Looking into the Heart of the Sorrowful Mother

“The Virgin of Sorrows. When you contemplate her, look into her Heart; she is a Mother with two sons, face to face: Him… and you.”

The Way, no. 506

“Behold your Mother!” (Jn 19:27). This is our Lord’s command to us from the cross. What do we see when we behold our Mother? St Josemaria saw a particularly poignant sign of our Lady’s courageous love, being deeply impressed by how she stood at the foot of the cross: “Mary does not shout; she does not run about frantically. Stabat: she is there, standing next to her Son” (Friends of God, no. 288; see also The Way, nos. 507-508).

Standing is a telling posture. Far from being a passive stance of powerlessness, of one who can only stand by and watch as evil seems to triumph, Mary’s posture is that of one who fully understands her role in the redemption. As Mother of the Redeemer she does not abandon her Son, but carries out her unique motherhood to the very end by a heartfelt sharing in everything Jesus suffers. As mothers regularly “absorb” the sufferings of their children, so does the Blessed Mother spiritually take on those of her Son. Nor does she ever abandon God’s scattered children who are the fruit of those sufferings (cf. Jn 11:52).

And this is where our contemplation of her heart begins. St Josemaria counsels us to “look into her heart,” as he did, to see what Mary’s motherhood means for us—especially as it is exercised under the cross. Her heart is more open beneath the cross than at any other moment in her earthly life.

Looking into her suffering heart, we find a love wholly unique opening out to us. At the same time her heart is virginal, maternal, and impeccable. A love woven of these three strands—purity, maternity, sinlessness—reveals a heart of the greatest breadth and therefore of unparalleled suffering. Yet the heart of the Virgin of Sorrows is not narrowed by suffering, as ours are apt to shrink in painful moments, to become heavy or withdrawn. Our Lady’s heart expands in her affliction to embrace in spirit all that Jesus embraces on the cross—not only His sufferings, but also those for whom He suffers.

Although we may not completely fathom “the greatest of human sorrow” that filled her heart on Calvary (cf. The Way, no. 508), her courageous presence there tells us everything about how she loves both Jesus and us as a Mother. We find deep insight into her maternity by considering an ancient Marian title that St Josemaria was fond of invoking: Star of the Sea.

Sancta Maria, Stella maris — Holy Mary, Star of the sea, be our guide. Make this firm request, because there is no storm which can shipwreck the most Sweet Heart of Mary. When you see the storm coming, if you get into that firm Refuge which is Mary, there will be no danger of your wavering or going down” (The Forge, no. 1055).

From ancient times, Christian piety has always led the faithful to seek protection and guidance from her who was so steadfast beneath the cross.  A star is an especially fitting symbol of the Virgin of Sorrows, because as the human life of Jesus was slowly extinguished she remained the one light shining, the one inextinguishable lamp shining in the darkest of places. At the moment of our Lord’s arrest He had said to those apprehending Him: “But this is your hour, and the power of darkness” (Lk 22:53).

That same darkness falls from time to time on the disciples of Jesus, upon ourselves. This is why Mary must be our constant star, because she knows what it is to remain constant when darkness falls upon the Christian soul. And it does fall, because to live for Jesus in this world means that we will come into open conflict with evil—within ourselves first, and then in the world around us. There are times when we too feel the pain of misunderstandings, of unfair treatment, of confusion. And Jesus gives us His Mother so that we will look to her, as He did, in those moments.

She understands us! She understands her children! We can imagine her encouraging us with these words from Job: “Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish; you will be secure, and will not fear. You will forget your misery; you will remember it as waters that have passed away. And your life will be brighter than the noonday; its darkness will be like the morning. And you will have confidence, because there is hope…” (Job 11:15-18). Such encouragement can only come from the heart of one who has passed through the darkness of discipleship with an unwavering confidence in the Lord.

The darkness that our Lady experienced on Calvary has led the faithful, especially in Spain and Latin America, to robe statues of her in black during Holy Week, and to invoke her as Our Lady of Solitude or Our Lady Forsaken. Indeed, we can imagine all of the appalling sights and sounds that surrounded her as she remained near the cross.

Calvary was outside the city of Jerusalem, at a crossroads of travel. The idea was to execute criminals in a location where passersby would see and fear, so as to prohibit crime and insurrection. Thus St John specifies: “Pilate also wrote a title and put it on the cross; it read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ Many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek” (Jn 19:19-20).

And the people passing by would have said all of the things that you would expect people to say in the face of such a pitiful spectacle: Mothers telling their children to Look the other way; others saying Serves them right—thieves and rebels! Still others: Poor men. What do you suppose “King of the Jews” means? And then: Poor woman, poor mother. She’ll never be able to show her face in public again.

And amidst all of the noise and commotion, our Lady also had to listen to the commentary of her Son’s enemies: “And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’ … ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way” (cf. Mt 27:39-43).

This unruly and brutal environment provided the setting in which our Lady’s maternal vocation reached its crowning moment. And it is also there that Jesus directs our attention to the place where He Himself fixed His gaze from the cross: “When Jesus saw his mother…,” He guided the attention of His beloved disciple to her as well: “Behold your mother!”

We learn, as we behold her, to look into her heart, and to find there the light and warmth of love that we need to remain faithful in difficult and painful times. It is often when we are tested most that she is drawing us closest to Jesus, to share in His sufferings as she did. As Mother to us both, she brings us face to face with Him who redeems and saves us as our Brother.

Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem. Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem.

Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he is a formator in his community's seminary, preaches retreats, is chaplain to several communities of women religious, serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California, and is author of Praying from the Depths of the Psalms , Home Again: A Prayerful Rediscovery of Your Catholic Faith and Scatter My Darkness: Turning Night to Day with the Gospel. Father's latest book is Coached by Josemaría Escrivá (Scepter Publishers 2023). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.

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