Titles of Our Lady from the Litany of Loreto

Queen of Martyrs

Queen of Martyrs

The Church has crowned Mary, not only with a crown of twelve stars but also with a crown of thorns, in calling Her Martyr—indeed, the Queen of Martyrs. Thus in the Vespers Hymn for the Feast of the Seven Dolors, She sings, "The Virgin stands there the while, more noble than the martyrs: by a new wonder, O Mary, dying, Thou dost not die, though transfixed by such great and dreadful sorrows." And in the Communion Verse for the Mass of the Feast, She declares, "Happy the senses of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which without death obtained the palm of martyrdom beside the Cross of the Savior." All the spiritual writers say the same. St. Bernard, who calls Her "more than martyr," is typical of them all.

The pure body of Our Lady was exempt from physical macerations. By Her Immaculate Conception She was free from bodily ills. When She died it was not from sickness or physical disintegration, the result of original sin, but from love. Somehow we shrink from the very thought of seeing that holy body of Hers mangled in any way. It was to be all fair from the beginning and throughout eternity.

But there is a martyrdom besides that of the body; it is the martyrdom of the soul. We know that by our own experience. We have ceased to feel bodily pain at times when an overwhelming grief has rushed upon our heart. The death of dear ones, disgrace, disappointment, reverses, worries, so pierce our heart with pain, that we ignore the wounds or sickness that would otherwise lay us low physically. It is easier to bear the cut of the sword than dishonor. A broken heart is not as easily mended as a maimed body. And if we are subject to this martyrdom of soul, we can easily understand how fittingly the title martyr is given to Our Lady, who endured suffering more than sufficient to cause Her death, had not God saved Her from the physical consequence of that agony. She was willing to shed Her blood. God spared Her that, but He did not free Her from martyrdom.

Holy InnocentsOne could not be a friend of Jesus without coming into the circle of pain. As Fr. Faber says, "The law of the Incarnation is a law of suffering." Jesus was the Man of Sorrows. "Despised and the most abject of men, a Man of sorrows, and acquainted with infirmity: and His look was as it were hidden and despised, whereupon we esteemed Him not. Surely He hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows: and we have thought Him as it were a leper, and as one struck by God and afflicted" (Isaias 53: 3-4). He was the Martyr of Martyrs, the King of Martyrs, and no one could be an attendant at His throne but a lover of pain, a carrier of the Cross. To merely human eyes it seems a poor reward for loyalty, but as Christ wanted all His followers to be as nearly like Himself as possible, He compelled them to take their full course in the School of Pain. Even His little manger-crib was shaded with palms of martyrdom. The Holy Innocents before they learned to play, learned to suffer. They, as it were, mapped out with their blood the path He was to take—little prophets of the Passion. His inner circle, the Apostles, were vowed by Him to pain. At first they did not relish the idea any more than the rest of us. They ran for their lives. They hid themselves when they thought the law would pursue them, as it had destroyed Him. But, filled with the Holy Ghost, they knew there was no other way to be loyal to Him than to be nailed to His Cross. The history of the Apostles is a paradox. They conquered, but they were slaughtered, every one of them. Even St. John, who had what we call a natural death, was a martyr, not only a martyr in soul, but a martyr in body, inasmuch as being thrown into the caldron of boiling oil he suffered pain sufficient to cause death, had not God saved him by a miracle.

False religions have been established on the promise of physical delights, on the premise that bodily pain can be imagined out of existence. The Christian religion alone is the tree that sprouts and grows from the seed of pain, watered by blood. "The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians."

If that is true of others, it is especially true of Our Lady. Not enough is made of the thought of the influence of Her sanctity, Her prayers, Her sufferings, on the growth of the Church. She cooperated in the Redemption, not only in preparing Her Son for the Sacrifice, but in associating Her life with His. That association was effected first of all by Her sanctity, and then by Her martyrdom, which was indeed, the outgrowth of Her sanctity, Her will to be conformed in all things to His will. To conform to Him, She had to suffer. She knew what She was taking upon Herself when She consented to become the Mother of God. God did not trap Her. Mary knew the Scriptures, knew the Prophecy of Isaias about the Man of Sorrows. God clarified that to Her, so that She foresaw all the pain which association in the most intimate way with the suffering Christ would entail upon Her. In the moment of Her consent She became the Queen of Martyrs. St. Gabriel brought a sword sheathed in the Annunciation lily.

Thus from the beginning Mary was vowed to a life of martyrdom. Some even go further and say that, with the infused knowledge which She had at the first moment of Her existence, She foresaw all that She would be called upon to endure, and hence was a martyr even then. But Her actual martyrdom—it was a long, slow process—began on the Annunciation. St. Gabriel had left the sword behind him. Over the day of the Annunciation was the shadow of Good Friday. But before Good Friday would come there were a thousand pains to be endured, pains of fear for the life of Her Child, pains over the sins of men, which were the cause of the terrible woes He must endure. To get at the real heart of Mary's life, you must appreciate Her hatred of sin. She, the sinless one, knew that all the pain She was enduring, and would endure, was part of the fight for the conquest of evil, and for that reason She was glad to welcome any suffering Her Son would ask Her to bear.

