July 1, 2004
Pity hides in the wood,
The years and tides,
The earth, the bare moon,
Death and birth,
The freezing skies, the sun
And the populous seas
Against her, one and all,
re furiously incensed…
– CS Lewis, That Hideous Strength
Pain, we human beings know pain. We know the anguish of loss, the crush of unwanted burdens, the bone-jarring blow of deep betrayal. Human beings know pain and comfort seems so far away. But there is a balm they say.
We see it in carved marble wrapped tenderly around carved marble. Set back in a softly lit alcove in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Michelangelo’s Pieta silently bespeaks this balm. Leaning against the railing, staring at this piece for nearly a half an hour, I found myself being changed and longing to be conformed to what I saw so clearly in that piece. I saw pity, but not as we usually conceive of it. Not weak regret watered down with selfish relief that the pain in question is not our own. Not a pat on the head that tears at raw nerves and insults shattered pride. The pity I saw there was the full force of grief poured out of truest love in a slow avalanche of sacrifice.
Mary, wife of Joseph, cradled Jesus, Son of God, in her lap. Her face, still smooth and young (I imagine that it must have had to remain so for the duration of her life. Her body carried within it the incarnate Lord of Life – how could it be marked after that?), looked down on the form of the dead Messiah lying like a child in her arms. In seeing him, I knew him to be man. His body seemed so very human with his legs twisted, his arm hanging limply across her knee, and his head falling backwards. He looked so very mortal with his broken body still needing its mother. But looking at her, I knew him to be Immortal God.
What a remarkable woman! She cradled this man, her son, who also happened to be God Most High. Her face held deep mourning and I could imagine her remembering him as a child and likely already missing his eyes looking at her, his laugh, and the way he walked. Also on her face was surrender, and it is here that we begin to understand the nature of her own sacrifice. She gave her son up to his Father for the sake of his lost sons and daughters. As she cradled him with one arm, her hand stretched out across his shoulder blade and pressing gently into the skin under his arm, the other hand was outstretched ever so slightly at her side. Palm up, she seemed to ask her God why her son had to die and yet at the same time, say, “So be it. It will be as You say.” She was so beautiful and so tender as she looked at him, and she was anointed with a regality that I think may be easily misunderstood. Hers was a regality not found in fine feathers and purple robes, but found in light shining from the air itself. Her crown was not of terrestrial gold which has a dark side when standing in the sunlight, but woven of the shadowless golden strands of high heaven itself. It was hers, but not of her or for her or from her.
I consider their relationship and am overawed at the mutual intertwining of pity, love, mercy, guidance and gratitude. She was both his mother and his daughter; he was both her son and her father. He was formed in her body and her body was formed in his hands. She carried him in her womb, in her arms, on her hip. He carried her to Calvary on that cross. Her body bore him into life; his death bore her into life. She held nothing back for the sake of the will of her God. He held nothing back for the sake of the lives of his sons and daughters. They each bore such incredible pain for the other, and they each found their comfort in the pity-filled love of the other. Have two beings ever been so close as that woman and that man?
In seeing that ache in her, that sorrow, that asking of “why” and saying “as You wish” all at the same time, I understand better the nature of sacrifice, the nature of love, and that neither can be ultimately separated from the force of pity. Pity as a magnificent lover rises up, “ready to kill, ready to die, outspeeding light” and without a thought of itself, pours itself out, sometimes with great pain, for the sake of its beloved. Pity wears a halo and makes love holy, because pity is always an overflow of robust goodness into an empty space. It is mixed in where the divine and the human meet, and the pains that swarm against it are rebuffed. To know this pity and become part of it was Mary’s comfort and glory and may be ours as well.
CS Lewis, That Hideous Strength
Lisa Otten is a senior from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, majoring in Philosophy, Religion, and History.