The article of the month

The Poetry of Praise by Anthony Esolen

Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross

Vanna, Vanna, my love, speak to me!” The young man had rushed to the side of his wife, who lay broken and insensible under the weight of the grandstands that had collapsed. Knights were dropping their weapons and tearing off their helmets. Some of the ladies watching the tournament were hurt badly, but no one worse than Giovanna. And she had not wanted to attend. Her husband Jacopo, a friendly but wild and irreverent fellow, had persuaded her. He loved her, but fidelity was another matter. Youth comes only once, after all.

“Loosen her robe, let her breathe!” Jacopo cried, and when they did so, he saw what nearly stopped his heart with shock and guilt. Vanna was wearing a hair shirt. With her final breath, she told him she loved him, she prayed for him, and she had taken suffering upon herself to pray to God to heal him and forgive his sins. A fine novel by Helen White, A Watch in the Night, tells the story.

Suffering did for Jacopo what prosperity and popularity never could. If you go to his tomb in Todi, you can read that he became a fool for Christ, that he swindled the world with a new kind of art, and he stole heaven away. Jacopone da Todi became a Franciscan friar, beloved by the common people, but a severe critic of worldly churchmen, including his kinsman and enemy, Pope Boniface VIII. But he was a poet, too, and to him, as scholars believe, we owe the most moving hymn to the sorrows of Mary ever written, the Stabat Mater. If his spiritual father Francis invites us to the crèche and the Christ Child and the beginning of things, Jacopone invites us to Calvary. So may we make music from the wood of the manger, and the wood of the Cross.

The Seven Sorrows

When Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus to the temple, the old man Simeon took him in his arms and gave his prophecy of darkness and light, saying that the child would be a sign of contradiction, and that a sword would pierce Mary’s heart. I am fond of Andrea Mantegna’s painting of the moment, with a young Mary looking as determined as a lioness whose cub is threatened, while Joseph glares in severe attention, and the baby weeps.

That is the first of her seven sorrows, which we commemorate now on September 15, but which used to be celebrated on Friday of Passion Week (the week before Holy Week). In any case, it is good to think of Mary’s sorrows during Lent and Passiontide. She and the child had to flee their homeland and go to Egypt. She and Joseph lost the boy Jesus for three days when he stayed behind in Jerusalem. She stood beside Jesus as he carried the cross. She stood beneath that cross as he died. She was there when Joseph of Arimathea took down the body of her beloved son. She helped to lay him in the tomb.

We say that Mary always points us toward Jesus. Do whatever he tells you, she says to the servants in the house at Cana. Where Jesus is, there is his Mother. That includes the cross, too. When we beg her to intercede for us sinners “now, and at the hour of our death,” we should remember that she was there at the hour of Jesus’ death, “at the cross her station keeping,” as Jacopone’s hymn tells us. The sword pierced the heart of Mary, who was sinless; and a lance pierced the side of Jesus, who was sinless. And we, who know we are going to die, we who are not sinless, should not shun the shadow of the cross.

The Stations of the Cross

The first time I ever heard the hymn, I was a small boy in a Catholic grade school, and we were attending the Stations of the Cross, as we did every Friday afternoon in Lent. I don’t recall the translation, beyond the first three lines of the first stanza:

At the Cross her station keeping,
Stood the mournful Mother weeping,
Close to Jesus to the last.

It’s an excellent rendering of Jacopone’s Latin, preserving the meter and the rhyme:

Stabat Mater dolorosa
juxta crucem lacrimosa,
dum pendebat Filius.

The key word, the crucial word, is stabat: stood. The various English translators have sensed, correctly, that it does more than describe Mary’s posture or her location. She stood—rather than fleeing. She stood—rather than walking away. She stood—rather than keeping her distance. She stood, as a soldier stands, because it is his duty, his station.

And it cost her dearly, as the next three lines show:

Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
All His bitter anguish hearing,
Now at length the sword had passed.

