Several years ago, I gave a presentation that I had no business giving. It was a speech about forgiveness, what it really means, and how to do it. Maybe it wasn’t as useless as I remember. I don’t think I said anything that wasn’t true. But I said it glibly, drawing on what I had learned in the shallow end of the pool of suffering.
There was a Q and A session after the speech, and one man had a hard question. He said that he was willing to suffer, himself, and he was willing to forgive the perpetrator who had hurt him. But what about forgiving people who hurt someone he loves? What is the mechanism there?
I don’t know what his story was. Maybe someone insulted his child. Maybe someone killed his child. Maybe someone killed his child in the name of God, and that was what he wanted to know how to forgive. Not knowing, and not knowing what else to say, I made the only answer I could think of — and again, it wasn’t the wrong answer; only glib. I said that our model here is Mary, who had to stand by, powerless, watching her innocent son tortured and murdered because he chose to take on our sins and our punishment. We can have faith that she forgave the ones who crucified Jesus, and so she is our model of forgiveness in these cases. The answer is, be like Mary.
It wasn’t the wrong answer. But I didn’t know what I was talking about when I gave it. Now I’m writing on the feast of the presentation of Mary, and I still don’t know what to say. But I have felt much more keenly the sensation of standing helplessly by when someone else suffers, and I can tell you that being powerless is not as simple as it sounds. Standing up under a burden you’re not allowed to carry is not as simple as it sounds.
One morning, I had been up all night, I forget why. I suppose I had a lot of work to do, and I ended up writing about and thinking about Mary. I am too old to be up all night, and I could barely stay upright in my chair. But I was still awake, and I saw something that was not entirely a dream.
You have heard of the woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet. What I saw was a woman in motion, and within the folds of her robe were galaxies. She had nothing to stand on, because nothing could be solid enough to hold firm beneath her transcosmic immensity. The sight of her hit me so hard, I fell on my face inwardly, and I still breathe shallowly when I remember what I saw. She was so immense. She was willing to shelter, to take into herself . . . everything.
When we make promises, we grow into them. When you make a wedding vow, you do it sincerely, opening the door of your heart to whatever the marriage will bring; and then later, you find out what it is you have agreed to. A real promise holds, even if you didn’t know what it contained. Mary, aged perhaps fourteen, made her marriage vow to God at the annunciation, when she said “Let it be done to me,” not knowing, as humans don’t, what that might entail, but accepting, as humans may, whatever God will send.
At the presentation in the temple, which comes 40 days after Christmas, she begins to find out what was to come when Simeon told her her child would be a sign that would be spoken against. Maybe she thought that her child would be insulted, and maybe she found that notion hard to bear. I remember the rage surging up in my heart when I saw a mosquito alight on the face of my newborn. That blood was not for him! How dare he breech that skin and take what was not his. I brushed the mosquito away, but he had already bitten the baby’s face.
Of course there was no real injury. It was just a bite. Worse things have since happened to my child, to all my children. There were times when I prayed in anguish to God to let what they are suffering be done to me, instead. “Let it be done to me!” A mother’s cry, as well as a lover’s consent. But that was not the plan. The child has to suffer, and I have to watch, and be helpless. That was what was done to me. That was what I agreed to, when I entered into a marriage that produced a child.
Once you become a mother, you become everyone’s mother. So many people are my children, besides the ones I have given birth to (much good may it do them). I see them suffering, and I don’t know what to do. If standing by and watching helplessly is nothing, then why does it hurt so much? It must be something. It is something. It is what Mary did, and you see how that worked out. When she found out what her promise contained, she held. She did not fall.
Mary is so immense. In her robe are galaxies, but in her womb is all mankind. Jesus’ suffering brought about reconciliation with the Father, but Mary’s suffering brought about — what? Motherhood. Suffering-with. The openness to helplessness. The foot with nowhere firm enough to stand, that stands nonetheless.
I see you suffering, and I don’t know what to do, other than stand here and be helpless. It can’t be nothing. How could it hurt this much, if it were nothing?
I am here to make a presentation: Here I am, Lord. Here they are; here we are. Look at us. We don’t know what else to do.