Standing at the graveside of my cousin, a soldier who was killed in Iraq, I was suddenly speechless (a rare occurrence for a gal whose moniker growing up was “demonstrative”!).
As the burial began, I stood watching as my five uncles, my mother’s brothers, intoned, “Hail Mary, full of grace…” and I was struck by how foreign they looked – tall and truly handsome, each one in his wool topcoat, alternately black and gray and camel-colored. Here they were – proud middle class White professionals and war veterans (who were also by turns alcoholics, adulterers, closeted, anger junkies) praying out loud together – outside in public. Even as I stood at that burial, my experience has been that my Catholic family reserved prayers for church and other inside spaces (with the notable exception of my father’s “prayer” that we get in the G-d D—n car to get to church on time, an incantation so loud, it could not have escaped the neighbors’ notice). Their prayer was so clear, said in their voices – bass, baritones, and a tenor – with such steadfastness, the moment is still a clear memory nearly 15 years since it occurred.
As we stood there at my cousin’s grave, I recalled that my first year in college, a miserable experience, I would run to the Basilica, dipping inside to sit in front of the Pieta. Even though I was leaving the faith, I found deep solace in sitting in front of that statue – Mary holding her son Jesus after he’d been taken down from the cross – the Mother of Sorrow.
Buddhist teacher and psychologist Jack Kornfield speaks about “the tears of the Way”, the tears that are part of being human. When we are made to touch that pool of human sorrow due to life experience, or when we visit it voluntarily in our social work practice, it is understandable that we call out for the support of saints and utter incantations – “Hail Mary, full of grace…” – or even say to ourselves, “I am here with you”. In my experience, if we allow it, this sorrow can drown us with its overwhelming power. Yet, if we go to that deep pool with a sense of connection, being held by those whom we love, seen and unseen, we can be with the sorrow and still live with joy. Ultimately, I think that’s why Catholics refer to the segment of the rosary dedicated to sorrow as “the sorrowful mysteries”; they allow us to touch the infinite mystery of being fully human. Amen.