The Gospel of Mary

Arrival

Arrival

I’ve just returned from a deeply restorative retreat with a group of women I hold in high esteem.  My regard for them stems from their willingness to meet each other with the same enormous respect and good will they extend to themselves.  “Self-esteem” is a word that doesn’t begin to address the feeling of self-worth I’m attempting to describe.  It’s a quality based on intelligence about the nature of humanity and one’s self and the acceptance of that condition tempered with wry humor and deep compassion.  That kind of wisdom is, in my experience, found most often among women.

During the retreat, someone was reading The Gospel* of Mary, an ancient text purported to be written by Mary Magdalene.  Since I’ve spoken and written about Magdalene we naturally fell into conversation about her.  Our talk sent me back to my bookshelves for a refresher.

Gnostic-Nag-Hammadi-Gospel-of-Mary-WebThe Gospel of Mary is considered to have been authored by Mary Magdalene and transcribed into Coptic sometime during the 5th century CE.  In 1896 Karl Reinhardt, a German classical scholar and philologist bought the papyrus codex (sheets of writing material such as vellum, parchment or papyrus, bound on one side) in an Egyptian bazaar and took it home with him to Berlin.  Various exigencies and two world wars delayed its study, translation and publication until 1955.  Meanwhile two other fragments of the same text had turned up, also in Egypt, around the turn of the twentieth century, which indicated that the Gospel of Mary had been circulated and studied in several different places during the early centuries of Christianity.

Until the Council of Nicaea, ordered by the Emperor Constantine in 325 CE, Christianity was an extremely diverse amalgam of various beliefs and theories about the nature and meaning of Christ.  The council created the Nicene Creed, still recited today in most Christian churches, as a form of agreement among the various factions.  It marked the beginning of an era of anti-heretical polemic and bitter in-fighting to establish control over the doctrine and dogma of Christianity.  During that struggle, the books of the New and Old Testaments became canonized.  What was in became sacred; what was out became, not only profane, but also dangerously heretical.  Books were burned, people were killed and those whose faith differed from the party line began to hide their precious suspect manuscripts, in the hope more liberal times might come again.  Sadly, those times took centuries to arrive.

During that early troubled era, a group of cruel and misogynistic bishops gained control of the nascent Catholic Church.  As a result, women were stripped of leadership roles and tainted with the curse of “original sin.”  Tertullian has been called “the father of Latin Christianity” and “the founder of Western theology.”  “Woman,” he proclaimed, “you are the gate to hell.”

The founding fathers of the Christian church did their best to expunge any tantric elements.  In the process, Mary Magdalene went from the role of disciple to penitent whore.  Except for certain whispers and legends, she remained firmly ensconced in that role until the mid-twentieth century when women began looking around for new ways to relate to spirituality; ways that allowed them the dignity and respect due their gender.

I first became aware of the Gospel of Mary while studying with Christine Payne-Towler in 2005 and 2006.  I went on to become an ordained priest in the Gnostic Church of Saint Mary Magdalene and created my own liturgy, The Mass of the Hieros Gamos.  The year of training leading up to my ordination included studying The Gospel of Mary in various translations by such scholars as Karen L. King, Jane Shaberg and Esther A. De Boer.  To me, Mary Magdalene became a symbol of reclamation and reconciliation with my Christian roots.  Eventually, she appeared to me as the main character of my novel Magdalene A.D. Magdalane Cover USE

The book describes Magdalene’s journey, twenty-five years after the crucifixion, from Jerusalem to the South of France.  Along the way she spends a year in the Temple of Isis on the island of Pharos in Alexandria, Egypt, writing The Gospel of Mary.

karen KingKaren L. King’s claims for this gospel include “an intriguing glimpse into a kind of Christianity lost for almost fifteen hundred years … it presents the most straightforward and convincing argument in any early Christian writing, for the legitimacy of women’s leadership; it offers a sharp critique of illegitimate power and a utopian vision of spiritual perfection … and it asks us to rethink the basis for church authority.”  ~ Karen L. King., The Gospel of Mary of Magdala

Though the gospel is fragmented and missing large chunks of text, what remains is fascinating.  It underscores the jealous and aggressive personality of the disciple Peter and validates Mary Magdalene’s status as a favorite pupil of Jesus; one empowered by him to interpret his words.  Our small group spent many hours studying the text and made a images4G6K6TBCbreakthrough interpretation of our own when we began to see a correlation between Magdalene’s seven steps for the ascent of the soul to the Indian chakra system of energy centers in the body.  It was one of those Aha! moments that can arise out of collaborative intent.  The insight we gained was valuable in and of itself, but the real benefit for me was the gratification that comes from successful collaboration.  That feeling echoed the kind of intimacy and mutual understanding implied in the text as having taken place between Jesus and Magdalene.

