About eleven years ago, Mary Magdalene intruded into my life. She came to me in a dream where she told me that if I wanted to find true Christianity, I would need to follow the trail from France to Wales. I woke, unable to shake the dream. My spiritual director at the time, the Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress, suggested that I draw the primary image I had encountered: a redwood shack with an orthodox dome. A few months later, I went to Taize in France to meet Brother Roger Like the thousands of pilgrims who gather every week, I sang my heart out for four hours of sung prayer a day, allowing my soul to be cracked wide open as tears and trust began to flow. On the second day of my pilgrimage, i meandered down to the waterfall known as La Source, and there I found a simple redwood shack with an orthodox dome. Taking this very seriously, I returned home to California to begin leading Taize services, integrating the beautiful contemplative chanting into weekend Benedictine workshops, labyrinth walks, even seminars on Jungian psychology. And, indeed, it felt as if I had discovered a vital stream of living spirituality , for Catholic, Protestant, Jewish , Agnostic, New Age and even Atheist participants all told me that they felt a profound sense of peace, belonging and nourishment in these communal evenings by candlelight.
I've returned three times to Taize, but my queries about Wales met with puzzlement. Wales? No, there was nothing the brothers could offer me about that enigma from my dream. Still, it niggled my mind. After speaking at Oxford one summer, I even took the train out to the fair green country, searching for traces of Mary Magdalene on St. David's Island, in the Black Mountains and in one monastery after another. It was a fruitless (though lovely) quest.
Meanwhile, I read book upon book about the history, legends and lore of Magdalene. I collected hundreds of images from art galleries all around the world, I tromped through Cathar castle ruins and researched the early liturgies devoted to her. I taught classes at three colleges on Mary Magdalene, lectured on her for the San Francisco Opera and at an art festival in New Orleans, and had the honor of leading workshops and seminars and delivering Easter sermons in an astonishingly diverse array of venues. Along the way, I wrote a Jungian-oriented PhD dissertation on the mythology of the Magdalene through art and music of the centuries and produced a Passion Play from her perspective for Good Friday. But there was no further revelation about Wales.
Until this summer. The red thread of revelation is slender. My favorite book on Mary Magdalene is by the French theologian and psychologist Jean Yves Leloup. His translation and commentaries (beautifully rendered into English by Joseph Rowe) are both a spiritual and a poetic revelation. Last year, I discovered from a bookseller in Avignon that Jean Yves is now a FrenchOrthodox priest. While he travels the world lecturing (mostly to Brazil), his home base is only about an hour away from the caves of Mary Magdalene in La Baume.
i went this year on Pentecost to see this monastery in the hopes of finding Father Seraphim, as Leloup is now called. He wasn't there, but what I did find took my breath away: image after image of the most joyous evocation of the Book of Genesis I had every seen: creation as celebration. On one wall, the legendary arrival of Mary Magdalene on the shores of France in the Boat of Bethany accompanied by Mary, Martha and Lazarus. The iage that most opened my heart, however, was the fresco of Magdalene, figure of towering spiritual authority, spreading out her red cloak to shelter the centuries of saints who later followed the contemplative path she forged. There, nurtured under her gentle and motherly wing, were all the saints who have meant the most to me in my life: Saint Benedict, Dionysus the Areopagite, John Cassian, Saint Francis, Teresa of Avila and Hildegard of Bingen.
I learned later from the extraordinarily vibrant Monsignor Martin that the French Orthodox tradition (and this church in particular) holds Mary Magdalene as not only the Apostle to the Apostles, but also the originator of some of their most cherished traditions, a tradition they believe goes back to the first century when she taught and preached in Provence. The French Orthodox embrace a non-dualistic and very Jungian orientation to the world, seeking to find Anthropos, or the balance between masculine and feminine, something they believe that both Jesus and Mary taught and embodied. Like the Eastern Orthodox, the French Orthodox never embraced the notion of Original Sin: the emphasis in their teaching is on remembering the goodness inside each one of us, staying awake and attuned to beauty and joy and learning how to let your light shine. Their church stands in communion with the Celtic Orthodox church, which has chapters in England. And Wales.
Near the lake of St. Michel du Var is a small redwood shack with the motto "Mon joie, mon joie" painted over the doorway. Its roof is crowned with- what else?- an orthodox dome.
Like so many things on my journey, there are now only more questions, but they are ones I intend to live into in the next few weeks as I return back to France.
