I have found myself at night sometimes thinking of one of the more dramatic stories of our Blessed Founder Father Moreau – in his experience of what is called his Great Trial. In 1855, following disasters and epidemics around the world for the young Holy Cross family – so many deaths of young religious in New Orleans, in Bengal, at Notre Dame du Lac … criticism of his leadership from within the community and without … bleakness in prayer … he later wrote:
“When the community had retired, I remained in the chapel for long hours. What did I do there? I went from station to station, searching for light, for an inspiration, and I found nothing absolutely nothing. I came back to the sanctuary, went up to the altar, and knocked on the door of the tabernacle. I waited and received no answer, not the least encouragement.
I would have yielded to the temptation to flee had I not kept my eyes fixed on the crucifix. Finally, convinced more than ever that everything was crumbling around me … I said, 'My God, I consent, provided that the Congregation be saved and that you be glorified.'"
In the same grief and confusion his son, Edward Sorin, left the smoldering bricks and ashes of his life’s work after the 1879 fire that razed Notre Dame, and with the same trust in Providence mounted the steps to the altar in Sacred Heart Church and announced “If it were ALL gone, I should not give up!”
Fr. Moreau, Fr. Sorin, and Mother Angela and Brother Ephrem and how many sisters and brothers and priests in our storied family have stood at the Cross, in the midst of so much darkness and difficulty and not seen where God is leading – yet persevered! It is so little wonder that the crown of our spiritual patrimony is their patroness, now our patroness – the Sorrowful Mother of God – the Lady "who bore much she did not understand, and stood fast" (Constitutions, 8:120) … by the side of Jesus.
Archbishop Dolan suggests that Mary’s “lesson is that what is happening to us is not as significant as with whom it is happening, for what is of the essence is that, at both the crib and the cross, she is close to Jesus. That is fidelity.”
My brothers and sisters – if we really consider it, how much of the pain we suffer is not just from the material of life’s disasters: the cancers and rejections and loneliness and divorces and addictions and sudden deaths. Perhaps most of our suffering comes from how little of it all we understand!
“Why God?!” is the natural question we ask. We want to understand because then we can rationalize, then we can manage the impact, then we can warn others to prevent it. Perhaps then we can medicate it and numb the pain… Not that understanding “why” will change the reality, but certainly it is better than being so utterly confused and in the dark. How often we have seen one’s attempt and failure to wrap his head around something lead to a downward spiral? With tragic consequence… Yet, we who would stand by Mary’s side at the cross of Jesus must also stand fast as she does. Even when do not understand – especially when we don’t understand.
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For the grace that strengthened Mary at the cross is the grace for which we pray every morning – trust in divine providence. We trust that God is not abandoning us. How hard this is to believe in the moment of trial! Perhaps this is why St. Paul must remind Timothy “this saying is trustworthy” before he declares “if we have died with him we shall also live with him; if we endure with him we shall also reign with him.”
Mary’s whole vocation as mother and her seven dolors reveal how deep and constant is her trust in God’s plan and promise: on her first trip to Jerusalem with her baby Jesus she is told by Simeon “Yea, a sword shall pierce thy own soul also” – and so it is, time and again – on the road to Egypt, in the Temple, on Calvary.
At the risk of sounding maudlin, let us imagine Mary standing at the Cross amidst the very men who conspired to torture and kill her Son; Who even then mock her child and laugh at her child and gamble for his tunic – a tunic that she probably made for him! Heartbreak fails to describe this moment.
Yet, where does she go? Surely the same deceiver who whispered in Peter’s ear to deny Jesus, in the apostles’ ears to run away, whispered to her to escape this pain somehow. But we know she remains. We can almost hear in her steadfastness the question Simon Peter asked earlier “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Our Lady does not leave Jesus’ side because only in Him is there salvation. He is her one Hope.
My brothers and sisters, we have more than just Mary’s example to help us when we shoulder our crosses – indeed we have been given her as our very mother. She intercedes for us and for our apostolate, and she always points us to her beloved Son. We know that “if we drink the cup each of us is poured and given, we servants will fare no better than our Master” (Constitutions 8:121) – but as we hear from the Apostle, “if we have died with him we shall also live with him; if we endure with him we shall also reign with him” (2 Tim 2:11-12a).
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Let me be clear – Jesus death and resurrection make a difference, it makes all the difference – this faith is not a psychological device to deal with pain or a coping strategy. This faith does not just change our knowledge about God’s love – all creation is transformed – death is conquered! Again Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:17)! His victory over evil is our hope because He is the only Way we shall conquer the evil we will confront in our discipleship.
Mary saw this and continues to see it, she stood in the midst of pure evil and suffering and now reigns in heaven with Her Son. Let us too endure – whether we understand the designs of Providence or not – let us endure and reign with Him. Let us come to the side of our Lady and remain with her there in the presence of her Son, our one Hope.
Fr. David Halm, C.S.C., currently serves as the Director of Campus Ministry at St. George's College in Santiago, Chile. He is a member of the United States Province. This reflection on the Congregation's patroness, Our Lady of Sorrows, originally appeared on the Oblation blog of the University of Notre Dame, which addresses themes of "Liturgy and Life".