September is the traditional month of the Seven Sorrows of Mary. For those not as familiar with this devotion here is the list:
- The Prophecy of Simeon
- The Flight into Egypt
- The Loss of Jesus in the Temple
- The Meeting of Jesus and Mary on the Way of the Cross
- The Crucifixion
- The Taking Down of the Body of Jesus from the Cross
- Jesus Is Laid in the Tomb
Other than the fact that these are all sorrows, what is most notable is the scope of this list: we run nearly the whole course of the gospels—from the prophecy of Simeon to its fulfillment. In a sense, this devotion is comprised of a mini-Christmas and a mini-Lent packed into one. That seems a bit much to take on, doesn’t it? Most of the devotional themes in recent months have been quite focused, such as the Sacred Heart, the focus of June, or the Precious Blood for July.
It turns out the question answers itself. The breadth of this devotion seems to be the whole point. Father Frederick William Faber, a nineteenth century spiritual writer, hints at this in At the Foot of the Cross, a book that explains this devotion:
But Mary is a world, which cannot take in all at one glance. We must devote ourselves to particular mysteries. We must set aside certain regions of this world of grace, and concentrate ourselves upon them. We must survey them and map them accurately, before we pass on to other regions, and then we shall learn much, which a general view would have omitted to notice, and store our souls with spiritual riches, riches both of knowledge and of love, which will draw us evermore into closer union with our dearest Lord (At the Foot of the Cross, 2-3).
This is a most apt observation in a book on this devotion, as there seems to be so much to learn from it. From the prophecy of Simeon we are introduced to Mary’s traditional role as the co-redemptrix. The loss and subsequent finding of Jesus in the temple seems to have many lessons in store for us—Mary’s role in bringing us to Jesus, His identification with the temple, the fullness of His humanity and divinity which are hinted at in different and intriguing ways. Suffice it to say, there is so much to this devotion. Those are just two of the seven sorrows and we are just scratching the surface with these observations.
But why now? Why in September?
The traditional and most obvious answer is that the Feast of the Seven Sorrows is in the middle of the month on September 15. And it is fittingly there because the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross is the day before, as one Catholic apologist explains.
But there could also be a deeper reason. Look ahead. October is dedicated to the rosary, perhaps the most traditional and durable of Marian devotions, and one that is even broader in scope, encompassing 20 mysteries from the gospels. What better way to prepare us for this prayer and re-introduce us to Mary than the Seven Sorrows, which serves as a sort of catechetical crash course on devotion to Mary overall?
Here it will suffice to note three key themes that seem to stand out:
- Finding Christ in Mary. This seems to recur throughout these mysteries. Christ is ‘lost’ to Israel in fleeing to Egypt but is returned. Mary ‘loses’ Christ in the temple yet then finds Him there. Christ dies on the cross but returns in the resurrection. More to the point here, it seems that we ‘find’ Christ in Mary. As Faber puts it, “There is no time lost in seeking Him, if we go at once to Mary; for He is always there, always at home.”
- Mary Leads Us to Christ. This isn’t quite the same thing as above. Not only do we ‘find’ Christ within Mary but she leads us along in our search. This is reinforced by the theme of journeys which permeates this devotion—the journey to Egypt, the journey to and from the temple, as well as the extraordinary spiritual journey from the birth of Jesus to His burial.
- Martyrdom. Martyrdom seems to be the key both to the seeking and the finding of Jesus. Each one of these seven sorrows sheds new light on the martyrdom of Mary. As Faber writes, “It can plainly be no wonder, if she shall suffer more than any one but Himself.” The martyrdom Mary experiences is particularly instructive for those of us living in the West today. Although Mary experiences no physical martyrdom she nonetheless experiences an internal spiritual martyrdom through her close union with her son. And, in turn, no one is better suited to show us how to be martyrs with Christ today than Mary.
For those who want to learn more about this devotion, to dive deeper into this ‘world of grace,’ I offer the following:
An overview of the traditional devotion from fisheaters.
A novena to Our Lady of Sorrows from EWTN.
A small collection of traditional prayers to Our Lady of Sorrows is available here.
Virgin most sorrowful, pray for us.