Beauty and Sorrow

By Karen Mannino             9/2/13

September belongs to Our Lady of Sorrows.

In case you don’t know, this title for Mary is based on the devotional practice of meditating on seven events in the life of Our Lady that cased her sorrow. They are:

  1. The Prophesy of Simeon
  2. The Flight to Egypt
  3. The Loss of the Child Jesus in Jerusalem.
  4. Mary Meets Jesus on the way to Calvary
  5. Jesus Dies on the Cross
  6. Mary Receives the Body of Jesus from the Cross
  7. The Reposition of Jesus’ Body in the Tomb

“Remedy in Perplexity, Pray for Us” (That line seems to have been written for me.)

Here is a litany to Our Lady of Sorrows that I quite like.

Our Lady of Sorrows first came to my attention when I was in high school. The tiny little chapel where my family went to a sung mass on Sundays was filled up with tall, very grown-up and intimidating college students in choir robes. There was only room for us in the last half of the last pew. I was sitting next to the bass section and behind the altos. It must have been September 15th. The choir director liked to use grand choral works during the liturgy, and so, when it was time for the sequence for the mass of the Seven Sorrows, the choir stood and sang a setting of a Latin poem known as “Stabat Mater.”

I think that the setting I heard was by a modern composer, but I have never been able to track it down. I’ve got eight or nine other settings on my iTunes, but not the one I remember. Perhaps I only imagined it. It had the quality of a dream. I just remember that it was the saddest thing I had ever heard, and also one of the most beautiful.

Tolkien's Lady of the Golden Woods. Not actually very Marian.

Tolkien’s Lady of the Golden Woods. Not actually very Marian.

I know thatI am not alone in being attracted to beauty in sorrow. One of my favorite works of literature is Tolkien’s Silmarillion. Its most beautiful passages are also its most heartbreaking. Tolkien always closely associated sorrow and beauty. The elves become more beautiful and especially more wise as they endure the sorrows of the world. There is a lot of discussion about whether or not Galadriel, the powerful elf woman in The Lord of the Rings is meant to remind us of Our Lady. I figure that if she is in any way connected to Mary, she is connected to Our Lady of Sorrows.

Whether my collection of choral Stabat Mater settings and Requiem Masses is morbid, or just a little odd, I think that Tolkien was right; there is a connection between beauty and sorrow that is nicely portrayed in Our Lady of Sorrows.

A beautiful piece of music, a mountain view, or a poem opens the human heart and fills it with something which is properly lifted to God. If it’s not too cliché, I’d like to reference the opening scene of Rodger and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. Maria-the-sound-of-music-28956364-1024-768Julie Andrews as Maria is up in these beautiful mountains and she throws her arms wide and sings at the sky. That’s beauty properly received. Beauty is meant to be received, to fill the vessel into which it is poured, and overflow as an offering to God. We lift our hearts back to God in joy and a kind of surrender. We will never fully understand or posses beauty but we accept it and thank God for it. Beauty’s natural end is God.

I think that perhaps sorrow works the same way. Mary at the foot of the cross has an open heart. It is open to the suffering of empathy with her son. She makes herself vulnerable to sorrow, is filled with it, and offers it up to God. To fight against sorrow is to become bitter or calloused. To be sorrowful, and to let God work in her through sorrow, Mary assumes the same posture of the heart, if you will, that is natural to the reception of beauty.


Michelangelo’s Pieta shows Mary in a posture of sorrow. Her heart is overflowing, and she seems to offer her son, and her sorrow to the viewer. I think this is the key to the beauty of the statue. Mary invites us to empathize with her; to fill our hearts with sorrow also and to join her in offering a sorrowful heart to God. Empathy, and an offering to God is ultimately what Stabat Mater is about also. Perhaps the posture and motion of our hearts towards opening and empathy which both beauty and sorrow inspire, is also the motion and posture which God intends for us. It is in that openness, that offering, that we we can be filled  with holiness.

Karen Mannino begins to see the disadvantage of her place in The Porch weekly post line up. She must begin the week, and she must follow Andrew. This is problematic as she hates to be first in anything, and she is not nearly as well read as Mr. Simmons. She’s just an art major, after all.


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