The possibility of a state of mutual appreciation and respect that transcends personality, creed, gender and race seems to me to be at the very core of Jesus’s original message – it is the golden rule in action.  To achieve that state while studying Magdalene’s text seemed to me a great validation of both her reality and the course I was on.

One of my intentions in writing Magdalene A.D. was to show the female characters acting in this manner with one another.  I think this has always been a part of the way women interact.  Anthropology teaches that females build relationships horizontally rather than vertically.  Our evolutionary predilection is to cooperate.  False models of bitchy competitiveness have been culturally superimposed on femininity in the same way that Magdalene’s portrait as a prostitute was falsely imposed on her.

In my experience, women seem now to be throwing those falsehoods off, washing them away and reverting to the sisterhood that is our true birthright.  It makes the companionship of women precious and infinitely rewarding.  I’m thrice blessed to be numbered in their company.

*gospel: an account describing the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth to include canonical, apocryphal and Gnostic texts

Posted in Circle, Community, Magdalene A.D., Mary Magdalene, Misogyny, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

V Day 2014

One Billion Rising in Rome

Rome

V Day is fast approaching.  It is a day dedicated to empowering women to rise up against the violence perpetuated on them simply because of their gender.  V Day was inspired by Eve eve enslerEnslers’ performance piece the Vagina Monologues.  Empowered by the incredibly powerful and positive reaction to her play, in 2001 Eve launched V Day, a non-profit organization, which demands rape, incest, battery, genital mutilation and sexual slavery end immediately and believes “women should spend their lives creating and thriving rather than surviving or recovering from terrible atrocities”.  Last year millions of women around the globe rose up and danced together on V-Day, which not coincidentally falls on Valentine’s day because beatings, strangulation, rape and mutilation do not look like love to us.

circle_of_women_v302_carousel_big

Want to feel empowered? Come out and dance with us.  Go see the Vagina Monologues. Next year get a part in the play. The Monologues are not a static script, they change and morph as new women add their voices.

Guyana

Guyana

Abuse against women and children makes me sad.  It’s a constant grief in my heart, a never-ending burden of anguish.  And I am one of the lucky ones – loving father, enlightened husband, a son considerate and respectful of women.  For their sakes I battled through my rage and owned my own complicity in my culture’s ongoing disdain for women.  But I still can’t understand the inherent cruelty humanity exhibits toward the powerless.  It often brings me to the brink of despair.

Taiwan

Taiwan

For me, the antidote to despair is the friendship of women.  That friendship nourishes and sustains me.  Amazingly, wherever I go I find I find women full of compassion, intelligence, wisdom and humor to befriend.  I don’t mean all women are wonderful  – of course not – but wonderful women abound in every place and clime.  V-Day brings them dancing out into the streets.  It’s a glorious celebration of femininity that demonstrates why for so many tens of thousands of years, humankind revered the  feminine. willendorf venus 2I love women.  I love myself.  The following valentines are for us…

 Philippines

Philippines

One Sitting/One Billion Rising  

The path, flowed

rippled through time

moving between worlds

traversing past, present, future

guiding the footsteps of millions

though each one walked alone.

One day, tired of moving endlessly forward

a woman sat down upon the ground.

Others joined her. There they sat

smack dab in the middle.

Humanity pushed on around them.

They tossed their pasts into the circle -

photographs, tattered sketches, a battered box, a cradle.

A gypsy snapped her fingers

flames danced beneath the cauldron

(women always have a cauldron).

Pawing through purses, they pulled out

onion, tomato, turnip, fish

potatoes, collards, salt.

Smacking, drooling, cackling

women drank the soup

wiped the vessel clean

and pooled their dreams.

                        ©2013 Christine Irving

  V Day:  Intermission at the Monologues

Last night I bled hot tears of rage and grief

poked a wound I know will never heal

a girl beside me, sitting all alone

spilled family secrets in my ear

rape-shame, passed down through generations three

still cast its cruel spell; twisted her mind

into a rational for laying low

keeping quiet, disguised, discreetly dull…

She thinks liberation is a theory -

silly dream, too far-fetched to fly aloft.

