Many years ago, I received a book from my parents which consisted of the most famous paintings housed in the Uffizi Palace in Florence, Italy. The Uffizi is one of the most renowned art museums in the world and its treasures include Leonardo Da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi, the Doni Tondo by Michelangelo, and Sandro Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat. Yet beyond these priceless treasures of Catholic art, there are also numerous other paintings by minor artists which evoke the same feelings of faith and love for Our Lord and Our Lady.
One of these minor artists is Giovanni Battista Salvi (1609-1685) better known to the modern world as Sassoferrato. He was born in the Roman Marches and spent most of his life in Perugia in a friary of the Capuchins. It was there that he painted some of the greatest works of art belonging to the period known as the Counter-Reformation. He painted so many pictures of Our Lady for mass consumption that art historians have called him a “madonniere.”
Among these paintings of Our Lady is one which struck me the first time I saw it in the aforementioned book. In it one sees, Mary veiled in dark blue against a black background. Her hands are clasped in her prayer and her eyes look out at the viewer with a look that is both sorrowful and resigned. The title given to the canvas by Sassoferrato is Our Lady of Sorrows,
When I first went to high school, I had very little knowledge of the various titles given to Our Lady over the centuries. Yet it seemed to me that nearly every day was a Marian feast day because the month of September is dotted with them from end to end. Also, the congregation of religious priests and sisters which ran my school was also extremely Marian. Our Lady pervaded the very air we breathed and the ground we walked on. She was our model and our supreme example together with Our Lord of what we ought to be as Catholics and Christians.
In high school, I did not fit in very well with the other students. Not being Catholic, sedevacantist, not related to anyone, and very quirky and unable to blend in, I received a great deal of ribbing from some of the boys in my class. There was a great deal of bullying also. In fact, it was so out of hand that I ate lunch by myself and made extra visits to the chapel so that I could get away from it all. I felt so lonely and isolated that the only thing I wanted was somebody who could understand my pain.
It was at around this time that one of the sisters at my school took me under her wing. Sr. F. was the school nurse and provided counseling for the students who asked. She was a small, diminutive, and yet extremely spirited nun who spoke with a Southern accent. As it was, I spent a great deal of time in her office telling her about what I was going through and asking her advice. She gave me lots of literature to read, prayer books to use, and numerous leaflets. I sometimes wondered if she was brainwashing me by giving me all of these things all the time. I realized, however, that she was doing all she could to help a soul in need.
One time, I was talking to her about painting of Our Lady of Sorrows by Sassoferrato. I asked Sr. F. whether the Catholics had a devotion to Our Lady under that title. Sister smiled and went to a large filing cabinet through which she rummaged for an interminable amount of time looking for something. Finally, she fished out an old sheet of paper with the Sassoferrato painting on the top and the listing the promises Our Lady made to St. Bridget for those that propagate this particular devotion. I was dumbfounded.
That day, I posted the piece of my paper on my locker at school and read it every morning when I arrived. While I wasn’t particularly faithful in saying seven Hail Mary’s every day, I do remember that it helped me to deal with my problems. Perhaps, it was then that I began to study the Passion in more detail or when God planted the seed of a vocation. Regardless, it was definitely a beginning but of what I still don’t know.
After I left high school, I didn’t much think about Our Lady of Sorrows. Like all young people, I was being a hedonistic fool and trying to find some other way that I could serve God. I got myself into some trouble during the those years, but it was nothing particularly serious. Then I found myself visiting a Catholic bookstore and found a chaplet of Our Lady of Sorrows. I prayed it every day for several weeks on end. Clearly, Our Lord was giving me ideas. Yet this devotion too fell by the wayside.
The years moved forward, my life continued to change and Our Lady was always there guiding me by the hand. When I began my preparation for Total Consecration several days ago, I started to think about the many ways in which Mary had guided me for so many years. There were those rescue efforts and the people that she had allowed me to meet who strengthened my faith and resolve to become a brother. I remembered Sr. F. and thought about how providential it was that she had given me that particular sheet of paper.
Although I had wandered in many different directions over the years, Our Lady of Sorrows had always followed me wherever I was and whatever I was doing. Even when I didn’t meditate on her sorrows or joys, I could always feel her presence when a situation suddenly resolved itself or when a long lost friend called out of the blue. She was there always inspiring and guiding me forward. Indeed, it was she above all others who brought me to the foot of the Cross and it is there I will stay forever meditating on her tears and consoling Our Lord.
Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us!