Religion of the Heart

our-lady-of-sorrows-05_0For whatever reason, the priest at the Mass I attended today left the feast out of the Liturgy of the Word.  He did the prayers for Our Lady of Sorrows, but for the Gospel, instead of either option listed in my Missal (either John 19, at the foot of the Cross, or Luke 2, the prophecy of Simeon), he just did the Gospel for Tuesday of this week, Luke 7:11-16.  He didn’t preach on it, but for me, it was a very happy coincidence.

The reading was the widow of Nain.  “When he drew near to the gate of the city, behold, there was carried out one that was dead, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and many people of the city were with her.  And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, ‘Weep not.’ . . . And he said, ‘Young man, I say unto thee, Arise.’”

It is a splendid Gospel for Our Lady of Sorrows.


Jesus has compassion on the heart of the mother.  The Greek word here for compassion is one of my favorites.  It’s the word for how Jesus felt when he saw they were like sheep without a shepherd, and when he wanted to feed the hungry thousands.  It’s the word for the lord in the parable who forgave his servant’s debt.  And it’s the word for what motivates both the good Samaritan and the father of the Prodigal Son.  Nice.

Even better, it’s the verb form of the word in the Canticle of Zechariah when he says, “through the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.”

But to really understand this word, we need one ugly use of it.  When Peter is talking about replacing Judas at the beginning of Acts, he says, “Now this man obtained a field with the reward of his iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.”

The word is splagchna, a delightfully splattery word for “guts.”  The pleasant way to translate it might be “viscera,” which we use in English mostly as “visceral.”  Something is “visceral” when you have an emotional reaction in your splagchna, your guts.  It’s deeper down than your heart – more visceral.  The liturgy is a bit too tender when it says “tender compassion.”  The words are “the guts of his mercy,” the visceral gut-wrenching of his compassion.


Christ’s reaction to the widow of Nain – as his reaction to us, his wandering sheep – is gut-wrenching.  He has a compassion that makes him sick.  “I am sick with love,” says the Bride in the Song of Songs.  It’s “langueo” in Latin: I languish, I’m dying.

The remarkable thing in the story of the widow of Nain is that she too is languishing with love.  Christ has compassion on the gut-wrenching pain of the mother for her son.  His heart is poured out for hers – just as his heart is poured out for Mary at the death of her son.  Heart speaks to heart.


Now, as I hope becomes clear as we focus on the compassion of Christ, the mystery here is really more about love than sorrow.  In our Italian parish, there seems to be a desire to portray Our Lady of Sorrows – she seems to be a favorite Italian image (I don’t know, I’m sure not Italian) – as overwhelmed with tears.  As I’ve said before, I prefer the tradition that insists that Mary stands at the Cross: she is strong in her sorrow.

And she is strong for the same reason she is sorrowful: because of love.  So too, the love of Jesus makes his guts churn, yes – but in a way that leads him to action: like the Good Samaritan (Jesus is the Good Samaritan) or the father who runs out to meet his son.

The point isn’t that they collapse in tears.  The point is that they are overwhelmed with love.


The heart – understood in this visceral way – is the heart of our religion.  Catholicism is profoundly personal.  (We have ritual, in fact, to create the space for truly personal encounter with Christ.)  The hearts of Jesus and Mary are essential to understanding who they are, and who we are meant to be.

Christ became flesh so that he could pour his heart out for us.  We who are flesh receive the love of God in our hearts to make them fleshy hearts, so that we will pour out our hearts for him.  Heart speaks to heart, splagchna to splagchna.


The first reading for today, it just so happened, was from Paul’s instruction on bishops, deacons, and their wives.  The place of the women here is a little awkward: their behavior matters (especially at a time when many bishops and deacons, the text makes obviously, were married).  But they are not in charge.

Ah, but there’s the point.  Our religion has nothing to do with being in charge.  Jesus is moved with compassion for the widow of Nain not because she is in charge, but because she loves, and he loves.  That love is everything.

That is the true lesson of Our Lady at the foot of the Cross.

Where do you experience the viscera of Jesus and Mary?  What moves your splagchna to mercy?


At the Foot of the Cross, She Stands

stabat materOn Monday, a week after Mary’s birthday, and one day after the Triumph of the Cross, we celebrate Our Lady of Sorrows.

The tie-ins are nice. First we celebrate, with a bigger feast, Christ’s triumph. In fact, this feast used to be called, “The Finding of the Cross.” “Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Savior of the world.” This is a very objective feast. By focusing on the Cross itself, it reminds us that Christ did the work. Christ saves us. It is the Cross that sets us free.

Placed in September, it lets the Easter mysteries of Spring penetrate to the other side of the year. And it recalls the High Holy Days of the Jews, and the Day of Atonement, in which the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies to offer sacrifice for the sins of the people – perfected on the Cross.

But the next day, we celebrate, as it were, the subjective side. It is Christ who saves us. But it is Mary who is first to be saved, Mary who receives the gift of Christ on the Cross. Our Lady of Sorrows doesn’t do anything, except enter into what Christ does. Yet it is that entering in that is the whole point. Christ died to save us – and Mary stands there for us.

