Today is the Feast of Mary Magdalene. It is a day that has been celebrated since the earliest centuries of the Christian calendar, commemorating the woman who was the most faithful of Jesus's disciples, a woman capable of holding enormous suffering and sorrow and still able to open her heart to joy. She was a woman of phenomenal courage, willing to risk her life to accompany her teacher to his own death and yet proclaim a message of hope and the possibility of new life.
Mary Magdalene has been in the news in the past few weeks as Pope Francis re-established her celebration at the highest level of liturgical honor. In the proclamation from the Vatican, she was held up as " a model and example for all women", and her ancient title of Apostle to the Apostles (a phrase which could be translated as "the Teacher of Teachers") was affirmed. (Read the article here).
Especially in light of the recent tragedies in France and Florida, Mary Magdalene is now, more than ever, a beacon of inspiration and hope. The ancient texts from Nag Hammadi, Egypt and southern France that have been rediscovered and translated in our time have linked Mary Magdalene to teachings that feel both universal and particularly timely, calling us to heal ourselves- and through our own awakening, the world. Through courageous self-examination, deep attention and heart-felt compassion, she points the way to a spiritual pathway of awareness, reuniting us with "The Good", and reminding us of who we are at our essence.
Since learning that my birthday falls on her feastday, I become keenly aware of how deeply Mary Magdalene is connected to just about everything I love. Magdalene was a role model for St. Francis, Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Sienna, all of whom had deep devotional practices to her. The most beautiful college at Oxford University bears her name. Beethoven's mother and Rodin's beloved sister were both named after her. Rilke and Khalil Gibran wrote moving- if controversial- stories about her relationship with Jesus. Can you think of another woman in history who has inspired some of the most beautiful songs from the musical pens of J.S. Bach, Arvo Part, John Adams and Andrew Lloyd Weber? What other woman has held all of the polarities of the feminine in painted history: chaste virgin, mature woman, aged crone? Who else has been nakedly vulnerable, a tower of strength, overcome by despair, and radiantly born up by angel?
The recent events of the world have been filled with sorrow. But Mary Magdalene stands as an icon that we, too, can find a way through the most devastating tragedy to find a garden of new beginnings, that there can be beauty, and joy and wonder on the other side of suffering. She is a model of healing and wholeness.
I want to offer you ways to honor Mary Magdalene and explore her legacy. Dive deeply into the Myths of Mary Magdalene; through a seven part lecture series, available on a pay-want-you-can basis or explore the pivotal role Mary Magdalene and other women disciples play in the Nag Hammadi Library (available either in person or online).
Today's psalm translation is in honor of Joan Nelson- a long time student of my OLLI classes who has come through the grief of losing three husbands and a bout with cancer. Joan, a dear secular humanist who has officiated as a chaplain for many atheist funerals, is having a "premature FUN-eral" to celebrate her 80th birthday. It was a wonder to behold her vitality and radiance this morning as she invited me to the party and confided that she is madly in love! Thank you, Joan, for being such an embodiment of the hope of healing- a vivid reminder that there are always new possibilities awaiting us.
For One Who Has Come Through
(After Reading Psalm 30)
a modern translation by Kayleen Asbo
I have been brought up from the dead; *
My life has been restored as I was going down to the grave.
I will sing and give thanks
for healing and wholeness
For pain endures but the twinkling of an eye,
but the memory of grace lasts for a lifetime.
And though weeping may spend the night,
joy comes in the morning.
There was a time when I felt secure
When I felt as strong as
Then the storms of life came
and I was filled with fear.
I cried out, wondering
What point there was in so much affliction and pain
Now my wailing has been turned into dancing;
I have put off my hospital gown and
am clothed with radiance and joy.
Therefore, my heart sings without ceasing;
I will give thanks from the depths of my being
For the dark night has given way to sunrise
And love has proved stronger than death.
Psalm 31 is a profoundly moving testament to the full experience of being human. Fear, anger, grief, hatred, love and hope play out as a kaleidoscope of emotions. What may be most valuable is how the psalmist gives voice to the experience of shame, the hidden emotion that is the root of so much suffering in our world. Many psychologists believe that shame is at the root of so many acts of destruction, whether it is self-inflicted (cutting, anorexia, bulimia, suicide) or inflicted on others, such as bullying, domestic violence and terrorism. ( See Joseph Burgo's article on Terrorism, the Sociopath and Shame for a concise overview of this topic).
