On the Vision of St. John Concerning the Sorrows of the Virgin Mother of God

On this Holy Saturday, I thought it would be fitting to meditate on the sorrows of Mary, the Mother of God and our Mother.  I have translated and copyrighted a sermon of St. Lawrence of Brindisi on Mary’s sorrows.  I believe this is the first time this has ever appeared in English.  I hope that you find it spiritually fruitful.

St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori wrote: “Wherefore the graces promised by Jesus to those who are devoted to the sorrows of Mary are very great.  Pelbert relates that it was revealed to Saint Elizabeth, that after the assumption of the Blessed Virgin into heaven, St. John the Evangelist desired to see her again.  The favor was granted him; his dear Mother appeared to him, and with her Jesus Christ also appeared; the Saint then heard Mary ask her Son to grant some special grace to all those who are devoted to her sorrows.  Jesus promised her four principal ones: First, that those who before death invoke the Divine Mother in the name of her sorrows should obtain true repentance of all their sins.  Second, that He would protect all who have this devotion in their tribulations, and that He would protect them especially at the hour of death.  Third, that He would impress upon their minds the remembrance of His Passion, and that they should have their reward for it in heaven.  Fourth, that He would commit such devout clients to the hands of Mary, with the power to dispose of them in whatever manner she might please, and to obtain for them all the graces she might desire.”

St. Lawrence of Brindisi

The Sixth Sermon on the Vision of St. John, for the Saturday after Passion Sunday,

On the Vision of St. John Concerning the Sorrows of the Virgin Mother of God

 

“And being with child, she cried travailing in birth,

 and was in pain to be delivered.” 

I.  We see a wonderful spectacle, a heavenly miracle, a godly woman clothed with the sun, having the moon under her feet for a footstool and crowned on the head with the splendors of the everlasting stars.  Now we see her unhappily distressed and tormented with the pains of birth: “She cried travailing in birth and was in pain to be delivered.”

But how was Mary tormented with the pains of birth, if she gave birth as a virgin undefiled, if Christ was born from her by a great miracle, since her virginal womb had been shut, and the enclosed place had not been violated even in the least, just as He went in to the Apostles when the doors were shut?  For otherwise Mary would not have been a perpetual virgin, that gate of the temple of Ezechiel which had been shut, a garden enclosed and a fountain sealed up; which is an impious thought.  The perpetual virginity of Mary is an unchanging dogma of the most holy faith; for she brought forth Christ as the dawn brings forth the sun, as a star a ray, as the moon splendor.  What, therefore, was the cause of so great a pain and torment?  Clearly, that which John indicated by immediately adding: “And there was seen another sign in heaven. And behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns and on his heads seven diadems.  And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth.  And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to be delivered:  that, when she should be delivered, he might devour her son.”  Who this dragon is, John himself makes clear: “And that great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, who seduceth the whole world.  And he was cast unto the earth: and his angels were thrown down with him.”

That prophecy which was spoken by God to the ancient serpent is well known: “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed”.  The Most Holy Virgin knew, therefore, the fierce hatred of Satan toward Christ, knew beforehand in spirit how many and what sorts of persecutions the infernal dragon was devising against Christ to destroy Him, and so she was crying out and being tormented.  In a way it was as though she did not wish to give birth to him at all, lest she witness so many and such great misfortunes of her Only-begotten Son prepared for Him by the devil.  Therefore Satan’s cruel persecution of Christ tormented the Virgin beyond measure, and rent her most holy heart and tore her to pieces inside, as the most holy Simeon, inspired by the Holy Spirit, foretold: “Behold, this child is set … for a sign which shall be contradicted, and thy own soul a sword shall pierce.”  In the Passion of Christ, therefore, the Virgin suffered the pains of birth, for she had experienced no pain at all in giving birth to Him.  Therefore, the magnitude of the Virgin’s pain—nay, rather, of her pains—is indicated here when it says:  “She cried travailing in birth, and was in pain to be delivered.” 

