Mater Dolorosa: Meditation on Mary’s Com-Passio Beneath the Cross

In his great work, The Glories of Mary, Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori (1696-1787), devotes many pages to the Sorrowful Mother, especially as she “stood” beneath the Cross offering up her heart with the bloody sacrifice of her Son. The month of September is devoted to the Seven Sorrows of Mary and tomorrow, September 15, is the feast day of Our Lady of Sorrows. The seven dolors of Our Lady are 1) the Prophecy of Simeon 2) the Flight into Egypt 3) the Losing of the Child Jesus in the temple 4) the Meeting of Mother and Son on the Via Dolorosa 5) the Crucifixion and Death of Our Lord 6) Our Lady Receiving the Body of Jesus Taken Down from the Cross and 7) the Burial. One of the more popular pamphlets on the Fourteen Stations of the Cross is the meditations of Saint Alphonsus. (Another moving source for meditations on the Stations is that of Saint Leonard of Port Maurice.) Along with Saint Alphonsus’ meditations verses from the medieval hymn, Stabat Mater (the Mother stood), are interspersed between each of the fourteen stations. This hymn was composed in honor of the Sorrowful Mother by a thirteenth century Franciscan theologian and poet, Jacoponi da Todi. A beautiful way to compassionate with Mary during this month would be to slowly recite the Stabat Mater daily. It will be recited liturgically as a Sequence for tomorrow’s Mass for Our Lady’s feast. That is where you can find the hymn in Latin and English if you have an old missal, like that of Father Lasance (page 969). The Council of Trent (1545-63) abolished all but four of the Sequences, which had accumulated into dozens in local churches over the centuries. Abolished, too, at the time, was the beautiful Stabat Mater. Thanks be to God it was restored to the Roman Missal by Pope Benedict XIII in 1727. Here is Saint Alphonsus from The Glories of Mary:

We have now to witness a new kind of martyrdom—a Mother condemned to see an innocent Son, and one whom she loves with the whole affection of her soul, cruelly tormented and put to death before her own eyes.

“There stood by the cross of Jesus His Mother.” Saint John believed that in these words he had said enough of Mary’s martyrdom. Consider her at the foot of the cross in the presence of her dying Son, and then see if there be sorrow like unto her sorrow.

Listen to the words in which Mary revealed to Saint Bridget the sorrowful state in which she saw her dying Son on the cross: “My dear Jesus was breathless, exhausted, and in His last agony on the cross; His eyes were sunk, half-closed, and lifeless; His lips hanging, and His mouth open; His cheeks hollow and drawn in; His face elongated; His nose sharp; His countenance sad: His head had fallen on His breast, His hair was black with blood, His stomach collapsed, His arms and legs stiff, and His whole body covered with wounds and blood.”

All these sufferings of Jesus were also those of Mary: “Every torture inflicted on the body of Jesus,” says Saint Jerome, “was a wound in the heart of the Mother.” “Whoever then was present on the Mount of Calvary,” says Saint John Chrysostom, “might see two altars, on which two great sacrifices were consummated; the one in the body of Jesus, the other in the heart of Mary.”

Nay, better still may we say with Saint Bonaventure, “there was but one altar-that of the cross of the Son, on which, together with this Divine Lamb, the victim, the Mother was also sacrificed;” therefore the Saint asks this Mother, “O Lady, where art thou? Near the cross? Nay, rather, thou art on the cross, crucified, sacrificing thyself with thy Son.” Saint Augustine assures us of the same thing: “The cross and nails of the Son were also those of His Mother; with Christ crucified the Mother was also crucified.” Yes; for, as Saint Bernard says, “Love inflicted on the heart of Mary the tortures caused by the nails in the body of Jesus.”

Mothers ordinarily fly from the presence of their dying children; but when a mother is obliged to witness such a scene, she procures all possible relief for her child; she arranges his bed, that he may be more at east; she administers refreshments to him; and thus the poor mother soothes her own grief. Ah, most afflicted of all Mothers! O Mary, thou hast to witness the agony of the dying Jesus; but thou canst administer Him no relief.

She would have clasped Him in her arms to give Him relief, or that at least He might there have expired; but she could not. “In vain,” says Saint Bernard, “did she extend her arms; they sank back empty on her breast.”

Our Blessed Lady herself said to St. Bridget, “I heard some say that my Son was a thief; others, that He was an impostor; others, that no one deserved death more than He did; and every word was a new sword of grief to my heart.”

But that which the most increased the sorrows which Mary endured through compassion for her Son, was hearing Him complain on the cross that even His Eternal Father had abandoned Him: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” Words which the Divine Mother told the same Saint Bridget, could never, during her whole life, depart from her mind.

“All,” says Simon of Cassia, “who then saw this Mother silent, and not uttering a complaint in the midst of such great suffering, were filled with astonishment.”

“Christ,” says Lanspergius, “was pleased that she, the cooperatress in our redemption, and whom He had determined to give us for our Mother, should be there present; for it was at the foot of the cross that she was to bring us, her children, forth.” If any consolation entered that sea of bitterness, the heart of Mary, the only one was this, that she knew that by her sorrows she was leading us to eternal salvation, as Jesus Himself revealed to Saint Bridget: “My Mother Mary, on account of her compassion and love, was made the Mother of all in heaven and on earth.”

And indeed these were the last words with which Jesus bid her farewell before His death: this was His last recommendation, leaving us to her for her children in the person of Saint John: “Woman, behold thy son.”