She’s swapping beauty for security

blonde hair brushed straight and flat against the skull

beige blouse, loose khaki pants

plain ears un-pierced; no hint of sparkle

not even a hole left behind to mark

the spot where once she’d yearned for bling to shine.

She took those earrings out because

her dad refused to look at her ‑

his mother’s shameful rape was all he saw

when baubles swung so pretty from her lobes.

It must have been her Nana’s fault- they all thought so.

©2013 Christine Irving

As Long As Women 

As long as women sing to the ash and praise the sun

pack their wounds with poetry and prose

sculpt prayers in river clay and smear

a drop of menstrual blood  into each painting,

we have time to go slowly.

Time to wash the same dish fifteen times

while brooding on words

like, “iridescence” and “detergent;”

time to still impulsive fingers itching

for ochre, rose madder, cobalt, burnt sienna

and wait for the belly

to incubate vision.

Time for a lifetime

of incremental change‑

allowing the gap

between provocation

and response

to widen in seconds‑ one,

three, five, twenty-four…

hours to sit around

talking our walk,

breathing, crying; breathing, laughing;

indulging in contemplation; consenting

to silence until silence, welling

from the center, turns to love

and we could sit together, forever.

©2000 Christine Irving

Posted in Circle, Community, Consciousness, Dance, Girls, Herstory, Love, Misogyny, Poetry, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On the Telling of Tales

brain-design-by-cogs-and-gears

This morning, I’m contemplating story – how it enchants and enchains; how it sets us free.  Writing is my craft and stories are my passion.  How they work in the world, what purpose they serve, the way they move us – are all questions I ponder on a regular basis.  I want to understand just how idiosyncrasies of character, convolutions of plot, and use of space and time factor into the creation of a viable story.

Those dynamics fascinate me, but understanding them isn’t a requisite for being a teller.  You see, we all tell stories – actually we all think in story.  You could say stories are pattern recognition combined with meaning.  Human brains make sense of input (all the information delivered continuously by our senses) by linking various details together into meaningful configurations – stories. And what is “meaning”?  Frankly I don’t know.

brainHowever, it seems to be about pattern recognition.  We see an object and it reminds us of another object from a previous experience that involved some kind of emotional investment on our part.  In other words, even before we can voice it, our minds comprehend that basic component of storytelling called metaphor.  Stories not only use metaphors, they often are metaphors.

Metaphor comes from two Greek words meta, meaning between, and phero, meaning “to carry” or “to transfer.”  A metaphor explains something by connecting it directly to something else.  It transfers meaning from say, a fox to a woman.  “What a fox!” says one guy to another.  They both mean that this is a sexy, good-looking, woman with a touch of Foxsophistication,  poised and provocatively dressed.

Furthermore, they probably both have stories in their heads about foxes that involve red luxurious fur, cleverness and daring, not to mention pre-fabricated fantasies about what sex with such a woman might entail.  With just three words the men have created a metaphor that condenses multiple stories and creates mutual understanding.

Some kinds of emotional investments are common to just about everyone.  For example, most people on the planet are emotionally invested in their mothers.  It gives us common ground.  It’s a story we all share.  So already, on day one, before anything else happens, we already have a story to share that will hold some meaning for almost everyone we’ll ever meet.  The trick to getting someone interested in your story is to make it about them, that is to say, about human nature.

story-quote

John Steinbeck, “East of Eden”

I think stories are our most effective teaching tool because they can be purposefully imbued with wisdom, knowledge and information.  That’s where craft and talent come in. A good writer can integrate the story and the message so that the two meld into one organic whole and become indistinguishable from one another.

colorful cogsOf course our biological propensity to think in stories can trap us in a continuous loop of virtual reality.  There is something about the emotional component of meaning that makes us invest in the stories we perceive.  As soon as the pattern becomes clear we begin to believe in it.  It feels true to us.  That surety can cause us to spend years believing all sorts of things that aren’t true i.e. “no one can ever love me,” “men can’t be trusted,” “there’s nothing I can do about it,” etc.  Stories like this can keep us shackled and miserable forever.

The antidote is to stay open, flexible and conscious; to remember that each story offers numerous interpretations and all of them are true, just as all of them are false.  Stories are like veils blowing in the wind, opening to reveal, closing to maintain mystery.  They hold out hints of some greater reality and inspire us to keep searching for it.

