My daughter is drawing at church. She handily sketches in a crucifix: Top, bottom, one arm, then the other. She’s drawn it many times, over and over. Lately, she’s adding more detail, and at first I didn’t know what it was– some kind of ghost, a formless lump.
Then I saw it was Mary, swathed with robes and veils. Jesus on the cross is sharp and angular, and he turns his face up to the heavens in his agony; but Mary’s head is down, almost crushed into the ground as she bows under the great grief of his innocent suffering. She is utterly helpless. She can’t rescue the child she brought into the world.
In her grief, she is almost unrecognizable, and why not? Why should she be her same self, since the crucifixion is so outrageous? It never should have happened. How could it possibly have happened? This is God we’re talking about; actual God, that than which nothing greater can be thought, and here he hangs, bleeding dry. Ripped into shreds. Extinguished. Thwarted by some thugs wielding a hammer.
Never mind the veil in the temple, it should have been the entire planet, the whole fabric of the universe that was ripped in two when he died. I don’t know how the world was held together through the crucifixion. How did everything not come apart?
I do know. It was held together through Mary, who stayed.
Under the intolerable weight of the suffering of her son, she was helpless, almost crushed. But she didn’t leave. There was nothing she could do, but she stood by and let it happen to her with him. Sometimes this is the only action of love: To stand by and not leave.
The suffering of innocents is what tears people away from the Church, away from God: When we have to stand by and watch the innocent suffer, and no one will rescue them. It tears us apart. This is why the abuse crisis has been the breaking point for so many people: The Church was supposed to be where children were safe, but instead it was where there they were ripped into shreds. Extinguished. Thwarted by thugs wielding a crosier.
It is not tolerable.
But it is nothing new.
The split, the rift, the gap, the unravelling: This has been the story of man since we left Eden. God the Father made His children for wholeness and delight, and what did they do but leave, tear themselves away from him; tear each other apart. Even when there is no ill will, this is the duality of the human experience of love since the Fall: We always live through love and loss at the same time. Never love without loss. From the moment we give birth, we prepare our children to leave us. From the moment we marry, we take on the burden of preparing our spouses for death. This is nothing new.
But Mary is something new. She holds in her heart the making and the unmaking of her beloved, and she does not come apart. She is strong enough to make the son of God and strong enough to stand by and watch him unmade, and still she does not leave. She is steadfast like no other.
Our sorrows are the first part of the story. The long story, the whole story, is that the world is all knit back together again in the womb of Mary. If Penelope wove and then unravelled a shroud, over and over again while she waited for the king to return home, then Mary weaves . . . what should we call it? The swaddling clothes that somehow bind up eternal life itself. And every day, death tries to unravel it, and every night she knits life back up again, day after day, over and over again. She does not leave her island. She is waiting for the king to return.
There are times when we all flee from the foot of the cross. It is too crushing. It hurts too much to be so helpless. We are perhaps willing to suffer, ourselves. But how willing are we to stand by and watch the ones we love suffer? That is the thing that feels intolerable.
But leaving the foot of the cross leaves the world unravelled. Running away from injustice, and staying away, leaves injustice as the final word. If we want to meet Jesus, we must meet him in suffering, in injustice, on this island world at the foot of the intolerable. That’s where he is right now. That is where love is. There is nowhere else, no other place but this temporal island called suffering. We will not be here forever, but we need to be here ready to meet him. To try to escape is to leave the world unravelled.
I can hear that I sound like I’m saying, “Don’t leave the Church, or you will betray the world and betray God.” I am not. I know I have said things that sound like that, and I am sorry. I don’t know what I would do if it had been one of my children abused. I don’t know what I would do if I were a reporter or a district attorney who talked to hundreds and hundreds of victims. When I do write about how the Church has betrayed the innocent, there always comes a time when I close my computer and put my head down and cry. But this is not my life’s work. If it were, I don’t know what I would do.
I am only thinking of Mary, and how glad I am that she didn’t leave.
Jesus was crucified for our sins, and Mary stayed at the foot of the cross for our sorrows. She stayed there for us, waiting on that island called suffering and death. She stays with us still. With her son she will make the world whole again; and then there will be love without loss.
The Virgin In Sorrow by Simon Marmion. Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons