The Stabat Mater, which words translate from their Latin to mean “the mother stood,” descends to us today from a 13th-century poem of Italian provenance. Under likely Franciscan auspices it soon spread as a liturgical hymn that celebrates Jesus’ mother, Mary, as Our Lady of Sorrows, a title that had begun to gain popularity in the preceding century. Nearly a millennium later, the hymn—half of which is a description of Mary’s pathos at the foot of the cross, the other half of which is a petition that we be made more alike to Mary in her comportment at the foot of the cross—remains a central element of the Catholic devotions that commemorate the Virgin Mother’s role in the economy of salvation.
What precisely is that role, theologically speaking, for this is what the Stabat Mater aims to convey? No stoical one, to be sure. Rather, what is distinctive about the Stabat Mater is the degree to which it depicts Mary weeping at the foot of the cross. Though this display of raw emotion is often sublimated into the concept of sorrow, Mary should be seen as in a state of lamentation, as if she were nearly wailing. This would be characteristic of not just professional mourners in Near East cultures (cf Matthew 9:23 and John 11:33), but also of the untempered anguish to be expected at the sudden and wrongful death of a child. In other words, Mary does not simply stand (stabat mater) where her son was hanging on the cross; she remained firmly in place grieving (dolorosa) tearfully (lacrimosa) at his side.
In the Stabat Mater, then, we have a testament to God’s empathy for humanity. Mary’s own pathos is graphically depicted throughout the hymn as a sign of her own desire to share in the pathos, or suffering, of Christ. By desiring it ourselves, we, the singers of the Stabat Mater, are led to empathize with Mary to the point of petitioning her to “make my heart blaze with love for Christ the Lord” (Fac ut ardeat cor meum / in amando Christum Deum). Even before Thomas à Kempis’ published his 15th-century spiritual classic, The Imitation of Christ, we have in the Stabat Mater a hymn that could itself be called the imitation of Mary.
Mary’s role, though, is to imitate none other than Christ. In hearing and accepting the message of the archangel Gabriel to receive the Word of God, which the Gospel of John describes as “with God, and the Word was God,” Mary becomes the first follower of the anointed one who God has sent (Christ in Greek, Messiah in Hebrew). There is, then, a vocational aspect to the Stabat Mater as much as it emphasizes Mary’s empathy. Mary was called not just to give birth to the Son of God, but also to confer the grace of God by remaining at the side of any who suffer. This is the station Mary keeps because it is the station God keeps.
Today, in a society particularly marked by mobility and self-promotion, remaining at the side of those who suffer might look like the person of Josephine Sellu. Sellu was a deputy nurse matron at the epicenter of Liberia’s 2014 Ebola virus outbreak. Although she buried many of her junior nurses and returned home nightly to pleas from her own children not to return to the hospital that was increasingly becoming a morgue, Nurse Sellu stayed at her station. Why? Through tears she relates that perhaps she should have chosen secretarial work, but God, she said, had chosen her to be a healer, and to heal obliges us to stabat—to stand among, or stay at the side of, the sick, the aggrieved, the dying. In other words, to not abandon them. This is the divine promise at the heart of the Stabat Mater.
Different injustices and sufferings will inform the purpose that each of us are called to just as Mary and Josephine were. Regardless, to not abandon, but to stay despite the sorrow—the notion on which the Stabat Mater is predicated—is to affirm the idea that ultimately what God asks of us in giving us life is to stand vigil against that which is death-dealing.
It should be no surprise to us that mothers model this in a singular way. When David Zinman’s 1992 recording¹ of Polish composer Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs debuted on French radio, for instance, drivers were reported to have been so mesmerized by the music that they pulled over to the side of the road. There they could listen to its arresting lamentations unperturbed by the task of fighting traffic all the way back to Paris. In three piercing movements, we hear the Virgin Mary implore Jesus to share with her his heart as he dies on the cross, a young daughter incarcerated by the Gestapo plead with her mother not to cry, and a peasant woman mourn the wartime disappearance of her son. In presenting these voices to us, Górecki strikes the same chord that for centuries has drawn people to the Stabat Mater: to wit, the realization that, perhaps more than any other station in life, motherhood is constituted as much by a vigil against death as it is by raising new life.
There is something of Mary’s comportment in the Stabat Mater that each of us is called to emulate—an imitation of a mother who does not abandon those who are at the end of life for the very fact that she ushered them into it. And though the drive to afford life the fullness of its dignity is by no means an exclusively female prerogative, the potential for in utero or postnatal complications would seemingly expose those who endeavor motherhood to a place perilously within death’s reach. But by keeping that station, they reveal to us something tremendous about the divine life—that the God who grants life will forever keep station against the powers of death that would seek to deny it.
Fr. Kevin Sandberg, C.S.C.
Acting Executive Director
Center for Social Concerns