I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can't bear without a friend,
I can't love without a sister
The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.
When we win it is with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler's sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
I think Mary Oliver's most challenging line is : "Listen: Are you breathing a just little and calling it a life?" The poets are great ones for prodding us to step into a bigger picture, a fuller dream- to move from simply breathing to really living. Rumi says , "Let yourself be silently drawn by that which you most deeply love" . I learned at the wonderful David Whyte workshop at Asilomar last weekend that the word "courage" comes from coeur, the French word for "heart". So the courageous path, David gently urged us, is the path that speaks to our heart, to our deepest longings. The poets are giving me the courage to step more and more fully into my longings, and I imagine they could encourage you, as well to get up, leave behind your fishing net, and follow the yellow brick road that brings you home to your heart's desire.
As Goethe wrote in Faust:
Seize this very minute;
What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
This poem by Scott O Brien points to the same idea:
cloudy and gray
as I drove the highway
in white shirt and business tie
from my left at ten o'clock high
arose a flock
of forty egrets
from the area I knew
as a rookery in summer
arising as one
heading south, knowing
somehow, today was the day,
and now was the time
lifting as they had
some for their first time
and some for their last time
all feeling the same impulse
gathering within them
some irresistible instinct
propelling them up
into something unknown
but so right
and I knew
somehow that instinct is within me
that universal force is me
as it is all of us
and that someday
I will know
today is the day
and now is the time
and I will rise from wherever I am
toward where I know I must go
by forty egrets.
I wonder what the world would look like if we each followed the path of courage, took off the tie around our necks and followed our heart song.
Apostle to the Apostles
I like to start my classes on Mary Magdalene with a question to the audience about her, a question Jesus asked his disciples: “ Who do you say I am?” The answers are varied, but almost always given in this order:: prostitute, adulteress, maybe Jesus’ bride, possibly a disciple, maybe “something about the Resurrection?” There is so much controversy over Mary Magdalene- and there will be more to come in the future, as she makes an appearance in the hallowed but secular halls of the concert and opera stage this year and scholars debate about whether an ancient manuscript Harvard professor Karen King is calling the Gospel of Jesus’ Wifeis authentic or a fake.
I am primarily a mythologist.- which means that I believe there is depth and meaning in all the stories, even the ones that are factually inaccurate. But I am also a cultural historian, which means that I do like to at least have an idea of what might have actually happened. If determining Mary Magdalene’s true identity were a court battle (and sometimes it feels like it is!), we would have to decide on what evidence was admissible. And in discussions with Christians- particularly Christian priests and ministers- the one thing we can certainly agree on is admitting the evidence of the Canonical Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
I think it is fair to say that most of my church audiences are stunned when we actually look at the Bible and see what is written there about the woman specifically named Mary Magdalene. There are twelve passages altogether- (you can look them up for yourself on Blue Letter Bible.org)
Chronologically in the timeline of Jesus’ life, she appears first in Luke:
Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another—The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out—and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.( Luke 8:1-3)
This passage bears mulling over. What the passage tells us explicitly is that she was a follower, along with the twelve disciples, and that she was helping to financially support his ministry. We can infer that she the most important (of the women at least) because she is the only one who is named, and we can deduce that she was quite wealthy, because she was able to afford to support them. The line about the seven demons is more problematic to interpret- we will return to that in a later post.
Her role as a supporter is also noted in Matthew, where we next find Mary Magdalene at the scene of the crucifixion.
There were also many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee
Her presence at the cross is affirmed by the other Gospel writers as well:
There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary (the mother of James the younger and of Joses) and Salome. Mark 15:40
…but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene John 19:25
Notice that the Gospels differ in who they say was there. (That is not unusual, by the way- it is actually more unusual for the Gospels to agree than disagree!) However, the only person all the gospel writers agree on is Mary Magdalene. It bears remembering that the male disciples have fled in fear- and that Peter has already denied knowing Jesus three times.
