Acknowledging Sorrow: Seeing Rays of Hope


Recently I spent the day at the sixty-two acre National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother. The property is tucked away in a busy neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. If a person didn’t know it was there, one could easily drive right by the entrance, mistaking it for a neighborhood church. It was serendipitous that my Lyft taxi driver, only in the U.S. for seven years from his native land of Libya, knew the place well. He told me that the first year he lived in Portland he would come each morning before work to walk the sacred paths. His religious tradition was The Coptic Orthodox Church, and he was particularly devoted to The Holy Mother.

Although the sanctuary is open to the public, the day I was there it had drawn only those seeking a quiet dose of walking meditation, contemplation and prayer. The site offers many delightful paths on which to meander through a forest of tall fir trees, alongside stoney rock outcroppings and past blooming plants, including a lovely rose garden. Along the way there are many shrines and even a full-size Chartres-style labyrinth. The atmosphere of the gardens gently soothed me into a reflective, calm state. Passing others on the paths, I could feel a soft “swoosh” of respectful and peaceful energy emanating from each of them. No words were spoken, but the meetings felt harmonic and infused by the uplifting surroundings in some way — markedly different from meeting people in the aisle of a big box store or encountering someone on their mobile device.

      MyIMG_5251 purpose there was to visit the main shrine, The Grotto of The Sorrowful Mother, which is a fifty foot foot high cave carved out of a basalt cliffside that is home to an image of The Grieving Mother, a replica of Michelangelo’s Pietà. SHE is flanked by bronze angels and fresh flowers adorn a stone altar below her feet.   On either side of the altar are large sets of metal shelves filled with candles flickering in glass holders, protected from the elements by a narrow roof above. One can choose a candle in the gift store, bring it out to an empty spot on the shelves and light it yourself.   The photograph at the beginning of this essay shows me lighting my candle. I’ve always loved to accompany my meditations and prayers with the flicker of a candle flame.

            I strongly identify with the archetype of The Sorrowful Mother. Although the shrine expresses the archetype in Christian imagery and tradition[1], for me it evokes something even more universal — the Sacred Mother of all Life. [2] SHE, the energy that births worlds, is the force behind all traditional religious imagery of the feminine. SHE has borne us all. Each being is part of her enduring hope that all her progeny will express the promise of their of lives by embodying their unique version of wisdom, harmony and beauty. This inner promise of humanity has been given many names over the years— Christ-Light within, or Buddha nature, or simply our Essential Self. The point is that Our Divine Mother is endlessly birthing and endlessly prayerful that her sons and daughters will live from the indwelling sacredness of their being. Furthermore SHE holds in her vast heart of mercy the awareness of an Omega Point potential in time and space toward which humankind is progressing, albeit incrementally. Once humanity has arrived at The Omega Point we will have evolved our consciousness sufficiently to finally see the interconnection of all life. HER wisdom is that our well-being is inseparable from the well-being of others, our earth and our biosphere. In the meantime, there is much to lament.

            The Sorrowful Mother, an aspect of the overarching Divine Feminine, holds deep sadness and profound grief. What SHE is lamenting is that the simple wisdom of honoring life is frequently under attack by those with unbridled greed for power and profit. Others, with deep-seated fears of radical change, all too often are complicit with the agenda of their oppressors, willingly enduring the sorrow and loss of wars, hate and blaming others. The decision to take stay small in difficult circumstances, to hold fast to dysfunctional patterns is woefully disheartening. The losses are staggering. Thank goodness for the small percentage of humanity who does embrace fresh approaches that promise more common sense, compassion and justice along with more respect for the natural life of the planet.

Most importantly, feeling sorrow is the honest response to those situations, actions and attitudes that block the light giving aspects of life to flourish. It’s true that sorrow is mysterious, frightening, and overwhelming at times. Yet, sorrow unacknowledged or pushed away through a myriad of distractions goes underground, undigested and invisibly saps our vital creative life energy. [3] People are afraid that sorrow will suck them in and never spit them out. Rather than just forcing ourselves to “get over it” and carry on as if nothing significant had been lost, we can learn to be more patient with sorrow. Being with a grieving process until tiny seeds of new growth reveal themselves is a sacred act of faith. The stage of sorrow and grief cannot be short circuited. Our culture of instant gratification and habits of plastering over genuine emotions is robbing humanity of the vital function of sorrow. We are swept into sorrow and we remain there until the ashes of sorrow sprout some sort of transformation or rebirth.

Next week will mark the conclusion of the primary election season for this 2016 presidential campaign. For me, it’s been a bitter, vulgar and frightening primary season. It appears that we have our presidential nominees, neither of whom offer to govern in the ways that I would like to see. It’s a challenge to feel very optimistic about our current political situation! From my point of view it is a sorrowful time for the aspirations of the founding mothers and fathers that our nation “ shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” [4] In my mind’s eye I see a “Statue of Liberty Pietà holding disconsolate patriots and suffragettes. Mother Liberty is giving life support to the visionaries who envisioned a form of government for our country that was balanced by the input of ordinary men and women and well as the wealthy aristocracy. Significant progress toward reinvigorating our political process will happen if or when ordinary people feel their grief about the many losses. Only then is it possible to awaken to new intentions and ways of being instead of blaming each other and fanning the flames of tyranny. Mother Liberty is grieving but she embodies resolute faith that the ordinary person will eventually shake off their stupor, cowardice and perilous distraction.

So I light a candle to accompany my prayers for a more just and functional political process in our country. . Even though I feel burdened by living in a world with so much suffering, violence and appalling lack of wisdom, it’s importance for me to keep reaching for places of hope and compassion. My prayerful vision is of humanity awakening, person by person intoIMG_5245 our fundamental interconnection with each other and all life that surrounds us. Cynicism, pessimism and despair will not help me personally or soothe anyone else. Neither will allowing myself to be distracted from what provokes my sorrow make it disappear. My goal is to let myself feel the sorrow, being fully present to it while at the same time looking for and identifying rays of hope. For this, I draw inspiration from The Grotto of The Sorrowful Mother. This last photo shows an empty candle holder, ready to receive the flickering light of my ongoing prayers.


[1] The National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother was built in 1923-24 by The Order of the Servants of Mary, a religious order dating back to 1233 AD in the Catholic Church. The order now consists of priests, brother, sisters and lay people who have chosen to dedicate themselves to Mary. It is through the ministry of The Servites that the sanctuary is maintained.

[2] The archetype of The Divine Feminine itself traces itself back to through human history and religion. Christian Mary has other close female relatives, including the Hebrew Shekinah, The Egyptian Isis, The Babylonian Inanna, The Hindu Kali and The Buddhist Quan Yin, The Lakota White Buffalo Woman and the Navajo Spider Woman.

[3] One of my favorite musical expressions of “The Sorrowful Mother” is an 18th century version of an early Christian hymn text of Stabat Mater (Latin for “Mother Who Sorrows”) as it was interpreted by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. [ ]

[4] Abraham Lincoln, from The Gettysburg address, November 19, 1863.