(For more on storytelling take a look at Two Twitch a Tale)

Posted in Consciousness, Fairy Tales, Meaning, Storytelling, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Happy New Year from Mused by Magdalene

New Year 2014

Posted in New Year, Poetry, Prayer | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Christmas Past

snow globe

When I was three years old my family moved to Germany and thus began four years of magical Christmases.  It was like living inside one of those glass balls that fill with a swirl of glittering snow when you shake it.  Christmas began on December 1st with the gift of an advent calendarAdvent calendar – enchanting winter scenes printed on cardboard liberally highlighted with sparkling glitter.  Small windows of various size and shape, numbered 1 – 25, were cut into the picture.  The numbers were scattered randomly and their black print barely showed up against the intricate paintings. We taped them to our window panes and every morning searched diligently for the correct square.  The shutters were tightly shut and had to be pried open very carefully to reveal the little picture which lay behind each one. The images of candy, fruit or toys, back-lit by the light coming through our windows, glowed with the promise of Christmas gifts to come.  No real present, ever quite matched the odd combination of satisfaction and anticipation created by those tiny representations.  The window for the twenty-fifth day was always the largest and most prominent and behind it lay a crèche scene with baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

baby JesusOf course, Baby Jesus was everywhere and I developed a great tenderness for him, climbing up chairs to reach the carved wooden nativity scene set in billows of white cotton that mirrored the snowy scene outside.  Though forbidden to touch, I would take the tiny baby and rock it tenderly in my hand before setting him back among the kneeling animals, shepherd and magi.  We had found Him at the local Christkindlesmarkt, a magical night fair, created just for Christmas, full of booths selling spicy iced gingerbread cookies, carved manger tableaus, cuckoo clocks and brightly painted wooden toys of every ilk.  The smell of cut pine branches, hot spiced wine, crackling sausage and melting sugar swirled around me as I rode high above the crowd on my father’s broad shoulders.christmas market

krampusDecember 5th came next, the eve of St Nicholas Day, when every child stuffed her cleaned and polished shoes with carrots for St. Nick’s horse and placed them carefully outside the bedroom door.  In the morning good children would find them filled with chocolate.  Bad girls and boys lucky enough not to have been beaten or carried off by the krampus (the saints’ fierce furry minion) would find only coal!

stollen2

The Christ Child appeared again in the shape of the traditional Christmas bread called stollen, a folded sweet yeast bread full of citron, almonds and black currants. The raised loaves are said to resemble the Christ child wrapped in swaddling clothes. I was allowed to help blanch almonds.  First my mother would pour boiling water over the raw nuts.  Then after five minutes they would be drained and allowed to cool briefly.  Afterwards we could easily pop them out of their skins.  It didn’t take much to send them flying across the room and even a little girl could aim them with great accuracy!  Scolding ensued, but being Christmas, carried no heat.  My mom only made a small batch and we baked at home, but most of our German neighbors sent their loaves to the local baker to cook in his big ovens.  For a few days the streets would be full of delivery boys working in pairs delivering the loaves on planks of wood decorated with holly and red ribbons.

child tree tinselWe had a Christmas tree, of course, dripping with heavy lead tinsel.  It’s banned now, at least in the United States, to prevent lead poisoning.  Probably a good thing, because it took hours to decorate the tree placing each piece, carefully one at a time along every branch.  In Germany, the Christ Child came on Christmas Eve to set presents under the tree, which stood in a sealed room awaiting him.  After dinner the doors were thrown open and presents exchanged. Afterwards the whole family attended the midnight Christmas service.  My mom’s family came from Germany and she had grown up in that tradition, but in my dad’s home Santa Claus delivered the presents through the chimney at midnight, filling the stockings, eating the cookies we left and feeding our sugar cubes to the reindeer.  Presents were opened in the morning!  So that’s what we did, too.  Still do.

