Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, And Me

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Tomorrow, September 15, is the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows on the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar. Having been raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this was never an important day for me growing up. While Mary is honored as the mother of Jesus in the LDS tradition, particularly around Christmas, she is not venerated or celebrated. But in recent months, Mary has taken up more space in my heart and spiritual formation. While Mary in the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church is quite different from the explanation of a Heavenly Mother in the LDS tradition, I am drawn to the idea of a Holy Mother who is accessible in everyday practice, art, and prayer. A mother I can access here, not only a mother there.

A few months ago I spoke with a Roman Catholic friend about the hesitation of myself and many other Mormon feminists to embrace any concept of Heavenly Mother that includes polygamy. I told her about an essay I wrote that is awaiting publication about the ways my seeking Heavenly Mother has crashed against the limits set forth by LDS general authorities. She then shared some of her beliefs and practices around Mary, particularly Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows.

To my great embarrassment, I found myself crying in public as I considered what it would be like to a have a relationship with a Mother in Heaven that wasn’t wrapped in fear. While I have sought Heavenly Mother through study, poetry, art, and prayer, I spent many years in trepidation, aware of the threat of discipline and ostracism that looms over LDS members who speak openly about Heavenly Mother. Within the LDS church, I think the increase in visibility of Heavenly Mother is the launch of a movement, not just a moment, but there is still intense division.

I thought about my friend’s words in the weeks that followed. About this version of Mary who is always sorrowful and to whom you can go with grief and sadness and worry. This intrigued me because I’d felt that the LDS Church does not hold space for grief and sorrow in ways that I’ve needed. Certainly I’ve known LDS individuals who will sit with me in grief, but at church there was intense social pressure to have a smiling Sunday face and to talk about even my greatest trials as blessings. But Mary doesn’t require my forced smile.

My friend spoke of God’s greatest gifts to the world—the first being Jesus Christ, the second being His Mother. On the cross, Jesus turns to His disciple and says, “Behold thy mother. And from that hour, the disciple took her as his own” (John 19:27). The idea is that as disciples of Jesus Christ, we can all behold the Blessed Mother and take her as our own.

Seven Sorrows Rosary

So one evening in July, I found myself on Etsy ordering a rosary of Our Lady of Sorrows and a card that explained the Seven Sorrows of Mary. I do not pray the rosary—quite frankly, I don’t even know how—but I’ve held the rosary and read the scriptures about Mary’s sorrows as a source of meditation and study.

The Seven Sorrows of Mary are:

  1. The prophecy of Simeon (Luke 2:34-35)
  2. The flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:13-14)
  3. The loss of the Child Jesus in the temple. (Luke 2:43-45)
  4. The meeting of Jesus and Mary on the Way of the Cross (Luke 23:27)
  5. The Crucifixion of Jesus (John 19:25-27)
  6. The taking down of the Body of Jesus from the Cross (John 19:38)
  7. The burial of Jesus (Mark 15:46-47)

Though I’d read Luke 2 dozens of times in my life, reading it again while focusing on Simeon’s prophesy about Mary made it feel entirely new.

Luke 2:34 And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; 35 (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

What would Mary have felt in hearing these words about her son? What is the sword that pierces her soul? Is it grief? And how does Mary’s grief help reveal the hearts of many? What is revealed in my own heart as I consider Mary’s experiences? I don’t recall ever discussing these verses in LDS scripture study settings. Reading the verses of the Seven Sorrows of Mary has breathed new life and energy into my engagement with scripture.

This seeking has helped me realize the depths of my ignorance about the Roman Catholic veneration of Mary. There were likely many factors that kept me from studying more, but the core reasons were probably the biases instilled in me by the same teachings from male LDS leaders that had stopped me from seeking Heavenly Mother, and the healthy doses of anti-Catholicism that made its way into Sunday school discussions. Mary, the Holy Mother, is not a theological equivalent to the LDS Heavenly Mother as I understand Her. But my tradition claims a belief in a Heavenly Mother and then attempts to deny access to Her in almost every way. I know so little of the long and rich Marian tradition within Catholicism, or in the other traditions that also honor or venerate Mary, but I am fascinated that Mary can be an active and integral part of daily religious life for millions across the world.

