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Our Lady of Sorrows, a Timely Teacher

Sorin Prayer page from Sorin Starts a School

Today I promised to write about Our Lady of Sorrows, the special partoness of the Congregation of Holy Cross.

You may rightly say – Paul. Look, man. You are not CSC and have not had the experience of praying with that feast year after year in community.  How could you really know what it means?

Too true!  So here is what I can do.  I can share the texts from the CSC folks that have most formed me and Sorin Starts a School.  Then, I can tell a few stories about the generous accompaniment I have received from CSC folks that I believe to be fruits of this spirituality.  

Okay.  So here are the texts I most appreciate on the topic, in case you want to dive into some excellent CSC writing.  

1) Fr. Lou DelFra, CSC’s homily on the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows – Have you heard Fr. Lou preach?  If not, please treat yourself to this characteristically outstanding homily.  Deep, accessible, excellent.  Fr. Lou was extremely helpful in gathering resources from the CSC archives as we created Sorin Starts a School.

2) Fr. Ron Raab, CSC’s reflection this year on Our Lady of Sorrows – Fr. Ron is an outstanding pastor, artist, and friend at the CSC parish in Colorado Springs.  

3) Fr. Tom Smith, CSC’s reflection some years ago on the Feast – Fr. Tom ran the Holy Cross Mission Center when my community members and I worked with the CSC in Uganda.  His thoughtfulness and love shine in this essay. 

4) Blessed Basil Moreau’s (founder of the CSC) meditation on Our Lady of Sorrows – From this book, compiled by the formidable Frs. Gawrych and Grove, CSC – who were also early readers and helpful interlocutors for Sorin Starts a School

The TL;DR is: 

-Mary lived with profound sorrow.

-She did not avoid this sorrow.

-Her knowledge of God’s love undergirded this non-avoidance.

-As we encounter sorrow, her presence is accessible to us.

These are the lessons we meant to distill in the following page of the book.

Sorin Prayer page from Sorin Starts a School
Sorin Starts a School: The Foundation of Notre Dame, pages 20 and 21

A riff on this page and stanza comes later in the book when Sorin, Corby, and companions face the sorrow of (spoilers!) the fire that felled the main building in 1879.  

The process of creating this book has been an invitation to gratitude for the “good company” that CSC folks have been for me over the years.  The quality of this compassionate accompaniment, I believe, comes from praying with Our Lady of Sorrows.  Here are two stories that come to mind. 

In May 2009, I was coming to the end of my time as a lay volunteer with the Holy Cross in East Africa.  The week before I was to leave, I spent some time at the CSC novitiate at Lake Saaka, the formation house on a beautiful piece of earth tucked near one of Western Uganda’s crater lakes.

Lake Saaka, home of the Holy Cross Novitiate in East Africa

Here, I made a silent retreat, directed by the dear Fr. Dick Stout, CSC.  During his years as a priest, Dick worked as a counsellor, nurse, teacher, and formator.  He was generous to us lay volunteers, attentive to the difficulty of being away from home.  (Example: On Christmas Day 2008, Dick realized that our community member, the good Joe Wysocki, was without a gift.  He quickly found and wrapped a plain white coffee mug.  This silly gift, and Dick’s generosity, meant a great deal to Joe and to our community.)

One day, near the end of my retreat, I explained to Dick about how I planned to maneuver the life transitions that awaited me as I left Uganda.  Attentive and wise, he could see I was trying to game my life such that I would not have to attend to its necessary sorrow.  He handed me the following quote to read:

“All religion is concerned to overcome fear.  We can distinguish real religion from unreal by contrasting their formulae for dealing with negative motivation.  The maxim of illusory religion runs: ‘Fear not; trust in God and he will see to it that none of the things you fear will happen to you’; that of real religion, on the contrary is, “Fear not; the things that you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you but they are nothing to be afraid of.’” 

From Finding God in All Things by Fr. William Berry, SJ quoting John MacMurray

To me, the quality of Fr. Dick’s accompaniment and the wisdom of his advice showed that he was a man who had spent time with our Lady of Sorrows and had internalized her presence.  

Fr. Dick passed away during the summer of 2019.  If you loved Fr. Dick, and have a few minutes, you may cherish Fr. Tom McDermott, CSC’s homily at his funeral mass.

Okay. One more story.  

In 2005, I was, for the first time, learning how to talk about my interior life in the context of spiritual direction.  And I was – please believe me – desperately inarticulate in this attempt.  My director, the dear Fr. Paul Kollman, CSC, was patient and merciful during these first hours.  

When one conversation ground to a halt, Paul proposed that we take a walk.  We wound past the path that splits the lakes at ND and stopped at the cemetery on the road that leads to St. Mary’s.

Paul entered the cemetery, walked out into bare grass a bit, turned, gently gestured to the ground with both hands, and said with a bit of a smile, “I think I will probably be somewhere around here.”  

I think often about his gentle observation.  It is a grace to be able to hold the knowledge of our own death lightly, a reality which, for many, is the ultimate sorrow and desperately avoided.  But, like Mary, there was no avoidance of this sorrow in his words.  The grace that supports this composure is a remarkable thing to consider.

Since that day, a number of Holy Cross priests who have meant a great deal to us have been buried under that grass.  John Dunne.  Don McNeill.  Bob Pelton.  Dick Stout.  Even in death, I consider them excellent company. 

(Pre-order Sorin Starts a School: The Foundation of Notre Dame today! Ships to you May 2021. All proceeds support the work of the Holy Cross in Bangladesh. )