We next find Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb to prepare Jesus body for burial. Once again, we have a diversity of perspectives from the Gospel writers, and yet once again they agree that Mary Magdalene was there- and they name her first, in the position of greatest importance:
Mark 16 tells us, “ When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.”
In Matthew 28, we hear , “ Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb”
In Luke, it is “Mary Magdalene and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James” who arrive to prepare the body. when they find two men in dazzling white.
In John 16, she comes alone: “ Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb”
Mary Magdalene is a figure who has fascinated us for centuries. I’ve met people who claim they are her descendants from the Merovingian line, I’ve met women who believe they are her re-incarnation, and I have met angry fundamentalists who blaze with fury as they declare, “ I don’t want to talk about that whore!” Luther believed she was Jesus’ wife; Brigham Young thought she was one of three wives (along with Martha and Mary of Bethany). In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, she is simply revered as the “Apostle to the Apostles”. There is no consensus, just as there is no consensus about much of anything between the Canonical Gospel writers . Except for one thing, obvious but unspoken and virtually unnoticed. Mary Magdalene is the hinge on which Christianity hangs. If we were to cut her out of the story entirely and omit the passages in the Bible where she appears, we would have to cut out both the crucifixion and the resurrection, and the entire religion of Christianity would disappear. And whether you think this is a good thing or a bad thing in terms of the history of the world, it is certainly an important thing.
St. Domenic once wrote about the "Hound of Heaven"- a sense of being pursued by something that you could never outrun. And so it has been with me and Mary Magdalene. All throughout graduate school, people assumed I would write on her- after all, every year I went to France on pilgrimage to follow in her legendary footsteps . Every year, I created rituals , workshops and concerts to mark her feast day . Every year I taught seminars on her.
But somehow, I thought I was going to write a dissertation on another topic, one less popular, one no one had thought of. I had a brilliant concept paper ( a professor's words) and I was looking forward to being the one person in the world who knew all about Salome in her many faces : artistic, Orthodox, Gnostic and musical., rather than one among so very many who have done an enormous amount of wonderful research on Mary Magdalene- including Karen King, Susan Haskins, Susan Lehr, Jean Yves LeLoup, Cynthia Bourgeault . I didn't want to be one of many, and I certainly didn't want to try to compete with any of those illustrious and famous scholars. I wanted to be unique.
But a funny thing happened this fall. I began to correspond with Mark Adamo, the brilliant composer/librettist whose Gospel of Mary Magdalene will be receiving its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera this June. I had the pleasure of meeting him at an Interfaith Council meeting with the marketing department . I read his libretto, and while there are parts of his story that I disagree with intensely, it moved me profoundly- so much so that I had goosebumps and a lump in my throat.
Then I began teaching Mary Magdalene seminars again, and in them I kept encountering people who told me each week, " I wish I had known this earlier- it would have changed my life! This is a spiritual story I can relate to. This is a story I need" . As I shared the arc of the centuries of myths, I saw jaws drop. and on the last class as we engaged in Lectio Divina on the Gospel penned in her name, I saw more than a few tears.of both revelation and healing, and I received more than a few passionately heartfelt hugs at the end of class.
One way to figure out what path to take in your life to follow what is called the Path of Consolation. You pay attention to what makes you light up, for as Iraneus said, "The glory of God is a human being fully alive"; Hildegard of Bingen had another name for the Holy Spirit- Veriditas, meaning the "greening power of God", that which makes us green and juicy. She taught that what makes us filled with vitality is Divine, and what leads to a sense of dryness and aridity is the greatest sin- and we should follow the path that makes us feel ripe with life. And so as I reflected on the past month, I realized that my greatest sense of joy and aliveness came not from half- heartedly working on the project I thought I was committed to, but returning like a boomerang to the subject that has obsessed me for the better part of a decade. As I spoke to my marvelous dissertation chair, Christine Downing, telling her of my excitement about working with the opera, she said the obvious: why don't you write about THAT instead?
