Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Pieta and Motherhood

I was first exposed to Michelangelo’s Pieta when I read My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. The story’s protagonist, Asher Lev, is drawn to and studies various Pieta sculptures, including this one. The first time I saw a picture of this Pieta, I was stunned by the beauty of the work. The word “pieta” is Italian for “piety”. Piety is often thought of as an insincere show of religious devotion but the true meaning of the word is reverence for God or devout fulfillment of religious obligations. As I’ve continued to study Michelangelo’s Pieta, I have come to see it as a symbol of motherhood and the many types of suffering associated with motherhood. There are many Pieta paintings and sculptures that attempt to depict the suffering of Mary as she holds the dead body of her son, but most of them depict suffering as grotesque and terrible. For me, only this Pieta captures the beauty inherent in this kind of suffering.

Though the suffering of Christ was a result of evil and destructive forces, God consecrated it, making it productive and purpose-filled. For the atonement to have the power of redeeming men from sin, Christ had to allow himself to be sacrificed. He didn’t want to but He knew it was necessary and submitted His will to the Father’s. As Christ said, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” Christ’s willing submission made all the difference.

Suffering can become a gateway to the greatest blessings the Father has to offer us. As C.S. Lewis wrote in his essay A Slip of the Tongue, “For it is not so much of our time and so much of our attention that God demands; it is not even all our time and all our attention; it is ourselves...For He has, in the last resort, nothing to give us but Himself; and He can give that only insofar as our self-affirming will retires and makes room for Him in our souls.” Lewis continues, “For He claims all, because He is love and must bless. He cannot bless us unless He has us.” That is where this kind of suffering can lead us. Michelangelo’s Pieta embodies this truth.

I relate to this piece of art on a personal level. In my own small way, I know about this kind of suffering. I spent several long years desperately trying to become a mother and ultimately learning that my husband and I could not have children biologically. It wasn’t until I accepted this truth and learned to live with it that we were finally able to become parents through adoption.

When I look at Michelangelo’s Pieta, I see an expression of my personal experience with suffering and submitting to God’s will. Though Mary holds her son’s body, her arms are really empty. He is not there. His spirit is gone. I remember the ache I felt in my arms, longing to hold a baby of my own.

Mary though in the midst of her greatest suffering appears young, beautiful and God-like. She has been transformed by the experience. The agony I felt seemed unbearable but I survived it and it transformed me. Mary contemplates her son with a pained but peaceful expression. Her left hand questions “why” while the rest of her body rests calmly and submissively in acceptance of God’s will. I remember asking why and learning to be content with the answer, “Someday you will understand. For now, accept it as my will.”

This moment is for Mary the ultimate fulfillment of the commitment she made years before, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” I loved that scripture as a young woman and had a picture of Mary talking to the angel, hanging in my bedroom. I thought of Mary as the quintessential mother and wanted to be like her when I grew up. I knew that God wanted me to be a mother someday and that motherhood would be my greatest work on earth. I did not understand then what I would go through to fulfill that commitment.

Mary gently cradles her full grown son as if to say, there are no limits on the depth and breadth of a mother’s love. It is eternal. That is how I feel about my daughter. It doesn’t matter that we are not biologically connected. I am her mother therefore my love for her is boundless. Mary doesn’t cling to Christ with desperation or possessiveness as many mothers would in this moment. She is fully present and feels the pain and anguish deeply, but she possesses such self-mastery that she is able to simultaneously accept this as God’s will. This reminds me of the peace and hope that came when I finally accepted God’s will for my family. I still felt the pain but somehow I could bear it.

The hard, permanent, stone of the sculpture is much like Mary’s quite determination. She is not looking for an escape or distraction — she will remain in this painful moment until God will’s it otherwise. I did not know how long I would wait to become a mother but I accepted that it would be on God’s timetable and learned to wait patiently.

For me, the great weight of Mary’s robes folding and piling up around her symbolize the weight of all she bears. Now that I am a mother, I have discovered a range of new fears and pains and I see them in Mary’s suffering too. There is the constant worry that I will fail as a mother. There is the fear that my precious child will die before I do. There is the agony of watching my daughter suffer. There is the knowledge that I cannot make her choices for her and the fear that she will reject the things I’ve taught her about good and bad, right and wrong, true and false. All these are the burdens of motherhood and there is something in Mary’s countenance that tells me she knows these too.


Sea Star said...

What a great essay. I had to look up the sculpture and then reread your thoughts.

Asher Lev is one of the few Potok books I haven't read yet. I will have to find a copy.

I hope that 2nd baby makes it way to you soon.

Jennifer said...

Thanks Sarah! Asher Lev is my favorite Potok, followed closely by the Gift of Asher Lev. Kelly prefers the Gift.