Today, I leave for a month long sojourn with my daughter Anissa. We will be following many strands of the Medieval Magdalene path in France, including a long hike in the Haute Provence region where Andy Goldsworthy has created a 10-day circuit of "Refuges of Art". Most of these sculptures along this magnificent and little known trail are of enormous eggs (though they are identified as cairns), a wonderful connection with the early stories of Magdalene turning white eggs red in front of Emperor Tiberias in order to prove that the resurrection really happened. However, my favorite creation is the Magdalene Chapel, perched high on a mountaintop peering over a sea of lavender. Inside is a chrysalis shaped figure that conjures up the mystery of the empty tomb. If I am lucky, I will get to repeat my visi
The Tour de France was not originally a bicycle race. Rather, according to author Michael Donley in his book St. Mary Magdalen in Provence: The Coffin and the Cave, it was a journey across France that was undertaken by Medieval craftsmen as they pledged themselves to creating beauty in the name of the divine. They would walk from site to site across France as a rite of initiation. The final stage of the pilgrimage was to present themselves at the Dominican hostellerie in La Baume and climb to the cave on top of the mountain where legend claims Mary Magdalene spent the last thirty years of her life. There they would adopt her as their patron saint and take solemn vows to let the work of their hands be dedicated as expressions of grace. It was in this same spirit that Teresa of Avila (another devotee of Mary Magdalene) said in a later century,
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
What would that mean for you, today, to dedicate all your work to the service of the holy? How would you approach the labor of your hands and the words fif you saw them as being agents of divine grace? Would you engage in the tasks of your daily life in a different spirit if you felt that you were going about your daily business not for paycheck but for the healing of the world or the glory of God? If we all took as our first and foremost task the art of blessing the world and creating beauty and joy (whether it was in teaching a class or working as a bank teller or manicurist or construction worker), what would be the effects on this planet?
Scholars continue to debate whether the Black Madonnas of France are depictions of the Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene. The image above was taken in Rocamadour of a copy of the famous Vierge Noire that was places in the side chapel of the pilgrim church. I found it fascinating to see how the statue was placed in something that looks very much like a rudderless boat- one of the key elements of the legends of Magdalene in France.
For centuries, this statue (like so many Black Madonnas) has been associated with the theme of liberation. One legend claims that church authorities did not approve of the statue's veneration: they tried to chain it up, locked in a vault, only to discover the next day that the chains had been broken and the statue was found exactly where it had been before. Pilgrims would travel hundreds of miles by foot to pray for liberation from illness, grief or fear, and former prisoners of war would sojourn to place wreaths of gratitude after release from their own captivity. During the Middle Ages, many soldiers reported miraculous releases from prison when they prayed to Mary Magdalene: one carried their broken chains to lay at the feet of her tomb in Vezelay.
To read more about Black Madonnas and Mary Magdalene, see Ean Begg's book Cult of the Black Virgin. You can find more stories and a fantastic collection of images of this archetypal figure and a guide of where to find them at Ella Rozett's generously detailed website, http://www.interfaithmary.net/pages/indexblackmadonnas.htm
There are over 15,000 titles on Mary Magdalene available right now on Amazon. These book cover an astonishing range of perspectives and styles, from truly schmaltzy romances that make me squirm to dry and pedantic tomes that are perhaps best as a cure for insomnia. You can find everything from Tantric love manuals to novels envisioning Magdalene as a Druid priestess. Here is a list of my top ten favorites, all thoughtful and scholarly, well researched and at least competently written. Which one to choose depends on what you are looking for.
If you are looking for erudition:
Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor by Susan Haskins -- A thoroughly well researched historical survey that forms the foundation for much of the past decade's scholarship. A comprehensive intellectual tour de force for the left brain. I have gone through two copies, reading it over and over again and always I catch a new insight. If you want one and only one book, this is it, but its density will probably put off the more casual reader.
If you want an anthology of art and literature, along with an overview of history and mythology:
Searching for Mary Magdalene: A Journey Through Art by Jane Lahr. This is an absolutely gorgeous "coffee table" book of images with excerpts of diverse texts about Mary Magdalene, as well as an excellent source for legends and poetry. I must have given away two dozen of these books by now.
Also in this category of art and myths books is Karen Ralls's fine and compact volume Mary Magdalene: Her History and Myths Revealed, which I recently discovered to my great delight. A medieval scholar from Oxford, Ralls includes an entire chapter on Black Madonnas in this book. The photographs are wonderful.
