I wouldn't be the first blogger to point out that a song like "Let it Be" has certain Marian overtones, but I may be the first one to point out a certain reoccurring Marian theme known as the Stabat Mater in popular music. May is the month of Mary, so usually we are inclined to hear a decent amount of flowery images surrounding the Blessed Virgin Mary (both literally and figuratively). However, the Stabat Mater is- in many ways- the opposite of that. The phrase is associated with Mary’s presence at the foot of the cross during the crucifixion. In fact, during Stations of the Cross there is often a hymn by the same name which accompanies the reciting of each station.
Translated, the Latin phrase means "the mother stood". On the surface, this is perhaps the least impressive thing that could ever be said about someone we are looking to emulate. "Sean stood", well, congratulations! Indeed, unless I was previously paralyzed, or had just come back from the dead, that is hardly an impressive feat. However, what I learned from listening to the Beatles, and other famous artists, was something quite unexpected. This innocuous little phrase is not only quite potent (if not poetic), but has been sung about and celebrated on more than a few occasions by a whole variety of artists.
How can this be (to use another Marian phrase)? I am not implying that these various artists have some kind of Marian devotion, but rather by virtue of their poetic insight, my own eyes have been opened (Emmaus style) to the beauty and power of a phrase that was formerly "hidden" from me.
1. The Beatles - Let It Be (Stabat as Comforter)
This song not only has "Marian overtones", it is practically a guide to Marian theology. I am well aware that Mr. McCartney wrote this song about his own mother Mary (and not the Mother of God), but need an artist always be completely aware of the profundity of his insight for the insight to be profound? I would love to ask Mr. McCartney if the phrase itself "Let it be" was an accident, or if he recognized the fact that it echoed Mary's fiat? I would love to ask him if he recognized the fact that the lyrics seem to imply that this Mary is not only a mother for him individually, but a sign of hope for humanity in general? And lastly, and more pertinent to this post, I would love to ask him if he saw a parallel between his own mother coming to him at a dark time, and Mary at the foot of the cross?
"And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me, speaking words of wisdom, 'Let it be'"
This Lady of "Wisdom" does not pretend to take away the darkness, or remove the cross from the shoulders of the one who must bear it, but she does promise constancy, even while others abandon us. She stands with us until the darkness passes. Her burden is not that of the cross itself, her cross, as it were, is to watch her child suffer. Indeed, her cross is to stand firm and not fall apart beneath the weight of the agony of the one who is flesh of her flesh and bone of her bones.
2. Ben E. King - Stand By Me (Stabat as Companion)
"When the night has come and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we'll see. No I won't be afraid no I won't shed a tear, just as long as you stand, stand by me… If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall, or the mountains should crumble to sea. I won't cry, I won't cry, no I won't shed a tear, just as long as you stand, stand by me."
This is another song with some very Biblical overtones. One might even call it apocalyptic (or at least as apocalyptic as early 60s music can be). In any case, I cannot help but to see a little of Golgotha (as well as the Gospels in general) in these verses; "From the sixth to the ninth hour darkness covered the land/ the sun was darkened… At that moment the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth quaked and the rocks were split." Matthew 27:45; 50
In this instance, the virtue of the Stabat Mater is quite clear: 'I can endure anything that hell throws at me, as long as I know that you are with me.' Without companionship in dark times, it is nearly impossible to avoid falling into despair. Consequently, only love can keep us strong in the face of death, and only the one who remains faithful to us through it all, can offer us a reason to hope in the face of misery.
3. The Pretenders - I'll Stand By You (Stabat as a Sign of Solidarity)
One of the great virtues which tends to be present in the feminine is a willingness to "cover a man in his nakedness". In other words, when everyone else is running for cover, this lady is willing to stand with us. How difficult it is to endure the taunts, stares, and threats that accompany such a brave form of solidarity. As it relates to Jesus, this willingness to help "cover his nakedness" (for indeed he was naked), is something that few in Jesus' company were willing to do. Why? Beyond the potential threat to their lives, it was the larger burden of associating yourself with a loser, the guy, as it were, who "lost you the game", the one who will ensure that even your "friends" will have nothing more to do with you, especially if you continue to defend him. The ones brave enough to "stand" beside you under these circumstances, possess a form of moral courage that isn't so much measured by human activity, as it is by a willingness to prefer justice over human respect.
"I'll stand by, I'll stand by you. Won't let nobody hurt you. I'll stand by you. Take me in, into your darkest hour. I'll never desert you… I'll stand by you"
Perhaps my favorite Hollywood example of this was the time that Robert Downey Jr. defended Mel Gibson during an awards show ceremony.
4. Tammy Wynette - Stand by Your Man (Stabat as Loyalty and Forbearance)
In this particular song, "standing" is all about the virtue of fidelity to ones spouse, especially when one's spouse is anything but. Lyrically, one might argue that this song is somewhat misogynistic, if not particularly antiquated. Yet beneath all of the cultural trappings, there is the simple message in the song, one that many of the saints have echoed throughout history (St. Monica in particular comes to mind). Indeed, sometimes love is about fidelity in the face of betrayal. Obviously Jesus betrayed no one, but this kind of "stabat" is not simply about Jesus and Mary, but rather about the Christian life in general. If we think about it, there is probably someone in our own life who believed in us, or who stuck by us, even when we were monumentally unworthy of such fidelity. Without that goodness, that fidelity, that long suffering, there would be no hope for us at all! In any case, there are moments in the song that do indeed echo the fidelity of Mary at the foot of the cross.
"Even though he's hard to understand... Stand by your man, and show the world you love him. Keep giving him all the love you can… Stand by your man."
5. Stand - Sly and the Family Stone (Stabat as Defender of Truth)
As exciting as the physical act of standing can (and should) be, the expressions that I am highlighting here are less about the physical act itself, and more about the metaphysical virtue of never backing down. For example, he was "the last man standing", "stand up for yourself," and Bob Marley's "Get up, stand up. Stand up for your right!" There are even famous books and movies based on this premise. There is Stephen King's novel "The Stand" which is all about a final apocalypse, and making a final "stand" against evil. There is also the movie "Stand and Deliver", a movie about a teacher who inspires students in low income situations to transcend their particular cultural circumstances. Hence, to stand in this particular sense is synonymous is not merely about being sentient, but rather about a kind of unconquerable will. The song "Stand" is in some ways a kind of self-help (it was the late 60s after all) approach to overcoming fear and indifference, and standing up for what you know to be right and true.
"Stand! There's a cross for you to bear, things to go through if you're going anywhere. Stand for the things you know are right. It's the truth that the truth makes them so uptight. Stand! "
OK, not Shakespeare. However, my point isn't so much about the genius of the song, as it is about the particular manner in which the expression is used here. To stand for something, especially the truth, is not only brave and virtuous, but downright (at least according to Stephen King) apocalyptic. The refusal to remain on the canvas, and to stand erect in the face of hell's fury is why Stabat Mater is anything but a passive stance. Thus, in the order of grace and virtue, Mary is the ultimate prizefighter, an historical juggernaut who cannot be vanquished- no matter how many haymakers the enemy throws.
Bonus Track: I'm Still Standing - Elton John (Stabat as Perserverence)
"Don't you know I'm still standing better than I ever did, looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid. I'm still standing after all this time, picking up the pieces of my life without you on my mind… I'm still standing."