Indeed – this is the other tie-in – it is for this that Mary was born. In a quick week, we go from celebrating all the promise of Mary’s birth to seeing the fulfillment of that promise, in the Cross. For this she was born: to share in the sufferings of Christ, to be bathed in his blood.


But what does Mary gain at the Cross? What happens to her there?

The tradition – especially the Dominican tradition – focuses on a single word in John’s Gospel: “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother” (John 19:25). Stabat Mater, sings the great sequence, the special hymn for this day: she stood.

She did not faint. Though others were there, the heart of the mother, which, Simeon prophesies in Luke’s Gospel will be “pierced by a sword” (Lk 2:35), is a singular place to meditate on this standing.

Notice, when you look at traditional art of the crucifixion, that Mary Magdalene is typically sprawled on the ground. And who would not? The Cross is too awful, the very pinnacle of awfulness. If the Cross does not make us despair, if the Cross does not make us faint, then nothing will.

But the Cross does not make the Mother of Jesus faint or despair. She stands. (So, says the Greek of the New Testament, does the disciple Jesus loves: in traditional images, John too is standing with Mary, as we are called to stand.)


We are not meant to see in this an image of Mary’s strength, or stoicism. To name a feast Our Lady of Sorrows is to see the connection between Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of Jesus. She has every reason to fall. Nobody’s heart could be more broken than Mary’s.

How then does she stand? Her standing is an image of grace. We can imagine a ray of light (as in the image of Divine Mercy) shining into Mary’s heart, holding her up beyond all human strength. A ray of hope beyond hope: for “hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man sees, why does he still hope for? But if we hope for what we do not see, then with patience we wait for it” (Rom 8:24-25).

The Holy Spirit dwelling in Mary’s heart keeps hope alive in complete darkness. She cannot see beyond the darkness. But hope keeps her alive. Hope keeps her standing.

And the root of that hope is love: the love that binds her to Jesus on the Cross, and the love that is as strong as death (Song 8:6).


This is the Gospel. This is the meaning of the Cross.

Jesus does not save us from suffering. We are “joint-heirs with Christ; if we suffer with him, then we may be also glorified together” (Rom 8:17). Glory sounds nice – but the promise is that we may pass to heaven through the Cross.

Yet the promise of Our Lady of Sorrows is that we can stand through that suffering. Jesus has been there. Mary has been there. John has been there. We do not take the place of Jesus, but like Mary, his Spirit poured into our hearts can transform our suffering into the place of union, of hope and love. If, like John, we stand at the foot of the Cross with Mary.

What Cross is Jesus offering to help us stand through? What does it look like when we faint?

Our Lady of Sorrows

Though this year it is superseded by a Sunday, normally today would be the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.

our-lady-of-sorrows-05_0St. Luke reports what happened when Joseph and Mary presented the newborn baby Jesus in the Temple:

“And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him. And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against – yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also – that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:33-35).

The message is about Jesus as a sign of contradiction. Everything about him will challenge us, and reveal what is really in our hearts. His radical preaching will do that: will we follow this man, or not? That is the ultimate question, the final judgment on what sort of people we are. And then, above all, in his suffering: are you willing to go to the Cross, to embrace a Lord whose kingdom calls beyond the comforts of this world so radically that his reign here will end on the Cross? This is how many will rise and fall: those whom the world judges great will be afraid to follow, and those who seemed of no account prove to be the saints.

Mary too participates in this dynamic. Mary above all, because no one is naturally closer to Jesus. The Cross pierces no one’s heart as it does his mother’s. We cling to Our Lady of Sorrows above all so that we can learn from her to enter more deeply into the full measure of the Cross. We discover in Mary the reality of Jesus: not just an idea, not just an apparition, not just a storybook character, but the Son of Man, born of a woman, born under the law, born among us, who truly suffers and dies, and enters into the full misery of sinful humanity.

In general Mary is there to help us meditate on his true humanity. But at the Cross, the mother’s anguish becomes especially important. She takes us into the heart of the matter.


St. John tells us what happens:

“Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he said unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then he said to his disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home” (John 19:25-27).

Actually, in the Greek, it’s not just his own home, it’s more generally, “into his own” – his everything.

For John, the most profound and mystical of the Gospels, this is one of the keys of the Cross. First, that Mary stands: stays there, and does not faint. And second, that the beloved disciple, the sign for all of us, makes Mary, Mother of the Cross, his own. He discovers Jesus in discovering Mary at the Cross.


A final Biblical key to the doctrine of Our Lady of Sorrows: St. Luke always presents her as grappling with the unknown. When the shepherds come, he says, “And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:18-19). And when they find him in the Temple, “He said unto them, How is that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business? And they did not understand the saying which he spoke unto them. And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart” (Luke 2:49-51).

Our Lady of Sorrows is also Our Lady of Unknowing. Maybe the hardest part of suffering is that it doesn’t make sense. We can’t see to the bottom of it. But this is the way of faith, of trusting in God even when it doesn’t make sense. Mary can’t understand the good news from the shepherds, and she can’t understand the scolding from her Son, or the prophecy of Simeon – or the horror of the Cross. Faith does not mean everything makes sense. But Mary’s part is to hold God’s mysterious workings in her heart, and stand by the Cross of Jesus.