In birth the most blessed mother Mary was as Lia said, when Aser was born: “This is for my happiness; for allwomen will call me blessed.”  Thus the Virgin: “All generations shall call me blessed, because the Lordthat is mighty hath done great things to me.”  But in the Passion of her Son, in that final very bitter and inhuman persecution which He suffered from Satan, the mother was most afflicted and most sorrowful; so that she might with reason have applied to herself that passage saying: “O all ye that pass by the way, attend, and see if there be any sorrow like to my sorrow”; to say with Noemi, deprived of her most beloved sons: “Call me Marah (that is, bitter)… for the Almighty hath … filled me with bitterness.”  Mary’s only Son was dying, but He was worth more to her than ten sons.  Then truly, according to her name, was the Virgin a bitter sea, an enormous sea of bitterness, of most bitter sorrow.  Then truly God filled her with a nearly unlimited bitterness: “Call me Marah … for the Almighty hath quite filled me with bitterness.”  Thus from an excessive sorrow, which was piercing her most holy heart, she was made sorrowful unto death, she was crying out and being tormented, experiencing the pains of birth. 

For the Sacred Scriptures use this turn of phrase and figure of speech to express great pain.  Thus the Royal Prophet, concerning the enemies of God, the rulers of darkness, says: “So they saw, and they wondered, they were troubled, they were moved:  trembling took hold of them.  There were pains as of a woman in labour.”  Thus Isaias says:  “They shall be in pain as a woman in labour.”  Jeremiah often used this metaphor and other Prophets also13a to express the greatest force of sorrow; indeed the Lord Himself signified by this metaphor the sorrow of the Apostles on account of His impending suffering and death:  “A woman, when she is in labour, hath sorrow, because her hour is come; but when she hath brought forth the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world.  So also you now indeed have sorrow:  but I will see you again and your heart shall rejoice. And your joy no man shall take from you.”  So now the torment of one giving birth signifies the very great sorrow of the Virgin Mother of God on account of the Passion of her only and dearly beloved Son. 

For parents, at the death of their dearest children are afflicted with very great, inexpressible sorrow.  This is evident in the inconsolable sorrow of the patriarch Jacob on account of the presumed death of his most beloved son Joseph, when his tunic was seen defiled with blood. How bitterly also did David weep, when he heard about the death of Absalom, even though his son had planned to kill him: “My son Absalom, Absalom my son:  would to God that I might die for thee, Absalom my son, my son Absalom.”  The most patient Job, when the loss of his goods was reported, was moved almost not at all, but, when the death of the children was reported, then he was greatly afflicted; then he tore his garments, and gave clear indications of the greatest sorrow.  The saintly Moses passed over in silence the lamenting and tears of our parents Adam and Eve, on account of the cruel death of Abel, as if indicating that no words could express the dignity of their mourning.  Timanthes, too, the noble painter, indicated this in the death of Iphigenia.  For, after he had depicted with his painter’s brush all the bystanders weeping with very doleful expressions, he painted Agamemnon, a most loving parent, with his face veiled. 

II.  Sorrow arises from love, and love itself, by the same token, is the measure of sorrow.  From great love arises great sorrow.  He who loves the most, grieves the most, when he loses that which he loved.  If in a great household and numerous family the only son and husband dies, all indeed lament, but most of all the parents and the wife.  Those, however, to whom the deceased was related in no respect, are touched with no sorrow interiorly.  It is a great sorrow of the parents at the death of their children, because love for one’s own offspring is dear.  Hence God tried Abraham in respect to Isaac his most beloved son, as though testing whether Abraham truly worshipped God from the heart, and loved Him above all things.  For it is scarcely possible to find or imagine in nature a love more pure, more true, and greater than that of parents for their children, but especially for only sons and those desired for a long time.  For in everyday experience we see animals themselves, devoid of reason, boldly go to their death for the safety of their dearest offspring, the very nature of love inciting and urging them, so that they despise every danger in order to protect their little ones. 