I cannot imagine a greater sorrow for the mother of a child. She saw him naked when he came from her womb, and now she sees him despoiled, mocked, in agony, and there is nothing she can do but share his sorrow, and pray.

Jacopone urges us to be present, then, not only at the death of Jesus, but at the terrible anguish of his Mother. And maybe it is easier for us to feel the Mother’s pain than to enter, heart and soul, into the deep mystery of Christ’s suffering. Maybe in this, too, we find Mary to be approachable, somehow familiar, the sublime but humble handmaiden of the Lord:

Oh, how sad and sore distressed
Was that Mother, highly blessed,
Of the sole begotten One!

Christ above in torment hangs;
She beneath beholds the pangs
Of her dying glorious Son.

Is there one who would not weep,
Whelmed in miseries so deep,
Christ’s dear Mother to behold?

Can the human heart refrain
From partaking in her pain,
In that Mother’s pain untold?

Man the ungrateful

From such great Christian poets as Dante and Shakespeare we may learn that gratitude is the virtue by which man, the receiver of a gift, participates freely and joyfully in the grace of God—the virtue that makes him most like the Giver. Then the worst form that pride can assume is ingratitude: to scorn the gift, or to return evil for good. It is the evil that drives Lear mad, the evil that saddens its victims the most, and brings them nearest to despair. The winter wind, as Shakespeare’s singer tells us, is “not so unkind/ As man’s ingratitude.”

Mary too must have felt that ingratitude most keenly, on behalf of her Son:

Bruised, derided, cursed, defiled,
She beheld her tender Child
All with bloody scourges rent;

For the sins of His own nation,
Saw Him hang in desolation,
Till His Spirit forth He sent.

The horrible wrong of it all takes the breath away. When the Babylonians stormed the kingdom of Judah and burned the Temple to the ground, Jerusalem was indeed desolate, as the prophet Jeremiah cried out in his anguish: How lonely sits the city that was full of people (Lam 1:1). But here was the Savior of their nation, hanging on a cross, and it is not Babylonians who carry the people away into captivity, but their own sin, their own ingratitude.

And can we show greater ingratitude than to turn away from the crucified Christ? Every one of us should say, “I am the one who belongs on that tree, alongside the thieves! Jesus is innocent, and I am not. He is hanging there for my sake. My neighbor has handed me the hammer and the nails, and I have pounded them in. I know it, I confess it. Should I then turn aside? Should I cast lots for a fine and comfortable robe, and not take my share of the suffering God sends me that I might take my halting and uncertain way up the mountain, to be with Jesus?”

Pray for us, dear Mother

Jacopone did not pray that Mary would help to spare him from suffering. Just as his spiritual father, Saint Francis, received in his flesh the wounds of Jesus, Jacopone prayed that he too would be pierced:

Holy Mother! pierce me through;
In my heart each wound renew
Of my Savior crucified;

Let me share with thee His pain,
Who for all my sins was slain,
Who for me in torments died.

Let me mingle tears with thee,
Mourning Him who mourned for me,
All the days that I may live:

By the Cross with thee to stay;
There with thee to weep and pray;
All I ask of thee to give.

Can we not hear from those who do not understand the cross that this is all self-torment? The cross, says Saint Paul, is foolishness, a stumbling-stone. So is divine love. What a poor and timid thing human love so often is; self-regarding, self-protecting, self-withholding. But suffering, said Pope John Paul II, is for the unleashing of love. Even if we had never sinned, we must experience love as a kind of bursting of the shell of the self, the death that the grain of wheat must die, lest it abide alone.

The noblest of the pagans prided themselves on their ability to bear suffering. But we are called to do more. We are called to keep our station, not with clenched teeth and a stiff lip, but with love, partaking of the love that sought us when we were lost, and stuffed the mouth of death with death itself.


Anthony Esolen is professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in N.H., translator and editor of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House), and author of three volumes of essays, How the Church Has Changed the World (Magnificat).