A few years ago I realized that Our Lady of Sorrows is one of the reasons I’m a Catholic.
Of course, as a convert the image of Mary with seven swords piercing her heart was not immediately attractive or accessible.
But when I stopped to examine the devotion I came to understand that this was simply a working out of a couple of verses in the New Testament. The first was Simeon’s prophecy to Mary that “a sword will pierce your own heart also” (Lk. 2:35) the second is those mysterious words of St Paul, “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” (Col. 1:24)
We believe, on the one hand, that Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient, once for all sacrifice for the sins of mankind, but we also believe with St Paul that something “is lacking”. What could be lacking if the sacrifice is sufficient and complete? What is lacking is the application of the suffering and the participation in the redemption of the world.
Think of it like this: The pantry is full of good food. Everything is there. However, what is lacking is the preparation, the cooking the setting of the table, the sending of invitations, the welcoming of guests. All is provided, but the application and delivery is still necessary.
This is where the Blessed Virgin’s example and St Paul’s participation shows the way. The Seven Sorrows of Mary are the way she participates in the redemption won for her by her son’s sacrifice. St Paul’s physical sufferings are the way he claims what has been done for him and applies that grace to the needs of the church. Our suffering is therefore the mechanism whereby we claim the full, sufficient and complete sacrifice of Christ.
This then, helps to answer the most thorny of questions: Why does God allow good people to suffer?
The answer is, he did not spare his own son, but sent him to suffer and die for the redemption of the world. As we suffer, like Mary and St Paul, we join our sufferings and sacrifices with the sacrifice and suffering of Jesus himself, and as we do this–even just a little–then we join in with the redemptive work of Christ in the world.
I say Our Lady of Sorrows is one of the reasons I’m a Catholic? Its because Our Lady of Sorrows offers an image of this most mysterious and moving concept. It is in those swords entering her own heart that she is one with the sufferings of her son and acts therefore as a Co-Redemptrix in the world, and inasmuch as we participate in this same way we join in that same action and become little co-redeemers. We are so only inasmuch as we identify with the mystery of the cross and the mystery of suffering in the world.
This then turns things on their head. Rather than the suffering of innocent people becoming the most difficult question for believers, it becomes the most amazing answer.
This is the only answer to those who are in the midst of suffering and the only answer for those who suffer watching their loved ones suffer, and this is also the reason why each one of us should take upon ourselves some sort of mortifications. If we don’t have suffering in our lives right now, we can make little sacrifices to join in with this great action.
St Therese of Lisieux said every little sacrifice was a way to join with Christ’s redemptive action. Just deciding not to be grumpy, to be kind to that difficult person, to check our fiery tongue, to fast a little and maybe give something up, to be more generous with our time or money and who we are.
All of this matters and all of it, therefore gains eternal merit.