Meditations On The Pieta – The Meaning Of Suffering

We are reflecting on the Pieta here at the school of Mary, with the intention of learning how to be faithful to our Christian vocation. In the previous reflections, we meditated on the Sorrowful Mother as a source of inspiration for all women, especially those mothers who are suffering. Today we contemplate Mary to understand the most important lesson of our lives: the ultimate meaning of suffering.

PietaIn the Pieta Jesus and Mary reveal in their faces and in their bodies, the suffering they endured for our redemption. In Jesus, that pain is over. In Mary, the suffering remains in her most pure heart just as the aged Simeon had predicted: “ a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” (Luke 2:35).  Long gone are those happy days of Jesus’ childhood! The young Son full of life and strength that she had held in her arms now lies lifeless and helpless on her lap in the cold grip of death.

Michelangelo’s sculpture reminds us that suffering is part of our lives. When we are young, pain – especially physical pain – is a foreign concept, something we have been told about, but that has nothing to do with us, a strange country we will never explore. Adults, on the other hand, know what it means to slowly decline, to feel energy decrease while infirmities increase. Death, rather than being something that happens once at the end of our journey on earth, is experienced as a process of weakening and continuous wear. We don’t die, but rather we are dying, slowly, every day.

The fundamental issue for the human person is to find meaning in his suffering. It is not suffering itself that is the worst thing, not understanding why we are suffering is far worse. I recall the insights of Viktor Frankl, a Austrian Jewish neurologist and psychiatrist, a Nazi Holocaust survivor and the founder of logotherapy. Dr. Frankl states that the fundamental task of man on earth is to find sense and meaning to life as a whole, but especially when we suffer trials and any form of pain. In his most famous work, Man’s Search for Meaning, he reports his discovery in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II:

“We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.’

That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of Man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when Man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position Man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, ‘The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.’”

In the Pieta, Mary gazes on her Beloved, whom she loves with all her heart, and knows that their salvation is in love. She knows that the love of her Son will conquer death, and that her suffering gives meaning to her pain. Only the love of God surpasses and overcomes any difficulty. The Pieta reflects the struggle being waged in the soul of Mary between the excruciating pain of the loss of her Son Jesus and the expectation that  God will dispel the darkness and return the joy that she seems to have lost forever. The face of Mary in the Pieta is not the face of one who has been defeated by despair and pain, but of one who knows in Whom she puts her trust.

Mary teaches us to give our love to the One who never fails. She teaches us to suffer with hope and not be discouraged by the setbacks in life. She reminds us our need to have our suffering make sense so that we can find peace and joy. She teaches us to unite our sufferings to the suffering of Jesus so that Christ Himself will one day transfigure us in a joy that will have no end.

Mother, teach us to suffer like you. Teach us to love while we are suffering. Teach us to offer our crosses for the salvation of the world. Help us to be like you.

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