The Diocese of Lecce is officially located in the region of Puglia, Italy…what we know as “the heel” of the boot. The locals, however, prefer the more traditional/ancient/ provincial (however you want to look at it) distinction: Salento. Whatever you call it, this ancient city was of great importance from the period of the Roman empire; before that, it was known to have trade relations with the Greeks. Visiting it, you can still see ruins of the Roman amphitheater and other structures dating from the 1st Century AD or earlier.
Within the walls of the ancient city sits the Cathedral, built of the limestone with which
the majority of the old city was built (see the picture below). This structure, dating from the 1100’s, is the product of centuries of blood, sweat, tears, and gold. Like many churches throughout Europe, it was built with a vision toward the future, a future that would last centuries. This church, among others, has done just that, and it seems set to stick around for quite a long time to come!
Among the numerous features of this beautiful structure is a quite interesting side altar depicting the moments following the removal of our Lord’s sacred body from the cross on Good Friday. One’s eyes are drawn to two key figures in the image: our Lord and His Blessed Mother. While several other individuals stand around with their attention fixed upon Christ’s dead body, our Blessed Mother is standing with her gaze toward Heaven. The posture – eyes heavenward, a questioning countenance, and her hands open – seems to boil down to one question: Why? Why did it have to be this way? Why did men show such hatred to her Son? Why did men show such hatred to God the Son? Was this Your plan?
The artist seems to want to draw the viewer into this spirit with Mary and cast one’s eyes heavenward. As one’s eyes move upward, answers are given more quickly than one might expect though not in the way one might like, for just a few feet above this image is another image of God the Father, Whose gaze is cast down upon the scene as well. Whereas the Blessed Mother’s hands are turned upward in petition, the Father’s hands are turned downward, as if trying to calm her Immaculate Heart. The Blessed Mother’s general attitude of confusion is contrasted with the tranquil assurance of the Father.
Some might argue that the Father is completely out of touch with what’s happening…He cannot possibly understand the human heart and its pain…He doesn’t know what it’s like…He’s not listening or paying attention to me. How easily we can see echoes of such thoughts in our own hearts at moments in our lives when things don’t go as planned, when we do what is good and yet we suffer physical pains from sickness or deeper spiritual pains, when someone we love suffers, when someone we love dies! With the Psalmist, we want to say:
All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you, nor been disloyal to your covenant. Our hearts have not turned back, nor have our steps strayed from your path. Yet you have left us crushed, desolate in a place of jackals; you have covered us with a shadow of death. (Psalm44:18-20)
For this reason, many people today have walked away from their Faith because they cannot see how all these pains can be reconciled with a God Who is perfectly good and all-powerful. As with many other things, however, our Blessed Mother has an important lesson to teach us. As Holy Mother Church clearly teaches, Mary was preserved from all stain of sin from the first moment of her conception, which means that she never committed a single sin nor did she ever give in to a single temptation throughout the course of her earthly life. It wasn’t that her free will was taken from her; rather, her free will was able to function in the way God intended for it was unobstructed by sin such that she could see the goodness of God in and around her, and thus she would trust His plan even if she didn’t understand it. She knew what St. Thomas Aquinas would clearly elaborate for the rest of us some 1200 years later:
Something may fall outside the order of any particular active cause, but not outside the order of the Universal Cause; under which all particular causes are included: and if any particular cause fails of its effect, this is because of the hindrance of some other particular cause, which is included in the order of the universal cause. Therefore an effect cannot possibly escape the order of the Universal Cause. (STh, I, 19, 6)
In layman’s terms, God’s Will cannot be frustrated…PERIOD. In the words of St. Paul, We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose. (Romans8:28) The face of the Father, a face which communicates tranquility and calm in the midst of this violent storm raging around the heart of the Blessed Mother, is not lying. He knows what He is about, even if it’s hard to understand. Further, it might be more accurate to say that the Blessed Virgin, trusting at all times the loving plan of the Father and the obedience of the Son, is simply repeating in her heart, what she said to St. Gabriel some 30 years previous: Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to thy word.
This simple response of trusting faith is expounded upon by the wisdom of the Letter to the Hebrews: …whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges. Endure your trials as “discipline”; God treats you as sons…At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it. (Hebrews 12:6-7, 11)
We do well, then, to imitate the example of her pure heart in the trials that come our way. Knowing that our Heavenly Father is Supreme Wisdom as well as Love Itself, we are to entrust ourselves to His mysterious plan, even when it seems that our lives couldn’t possibly get any worse than they are at this moment. He knows what He is about, even if the road is dark and God seems to have forgotten us. Therefore, do not throw away your confidence; it will have great recompense. You need endurance to do the will of God and receive what he has promised.’For, after just a brief moment, he who is to come shall come; he shall not delay.’ (Hebrews 10:35-37)
And in those moments when the words seem to escape us, Bl. Charles de Foucauld provides:
Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you: I am ready for all, I accept all. Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures – I wish no more than this, O Lord. Into your hands I commend my soul: I offer it to you with all the love of my heart, for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father.