Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Our Lady of Sorrows

Years ago I went to a parish where people flocked to hear the parish priest. He loved his parishioners, and we loved him. I had special reason to love him, for he counselled me through my divorce and annulment. And I knew that he, too, had known suffering and loss: years before he heard his call to the priesthood, his fiancée had died. His mother thought he would go off the rails, but in the end, he straightened out and went into the seminary. Result: one pastorally amazing priest.

So I was startled when I heard this good priest announce from the pulpit that he wished he could paint smiles on all the statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I can't remember why he wanted to do this--to cheer us all up, perhaps, or to underscore the joy of the resurrection. But I certainly remember my dismay at Father's suggestion that we whitewash Mary's sufferings with a painted smile.

We lived in a mill town. The economy was shifting towards the service sector, but the town's identity came from three steel mills. It was a tough town, a small, tough city, and bad stuff was not as easily hidden as it is in a big city. There was a statue to men who had been hurt or killed on the job. There was a belief that guys who retired from the mills didn't live long enough to enjoy their pensions. There was TB down by the docks. There were mob killings and police with rifles on the roofs during mob trials. And, of course, there were strikes, lay-offs, rumours of closings. So all was not rosy.

The Italian and Portuguese populations were big; there were a lot of Franco-Ontariens, too. Lots of Croatian refugees. In some ways it was a Catholic city. And I thought about what a local woman, the kind of local woman with a picture of Padre Pio on the wall, would do if her husband got hurt or killed in the mill, or if her kid got hurt or killed in crossfire, or if she had a miscarriage. Who would she turn to in her prayers? In whom would she see understanding of her woman's suffering? The Sorrowful Virgin, Our Lady of Sorrows, that's who. Not some woman with a painted-on smile.

I don't know so much about men, so I'm going to restrict my remarks to women here. And these remarks are going to be very Catholic, maybe a bit of a mystery to those of the Reformed tradition, who don't see why I don't just talk about Christ Crucified (which I do, incidentally, in my book).

When women are in pain, they naturally seek out other women. Men and women deal with stress differently: men have fight or flight responses; women have fight, flight and complain to other women. We assume that other women "get it", and we get mad when they don't. Mary the Mother of God, who is herself, of course, not divine but a human saint in heaven, is also a woman. And because she saw her Son die, and "a sword pierced her heart," other suffering women know she gets it.

Suffering, ordinary suffering, can do two things to you: it can corrode you with bitterness and it can make you a deeper, more sympathetic person. This is not always your choice, and sometimes it can be a lot of work to rise above corrosion. But if your suffering makes you a deeper, more sympathetic person, then your suffering has a silver lining for somebody: your suffering is a gift for the woman who needs to see the maternal, understanding face of the Sorrowful Virgin and sees it in you. Your suffering, and your ability now to sit in sympathy with other women who suffer, makes you a true daughter of Mary.

Many Single women feel their loneliness and their disappointment with men acutely. I sure did. I felt it from about the age of eight. I felt it in high school, when my "prettier" (actually, more socially gifted) friends found boyfriends. I felt it in university, when it looked like my religion was a barrier between me and the most interesting men. I felt it when I was engaged and married to a man who turned out to despise my religion. I felt it after my divorce. And throughout all this loneliness and disappointment, I held views most recently summed up by the contemporary pencil case motto: "Boys are stupid. Throw rocks at them." These views were corrosive.

I was very impatient with women who didn't understand what I was going through. Girls who had been popular with boys all their lives didn't get it. Women who had been treated kindly by their husbands all their lives didn't get it. Women who had never been divorced didn't get it. Women who had never gone through an annulment procedure didn't get it. There was a lot of not getting it.

But some women did get it, and these women were gifts to me. Other long-term Singles, other young divorced women, other young divorced-and-annulled women. Just by knowing first-hand what kind of things I had gone through, they were helps to me. And when I realized that I had something to say myself to fellow Single women, I started a blog to be a help to myself and you. The companionship and solidarity I found in readers, plus reading about inspiring Single men and women, helped me rise above corrosion. And because of your sufferings as long-term Singles, my Searching Single readers, you can--as you fight the battle against bitterness--be a help to other suffering Single women.

P.S. Bitterness is to be overcome, but sometimes you have to fight for your right to feel your own sadness. I remember saying, quite sternly, through tears, "I am CRY-ing because I feel grief and loss. CRY-ing is a perfectly healthy response to grief and loss!"

I also remember bursting into tears on 9-11, after watching the towers collapse on public televisions. A woman with a pasted-on smile--she looked a bit mad, actually--asked me if I was all right. I either said or thought, "Of course, I'm not all right. I just saw thousands of people die." Although I agree one should wear a stiff upper lip when there's work to be done immediately, you've got to give vent to your grief some time.


shadowlands said...

Inspired words. Thank you for this post.I have two sons with ongoing serious health issues, Our Lady is my only strength at times, she truly knows how I feel,and helps me to live in uncertain times with her precious gift of Anticipation, which I am beginning to live within, rather than projected fears.

Our Lady spent all of Jesus' life anticipating His Death and Resurrection, she is a strong companion when traveling unsure paths.

theobromophile said...

What a lovely post!

As for your PS: I've done the best in terms of recovery when I've had the time to scream/cry/be upset, rather than those times in which things got in the way of that opportunity or when people told me that I had no reason to be upset/to just get over it/it's all my fault anyway.

Like using crutches after having sprained an ankle, it's a necessary element of healing. It's always amazing to me how people will acknowledge the need to let one's body heal (and that sickness is a problem) but don't seem to grasp that there's an emotional correlary.