So, I have changed my topic. My dissertation will now be an archetypal exploration on the explosion of classical music that is emerging around the character of Mary Magdalene. Not just Mark's fascinating opera, but also John Adams' oratorio The Gospel of the Other Mary, Arvo Part's Woman with the Alabaster Box, and
Peeter Vahi's The Gospel of Mary Magdalene.. It turns out that the topic of Mary Magdalene- especially the Gnostic Mary Magdalene- has kindled within some of the world's greatest composers the same fire that burns inside of me. Maybe you know some more musicians who are working on the Gnostic Magdalene, and if you do, I would love to hear about them, listen to their music, interview them and include them in my book
And as for the lesson in all of this, I find it pretty fascinating to note that I have written more in the past three days on this topic than I did in the past three months on the subject I "thought" I wanted to do. It makes me remember the advice I heard once from a great artist: what matters most is not originality, but authenticity.
Ok, so half the world is in love with Mary Magdalene. It doesn't change the fact that she is the one who makes me come fully alive. And if my work can help people connect more deeply to the story through the extraordinary music being penned at this very moment, then it will be a year well spent.
While some of my dearest loved ones are sadly mourning the passing of Christmas, I am eagerly awaiting Epiphany. In our common cultural parlance, we define the word as a sense of sudden insight or manifestation. And it is a season of insight, of seeing inward. In the Ancient Greek world, it was the word associated with the arrival of Dionysus , of which I will have more to say in later blogs. In the Christian liturgical year, Epiphany begins with the pilgrimage of the three wise and regal Eastern sages coming together with humble shepherds to find the unexpected miracle amidst the ordinary. It will follow for the next six weeks a story line of initiation, temptation and revelation, of learning to see in new ways and discovering how to manifest the extraordinary in the middle of the every day. In the Orthodox church, Epiphany is a bigger holiday than Christmas, since Christmas was the birth of a singular baby- while Epiphany is the revelation of the Divine Light, a light that can shine forth from each one of us.
Tomorrow , I will lead an Epiphany labyrinth walk and Taize service at St John's Episcopal in Petaluma, with a ritual to mark the movement from darkness to light. A few good questions to contemplate on the eve of Epiphany might be: what gifts do you want to bring forth to share with the world this year? How can you let your own light shine brighter? Can you learn to follow those trans-rational promptings that urge you to cross new boundaries and frontiers to journey into strange lands? Can you dare go in search of something bigger than yourself? Can you trust the paradox that true power and divinity lie within humility and vulnerability?
My favorite carol to bridge Christmas and Epiphany has long been "In the Bleak Midwinter", with its beautiful music by Gustav Holst and tender, poignant lyrics by Christina Rossetti (sister and muse to her more famous brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti).
Here is a video, sung by the King's College, Cambridge boys choir of England: (Link)
These are my favorite lines:
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
.Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
I give my heart
Next weekend, I will be traversing afar to see one of my own favorite sages, the great poet David Whyte. I'll be attending a conference he will be leading at Asilomar on Pilgrimage: Setting the Direction for a Future Life. He will, I am sure, be a good guide as I seek to find my own inner star for the coming year.
This poem of his seems a singularly appropriate companion for the coming days:
The Lightest Touch
by David Whyte
Good poetry begins with
the lightest touch,
a breeze arriving from nowhere,
a whispered healing arrival,
a word in your ear,
a settling into things,
then like a hand in the dark
it arrests the whole body,
steeling you for revelation.
In the silence that follows
a great line
you can feel Lazarus
even the laziest, most deathly afraid
part of you,
lift up his hands and walk toward the light.
May you find your own inner light this week, and discover the the great gifts which are inside you waiting to be brought forth this year. Most of all, may you have the courage to offer your own dear pilgrim heart to the world over and over and over again as you manifest awe, wonder, and insight during this bleak and beautiful midwinter season.