After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Luke 2:46-50
St. Alphonsus Liguori calls this “one of the greatest sorrows that Mary had to endure in all her life.” The reason is that, just as someone who becomes blind later in life feels sorrow over the loss of his sight more acutely than one who has been blind from birth, so Our Lady, having spent so much time in the divine presence of Our Lord, felt severe deprivation while being separated from him during this incident.
During all of the other sorrows, Mary had Jesus with her, his presence offering her consolation in her pain. But for this one, she did not. The separation was painful for her, physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Any mother who has lost a child in a crowded place – a grocery store, an amusement park – will tell you that, even though it may have just been for a short time, those moments were some of the most intense and frightening moments in her life. We can easily put ourselves in the place of Our Lady in this story to imagine the fear and anxiety that she felt while searching three days for her Child.
But I suspect that another element that made this sorrow so difficult is revealed in the last sentence of the scripture passage above: “But they did not understand what he said to them.”
Sometimes, we undergo suffering that does not seem to us to have a purpose. We may be left with many unanswered questions about our painful experiences, and the greatest one may simply be “why?” Why did I have to go through that? What was the reason for it?
The other sorrows that Mary experienced had a purpose that was evident – they had to flee to Egypt because Herod wanted to kill Jesus, for example – but the reason for this particular sword of sorrow is not clear, even when Jesus offered them an explanation. Of course, Mary felt relief upon finding her Son safe in the temple, and we meditate on this joy as one of the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary, but the reason for the sorrow is never fully understood, and was likely one of the many things that Our Lady pondered in her heart.
The fact is that while we are on this earth, we only know in part and understand in part. Like looking at the back of a tapestry, when we look at the things that happen in our lives, it may not be clear that there is a purpose for them. But one day, we will understand in full, as St. Paul tells us (1 Corinthians 13:12). We will see the side of the tapestry that God sees, and will recognize that He has made something beautiful out of our messy, complicated lives. Only then will we understand the purpose for each experience we have had.
This poem by Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch Christian who helped Jews to escape from the Nazis during the Holocaust, explains it so well:
My life is but a weaving
Between my God and me.
I cannot choose the colors
He weaveth steadily.
Oft’ times He weaveth sorrow;
And I in foolish pride
Forget He sees the upper
And I the underside.
Not ’til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly
Will God unroll the canvas
And reveal the reason why.
The dark threads are as needful
In the weaver’s skillful hand
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned
He knows, He loves, He cares;
Nothing this truth can dim.
He gives the very best to those
Who leave the choice to Him.
In addition to demonstrating that when it comes to our suffering we may be left with unanswered questions, this sword of sorrow reminds us that there are times in the life of a Christian when the Lord may feel far away from us. Sometimes this is a result of our own sin that separates us from God’s grace, but other times, especially as we mature in our faith, God allows us to undergo times of desolation. It may feel like no one is on the other end of our prayers, or going to church may leave us feeling unsatisfied, like we are merely “going through the motions.” Some Saints have referred to this time as a dark night of the soul.
Fr. Chad Ripperger, in his sermon on Our Lady of Sorrows, explains that God sometimes tests our virtue by stripping us of our consolations, and that this is necessary to our spiritual advancement so that we do not become attached to the consolations themselves, but instead continue to press into relationship out of love for Him and not for the good feelings we receive.
Following Mary’s Example
What are we to do when it seems that our suffering has no clear purpose, or when God feels far away from us?
Let’s look at what Mary did:
She continued to seek after Him. Even though she felt desolation at being separated from Jesus, Mary did not give up her search for him. She did not allow that sorrow to overtake her, but she pressed on until she found Him again.
Likewise, when we encounter a time of desolation – a time when God feels distant and we don’t experience the good feelings that come from spending time in prayer or reading the scriptures – it does not mean that we should give up these things. God will not withhold them from us forever. We should continue to press into a relationship with Him out of love for Him and not for the feelings themselves. He is worthy of our love and will reward our efforts.
“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29:13
She was patient in her suffering. We are told that she and Joseph felt great anxiety as they searched for Jesus, but we also know that Mary demonstrated perfect virtue as an example for us. St. Alphonsus Liguori tells says, “Since Our Lord gave us the Blessed Virgin Mary as a model of perfection, it was necessary for her to be burdened with sorrows so that we may admire her heroic patience and endeavor to imitate it.” (The Glories of Mary)
Fr. Ripperger explains further that what Mary demonstrated was longevity of soul – that is, the endurance of something bad and patience in awaiting the good. It was an unflappable faith in God that allowed her to maintain this patience during her suffering, and her desire is to give us the grace to do the same in the face of our own sufferings.
- Have you ever felt like you were merely “going through the motions” when it came to your faith in God? Did it seem that He was not listening to your prayers, not meeting you in church, hiding His face from you?
- Were you able to press on in spite of this desolation and find once again the comforts that He offers in relationship with Himself? Does knowing that sometimes He withholds these consolations to help us to mature spiritually encourage you to press on?
- Is it comforting to know that even Our Blessed Mother and dear St. Joseph did not understand the reason for some of the sufferings they endured?
God, though sometimes you feel far away, remind me that you are found by those who seek you with all their hearts. Please help me to grow by pursuing a relationship with you, not for the good feelings it may bring me, but because you are worthy of my love. Remind me that you run out to meet the prodigal and go after the lost sheep. You always desire to be in relationship with me.
Our Lady of Sorrows, thank you for enduring suffering so that we may have a perfect example to follow. Please give us the grace we need to be patient in our sufferings. Help us to trust God as you did when we don’t understand the reason for our pain.
This is the third post in a series on the Seven Sorrows of Mary. To read the first post, click here.
To read the second post, click here.
St. Alphonsus Liguori’s book, The Glories of Mary, has reflections written by this devoted Saint for Our Lady’s feast days, her sorrows, her virtues, and so much more. It is a wonderful resource for considering the beautiful example that our Blessed Mother is to us. It is available on Amazon Kindle right now for only 99 cents! You can find it at this affiliate link. I highly recommend it.