If you want a well researched and thoughtful but engaging book that includes a history of the Gnostics:
Beloved Disciple: The Misunderstood Legacy of Mary Magdalene by Robin Griffith- Jones: written by an Anglican priest, this offers a comprehensive treatment of the different myths of Mary Magdalene and a concise explanation of diverse early Christian perspectives very accessible to the average reader.
If you want a deeply spiritual and psychologically rich meditation:
The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, ed. Jean Yves Leloup -- Leloup was a the Dominican spiritual director at La Baume for a decade before he left the order to become a married French Orthodox theologian and psychologist, He provides a beautiful translation of the text ( exquisitely rendered in English translation by Joseph Rowe), His profoundly perceptive commentary makes this text even more relevant to our age by using the lens of Jungian psychological development. I am such a fan of Leloup that I am heading off to a seminar with him in France next week. Even though I may well only understand half of what he says because of my childlike French language skills, I know it will be worth it.
If you'd like a hybrid of historical scholarship with an emphasis on its application to modern spirituality, these two might be for you:
The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, Cynthia Bourgeault. Written by an Episcopalian priest and teacher of the contemplative tradition, this book reviews the Canonical and Gnostic scriptures as well as the legends in France with the perspective that Mary Magdalene was a spiritual teacher and intimate (though not necessarily sexual) companion of Jesus. Her chapter on anointing rituals has been particularly important and influential in my life.
The Magdalene Mystique by Betty Conrad Adam- Written by another Episcopalian priest who founded the interfaith Brigid's Place in Houston, Texas, this book tells the story of Magdalene with an emphasis on her role as apostle, along with wonderful stories of the author's expeditions to Dura Europas and the pivotal, transformational part Mary Magdalene has served in creating interfaith bridges between women.
If you'd like a thoroughly academic approach with an emphasis on politics:
The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle by Karen L. King is a postmodern analysis by Harvard professor that focuses on the socio-political and gender clashes of the first few centuries of Christianity. Read this side by side the Leloup book to see two very different perspectives on the same text.
Mary Magdalene, The First Apostle: Struggle for Authority by Ann Graham Brock looks at the political division between competing early churches, how the Gospels were altered over time, how the canon of the Church was shaped and the ultimate effect on women’s place in the church. Thought provoking and disturbing, it may leave you "wanting to scream and break things" as a colleague of mine put it.
And finally Number Ten: mine. Well, at least I hope so. I am returning to France on Monday to collect another set of images for a book I hope to publish next spring. It will weave part of my dissertation together with stories and images of my pilgrimages for the past ten years.
I also want to acknowledge the titles that repeatedly come up in workshops that I lead: Margaret Starbird's Woman with the Alabaster Jar, Kathleen McGowan's novel The Expected One and Clysta Kinstler's revisioning of Mary as a priestess of the Goddess in The Moon Under Her Feet have all had an enormous and deep impact on many participants.
Readers, I invite your reflections. What are the Magdalene books that have most shaped and inspired
Magdalene as a symbol of both scholarship and music has a hallowed place in European history. A guild of artists in the Netherlands during the 16th century created a whole body of work that showcased Magdalene as both scholar ( at her writing desk , above left) and musician (above right, playing the lute). In Paris the first Franciscan center of learning was dedicated to Mary Magdalene, and colleges at both Oxford (founded in 1458) and Cambridge are named for her. In England, there is no final "e" her name, and "Magdalen" is pronounced "maudlin" a word which has made its disparaging way into our vocabulary as indicating a tearful countenance and an overly emotional nature. Arguably the most illustrious of the thirty eight constituent colleges of Oxford University, Magdalen College counts Bede Griffith, Brian Greene, Edward Gibbon Andrew Lloyd Weber , C.S. Lewis and Oscar Wilde amongst its many distinguished alumni. Magdalen College is also one of the most stunningly beautiful places on the planet: acres of gorgeous gardens interspersed with architecture that takes your breath away. It is a site of exquisite art and music as well. The Magdalen Choir sings daily services in the stunning chapel below a copy of the Last Supper painted by a student of Leonardo Da Vinci ( you can listen to the boy's choir in the youtube clip below). One of my big life dreams is to become an Oxford research and teaching fellow for a session. Oh, to teach about Magdalene at Magdalen, and go to Evensong every day...