I have altered very little in the opening of Psalm 31. As I read it this morning, I lit a candle for all the places where shame has cast its dark shadow, in my own life and in the world. I wish I had known this poem by heart as a bespectacled eight year old girl, when the neighborhood teenaged boys threw rocks at me, calling out "Four Eyes" and "Ugly Face". As these memories came to me, I re-wrote the end of the psalm to be in the voice of a bullied child. The psalm ends with a coda: a prayer for transmutation. I deeply believe that much of the great works of art, music and poetry of the world are transmutations of the fear, pain, grief and shame we have known. Beethoven is my hero in this regard. He was himself an abused child suffering from chronic physical pain and frequent social humiliation, yet he turned to his own personal agonies for the basis of his musical expression, transforming them to become hymns of hope for a hurting world . (Listen to my lecture on how the Ninth Symphony does just that here)
A Psalm for Shame
Responsory to Psalm 31 by Kayleen Asbo
In you, O LORD, have I taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
deliver me in your righteousness.
Incline your ear to me;
make haste to deliver me.
Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe,
for you are my crag and my stronghold;
for the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me.
Take me out of the net that they have secretly set for me,
for you are my tower of strength.
Into your hands I commend my spirit,
for you will redeem me,
O God of truth.
I hate the suffering my enemies inflict on me
and I put my trust in You.
I will rejoice and be glad because of your mercy;
for You have seen my affliction;
You know my distress.
You will not shut me up in the power of this pain;
You will set my feet on a pathway of protection.
Have mercy on me for I am in trouble;
my eyes are consumed with sorrow,
my throat aches and my stomach is knit with fear.
My life is wasted with sorrow,
and years with weeping
my strength fails me and my heart hurts
I have become a target for all my enemies and
even to my neighbors,
a dismay to those in my classroom;
when they see me in the schoolyard they avoid me.
I am mocked like a dead animal
I am as helpless as a bird with a broken wing.
I have heard the whispering of the crowd;
and fear has gripped my heart.
They put their heads together against me;
they plot to break my bones.
But I will trust in You,
I am in Your care.
Rescue me from the hand of my bullies
from those who throw stones at me.
Make your face to shine upon me;
in your loving-kindness save me."
O God, answer me when I call upon you;
Silence the lips of the wicked
May they no more shout out to me
with cruelty and contempt.
O God, show me the path of light and hope.
Lead me to those who will shelter and protect me.
Give me the strength to grow and heal
Help me find a vessel of beauty
Into which I can pour this pain
And transform it with Your grace
into something good.
To help eradicate the suffering that is so omnipresent in schools, my friend Nicholas Carlisle started No Bully - learn more about this worldwide organization that is having a great impact here.
(After Reading Psalm 37)
Do not fret over the slights that come your way
Do not let your heart be consumed with the memory of those who have done you wrong
For fragile indeed are the hours of your life
And they shall soon fade like the grass,
and like the seeds of a dandelion, quickly fly away.
Fix your mind instead on the good-
dwell on the beauty of nature and drink in its delights
Remember the blessings of your life
and this will lead you to your deeper desires
Commit your days to truth and love
And this will carry you to joy
Focus your mind on living justly
This alone can bring you peace.
Take time to be still
and wait patiently for the gentle touch of the Holy Spirit
Do not let yourself be consumed by jealousy
Or become bitter over those who prosper unjustly,
Refrain from anger, leave rage alone;
These can only lead to woe.
Dwelling on evil
Will only poison and consume you
Revenge is a sword
That would pierce your own heart
Instead, remember how quickly the days of a life go by.
Seek the light within and find solace in the sea and sky
For there lies a treasure greater than gold
And a peace which passeth all understanding
Psalm 38 contains some of the most vivid, lyrical writing of lamentation. ("I am utterly numb and crushed; I wail, because of the groaning of my heart"). When you are really feeling low, at the absolute bottom of the abyss of despair, this is the psalm for you. What disturbed me today, however, was the tone of complete self-righteousness on the part of the psalmist ("Those who are my enemies without cause are mighty, and many in number are those who wrongfully hate me. Those who repay evil for good slander me, because I follow the course that is right"). It struck me that the writer may not have grappled with his own part in the creation of his pain. Now some of us, like the children at Sandyhook Elementary or the six million, are indeed innocent of the atrocities inflicted upon them. But many of us have played a part in creating our own suffering. This is my response:
by Kayleen Asbo
O God, I lay before you like a child
The broken pieces of my life
Where blindness, pride and anger
Have shattered relationships
Where broken promises have eroded trust
Where the warm currents of love
Have cooled because of neglect and fear
I long to be made whole
To live a life of honesty and honor
Compassion and connection
Justice and joy
Help me to have the humility to see
The places where my own words and actions
Have unraveled the bonds with those I love
Free me from the wrath and judgment
That creates walls of division and discord
There are things I cannot change
But I can change how I respond
And there are things that must change
If I am to become my best self
Give me the courage
To make amends and start anew
Give me the grace to open my heart and forgive
Grant me the creativity
To discover a new path
Filled with healing, hope and delight
Guide me in all my days
As I seek to follow you
That I may grow into the fullness
Of who you call me to be.
