The depths of Catholic spirituality are so deep, indeed, that it can be difficult to write about them in a manner that brings the Light of Christ, through these depths, to people who know nothing of God or who have only a superficial understanding of God. So it is with the subject of the relevance of the mental anguish of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the spiritual life of the Christian. We refer to this mental anguish as the Seven Dolors of Mary. “Dolor” refers to mental anguish, as in sorrow or grief, and the Seven Dolors of Mary are those episodes in the Life of Christ and in the life of His mother that brought sorrow to Mary. We share in this anguish out of our love for Jesus.
Catholic belief about Mary is misunderstood as some mistakenly believe that Catholics attribute divinity to Mary, but it is precisely the fact that Mary is human and not divine, that makes her role in the plan of salvation a unique one. Catholics do not “elevate” Mary. God elevated Mary, not to divinity, but to a high place in His plan of salvation, and Catholics recognize this.
The importance of the Seven Dolors of Mary is not something that can be explained unless one first understands some basics about Mary even beyond what I wrote above. Catholics believe that Mary is the New Eve because, through Mary, salvation came into the world. It is through Mary that the world came to know Jesus, and it continues to be through Mary that we come to know Jesus better than those who ignore her role in the plan of salvation. This is something that I have come to know better through study of what the Scriptures say about Mary, and in following through with that knowledge in my spiritual life. When I first converted to Catholicism, it was because I had found Jesus without understanding Mary’s role in God’s plan. Now that I understand Mary’s role, I understand Jesus far better even than I did when I experienced conversion to Christ.
God chose to come into the world through Mary for a reason. God created Mary for this purpose, that He could unite Himself with all human flesh in becoming a member of mankind. We honor our own fathers and mothers according to the commandment to do so, not simply because it is God’s will but because this has a profound positive impact on our spiritual lives. As children, we come to know God better through honoring our parents, as we learn about the importance of parental love for us and in honoring their authority over us. Our parents are connected to us in the flesh, and this connection is an aid to helping us to understand our connection to God, and the honor that is due to Him. In honoring Mary, who is human like we are, and hence connected to us in the flesh, we come also to a better understanding about the honor that is due to God, Who alone is divine. In like manner, we know that Jesus, Who is God and is without sin, also honors both His mother and St. Joseph, His earthly father, so when we honor them, that honoring also has a profound positive impact on our spiritual lives.
This video explains, in a nutshell, Catholic belief in Mary’s role, as shown from Scripture.
If you watched the video, you have the basics about Mary and why it is that Catholics honor her as God has honored her, but even the video, which is extensive, does not paint the full picture. Mary’s role in Catholic spirituality is not limited to honoring her in an external and superficial way. We also place great importance on what her sorrows can teach us about ourselves, so that we can grow closer to Jesus as human beings. Like Mary, we are human only, not divine, and so it is through Mary that we come to know the human relationship with Christ better.
It is primarily through Mary’s sorrows that this understanding occurs. As we read in the Gospel of Luke: [Emphasis mine.]
The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradictedl (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
As Pope John Paul II has explained:
Simeon, who up to that moment had addressed all those present, blessing Joseph and Mary in particular, now prophesies to the Virgin alone that she will share in her Son’s destiny.
The “sword” that pierces Jesus’ mother’s heart is the sorrows she experiences as the mother of Jesus, and, as the New Eve, the mother of all who follow her Son. And so, the Seven Dolors of Mary are those things that happened to Jesus that would cause His mother to sorrow:
1) The circumcision of Our Lord, when she saw His blood shed for the first time
2) Her flight into Egypt in order to save the life of the little Infant Jesus when Herod was seeking him
3) The three days she lost him in Jerusalem
4) When she saw Christ carrying his Cross
5) Jesus’ death
6) When Jesus was taken down from the Cross
7) When Jesus was laid in the sepulcher
None of this makes much sense, of course, unless one also understands the role of all humanity in Jesus’ saving mission. Unfortunately, not only do many misunderstand Mary’s unique role, as foretold in the prophecy of Simeon, many also do not understand that all of humanity has a share in the Cross of Jesus Christ. As the Bride of Christ, our relationship with Jesus is spousal in nature. Just as the marital relationship is a relationship of mutual sacrifice, so is our relationship with Christ. He offers Himself for us. In turn, we offer ourselves for Him.
As St. Paul wrote:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking* in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church,
The only thing that could be “lacking in the afflictions of Christ” is our participation in those afflictions, by offering up our own anguish in union with His. Our crosses, in union with His, are redemptive. Through His cross, our crosses are a participation in the redemption of the world.
Before the Fall, Eve was a spotless human. As the New Ark of the New Covenant, Mary was preserved from the effect of the Fall. Unlike Eve, Mary said “Yes” to God, and so, Mary remained spotless. Just as St. Paul’s sufferings were “on behalf of the Church,” so are Mary’s sorrows “on behalf of the Church.” They are redemptive inasmuch as she is united with Jesus in her sufferings. In this, we find in the Blessed Virgin Mary our human model for suffering patiently at the Foot of the Cross of Jesus.
– May the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ Be Ever in Our Hearts