Friday, October 19, 2012

Lessons from Our Lady of Sorrows on our Response to the Suffering of those we Love

September the 15th was the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. I found the liturgy of the Church on this day very instructive and inspirational. It has taken me a while to cogitate on this and and how it might be reflected in art and so this is why I present it now, a month later.

In the readings from the liturgy of the day, there are passages from St Paul and St Bernard. Each speaks of a response to the suffering of loved ones as a virtue in the fullest sense of the word born of our love for those who suffer. It is interesting to me that so much modern devotional art of Our Lady of Sorrows - Mater Dolorosa - is, to my eye, sentimental and weak appealing to the emotions only and superficially. For me it portrays a figure whom I am encouraged to pity in the way that one would feel sorry for someone who is unable to cope. Feeling sorry for Our Lady doesn't feel quite right to me.

There are images too in the iconographic style. Even some of these have a sentimental feel, which suggests to me that they are just poorly executed; or else there is a detachment from the emotion, which is more usual for iconographic imagery, but in this particular case this seems too distant. The descriptions by St Bernard of the anguish of Our Lady in seeing the suffering of her Beloved Son seem to require the communication of emotion in the painting, albeit properly directed. Of those images I looked at, the Spanish baroque and the Flemish gothic masters offer a model of portraying the emotion of sorrow and anguish that is transcended with joy that is powerful and calm. These are the models that I liked.

One of life's greatest challenges is dealing with the suffering of someone I love when I am powerless to do anything about it. (I have written a longer, much more personal reflection about this aspect in my blog that may perhaps interest some.) My first instinct when someone else is suffering is feel sorry for myself, because of how I might be impacted by this - perhaps the loss I will feel or the demands that it might make of my time. I don't like feeling sorry for myself so can respond by detaching emotionally from what is happening. Nevertheless, I do try to act with compassion - I don't want to be cold and heartless - but for the sake of self-preservation as I do so I preserve some emotional distance.

What the passages in the liturgy for this feast suggested to me is that there is a yet higher response, in which I am both empathetic and sympathetic but each conforms to the consideration of the other. This, if I have understood it correctly, is the ideal that Our Lady offers us. The highest response to the suffering of others, it seems is a compassionate grief. This is the grief, we are told, felt by Our Lady at the foot of the cross as she gazed at her suffering Son. It is an anguish born of love and as with all that arises from love it opens our hearts so that we can have a fuller union with God and experience an even greater joy. This is a Christian response that is very different from cultivating a detachment from the suffering.

Just as by the grace of God there is consolation offered to us when we suffer directly, so there is consolation when we experience pain or injustice indirectly, arising from an empathetic sharing in the suffering of others. However, this is true it only to the degree that our anguish arises from love. It if arises from a self-centred desire to right the suffering of others as it impacts on ourselves then this will shut out God’s grace. When our anguish is a sharing in the suffering of others born of love for them, then it is a sharing also in Christ’s suffering on the cross. It is a holy suffering that opens a door to a greater joy. In the Office of Readings for the day there is a long passage from a sermon of St Bernard of Clairvaux. He describes Our Lady’s anguish at the foot of the cross as real, but arising from a genuine compassion that is born of charity. He calls it a ‘martyrdom of the soul’: “We rightly speak of you as more than a martyr, for the anguish of mind you suffered exceeded all bodily pain.'Mother behold your son!' These words were more painful than a sword thrust for they pierced your soul and touched the quick where the soul is divided from the spirit. Do not marvel brethren, that Mary is said to have endured a martyrdom in her soul. Only he will marvel who forgets what St Paul said of the Gentiles that among their worst vices was that they were without compassion. Not so with Mary! May it never be so with those who venerate her. Someone may say: ‘Did she not know in advance that he Son would die?’ Without a doubt. ‘Did she not have sure hope in his immediate resurrection?’ Full confidence indeed. ‘Did she then grieve when he was crucified?’ Intensely. Who are you brother, and what sort of judgment is yours that you marvel at the grief of Mary any more than that the Son of Mary should suffer? Could he die bodily and she not share his death in her heart? Charity it was that moved him to suffer death, charity greater than that of any man before or since: charity too moved Mary, the like of which no mother has ever known.’(From the Office of Readings, Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows)

Following this is a quote from St Paul at Lauds. In his Letter to the Colossians he says directly that this sharing in Christ’s sufferings through love is a source of happiness: ‘It is now my happiness to suffer for you. This is my way of helping to complete, in my poor human flesh, the full tale of Christ’s afflictions still to be endured, for the sake of his body which is the Church.’(Col 1:24-25).

The antiphon for the Benedictus on Lauds for that day echoes this and takes it even further: ‘Rejoice grief stricken Mother, for now you share in the triumph of your Son. Enthroned in heavenly splendor, you reign as queen of all creation.’

The idea of 'bright sadness' is often associated with the expression of saints in icononographic art. This ideal of a loving grief in response to the suffering of another is, it seems, a bright sadness  perhaps even a 'peaceful anguish' – an anguish burning with the fire of love that overwhelms and transcends all before it and gives an intense joy.

I would say that this expression could be attributed to these Flemish and Baroque masters too. It runs deeper than a sentimental cry to the emotions. There is an inspiring inner strength that is calm while engaged and empathetic. The first set of paintings are Flemish, 15th century by Dirk Boutts except for the last which is by Rogier Van Der Weyden.The final set of paintings are by Murillo, Ribera and El Greco are notable in the use of restraint. In its worse excesses baroque is often quite rightly associated with exaggerated emotion.

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