Mary, however, was the true mother and natural parent of Christ our Lord, and He Himself was her true and utterly natural Son, and indeed the only, the most beautiful, the most pleasing, the best Son, who was endowed with every virtue, perfect beyond all measure, most loving and very devoted to His Mother.  What, then, must the Virgin’s love for Christ have been like?  No one can put it into words or even comprehend it with the mind.”

For she knew that He was also the true and natural Son of almighty God.  She had a child in the womb, but whom?  What child?  Scripture says:  “And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all the nations with an iron rod.  And her son was taken up to God and to his throne,” to His throne certainly, that He might sit at the right hand of God the almighty Father, above all the choirs of Angels, equal to God in glory and majesty.

She had this Man in her womb, and from that cause she received all her glory, so that she was clothed with the sun, and had the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.  For the Virgin Mother of God did not have this glory from herself, but from God, the Creator of heaven, Who created the sun, the moon and the stars; from Christ, her Son, through Whom all things were made, and she herself also; wherefore Christ was not only a Son to her, but also a parent, Who had created her; a Spouse Who had chosen and sanctified her, and had adorned her with every virtue and grace; a Savior, Who had provided all goods for her; He was both her Lord and true God most high.  Thus the most noble soul of Mary found infinite causes and objects of love in Christ, concerning which we read:  “He is all lovely”, or, as it is in Hebrew:  “He is all-desirable” or “He is all desires”, that is, whatever is able to be desired is found in Him most abundantly; thus He was desirable in the highest degree, supremely lovable, but to the Virgin Mother supremely loved, and most beloved.  If therefore sorrow follows love, as heat fire, who even in thought will ever be able to understand the sorrow of the Virgin Mother of God?  Giving birth she was being tormented. [Cruciabatur parturiens.]

She did not feel the pains of birth, when she brought Christ forth into the light of day.  Certainly, she gave birth to Him with joy, as the Saints teach: Cyprian, On the Nativity, Athanasius, A Description of Mary and Joseph, Gregory of Nyssa, On the Birth of Christ, Damascene, On the Dormition of the Mother of God, and Bernard, Sermon 1 on Christmas Eve.  But nevertheless she did not escape much more severe and vehement pains and torments, as Damascene says, Book IV On the Orthodox Faith, chapter 14.  “She,” he says, “who had been blessed and made worthy of gifts surpassing nature, endured those pains of birth, which she escaped in giving birth, at the time of the Passion out of the maternal compassion of her inmost heart, bringing forth again her sorely-wounded Son.”  Thus Damascene interprets the prophecy of Simeon:  “And thy own soul a sword shall pierce.”  Perhaps against Origen, who had interpreted this sword —irreverently, of course, as is his custom—to mean infidelity, as though at the time of the Passion the Virgin’s soul, along with the other Apostles, had been pierced by the sword of infidelity.  But where, I say, has Origen read of the sword of infidelity?  We clearly read about the sword of faith:  “And take unto you … the sword of the Spirit (which is the word of God)”; and:  “the word of God is living and effectual and more piercing than any two-edged sword”; and: “From his mouth came out a sharp two-edged sword”.  But about a sword of infidelity we do not read.  Wherefore Origen clearly did the Virgin an injustice, and Simeon Metaphrastes, a Greek author, rightly demolishes his argument in an oration, On the Birth and Education of the Virgin, where he interprets this most sharp sword to mean the sword of sorrow, as do Damascene and Euthymius in their commentaries on Luke, and Venerable Bede on the same passage, as well as Bernard, and Anselm also, who on account of this most sharp sword of sorrow proclaim Mary to be a martyr and more than a martyr.

III.  Truly there are many, who, in praising the Virgin, suppose that she was not affected by any sorrow during the Passion of Christ, both on account of her most certain faith of His resurrection and also due to her perfect love for God, by which Mary was united in spirit and of one will with God; but it was the will of God that Christ should suffer such things, and undergo such a Passion and death.

