The following thoughts are personal, devotional reflections that arose during prayer and meditation. Perhaps they may be useful to others; I share my reflections for this purpose, and to promote the chaplet as a powerful tool to strengthen us in our spiritual journey.
When Mary appeared in Kibeho, Rwanda, she urged her devotees to pray the Chaplet of her Seven Sorrows.1 One prays an Our Father and seven Hail Marys while reflecting on each sorrow in turn. But why pray this chaplet when we already have the rosary and many other devotions? The chaplet cultivates devotion to Mary who leads us to her Son, and, when recited as part of a consistent prayer regime, it helps us develop spiritual discipline. Yet this chaplet offers further spiritual fruit: meditating on Mary’s sorrows allows us to engage the suffering, often inexplicable and meaningless, that affects us and others throughout the world.
The sorrowful mysteries of the traditional rosary deal with Jesus’ suffering and death, but Jesus’ pain may not speak to us in the same way as Mary’s. Although Jesus suffered greatly as man, He was also fully divine and, on that level, cognizant of why His crucifixion was happening; as the paschal lamb sent to die on our behalf, Jesus suffered meaningfully, for a redemptive purpose. His sacrifice—which He chose to accept—was God’s will. The suffering that people experience hardly seems to be God’s will, but rather the consequence of a fallen world. Nor is it our choice. Some suffering may teach us virtue (patience, for example), or lead us to new relationships, but truly tragic events defy explanation. We depend on Jesus’ purposeful suffering to redeem us, but it can be difficult to see His pain as analogous to our own.
Mary, in contrast, suffered without understanding, as we do.2 Though immaculate by God’s grace, Mary was human, as we are. She watched her Son undergo torture and death for no apparent reason other than human cruelty. She must have prayed for God to help and wondered what His plan could be. Furthermore, her pain was not redemptive, at least not in the same way that Jesus’ suffering was necessary to expiate sin.3 Mary, too, endured seemingly meaningless heartbreak, and her sorrows offer us an opportunity to reflect on our own suffering.
Through Mary, we can access the other suffering of the crucifixion—the human suffering that isn’t necessarily redemptive or purposeful, but simply is. Mary leads us to trust God even in apparent meaninglessness or terrible tragedy. If inspiration and hope can emerge from the Rwandan genocide, we too can be assured that God accompanies us through our pain even when we do not perceive Him. As we and Mary share in one another’s sorrows, her example strengthens our own faithfulness, assuring us that even in suffering our confidence in God is well-placed.
In suffering with Mary, and inviting her to accompany us in our own suffering, we can also cultivate true compassion in the sense of suffering together. Whether this be forgoing purchases to give more to those in need, forgoing leisure time to care for others, sacrificing time and space to foster children or house refugees—in short, performing the corporal works of mercy to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, bury the dead, shelter the homeless, give drink to the thirsty, and ransom the captive, even (especially) when doing so causes us inconvenience or discomfort. Suffering together does not give meaning to tragedy or pain, but it introduces hope and solace into our shared human journey.
Following are Mary’s seven sorrows, with initial reflections:
One: The Prophesy: When Mary and Joseph presented Jesus at the temple, a devout man named Simeon prophesied, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed / so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35). Here, Simeon predicts Jesus’ death and Mary’s consequent mourning. This first sorrow reminds us that all birth, even that of God incarnate comes marked with death. We cannot escape suffering in life.
Two: Flight to Egypt: To protect baby Jesus from being killed by Herod, Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-14). This second sorrow urges us to trust God even when we do not understand. Throughout the world, refugees flee violence, hunger, and poverty, while those who stay behind face death. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus likewise had to flee their homeland. Why did God not just work miraculously so that Herod could not find the Holy Family, or, better yet, miraculously protect the Holy Innocents, the male children whom Herod did kill? God does not always intercede as we would like, even for His own Son who had to suffer even as a little baby.
Three: Losing Jesus in Jerusalem: After celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem, Jesus stayed behind without His parents’ knowing (Luke 2:43-45). One can imagine Mary’s anxiety as she searched three days for her Son; she must have prayed to find Jesus, but God did not answer her prayers immediately. Likewise, we must persevere through suffering when it is not quickly resolved. On a spiritual level, this sorrow can reflect our own search for God, who so easily slips away in a moment of inattention. Through Mary’s example, we can cultivate faith that God knows what He’s doing, and we will find Him if we keep looking.
Four: Meeting Jesus on the road to the cross: Tradition attests that as Jesus stumbled and carried His cross, Mary approached her Son, witnessing His anguish. She was helpless, except to pray, but again her prayers went unanswered. This sorrow, which is also the fourth station of the cross, forces us to face the pain in our fallen world. We cannot perceive why, but we weep alongside Mary.
Five: Jesus’ death: (Matthew 27:50; Mark 15:37; Luke 23:46; John 19:30). Here, Mary’s worst fears are realized. They had escaped Herod, and had found Jesus in the temple after He was lost, but now He has died. Mary must have wondered why God allowed His Son’s death. In this sorrow, seemingly irreparable, hope for healing all but disappears. When God does not fulfill our prayers as we would like, we must adapt to His plan.
Six: Holding Jesus’ body: Mary embraces Jesus’ body, a body battered, scourged, and pierced. No mother wants to hold her dead child, yet in this sorrow we confront the concreteness of the Incarnation. Mary’s tears over her Son’s torn, lifeless body evoke the horrific suffering and death of this world. We, too, are Mary’s children whom she embraces in our anguish and death. Although we cannot explain why tragedy and cruelty occur, we can trust our holy mother to console us even as we lament the suffering that pervades our world.
Seven: Placing Jesus in the tomb: (Matthew 27:57–61, Mark 15:42–47, Luke 23:50–56, John 19:38–42) Jesus’ body is placed in the tomb, which is closed and sealed. The crucifixion seems so final—no miraculous salvation has occurred—and we can enter Mary’s sorrow as God appears to recede from our sight. We just don’t understand why God allows terrible events to occur, or why our prayers seem to go unheard. We mourn with Mary even as we trust that God will reemerge and that, one day, our understanding might be made full.
The chaplet ends here. We know that Mary’s sorrow ultimately turns to joy; she has to wait another three days, but she again finds her Son. Yet often in this life, we do not get to see the resurrection. Tragedy is simply tragedy, without higher meaning. The Chaplet of Mary’s Seven Sorrows allows us to face this unanswered suffering even as it orients us toward faith and hope. As we reflect on Mary’s sorrows and unite our own suffering to hers, the chaplet binds us together with others and compels us to alleviate others’ pain whenever possible as we journey through this life.
1 For more on this apparition, I recommend Immaculée Ilibagiza’s Our Lady of Kibeho.
2 Some portrayals, such as that in María de Jesús de Ágreda’s Mystical City of God, show Mary to be fully aware of Jesus’ redemptive sacrifice and coming resurrection. The fact that Mary pondered God’s mysteries in her heart (Luke 2:19, 51), however, suggests that she, too, was discovering God’s plan only as it unfolded.
3 Even if we consider Mary to be Co-redemptrix, she fulfilled this role primarily by her whole-hearted consent to God when the angel Gabriel announced that she would bear Jesus. She suffered with her Son throughout his passion and crucifixion, but any redemptive value that her suffering contained would be completely dependent on Jesus’ sacrifice.