(On September 15, the Church celebrates the Feast of Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows. Our Lady of Sorrows is the patroness of the Congregation of Holy Cross. I will be posting one of the seven sorrows each day leading up to the feast day. This is only part of a larger reflection that has not yet been published. The stories are meant to encourage your own reflection about each of the sorrows found in the gospels.)
The First Sorrow: The Prophecy of Simeon
Luke 2: 27-35
When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, they took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord just as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord and to offer the sacrifice of “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,” in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord. Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Messiah of the Lord. He came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying: “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.” The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted. (and you yourself a sword will pierce)* so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. ”There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fast and prayer. And coming forward at that very time, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.
The dreaded first wound
I first met Jane years ago shortly after an initial phone conversation. She called me because she had heard my voice during my radio program, “On the Margins”. She heard within my voice that my life was also broken, my life history physically revealing itself within my voice. She also immediately heard within my voice a place of trust, a time-out where she could rest her own words, the storytelling of her past. I knew from this initial phone conversation that her journey to faith was raw and authentic, that she was being led through her struggles by the gift of God’s undivided love for her.
Within our first few meetings, she began to unravel the circumstances that led her to first pick up the phone and call me. She started her face-to-face conversation telling me that she was in recovery from alcohol and drugs. Her recovery had been rather recent and her emotions that had been hidden by many years of drinking were now so raw and fragile. She was discovering her life over again, each lost memory and emotion coming to the surface after thirty years of drinking. She strung together one new memory after another with tears and fright, with prayer and longing to be set free as an adult.
She told me that she first started drinking before her fourteenth birthday. She started to sneak bottles of booze with her friends in order to hide the first wounds of her life, the profound wounds that she had carried well into adult life. Jane thought as a teenager she could well hide the childhood wounds of abuse at the bottom of many bottles. Jane never realized in her youth that the remedy she had used to hide her initial wound would some day become another wound, a disease that would overcome her entire life.
Jane came to talk with me even though she was not Catholic. She felt compelled to offer me some of the memories that had emerged in her new sober life after visiting a retreat center dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows. One of her piercing memories, one of her deepest wounds, was losing her only son from a drug overdose. He died while she was still drunk. Now that she was sober, the grief for her boy was overwhelming. She felt for the first time the grief and the guilt that she had repressed for over five years since his death.
Jane told me that while she visited the retreat center she followed the path of the Seven Sorrows of Mary. Her heart began to connect to the pain of Mary who lost her only Son in death. She wept at each of the stations of the Seven Sorrows of Mary. She had never heard of these scriptural moments of suffering from Mary’s perspective before. She had never encountered Mary in prayer; in fact from her religious background Mary was always suspect and a bit superstitious.
Jane’s pain of losing her son was so intense that she decided to have an image of the Seven Sorrows of Mary tattooed on her chest. The pain in her heart was a deep itch that she could not scratch, a wound that seemed eternal. She believed that wound would never heal. She told me that when the tattoo artist started to carve the image deeply into her skin over her heart, that it was the first sorrow that hurt the most. She wept and wept lying on the table as the first sword, representing the First Sorrow, was engraved on her body. The first of the seven swords that surround Mary’s heart seemed to open her wound of grief and years of guilt. Jane also realized that once the first sword was tattooed on her body, there was no turning back. She new there was a deeper reason why the portrait of Mary was being tattooed on her delicate skin.
Jane’s tattoo of Our Lady of Sorrows became more than just an image of a mother losing her son. The tattoo was the beginning for Jane of opening up her own heart to the love that God had for her and the grace of Mary walking with her in absolute loss and confusion about her past and her future. Jane also confessed to me another reason why that tattoo hurt so much on her chest. The tattoo artist mixed some of the ashes from Jane’s dead son into the ink for the image of Mary’s heart. The tattoo over Jane’s heart also carried the death reminder of her only beloved son.
As I learned more from Jane about her story and her decision for the tattoo, there was one insight that she carried from the tattoo parlor into my office. She told me over and over again that the first piercing of Mary’s heart must have hurt the most. The first wound of hearing the voice of Simeon must have penetrated deeply into Mary’s heart that carved a place where the other wounds would live and form themselves into a deep trust in God. Perhaps this first ink image of the sword began to heal the first wounds of abuse and neglect in her life as well. The first wound in any life is deep and profound.
Simeon proclaimed to Mary after years of waiting and prayer that her Son would be the fall and the rise of many people in Israel. Mary’s first wound from the sound of Simeon’s prophetic voice must have created such a deep scar within her heart. His words like a sword, pierced deeply into her thoughts, her heart and her future. Mary’s first encounter with Simeon’s prophetic words became her dreaded first wound, “and you yourself a sword will pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
How do you interpret your own “first wounds” or the suffering you carry with you in life?
How are you inspired by Mary to carry the message of suffering within your own heart?