But those persons practically relegate the Most Blessed Virgin to the stupid sect of the Stoics, who declared that perfect virtue consists of dullness and of not feeling natural emotions.  Shall we admit that Mary was so stupid and irrational?  Shall we attribute to her such an insensate breast, a heart so stony, such a wooden disposition that she did not experience the sorrow which earth together with heaven, which the rocks and the tombs and the bodies of the dead experienced?  I know that a most perfect faith was in her, a most perfect charity, whereby with Abraham she herself, if it had been necessary, would have offered her only and most beloved Son to God in sacrifice with her own hands and would have crucified Him; but nevertheless not without the greatest sorrow of soul and affliction of her maternal heart; for neither was Abraham prompted by an unfeeling stupor when he sacrificed his son.  Her faith and charity were as perfect as they could be, but virtue perfects nature and does not destroy it.  Strength of soul did not prevent her from being a woman by nature with a loving, gentle, tender, and dear heart; from being truly and naturally a very loving parent, a most sweet and most tender mother, moved by deep maternal sentiments toward her only and dearly-beloved Son.  For she did not give to Christ an imaginary body instead of a true and natural one, as the wicked Manicheans used to prattle, but she gave Him a true and a natural body from her most pure blood, formed in her very own womb by the divine aid of the Holy Spirit.  How, then, could she not feel maternal stirrings and not give rein to her motherly emotions without offending virtue and without insulting the divine judgment?  Christ our Lord was possessed of an ineffably and unimaginably perfect charity, and truly He knew the holy will of God with certainty, and nevertheless at the mere consideration of death: “He began to fear and to be heavy.”  “He began to grow sorrowful and to be sad”; and He says, “My soul is sorrowful even unto death”; because of his distress “His sweat became as drops of blood, trickling down upon the ground. And He was in an agony”; He Who nevertheless knew very well about His future resurrection.  He knew the divine judgment upon the city of Jerusalem, and nevertheless: “Seeing the city He wept over it”; He knew that Lazarus’ resurrection was soon to take place, but nevertheless seeing the tears of his sisters and the Jews lamenting, He Himself also, suffering with them, allowed Himself to be troubled and wept with them.  Thus Paul says that we should weep with those who are weeping as well as rejoice with those who are rejoicing.  How, therefore, was the Most Blessed Virgin in so lamentable a scene, in so mournful a tragedy, able to refrain from the most bitter tears, to keep from weeping inconsolably?

The woman of Naim was weeping inconsolably, because her only son had died, and she herself was a widow; but Mary was in the same boat.  How truly therefore was she able to say with Noemi:  “Call me Mara, (that is, bitter), for the Almighty hath filled me with bitterness.”  Indeed, she says that the Lord “hath quite filled me with bitterness.  … Why then do you call me Noemi, whom the Lord hath humbled and the Almighty hath afflicted?”  If the Lord has compared the suffering of the Apostles on account of His Passion and death to the sorrow of a woman giving birth, what should we think about His Mother?

Many women, following Christ to the place of Calvary, were mourning and lamenting Him with bitter tears, as it also had been prophesied by Zacharias:  “They shall mourn for him as one mourneth for an only son, and they shall grieve over him, as the manner is to grieve for the death of the firstborn.  In that day there shall be a great lamentation in Jerusalem.”  There will be, he says, a most bitter lamentation of the kind that one usually finds in a family, when the parents’ first-born son has died.  For Scripture customarily expresses the greatest sorrow through this lamentation, as it is said by Jeremiah: “Make thee mourning as for an only son, a bitter lamentation.”  Many women, therefore, were bewailing and lamenting Christ in this way; and was the Virgin, among so many mourners, the only one left with dry eyes?  Was she alone not feeling sorrow, whose first-born and only Son was being slain with horrible cruelty before her own eyes?  Not so, not so, but “She cried travailing in [a second] birth and was in pain to be delivered.”  Then she experienced the severest torments and the greatest pains of birth.