(After Reading Psalm 26)
by Kayleen Asbo
O God, help me to live with integrity.
Life will test me, and try me;
May I stay ever faithful to trust and to love .
Help me each day to examine my heart and my mind.
With your love forever before my eyes,
Help me to walk faithfully with you.
Teach me not to squander my days on what is trivial
nor indulge in what will degrade my spirit.
May I shun the temptation to take the convenient or popular path
May I not consume the poison of gossip, greed and slander.
Lead my heart to innocence, O God.
May there always be echoing within me
a song of thanksgiving
as I remember what truly matters -
the beauty of this world
and the hidden glory abiding
within every human soul.
One of the spiritual practices that has most nourished me over the past two decades is praying the Daily Office. Twice a day around the world for almost two thousand years, monks and nuns have greeted the rising and setting of the sun by chanting the Psalms of the Hebrew Bible. It is not an exaggerations to say that these poems were the foundation for the development of classical music in the west. In Benedictine monasteries, the community sings all 150 psalms by heart every week. Some of these psalms are chanted every day. Much of the surviving written music that we have up unto the early Renaissance is a commentary on these poems. The psalms form the core of Gregorian chant, and
most of the music of the great Hildegard von Bingen is either an antiphon (prelude) or responsory to the psalms.
I like to say that the psalms- which were such a primary text for Jesus that he quoted them throughout his ministry and even during his crucifixion- are a powerful lesson in learning how to pray wholeheartedly . They are poems that don't shrink from any aspect of human experience. They range from joyful and exuberant ("Clap your hands, all ye peoples!") to the depths of great despair ("I am like a broken pot"). They do not offer only the pretty or "nice" sides of humanity. At first I resisted the so-called wrathful psalms and only wanted to choose the ones that I found beautiful, tender and filled with mercy. Eventually by saying ( or better yet, singing) all of them, I gradually came to realize that to pray with sincerity is to drag every part of me out into the open before God. Not just the things I am proud of, but my pettiness and wounding and anger as well. All of it. The psalms helped me do that.
Now, however, I have a growing discomfort with some of the language. I don't use "Lord" anymore, which is a Medieval patriarchal translation anyway, and words like "righteousness", "vindication" and "sin" feel dangerously judgmental and divisive. Some of the psalms have an "us vs them" distinction which is not part of my world view. I think we are all in it together, each one of us. As St. Paul said, we are all members of one body. To cut off one person, one religion or one nation is like cutting off my own foot or ear.
So I have begun to pray the psalms in a new way- by reading the one assigned for the day ( at http://www.missionstclare.com/english/July/morning/11m.html) and then responding by translating them myself into words that feel true and heartfelt and authentic to me. I am collecting them together for a prayer book- psalms for a new century. I invite you to say- or better yet- sing them with me.
(After Reading Psalm 25)
To you, O God, I lift up my soul;
I put my trust and faith in you;
Show me your ways, O GOD,
and teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth and guide me,
for you are the source
of my being, becoming and healing.
I will remember, O GOD,
your compassion and love,
for they are everlasting.
Help me put away the errors of my past
and remember the unquenchable light that you have placed in my soul
May I see your loving hand of guidance bringing me to truth and goodness
even in moments of challenge where I am brought low.
May I learn the lessons you would teach me.
For those who have the eyes to see,
Both glad joy and dark despair
lead to love.
I have just returned from an amazing five week journey through Europe, leading pilgrimages in both Provence and the Dordogne and researching sites and stories for next year's quests in Italy. Like a good pilgrimage does, it stretched me and revealed something essential.