One of my favorite symbols of Mary Magdalene is the open book. Like all good symbols, it conveys a multiplicity of meanings. Many of these images telegraph wisdom, learning and erudition. Mary Magdalene seems utterly absorbed by her reading, and this presents the impression of a serious scholar. This is all the more unusual when you reflect how most of these images were created in the 16th and 17th centuries: a time when female literacy, and certainly female scholarship, was rather rare.
The symbol also telegraphs Mary's Hebrew background, for the Jews are known as the people of the book, and it communicates the contemplative dimension of her personality
But my favorite association comes from the wordplay we have in English. To be an "open book" signals that Mary Magdalene is completely transparent and vulnerably honest, with nothing to hide: something for us all to aspire to.
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
Mary Magdalene has inspired musicians since the very beginning of musical theater. A case can be made that opera itself can be traced back to the Fleury Abbey in St. Benoit-Sur-Loire where the first medieval musical mystery play was performed during Holy Week by the monastic community as an act of devotion. Quem Queritas told the story of Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb on Easter morning, and the liturgical drama was designed to bring a palpable sense of emotion to the audience. Opera today is no different- even when written by composers who themselves do not identify with Christianity. The past few years have seen modern composers wrestling with how to bring the Gospel narrative to a primarily secular human audience. After all, as even one of my atheist friends has admitted, "What could possibly be more riveting than the story of Jesus? You have passion, betrayal, life, death, agony and a happy ending!"
Two of the most ambitious productions premiered last year. Mark Adamo's opera The Gospel of Mary Magdalene had its debut at the San Francisco Opera. Its complex story wove together a narrative based on both the four Gospels of the Bible with many of the apocryphal texts rediscovered in Egypt, such as The Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Mary and Dialogue of the Savior. I was lucky enough to work closely with the opera as I led workshops for the staff, cast and board on the history, conducted "talk back" sessions after every controversial performance. I had a series of delightful meetings with the brilliant, ebullient and irrepressible Mark Adamo that helped inform my writing of the program notes for the production, which you can read by clicking on the link below:
Just months before Adamo's opera took center stage in San Francisco, Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic toured the world performing John Adams's The Gospel of the Other Mary (see clips below). The Mary Magdalene of this semi-staged oratorio was polar opposites from the wise, self possessed, fully embodied and confident heroine Sasha Cooke brought to vivid life in San Francisco . Rather, in John Adam's imagination, Mary Magdalene is actually a tortured, tormented and suicidal version of Mary of Bethany, running a halfway house for indigent women with her sister Martha and brother Lazarus.
These two major works could not be more different in perspective and approach. To one man, she is a beautiful sexually liberated fountain of wisdom united in a creative spiritual partnership with her soulmate; for the other, she is a political radical abused by an uncaring system while trying to make a difference amongst the poor and marginalized. This just underscores how Mary Magdalene is a magnificent screen on which we project our own hopes, fear and longings, and it brings us back to the central question: who is Mary Magdalene for you ?
Rainier Maria Rilke is a poet who confronts the painful, existential truths of what it is to be really human. What I treasure about "The Risen One" (below) is how it honors the achingly lonely truth of how eventually our earthly foundation disappears: each of us must eventually make our way to God alone. No matter how beautiful our relationships may be, ultimately our destination is beyond even those precious bonds. It was a journey which Dante also knew well- eventually, he had to leave behind even Beatrice in the Divine Comedy, to ascend beyond his guide and muse of his soul, to enter the heart of the Empyrean in Paradise. "You have made us for Yourself, O God," wrote Augustine, "and we are restless until we rest in Thee". There is a Love beyond even love, Rilke knew, and he choose Mary Magdalene as the vehicle to express that truth.
THE RISEN ONE
by Rainer Maria Rilke
Until his final hour he had never
refused her anything or turned away,
lest she should turn their love to public praise.
Now she sank down beside the cross, disguised,
heavy with the largest stones of love
like jewels in the cover of her pain.
But later, when she came back to his grave
with tearful face, intending to anoint,
she found him resurrected for her sake,
saying with greater blessedness, "Do not --"
She understood it in her hollow first:
how with finality he now forbade
her, strengthened by his death, the oils' relief
or any intimation of a touch:
because he wished to make of her the lover
who needs no more to lean on her beloved,
as, swept away by joy in such enormous
storms, she mounts even beyond his voice.
(Rainer Maria Rilke, New Poems, Second Part, 1908)
(translation, ANN CONRAD LAMMERS, 1998, 12/10/98)