IV.  She had endured many sorrows for the sake of Christ, from the moment when she gave birth to Him, indeed even before she bore Him.  First, on account of the suspicion of adultery that occurred to her husband Joseph, who, “not willing publicly to expose her,” consequently intended “to put her away privately”.  Then, when she was already near to giving birth, she experienced the utmost inhumanity of men in Bethlehem, for she was shut out from the houses of all, because she had found no gracious host, nor even lodgings for rent.  Because there was no place for her in an inn, she was compelled to retire to a stable together with beasts to flee the severity of the night, there to give birth to her first-born, the Only-begotten Son of God, and to place the most tender and delicate Infant in a manger.  She experienced great sorrow in the rough and painful circumcision of her Son, seeing her dear little baby suffering pain, wailing, and weeping on account of that wound inflicted.  It was a great sorrow, on the day of her purification and of the presentation of her Son in the temple in Jerusalem, when she heard Simeon prophesy that her Son was going to suffer severe and painful persecutions.  It was great sorrow when she learned from the Angel’s revelation that the wicked Herod was seeking the Child in order to destroy Him, and it was necessary to flee into Egypt.  She felt a great sorrow when she lost the twelve-year-old Child Jesus in the temple: “Thy father and I have sought Thee sorrowing.”

But these were the beginnings, certain preludes and foretastes of sorrows; she has not yet come to the sword piercing her soul.  When Christ, after receiving the baptism from John and after conquering and overcoming Satan in the desert, began to manifest Himself to the world by preaching the Gospel and by working divine miracles for the destruction and ruin of Satan’s kingdom, then the most severe persecution began, and this was not unknown to the Virgin.  Could she have been ignorant of the fact that her own fellow-citizens, unable to bear the harsh condemnation of their vices when they heard His preaching in the synagogue, were filled with anger and drove Him out of the city, that they might destroy Him by casting Him down headlong from the mountain?  That fleeing the deadly persecution of the Jews, He walked in Galilee “because the Jews sought to kill Him”?  That they were reviling, dishonoring, and despising Him with many insults and curses, and stigmatizing with their many calumnies the Only-begotten Son of God, truly the Messiah?  That they often tried to attack Him with stones?  That, by a most heinous crime, the leading men of the Jews issued a death sentence against the Author of life?

But then truly a sword of the sharpest sorrow passed through her most holy soul when she knew that He had been seized by the Jews, through the treachery of Judas; when, after an awful scourging, she understood that He had been condemned to the infamous and most disgraceful death of thieves, when she saw Him crowned with thorns, carrying His cross, and being led with thieves to the place called Calvary to be crucified, when finally she saw Him hanging in the air fastened to the cross with nails, and she heard His voice, for: “There stood by the cross of Jesus His Mother” when she saw Him dead.  O ineffable sorrow!  When holy David, whose heart was like that of a lion, heard about the death of Jonathan, he was not able to hold back the tears, but began to weep bitterly and to say tearfully: “I grieve for thee, my brother Jonathan, exceeding beautiful, and amiable to me above the love of women.”  What sort of tears, therefore, did Mary shed then?  What sorrow did she feel?  “Can a woman forget her infant, so as not to have pity on the son of her womb?”