The supremacy of Mary's sorrow came, of course, on Calvary, but that is not to minimize the pains that preceded it. It is rather surprising at first sight to discover that of the Seven Dolors which the Church chooses for Her dedication as Queen of Martyrs, three of them are concerned with the consideration of sorrows which belong to the infancy and boyhood of Jesus. But on second view you behold how these woes are part of the pattern. Her entire Motherhood was woven out of pain. Once She said to St. Bridget of Sweden—"My whole life was spent in sorrow and tears; for My sorrow, which was compassion for My beloved Son, never departed from before My eyes. I always foresaw the sufferings and death which He was one day to endure." The revelations of St. Bridget ring true. They are in accordance with what Scripture reveals. Mary's Motherhood was not confined to the hours of the Passion, but was truly a part of the life of Jesus for all His thirty-three years—indeed, will be a part of His life for all eternity.

PietaNo sooner did She hold Him in Her arms than She had to accept the sword of sorrow. Simeon, with his prophecy, thrust his two-edged sword mercilessly; Herod, with his threats on the life of the Child and with the forced flight into Egypt, thrust his sword exultingly; and in the three days' loss She suffered a pain the deepest of all because it was the Hand of Love that forged the sword. Only seven sorrows are specified, the greatest ones, but you will see countless others dominating every day, every hour of Her life. But these sorrows up to the time of the Passion were but Her apprenticeship. The true accolade of martyrdom was given to Her when the King of Martyrs took His crown and His throne. Pain did its best to crowd all it could into those few hours. It was a planned tragedy of pain, act by act leading to the culmination. It was not enough for the Mother to be compelled to meet Her Son on the way to execution. That is one of the most excruciating agonies of Mary, to see Him bruised and beaten and bloody, needing Her so, yet unable to go to Him and comfort Him. The eyes of Jesus alone touched Her, but they flashed a sword that buried itself in Her Heart. Now the swords leapt from a million scabbards until one great sword, the hilted sword of the Cross, dug into Her Heart and cut it in twain. It was still there when She held His lifeless body in Her arms, that new sword of desolation, still there when She laid Him in the tomb, that sword of abandonment. Ever the sword of the Cross till the very day of Her Assumption. It was a long martyrdom, and an intense martyrdom. "To what shall I compare Thee," says the Church, applying to Her the Lamentations of Jeremias (2: 13), "or to what shall I liken Thee, O daughter of Jerusalem? To what shall I equal Thee, that I may comfort Thee, O virgin daughter of Sion? For great as the sea is Thy destruction: who shall heal Thee?" This is not mere sentimentality. The saints are not sentimentalists, they are men of hard fact, men who have suffered, men who have attained to the foot of the Cross, dragging their own cross behind them. And if there is one thing that is common to the meditations of these graduates of the School of Pain, it is the realization of the illimitable immensity of the suffering of the Mother of God. Their findings are all summed up in the pronouncement of St. Bernardine of Siena, that, "if Her pain was subdivided and parceled among all creatures, they would perish instantly."

We shudder today as we read of the sufferings of the martyrs of the early ages, of Ss. Lucy and Agnes and Agatha, of those flayed alive, the human torches, the beast-devoured, the racked, the torn, the mutilated; of the martyrs of the Elizabethan persecutions; of the poor starved Irish martyrs who in Penal days called Our Lady, “Queen of the Poor;” they had good right to claim Her as their own in calling Her "Queen of Martyrs." Martyrs all, martyrs in every age, every land, but little martyrs by the side of Her, for as St. Anselm says, "Whatever cruelty was exercised upon the bodies of martyrs was light, nothing, compared to Her passion."

But if Mary is proposed to us as "Queen of Martyrs," it is not just for sentimental, ineffectual condolence. We grieve for Her, it is true, but that grief will get us nowhere unless it is a practical one. Her grief was over sin and what sin caused, and we bring Her more consolation when we refrain from one venial sin than if we shed buckets of sympathetic tears for Her sorrows. Mary was martyred, and She was martyred for us. And there is another practical reason why She is set forth for us as "Queen of Martyrs." It is that She is a model in the endurance of pain for the love of God. We all must be martyrs more or less. We shrink from pain. We do not crave martyrdom. We are not like William Doyle, who as a novice wrote: "Dear Mother Mary, in preparation for the glorious martyrdom which I feel assured Thou art going to obtain for me, I, Thy most unworthy child, on this first day of the month, solemnly commence my life of slow martyrdom by earnest hard work and constant self-denial. With my blood I promise Thee to keep this resolution. Do Thou, sweet Mother, assist me and obtain for me the one favor I wish and long for—to die a Jesuit martyr." He got his wish at last.

And eventually we, too, will in spite of ourselves be lesser martyrs. We cannot escape the Cross. There is one being planned for us, and before we close our eyes in death it will be laid at our feet for us to pick up and carry.

It is good to get used to the idea, and in preparation for that unavoidable day, to make a friend of Her who will tell us how to carry our cross, who can show us the way after Her Divine Son, the way She followed so closely, that placed Her on Her throne as Queen of Martyrs.

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