tears in a bottle and save them as tangible reminders of her Son that could sustain her until the day when she met Him again? Did she feel that she was dragging mountains behind her as she turned and walked away from the place where her Child’s body lay? Did she wake during that first night, thinking she heard her Son calling for her or shaking her shoulder, only to discover that she was all alone in the darkness? And how horrible those first moments must have been for her when she woke on Saturday morning and realized anew that her Son was gone and that she had to rise and live another day of torment without her Child!
This Sorrow, this suffocating Mother’s Sorrow, all the result of my sin, of your sin, of the sins of our world.