Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.
John 19: 25
Many years ago when my father was dying of esophogeal cancer, my cousin’s son, then a student in high school, would come to visit and sit on the floor next to the recliner in which my father was most comfortable. I remember being deeply affected by the sight of this young man sitting so close by to my sick father, occasionally speaking but often just sitting silently. He felt no compulsion to do anything, and I sensed that he was in no hurry, just willing to spend time being there with my father.
Today’s gospel for the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows begins with the description of the three Marys who stood by the cross of Jesus. It leads to the personal question, “Am I able to stand (or sit) close to suffering.” The Buddha taught that the basic illusion to which we are prone is the denial of suffering. There is, of course, ultimately no avoiding it, but we expend much energy in fleeing it and denying it. At least for me, my greatest failure in compassion comes from my fear of and difficulty with being close to suffering. Such seemed to be the case with most of Jesus’ disciples at the point of his death. Except for the three Marys, no one else was close to Jesus in his greatest suffering and dying.
Our denial of and distancing from suffering, is a distancing from life itself. It is the nature of the soul to suffer. It is in suffering that we experience soulful living. So, how do we come to develop the capacity to be with our own suffering and the suffering of others, that we might live and love from our depth? Perhaps we can try to move close to others, and to our own deep experience, when we recognize that we are moving away? When we are putting off that visit to a sick or suffering family member or friend, when we are distracting ourselves from our own loneliness or sadness, when we are avoiding situations with others because we don’t know what to say or do, these are all times to dare to be present and to move closer. At the level of ego we work to keep life to what we believe are manageable proportions. As spirit, however, we are able to bear whatever life brings us. In evading the aspects of life we fear, we limit our presence to all the mysterious manifestations of gift and grace that life offers us. As we can all attest, at times the most painful and difficult moments become the deepest experiences of light and grace.
“Perfect love casts out all fear.” It was their love that enabled these greatest of Jesus’ disciples of whom today’s gospel speaks to remain standing by the cross. May we do what we can, today, to grow in love and so lessen fear’s hold on us and our availability to the needs and sufferings of our world.
More than this, there is about sorrow an intense, an extraordinary reality. I have said of myself that I was one who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age. There is not a single wretched man in this wretched place along with me who does not stand in symbolic relation to the very secret of life. For the secret of life is suffering. It is what is hidden behind everything. When we begin to live, what is sweet is so sweet to us, and what is bitter so bitter, that we inevitably direct all our desires towards pleasures, and seek not merely for a ‘month or twain to feed on honeycomb,’ but for all our years to taste no other food, ignorant all the while that we may really be starving the soul.
Oscar Wilde, De Profundis