I passed a restless night last night, unable to sleep in the hours between 2 and 4 am. I've heard friends refer to this time period as the "demon hour", when all the anxieties that creep around the corner of your day emerge from the shadows to become magnified and menacing. Once sunrise emerges with its pale pink light, the world looks different, but for those bleak hours in the middle of the night, imagination can run amok with two of the most dangerous phrases in the English language: "What if.." and "If only...".
Do you know what I am talking about? Have you, too, been beset by the voices of Fear, Worry, Regret or Sorrow in the wee hours of the morn? What I would give in the middle of the night to find these voices calmed, soothed and cast out. If I lived as a monk in La Grande Chartreuse, I would be filing off by candlelight to chant and pray, and I suspect that this would help.
In the Gospel of Luke, Mary Magdalene is referred to as a woman "from whom Jesus had cast seven demons". Seven is a big number, and for many people encountering this phrase, they are left with the impression that Mary Magdalene was a very disturbed individual. What were the demons? Was she mentally ill? Writers of later centuries, combining this story with the story of Luke's unnamed sinful woman and Mary of Egypt, took this as a sign of sexual depravity and conjured up a Mary Magdalene who was at the mercy of raging erotic impulses, a vain and lusty prostitute who was "healed" of sexual desire when she met the wandering rabbi.
I have a different perspective on the casting out of seven demons after teaching Dante for the past few years. In the Divine Comedy, every pilgrim destined for Paradise must make an arduous ascent up the mountain of Purgatory. Before stepping foot into a new Eden, each soul must be returned to a state of renewed innocence and awakened to a desire for virtue. Dante begins his own journey up this seven stories mountain by encountering a fierce angel with a flaming sword that brands his forehead with seven "p"s, for peccatore (sins). The word "sin" is difficult to stomach for many of us: it is a word loaded with judgment, shame and threats of punishment. Yet originally, "sin" was a term of archery that meant "to miss the mark". How much easier is this to embrace! What Dante gives us is a catalogue of the ways that we "miss the mark" and go astray from the beauty we were born to manifest. As he ascends the mountain of virtue and confronts the vices buried deep within his heart, each "p" magically disappears until he is left "free, erect and whole", with a will bent on goodness, able to enter the celestial realms of the saints. In Dante's mystic vision, this is a journey each one of us must make. Each and every one of us has to confront the vices which plague the psyche of humanity: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony and Lust. As individuals, some of these plague us more than others, but part of being human is confronting each one and eventually leaving these "temptations" behind us. Dante, for example, speeds through some levels but struggles mightily with both Pride and Lust. In the Eastern religions, it is thought that there is a demon coiled at every gateway on the spine. When liberated, these chakras flood the body with light and enlightenment results. Both Dante and yoga suggest that our ultimate, final destination is to be "yoked" to the Divine once we have disentangled ourselves from the illusions and errors that bind us.
Read from these two perspective, Luke's reference to Magdalene's seven demons would imply that she was someone whom Jesus had helped liberate from every human vice. Far from being a very bad sinner, she is "the most thoroughly sanctified person mentioned in the New Testament", as David Tressamer notes in his introduction to Jean Yves Leloup's magnificent volume on the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. She has been healed of all seven sins, had all seven chakras opened. She is awake, aware, whole.
Dante built his vision, in part, on the teachings of the Seven Deadly Sins adopted by the Catholic Church. What exactly these seven sins are have changed throughout time, but the earliest Western Christian to write about these forces that ensnare us and lead us away from our own essential goodness was John Cassian. Cassian was the very same monk who founded the double monastery at La Baume in 415 AD to guard the relics of Mary Magdalene. I wonder if his writing was inspired by pondering those demons and what they might be. I can imagine him, candle burning in the nightmare-tinged early hours of the morning, chanting in the cave where he believed she had spent the last years of her life. Then, as the pale pink light kisses the Provencal horizon, guided by her healed and healing spirit, he dips pen into ink to write about the demons that plague us all....
A question to ponder:
The Seven Deadly Sins have changed throughout history. Early writers spoke of acedia (despair or depression) and listlessness, luxury or boasting as being insidious ways that we lose our way. If you were to name the forces that ensnare you, seduce you away from your own fullness and goodness, what would they be? And what do you imagine Mary Magdalene might have to teach you about meet