I’ve loved and been moved by books and blog posts that help me consider an earthy Mary who experiences the grittiness of human motherhood. I’m glad to have those interpretations. I have also enjoyed learning about a very different Mary—one who was full of the grace of God from her own conception until her assumption into Heaven.

I barely know this Mary. I’m excited to learn more about her in material practice, theology, and debate, including what Catholic feminists have to say. Perhaps in a future year when I’m not concerned about daytime childcare or an ongoing pandemic, I will attend mass on September 15 and observe how Mary is honored on that day. Tomorrow, however, I will take a few minutes to read some scriptures about Mary and contemplate her sorrows. 

Please share in the comments – what has Mary meant to you? Has she been a part of your gospel study? What resources about Mary are your favorite?

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23 Responses

  1. kkwfla59 says:

    Hi Katie. You may want to try to watch one of the Masses on YouTube. A lot of Churches are broadcasting because of the pandemic. The content may even stay up for a while. Maybe you could search to see if there are any Masses archived from last year. Marian theology is wonderful. My personal favorite aspect of Mary is of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I live in a heavy Hispanic neighborhood and there are sometimes processions and such. It really is beautiful.

  2. Maggie says:

    Thank you for this. I’ve been unpacking my relationship with God with a spiritual director. I explained how I struggle to connect with a male god, but I also struggle to connect with a mother god because of the problems you outlined and a tough relationship with my mom. She recommended studying the saints to see if in one of them I could find an aspect of god I’m more comfortable with. This spoke directly to my soul today.

  3. Liz says:

    This post brings me so much joy. I remember having so many similar thoughts and feelings when I first was introduced to Mary and Catholicism twelve years ago, and I remember the absolute release from so much cognitive dissonance. I have some good resources if you are interested. As for mass, the best online mass you can listen in on right now is Father Mike Schmidtz from Duluth.

  4. Lisa says:

    Hey Katie, I always love reading your articles. You provide such a clearly thought out perspective I hadn’t always considered.
    It’s interesting, isn’t it, how two people seemingly in the same place can have two different experiences? I’ve never been dissuaded from seeking out, or learning all I can about out Heavenly Mother. I’ve had several wonderful and enlightening conversations about her. My husband on his mission would often pray to Heavenly Mother because it felt more natural than turning to a Dad when he felt scared and lonely. I don’t say all this to discount what you’ve said. I believe you and I’m sorry that’s been your experience. I just want you to know there are those in the church who whole heartedly support that yearning and encourage a relationship with Heavenly Mother.
    Some years ago I spent months studying Mary and I’m sorry to say I don’t remember much of the material I went through, I guess that means it’s time for another Mary study! Your article is well timed for me, I think I will start with her sorrows as you suggest. I believe when I deep dived years ago it was because of a Mary study the red headed hostess was leading.
    Also, Emily Belle Freeman talked some time ago likened Heavenly Mother and the role of womanhood to bringing out the Queen in the endgame of chess. That was so interesting and might intrigue you. If I can figure out where I listened to that I’ll definitely pass along the link.

    • EmilyB says:

      “I’m sorry that’s been your experience” while smilingly telling somebody “gee, I *never* saw that happen” is abuse. It is how abusers treat victims. It is a passive aggressive form of abuse, favored by religious types who eschew overt attacks and instead prefer to abuse in polite tones with smiles on their faces, so as to maintain their facades of spirituality. This comment by “Lisa” should be reported to admins for abuse. Guest writers to a site for women surviving a powerful patriarchal organization should not have to tolerate passive aggressive abuse, no matter how well it has been sugar coated in faux politeness

      • Katie Rich says:

        Hi EmilyB. I know Lisa in real life, and because of that, I am able to take her comment in good faith.

        Lisa, I’m not familiar with Emily Belle Freeman, but I would be interested in the link if you find it.

