Is the Blessed Mother a martyr?
St. Bernard of Clairvaux thought so. Building on the prophesy of Simeon that a sword would pierce her heart, he preached that “only by passing through your heart could the sword enter the flesh of your Son…. Thus the violence of sorrow has cut through your heart, and we rightly call you more than martyr, since the effect of compassion in you has gone beyond the endurance of physical suffering.”
“For if he could die in body, could she not die with him in spirit? He died in body through a love greater than anyone had known. She died in spirit through a love unlike any other since his.“*
One of the titles of Mary is Our Lady of Sorrows, and that feast is observed twice a year: on September 15th (fittingly, right after the Exaltation of the Holy Cross) and one week before Good Friday.
It is through the eyes of the suffering mother of God that we can most truly meditate on the profound suffering of Christ. The piercing of her heart opens a mystical wound in the Mother of God. The Mater Dolorosa, the weeping mother standing at the foot of the corss, speaks to us because who feels a child’s wound more deeply than the mother who bore him? Others fled the cross. Mary clung to it, and if she could have traded places with her Son she would have. Thus it becomes obvious that not only was Mary a martyr, but the martyr who suffered the most.
One way to pray with the Mater Dolorosa is through the Seven Sorrows Rosary (or, more properly, Chaplet). This devotion was popularized by the Servite Order in the 13th century, and uses a special set of beads. Seven medals alternate with seven sets of beads. There are many ways to pray the chaplet, but a simple one is to begin with an Our Father and perhaps and Act of Contrition, and then simply announced each mystery in order, praying an Our Father and seven Hail Marys for each. The sorrows are:
- The prophecy of Simeon.
- The flight into Egypt.
- Losing the child Jesus in Jerusalem.
- Meeting Jesus on his way to Calvary.
- Standing at the foot of the Cross.
- Deposition from the Cross.
- Burial of Christ.
There are various formats with additional prayers and meditations which can be found online.
The Stabat Mater, a 13th century hymn, has been set many times to music. It’s another way to enter into the suffering of Mary. It begins:
Stabat mater dolorósa
juxta Crucem lacrimósa,
dum pendébat Fílius.
At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.
The actual interpretation of the Latin is more stark than the traditional English verse translation. It’s more like “Standing mother of sorrow / beside the cross crying / while her son hangs.”
Welsh composer Paul Mealor’s composed a modern version:
Or there’s always Palestrina:
The devotion itself is a something all Catholics should practice from time to time, for we all weep, and Mary weeps with us.
It’s the art, however, that veers closer to Weird Catholic territory. Images of Mary with seven floating swords stabbing at her heart are striking visualizations of the mysteries of the Mater Dolorosa. Unfortunately, they seem to have been discovered by goths and occultists, so it’s possible to find morbid imitations drained of the spiritual aspects. In these, Mary seems to suffer without grace, because without Christ the images are just emotional pornography: actions without transcendence or meaning.
Those below, however, are the real thing.
Seven Swords Piercing the Sorrowful Heart of Mary, Church of the Holy Cross, Salamanca, Spain. (Wikimedia Commons)
*Sermo in dom. infra oct. Assumptionis, 14-15
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