Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Our Lady of Sorrows - 15 September

Readings: Hebrews 5:7-9; Psalm 30(31); Luke 2:33-35

Along with these two short readings about the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of Mary, the Church's liturgy for today also proposes the sequence, the famous Stabat mater dolorosa, so beautifully set to music by many great composers, most recently by the Scottish composter James Macmillan.

How can such beauty - think also of Pergolesi's setting of the Stabat mater - be built on such unpromising foundations? It is all about pain and loss, sorrow and abandonment. These are not things we seek out or try to provoke. They constitute suffering which in its literal meaning refers to what comes to us, what is imposed on us, what we can only either accept or protest.

In another powerful and beautiful work of art, Oscar Wilde's letter from prison called De profundis, he explains that he came to see suffering as a revelation. His words about it are quite extraordinary. Clergymen get as far as describing suffering as a mystery. But it is a revelation. We find Oscar Wilde repeating, unconsciously it seems, the words of Simeon, that through the suffering of Jesus and Mary the secret thoughts of many are laid bare. 'In suffering', says Wilde, 'one discerns things one never discerned before. One approaches the whole of history from a different standpoint. Sorrow is the supreme emotion of which man is capable, it is simply true and it wears no mask.'

'There is no truth comparable to sorrow', continues Oscar Wilde, 'there are times when sorrow seems to me the only truth. Other things may be illusions of the eye or of the appetite, made to blind the one and cloy the other, but out of sorrow have the words been built, and at the birth of a child or a star, there is pain.' 'The secret of life is suffering', he concludes.

The clergyman proposing suffering as a mystery might use the same words - the secret of life is suffering - and struggle then to show how suffering and love go together. But the suffering man or woman who has tasted sorrow to the depths can speak these words with authority: the suffering man or woman who has had this revelation, can say this with authority: the secret of life is suffering.

Oscar Wilde again: 'Now it seems to me that love of some kind is the only possible explanation of the extraordinary amount of suffering that there is in the world. I cannot conceive of any other explanation. I am convinced that there is no other, and that if the world has indeed ... been built of sorrow, it has been built by the hands of love, because in no other way could the soul of man, for whom the world was made, reach the full stature of its perfection.' In no other way than suffering could the soul of man, for whom the world was made, reach the full stature of its perfection. So sorrow must be the work of love, and Jesus too, although he was Son, as we read in the first reading, learned to obey through suffering, and having been made perfect, became for all who obey him, the source of eternal salvation.

This homily has been largely given by Oscar Wilde, speaking de profundis, out of the depths of pain, sorrow, loss and abandonment. It is better to quote him than to repeat banal and hackneyed phrases about the mystery of suffering. He speaks of what it revealed to him. And that unites immediately with Mary's pain as she stands at the foot of the Cross and with Jesus' pain in the garden and on the Cross.

Our celebration of the Eucharist today, when we meditate on Mary's pain and sorrow, could well be followed, later, by listening to Pergolesi's or Macmillan's setting of the Stabat mater, or by reading Oscar Wilde's De profundis, and in doing so praying to God for all who today are asked to realise the revelation that lies hidden in suffering.

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