      • EmilyB says:

        Mormons who know me feel entitled to take such abusive license with me, too. The fact that this abusive commenter knows thr author personally makes her passive aggressive commentary even more painful to read. It reminds me of all the dissmissive comments i received from Mormon loved ones when trying to report sexual abuse within the church. Painfully familiar and all too common. I suppose we should just get used to it as just another aspect of LDS life, then. No need to report it

      • Katie Rich says:

        EmilyB, I am very sorry that you have been dismissed while trying to report sexual abuse. That is incredibly painful. And dismissing abuse is absolutely too common in the church and is a concern that you and I share. I appreciate your perspective here. I understand why you view comments that may be dismissive of someone’s experience as abusive or at least passive aggressive.

        In this thread, Lisa’s comments weren’t in violation of our comment policies (https://www.the-exponent.com/site-map/comment-policy/). Lisa and I were in the same stake growing up and had some of the same leaders and many similar experiences. I think it is relevant for someone my age from a similar background who had different experiences to share her perspective on access to Heavenly Mother. And it means a lot to me that Lisa sees my links on facebook and is willing to come over and read my posts here and comment. So while yes, generally, it can feel invalidating for someone to read my experience and say theirs was very different, I don’t consider this particular interaction to be abusive. I consider it a dialogue where she can listen and learn from my experience, and I can listen and learn from hers. And I find it very interesting that her husband prayed to Heavenly Mother on his mission. I don’t recall hearing that from a male missionary before. And she shared a resource that I hadn’t heard about before, but that may be relevant to a research project of mine. She didn’t insult or criticize me or tell me I was wrong or suggest that I change anything I’m doing or stop writing about a subject that is important to me – she just didn’t feel the same kind of restrictions that I internalized strongly.

    • Elisa says:

      Wow, I think that’s pretty amazing your husband prayed to Heavenly Mother. I genuinely wonder where he got that idea because I think that’s very unusual.

      I am glad you never felt fear or constraint around seeking after Heavenly Mother. I do think that’s an exceptional and not ordinary experience. Women have been explicitly told (by Gordon B Hinckley) not to pray to Heavenly Mother and women have been excommunicated for writing about her. I’ve recently listened to a bunch of podcast episodes with panelists discussing Heavenly Mother and it’s very clear that they experience some discomfort and concern over not saying the wrong thing about Her lest they cross some kind of line. I’ve spoke to MANY friends and family members who likewise feel anxiety about not knowing where the line is, and I have felt that too. I don’t anymore but only because I don’t let human men mediate my relationship with God anymore.

      So I am genuinely curious about the ward and family environment that fostered this in your husband & you. I just don’t think it’s the norm.

  5. Ann says:

    I’m still a newbie to Marian Tradition and Theology, but I absolutely love it. I follow several Catholic based accounts on Instagram just because I love hearing about what they believe about their “Mamma Mary.” Its so refreshing to see a female take up so much religious space. One Instagram account shared the Mary, Undoer of Knots Novena. When I read it I had so many ideas about what my relationship with my Mother in Heaven could be.

  6. Kjerstin Ballard says:

    Katie, please please look up Way of the Rose! It talks not only about the Catholic Mary, but her roots in pre-Christianity, so about the divine feminine etc. it’s about as woo as you can ask for, but reflects so so beautifully on Our Lady of Sorrow. Thanks for this post!!

  7. EmilyB says:

    Did any of the founding fathers of the church ever mention Heavenly Mother? I know Eliza R. Snow did in a hymn and maybe poetry (?), and I personally revere Eliza Snow more than I do her male counterparts. But I wonder if the lack of source material about Heavenly Mother in the church’s founding documents might be one reason why brethren consider this a topic unworthy of their attention. Maybe because divine maternity as a concept originated with women in the church? I am just throwing out ideas here, because I honestly don’t know; I don’t know because this subject was never taught in seminary nor my religion courses at BYU–we only learned about brethren, male prophets, male scripture characters, and male deities in all our church classes

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