At times it was arduous, filled with unexpected challenges (floods in Paris, train strikes, the serious illness of my musical collaborator) that called me to growth, humility and trust. Each and every day was also filled with profound connection and meaning as our pilgrims bonded together through the challenges we faced and as we delighted in the generosity and hospitality of one another and the magnificent people whom we encountered and now call friends.
In leaving the familiar behind and shaking up our routine, we have an opportunity to see the world with fresh eyes. Sometimes this helps reveal what is essential and most true about ourselves. I savored every five course meal, and like my companions, experienced a sense of awe at the stunning cave paintings, castles and chapels of France. The progression of the week was intended as an echo of Dante's Paradise, with each day's sites being more beautiful than the last. But what will linger most in the memory of my heart is the rituals every morning and evening as we gathered in the 12th century Benedictine chapter house to sing, meditate and share our hearts. Every morning we would light a candle, each speaking aloud our intention for the day. Every evening, we would light a candle again, naming a moment of beauty or love we had encountered that we were grateful for. Such a rhythm of remembrance, simple and sincere, is my most precious souvenir. I found that these daily rituals of music, meditation and recollection nourished my soul even more than the spectacular Michelin starred meals we savored.
I also realized that my heart is most overflowing and fulfilled when guiding people to these sacred places, and that has caused me to ponder anew the scope and scale of what I do. Two things arose in response. The first is the desire to lead ever more and more of these soul adventures, and I am working to substantially expand our offerings in Europe for next year.
The second thing that arose is the determination to create a "virtual pilgrimage" of books for those who cannot cross the seas to come with me abroad. Tomorrow, I head off to the coast of Northern California where I will be lecturing on Beethoven for the Mendocino Music Festival (click here for the link to the Festival ). While I am holed up in a cabin in the redwoods between concerts, I will also be drafting the first book of a series on pilgrimage, bringing together the stories and hundreds of images it has taken me over a decade to collect.
Travel through Europe makes clear how history and culture are so multi-layered. One of my favorite sites in Rome conveys this beautifully even in its name: Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, which translates to "St. Mary On Top of Minerva". Now a glorious Gothic church which houses the remains of Fra Angelico and Saint Catherine of Sienna, it is a site which was first dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis, then the Roman goddess Minerva (who had been known as Athena in Ancient Greek mythology). While the walls of this luscious landmark tell the story of Christianity, the vaulted ceilings contain frescoes of the prophetic Sibyls of the pagan world.
The great mythologist Joseph Campbell took great delight in these layers of history, and is reputed to have said that there were really only eight basic stories in the world, though with endless variations. He believed that in the archetypal depths, there is one myth of the hero- whether that hero is King Arthur or Luke Skywalker or Buddha. And yet, when asked "What about the journey of the Heroine? What is her quest?", Joseph Campbell was at a loss. I believe that we are now living in a time where the answer to that question is being revealed in fascinating ways, bubbling up from the depths in both the recovery of ancient texts like The Gospel of Mary and Thunder Perfect Mind- and in the shifting of images of the feminine in such Hollywood films as The Hunger Games, Ex Machina, Pan's Labyrinth and The Force Awakens.
It is these common depths that most interest me, to see the ways that the Medieval image of the Black Madonna of Rocamadour bears an uncanny and unmistakable resemblance to statues of Isis from 1000 B.C, or to discover vivid echoes of the ancient Summerian goddess Inanna's descent into the underworld re-emerge in season five of the HBO television series Game of Thrones. This August, Mythica will be launching the first of a series of one-day workshops on The Heroine's Quest. Diving deep into cross-cultural mythology, art and film, we'll identify the archetypal themes that are a part of each one of us in days that combine lecture, guided journaling and community building through rituals like labyrinth walking.
One of the most moving experiences this past month was returning to Taize- an ecumenical site deep in the Burgundy countryside where three times a day, thousands of pilgrims gather together to sing simple chants in dozens of languages and sit in meditative silence. I learned new songs there last week- ones that I will be bringing to Christ Church in Sausalito on Friday, August 19th for the first of a series of Taize Evensongs with my dear friend Christopher Love, former cantor at Grace Cathedral when we'll be offering a candlelit evening of music and silent meditation.
Taize is a living testament to the power of beauty to shine through simple ritual. Tonight, before eating a simple salad made from ingredients gathered at the morning's farmer's market, I'll light a candle and sit in silence, returning to the rhythm of my pilgrimage in Provence, remembering to reflect on the many things, and many people I have to be grateful for. You- even if I do not yet know your name- are one of them.