Embraced in Her Suffering: A Reflection on Our Lady of Lourdes
“It was on Calvary that Christ, her most blessed Son and our brother, gave her to us as our mother, when he said to St John: ‘Behold your mother.’ And we received her, along with the beloved disciple, in that moment of supreme grief. The blessed Virgin embraced us in her suffering, as the ancient prophecy was fulfilled: ‘And a sword shall pierce your own soul.’ We are all her children, she is the Mother of all mankind.”
St. Josemaria Escriva
Christ is Passing By, no. 171
To have been embraced by the blessed Virgin as our mother in her moment of supreme grief leaves no doubt about the special worth that she places on suffering in our lives. Her apparitions and numerous miraculous healings at Lourdes show us not only the exceptional value that suffering has in God’s eyes, but also how our own eyes need to be cleansed in order to see its value—both in ourselves and in others.
We recall how our Lord frames the question in the Gospel: “Lord, when did we see you?” (cf. Matt 25:37). Within the context of human misery—hunger, sickness, imprisonment, poverty—both the righteous and the condemned, the sheep and the goats, ask the same question. Both saw the same types of people throughout their lives—the sick, poor, and suffering—but only the virtuous saw Jesus in them and acted upon it.
By her unique vantage point beneath the cross of her Son, our Lady makes it her priority to change our perspective in this way: to see Jesus in suffering, and to see it as something beautiful, something that saves. We must learn to see the crucifix as something beautiful and to be attracted to the love that it stands for. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux even goes so far as to have Jesus in His passion speak the words of the bride from the Song of Songs: “I am black, but beautiful.”
We are asked to do this because we are inclined to turn away from Jesus when His face is unsightly to us. When asked on one occasion if she considered herself married, Mother Teresa remarked, somewhat humorously but realistically: “Yes, and I find it sometimes very difficult to smile at Jesus because he can be very demanding sometimes. This is really something true, and there is where love comes—when it is demanding, and yet we can give it to Him with joy.”
Isaiah prophesied of this stumbling block: “He had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men … and as one from whom men hide their faces … and we esteemed him not” (Cf. Is 53:2-3). This is the aversion in us that the Blessed Virgin must correct, if we would see Jesus where we do not think to look for Him. She was the first to appreciate this beauty—contemplating it first in His infant face, but more importantly, in His bloodied, swollen face.
Today we celebrate our Lady’s apparitions at Lourdes, especially under the title of the Immaculate Conception, which is how she identified herself to Saint Bernadette. Yet whenever we picture the Blessed Virgin beneath the Cross, we think more of her sorrows than of her conception. But one is the direct result of the other. Our Lady could have said to Saint Bernadette: I am the Immaculate Conception, and therefore, the Sorrowful Mother. This is because, as the great Carmelite mystic Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity says, the virginal heart suffers more than any other—because it sees more, even the presence of God in those persons from whom men hide their faces.
To have a virginal heart is to have burned every bridge except for one. It has chosen, or been chosen, to be the exclusive property of another. It is present and compassionate to all that makes the other suffer and rejoice. And so our Lady of Lourdes has compassion upon the sorrows and sicknesses of all who belong to Jesus, because they belong to Jesus, because He suffers in them. With her pure eyes she sees in them the unmistakable beauty of the Lord. She is not thrown off by physical or mental handicaps. In all of them Jesus is beautiful.
When we think of Mary as the Immaculate Conception, we think of her as beautiful, but her beauty comes from her share in the sufferings of Christ. In the liturgical preface for the votive Mass of Our Lady, Mother of Fair Love (a Marian title especially venerated by St Josemaria), the Church says of her in these astounding words: “Beautiful in her conception, beautiful in the virginal birth [at a moment when no woman considers herself to be beautiful, the Church says Mary is], beautiful in the passion of her Son, in which she was purpled with His blood.” And further on, echoing St Josemaria’s words above: “The meek ewe, suffering with the most humble Lamb, was adorned with a new gift of motherhood.”
Neither sorrow nor suffering is beautiful in itself until someone who is beautiful embraces both with love. When sorrow passes through our Lady’s heart, and over her face, it becomes strangely attractive—maybe not pleasant, but still desirable. We surrender to the suffering, because that beauty enlarges our hearts to understand that something greater is being accomplished above and beyond our pain. Man’s most dreaded sentiments are made beautiful. What he fears the most—tries to avoid—is made irresistible.
Mary presides over human misery as only the Mother of Jesus can. She enables those who suffer to see their sufferings as mysteriously beautiful in Christ. Only the Mother of Jesus can do this, because she shared first in His sufferings and was beautified by them. In the ugliest circumstances that the world could offer to God, her virginal heart saw the beauty that would enable countless generations of Christians to take up their cross and follow—and allow Jesus to plant that cross wherever He should see fit—in a hospital bed, a battlefield, wherever people suffer.
Maybe our Lord had this in mind when He gave Mary to Saint John at the foot of the Cross, as though to teach us: If you cannot see the beauty in my face, at least you can see it in my Mother, who saw that my face became more beautiful with each passing moment of my passion. And if you can see beauty in her face, you will see it in my face, and on the suffering faces of all of my brethren.