The following is the gospel text that the Carmelite Propers recommend to us for this, the most significant of all Carmelite Feast days:
Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.
On this feast day, we celebrate the love, wisdom, and protection that Our Lady has for us as Carmelites. This is the greatest of all Carmelite Feast days and Mary is the greatest of all Carmelite saints. What do you hear Mary saying in this passage?
What we hear, what is contained in this passage, is the silence of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Her silence is not one of emptiness. No, her silence is pregnant with meaning. At the Annunciation, her yes to God was so perfect and pure that it echoes continuously throughout the rest of her life and the rest of eternity. It’s not that Mary has nothing to say, it’s that she’s already said it all: “Let it be done to me according to your Word.” The silence of Mary is thundering with the sound of her eternal fiat! Her yes, said once and for all, crescendos throughout all of human history – each moment increasing in intensity. Mary’s silence is a deafening yes to the will of God – a yes so powerful that if we let it, it becomes our response as well.
One message that Mary teaches us through her silent presence in this gospel passage can be found in the very first word: standing. “Standing by the cross of Jesus.” Mary watched her son betrayed, arrested, scourged, and humiliated. She’s seen the blows tear his flesh, the thorns pierce his scalp, and the nails driven through his hands and feet. He is bleeding, weak, gasping for air, and crying out in pain. Yet Mary is there at the foot of the cross, and not only is she there… she is standing. At the moment when we expect a mother to be collapsed on the ground, wailing uncontrollably, unable to watch her son’s excruciating pain, Mary is standing at the foot of the cross.
Mary’s posture says so much more than her words could ever say. She is standing at the foot of the cross not because she is unaffected by the anguish of her son’s crucifixion and not because she has some special knowledge as to what this all means. Mary is standing at the foot of the cross because she is a woman of great faith. In the midst of the most intense darkness and trial that any of us could ever imagine—the death of her son… the death of God Himself—Mary has the faith to trust in God’s plan. She is beat down and devastated and could not possibly imagine how this could all be made right, yet she trusts that God will find a way. The silence of Mary standing at the foot of the cross teaches us what it means to be people of faith.
This image of faith in the darkest times is one that has proven to be incredibly important in the Carmelite charism. What is it that so many of our saints have in common? They all suffered horribly, yet they all found incredible light in the silence of their suffering. We see this reality in Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Therese of Lisieux, Elizabeth of the Trinity, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, and Mariam of Jesus Crucified—just to name a few.
Saint Teresa faced debilitating illnesses and countless obstacles in creating her foundations. Yet the silence of her suffering bore the fruit of our entire Order. Saint John was imprisoned and cruelly punished as a rebellious friar by his own brothers. Yet the silence of his suffering bore the fruit of his beautiful poetry. Saint Therese faced the pains of tuberculosis where each breath felt like she was being stretched out on iron spikes. Yet the silence of her suffering bore the fruit of the Little Way. Likewise, Elizabeth, Teresa Benedicta, Mariam, and others faced extreme suffering—physical, emotional, and spiritual. Yet the silence of their suffering bore the fruit of such a beautiful and profound spiritual patrimony.
What is it about their suffering that has drawn millions of people to fall in love with Carmelite spirituality? Our saints are so attractive because they show us that suffering has meaning. The temptation in suffering is to despair—thinking that life has no meaning and that God has abandoned us. Yet our Carmelite saints are shining examples of suffering well. Amidst some of the most difficult situations in life, they trusted that God had a plan. A plan that perhaps they could not understand, but a plan nonetheless. A plan that would take all of their pain and all of their sorrow and transform it into light and love.
The reason why this example is so attractive to the world is because we all suffer. Especially in our current times, millions of people suffer from loneliness and depression. The violence, rape, murder, sexual abuse, and addiction so prevalent in the world today are not the problem. They are merely symptoms of a greater problem: that we are a world without faith. And without faith, the suffering we experience in our lives becomes oppressive and debilitating.
Our Carmelite saints, in imitation of Mary standing at the foot of the cross, show us that this doesn’t have to be the case. Our suffering too, if done with faith, can become the breeding ground of a rich, fertile source of light and love. You see, suffering is like a great vacuum. It bores deep into our hearts and empties them out. All of us face moments of suffering—moments of death, betrayal, hopelessness. We know what this emptiness feels like; it’s painful and gut-wrenching. Yet this is not the end of the story.
Suffering empties us out—it clears away our pride, our self-reliance, the busyness and noise, the comforts and distractions—it clears all of this away and it creates a womb in our hearts. A womb in which the seed of faith is implanted in order to produce incredible fruit. Why is suffering so powerful in the spiritual life? Why has it produced such great saints? Because suffering beats us down to the point where we have no more strength and no other choice but to rely on God. When we are suffering we become so weak that we can do nothing but cry out to Him. “When I am weak, then I am strong!”
So there’s Mary at the foot of the cross—frightened, confused, angry, and completely devastated. This is the moment in her life when she is most weak, yet she is standing. The power of her suffering has emptied her heart which then becomes another womb for her to bear Jesus. The first time she bore Jesus physically into the world in Bethlehem. This time she bears Jesus spiritually into the heart of the Church.
What do we do when we find ourselves faced with the sufferings of our lives, both the big and the small? Do we turn to God in prayer or do we turn to distractions such as television and the internet or to addictions such as food and alcohol? As Christians, we are called to imitate Mary in our suffering. We are called to stand at the foot of the cross in faith. We are called to allow our suffering to become another womb through which we bear Jesus into the world. Let us stand in silence in the face of suffering, hand-in-hand with Our Lady of Mount Carmel.