When the patriarch Jacob saw only the bloodied tunic of his son Joseph and thought that he was dead and had been devoured by some wild beast, even though he had many other sons, nevertheless at that sight, overwhelmed with inconsolable sorrow, he began to weep most bitterly.  What, therefore, must the Most Blessed Virgin have done, when she saw with her own eyes her only and dearly-beloved Son most cruelly killed by the Jews?  Truly then was Christ a Son of sorrow to the Virgin, as Benjamin was to his mother Rachel; which is why she named him “Benoni”, that is, “son of my pain”, before she died of the exceeding pain of his birth.  Truly it can be said about the Virgin: “Weeping she hath wept in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks:  there is none to comfort her among all them that were dear to her.”  And she could rightly apply to herself the verse:  [The Lord] hath made me desolate, wasted with sorrow all the day long.”  And if it was permissible for Paul, on account of his ardent love for Christ, to say: “With Christ I am nailed to the cross.  And I live, now not I, but Christ liveth in me”, how much more so for Mary?  Therefore if Christ was thus living in the Virgin, what could Christ suffer without the Virgin suffering it along with Him?  She was suffering with her the Son, but she herself was also suffering the greatest affliction; she was having compassion with her Son; but she herself felt pain most bitterly, so that it was necessary for her to be consoled by her suffering Son, when Christ, looking both at her and at John, said to her: “Woman, behold thy son.”   But what great sorrow this very word caused the Virgin!  For a wound of the heart hurts most when it is touched.  Hence at these words the Virgin felt most acutely as though her sorely afflicted heart had been bound with ropes, and she did not have the strength to respond; she made no reply at all, since she could not utter a word on account of the magnitude of her sorrow.

To make a further remark based on human considerations: devoted and tender mothers suffer pain as much as possible and are most bitterly tormented at the death of their sons, when it is the only son, when he is handsome and beloved and adorned with virtues, when he is attentive to his mother and lovingly obeys her with much honor and reverence, as a good son, so that he has never saddened his mother in the least, when she has received some benefits from him in her necessities, and her entire hope of consolation and means of sustenance, and the honor of the family depends upon him alone.  For all these things then simultaneously come to the mind of a devoted mother, and torment her in extraordinary ways, when she sees herself deprived at one stroke of so many and such great goods; and having pitied herself, she tells one by one, with great wailing and lamenting, all the causes of her sorrow.  But if the son does not die a natural death but is cruelly slain, it is something of a miracle if she herself is not deprived of life by the magnitude and severity of her overwhelming sorrow.  Who, moreover, does not see in the Virgin all these causes and objects of immense sorrow?  And yet, O what saintly greatness of soul!  What superhuman constancy! 

V.  She was standing by the cross supported by the virtue of faith, knowing that He would soon rise:  There stood by the cross of Jesus His Mother.  O wondrous stance!  Nay, rather:  O divine miracle!  She was standing in body, but more in spirit, with the virtue of her faith undiminished; she was standing in astonishment admiring the divine love with which God so loved the world, admiring not only the divine mercy but also the divine justice in punishing sin for the sake of the sinner’s salvation; admiring the divine obedience of her Son to the Father, his divine strength against the demons, his boundless patience in suffering extreme torments.  Thus she stood in admiration, astounded by the divine mystery of human redemption; she stood also as an example for the whole Church of the future and as a model of invincible patience in enduring adversities.  For truly it can be said about her, that: In all things she sinned not with her lips, no indeed, nor in her heart; nor spoke she nor did she even think any foolish thing against God; but kept saying in her mind: If we have received good things at the hand of the Lord, why should we not endure evil?  The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away, as it hath pleased the Lord so is it done. Thus, with extraordinarily great courage she drained to the dregs this most bitter chalice given to her by God to drink, saying with her Son: “The chalice which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it.”  “If it be possible, let this chalice pass from me; nevertheless not as I will, but as Thou wilt.  Not my will, but Thine be done.”  Thus through it all she was like her suffering Son in courage and strength.

And if Christ suffered leaving for us an example, that we might follow in His footsteps, so clearly His Mother Mary also suffered; she gave us an example with her Son, that just as she has done, so also we might do; and let us always have before our eyes this saintly exemplar shown to us on the mountain; let us contemplate it, that we might imitate both Christ and His Most Holy Mother with the utmost zeal.  Let us reflect upon her who endured such opposition from sinners, so that we may not become weary and discouraged or falter on the path of virtue, which is the way of salvation.  May Mary always be for us an example of undaunted and invincible patience, of unconquerable strength, of invincible courage, in order that no tribulation, indeed, no creature whatsoever, may separate us from the love of Christ.

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