Friday, April 15, 2011

Our Mother Stood

For some time now, I've wanted to devote an essay to the laughter of Christ. Somehow, that just didn't seem appropriate during Lent! and as I procrastinated and the season grew later it became even less so. Hopefully come Easter week I will have something on the topic worth posting.

In the meantime, and in honor of the Holy Week we are about to enter, here are some thoughts on the "Stabat Mater."

Let me remind you briefly of how the hymn begins. In the Latin:

Stabat mater dolorosa
juxta Crucem lacrimosa,
dum pendebat Filius.

There are two familiar English versions of the hymn. One is an adaptation that follows the sense of the Latin fairly well. Like all poetic translations, the exigencies of rhyme and meter force the poet to play fast-and-loose with some of the finer points and shades of meaning.

At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to Jesus to the last.

The first two lines are not bad, but "dum pendebat Filius" is really not the same as "close to Jesus to the last". Still, a valiant attempt at accuracy, and a beautiful poem!

The other "Stabat Mater" that we Catholics hear is not act
ually a translation at all, but a new poem set to the familiar tune. Most of us end up suffering it (in both senses of the phrase) during the Stations of the Cross, since it tries to provide a blow-by-blow thereof. Some of the verses are a wee bit triumphalist for the circumstances . . .

Now the cross as Jesus bore it,
Has become for us who share it,
The jeweled cross of victory.

. . . and some others demonstrate a poor sense of the liberties permitted by poetic license . . .

Brave but trembling came the woman,
None but she would flaunt the Roman,
Moved by love beyond her fear.

"Flaunt"? This is Veronica, not Mary Magdalene! But to do the version credit, there are some verses that are truly beautiful:

Stunned and stricken, Mary, Mother,
In your arms was placed our Brother,
"Full of grace" now filled with grief.

It's a little underdeveloped grammatically; but only Shakespeare has everything.

With that in mind (only Shakespeare has everything!) I decided to attempt a re-translation of the poem myself. It took rather longer than I thought it would—for a couple of years now I have used no Latin, outside of the Novus Ordo Mass—but it was perhaps a better meditation for that very reason. I had to take it slowly, consider each word and looking up a number of them to check my sense of their meaning.

This is not a verse translation like the ones above; neither is it a literal translation. It is an attempt to get as close as possible to saying what the original 13th century poet wanted to say.


The grief-stricken mother stood at the cross, in the way of her son, weeping, for as long as he hung there. The sword has passed through her soul—groaning, saddened, and grieving.

Oh, how sorrowful and afflicted was the blessed mother of the only begotten Son! the good Mother, who mourned and grieved, while she saw her glorious child render what was forfeit.

Where is the man who will not weep, seeing Christ's mother so punished? Where is the man who will not also suffer, as he thinks on Christ’s Mother, suffering with her Son?

For the sins of his own people she saw Jesus in torment, and subject to the scourges. She watched her sweet Child dying abandoned, up to the moment when he gave up his ghost.

O Mother, wellspring of love, touch my spirits with sorrow; make me weep with you! Make my heart burn with loving Christ my God, that I also may please him.

Holy Mother, do this: Fix the stripes of the crucifix firmly in my heart. Apportion the penalty between myself and your wounded Son, who for me deigned to suffer so greatly.

Let me weep devoutly with you, in compassion for the one who was crucified, as long as I live. I want to stand by the Cross in the way of your son, mourning in your company.

Virgin, most renowned of virgins, do not be tender with me now: let me mourn! Let me bear the death of Christ; let me share in his Passion, and call to mind how he was scourged. Let me be wounded with those stripes; let me be inebriated by the cross and the blood of your Son.

Be my defense, Virgin, in the day of judgment, lest I burn in the ravaging flames.

Christ, when I am to depart from this place, grant that I may achieve the laurel of victory through thy Mother. While my body decays, let my soul give you glory in paradise.


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