If you visit the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., you may recognize many of the titles of the Virgin Mary marvelously illustrated in nearly 50 chapels and oratories throughout what is the largest Catholic church in North America (and tenth largest church in the world!). To me, one depiction stands out from the rest, an image that causes many a visitor to gasp, stop in his or her tracks, and call to mind a particular event in salvation history. Whereas the National Shrine is filled with beautiful images of the Blessed Mother in splendor furnished by various religious orders or benefactors of a national or ethnic devotion to Mary, the Slovakian chapel’s central work of art is not the characteristic mosaic or even a portrait, but rather a statue of the Sorrowful Mother holding in her arms the lifeless body of Jesus.
The image of the Pietà described above is one of the three common artistic representations of a sorrowful Virgin Mary, the other two being Mater Dolorosa (“Mother of Sorrows,” portrayed with seven daggers piercing her heart, often bleeding) and the 13th century hymn, Stabat Mater (which comes from the first line of the hymn “Stabat Mater Dolorosa,” meaning “the sorrowful mother stood”). The feast of Our Lady of Sorrows is celebrated on September 15th, while a feast of Friday of Sorrows is observed in some Catholic countries on the Friday before Palm Sunday. It’s an opportunity to remember that the Blessed Mother’s life was not without sadness or pain in light of her Immaculate Conception. The popular devotion to Mary’s Seven Sorrows recalls seven such instances in her life (likewise the Pietà in the Shrine’s chapel is flanked by the other sorrows on the wall):
While we may tend to think of Mary’s life as being purely one of perfect serenity and union with God, it is important to remember that she was human— she had emotions, doubts, and pains like the rest of us! In a world where violence and suffering are all too frequent headlines in the news, how much more closely can we relate to and depend upon the Mother of God who was no stranger to anguish and distress? However more quickly can we fly in prayer to our Mother’s tender embrace for comfort and peace when we are faced with great tribulation and uncertainty!
Below is a hymn often used for the Stations of the Cross that is composed with the verses from the Stabat Mater. When sung reverently, this hymn solemnly and deeply touches the hearts of the faithful and helps to place each at the foot of Calvary in vigil with the Blessed Mother:
Is there one who would not weep,
whelmed in miseries so deep,
Christ’s dear Mother to behold?
In the end, however, like Mary, we must not dwell solely on the pains of our lives, but look ahead with hope and faith in God (as sculptor Ernest Morenon uniquely depicted in the Shrine chapel with Mary looking towards heaven). For Mary, as well as for each of us, Christ did gloriously resurrect on the third day. How much more confidently, then, can we proceed with our lives, even after great turmoil, as we pray:
While my body here decays,
may my soul Thy goodness praise,
Safe in Paradise with Thee.