One of the things, I loved about our German Christmas trees were the little red xmas decosmushrooms with white spots that decorated the branches.  Mushrooms were magical; I knew that from the pictures in my story books.  They were pretty and small and sometimes fairies lived in them.  They tasted delicious, like the forest, I always thought, but they could be poisonous so you had to be very very careful.  Even then, small as I was, it was unclear to me what those red mushrooms had to do with the Christmas story, but they added to the enchantment so I accepted them.

amanita mushroom

Turns out the some anthropologists have come up with a theory that the mushrooms and Santa himself are related to Teutonic shamanic traditions that predate Christianity.  I found a summary of the theory on the UC Santa Barbara Dept. of Geography blog:

“The ancient Shamans of Siberia would go to the houses of the people in the community on the winter solstice and bring to them the amanita muscaria mushroom … it was their tradition.  The Shaman, dressing in the colors of the mushroom (red with white trim) and carrying a huge bag full of mushrooms that he had picked and dried during the previous season (enough for the entire community), would go door to door and give to the community the mushroom experience.  If the main doors to the houses were snowed over (which they often were during the winter time), the Shaman would enter the houses through the secondary entrance, which just happens to be the smoke-hole in the roof or the chimney.  And because these amanita muscaria mushrooms are often dried before ceremonial consumption (allowing the shaman to consume more), traditions of drying the mushrooms also came about.  Even to this day, it is a common practice for people to stack their mushrooms in socks and hang them over the fireplace overnight to dry them out.”

b_jimmy_theresurrectionofsantaclausThis other site explores these ideas as well.

http://entheology.com/research/when-santa-was-a-mushroom-amanita-muscaria-and-the-origins-of-christmas/

Whether this fascinating theory holds up or not makes no real difference.  We already know the magic of the season lies in its heady mixture of pagan and Christian traditions – the tree, the Yule log, wassail, even the date December 25 are pagan practices to which the Christ story has been deftly grafted.  It means that the traditions I hold so dear have deeper roots and more intimate connections than I once supposed.  Whatever their origins, I and mine have been honoring the season and the magic it holds for lo, these many millennia.  It gives me hope and renews my faith.

Peace on Earth, good will towards all beings.

Posted in Christmas, Ritual, Symbol | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Winter Solstice: The Wheel Turns Again

Nettie’s Lament

I love the hunkering towards dark that lengthens night

draws down winter with amber light, etching

wet black bark in convoluted arabesques

against the pale apricot of autumn dusks.

 

Oh, stave off returning for just another day or week.

Must we begin to ride, so soon, the bright returning year?

 

Sleep drowns me, sea-changes old lovers, sets new fancies

tumbling in slow motion, anchors me in cryptic dreams.

Let me slumber, deep in fur, another hour

amidst the sweet caress of winter’s den.

I would not quicken yet.

 

Pelt, feathers, fleece and flannel muffle any draft

sleep draws me down ten fathoms, sea-changes old lovers,

sets new fancies tumbling in slow motion, twines tawny kelp

and feathered weed round languid limbs then sprawls me

flat upon its farthest shore.

 

But who can stop the sun

hurling his bright shaft on solstice day?

 

Shot across horizon’s edge it hugs the frozen ground

skims snow fields, slides down ice-glazed trunks

of rowan, beech and pale birch, darts

unerringly toward my buried keep.

 

What crow or magpie, mouse or squirrel dug sharp claws

against the ground?  Pecked and pawed that small depression?

Stuffed acorn in to fill the hole tight, till hunger forced

its reclamation, leaving space for water and the fickle air

to gnaw an entrance there?

 

Light finds that empty niche, the single hollow chink.

Its beam strikes true – hits my startled eye, twists down

my spine to lodge in that most secret holy room

where life insists on schedules preordained

and I must stir, and wake to play its game.

 

Christine Irving 2005

Posted in Poetry, Solstice | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Guadalupe – Our Lady of the Americas

guadalupe blog pic

Today is Guadalupe’s Feast day.  As so many people do,  I feel a special affinity with her.  So much so that several years ago I collaborated with my fellow poet and author Kathryn Smith in writing, producing and co-starring in a two-woman show about the life and time of our favorite saint.  We called it A Rose in Winter.  It had three acts – the first dealt with the history of the Virgin Goddess, tracing  her roots back to ancient Egypt and the Goddess Isis , then forward through the Moorish occupation of Spain, the appearance of the Black Madonnas in Europe and the coming of the conquistadores to the New World.  The second act was a telling of the Guadalupe story from the point of view of Juan Diego’s older sister.  The third act consisted of a series of vignettes depicting Lupe’s role in history up through modern times.

Kathryn and I were guided and counseled by Guadalupe’s presence throughout the process, though neither of us are Catholics or even believers.  The Virgin has never been about belief – she has always operated on faith.

The longer I live the less use I have for beliefs.  They seem to be closed systems, self-perpetuating and contained – doomed to die an entropic death.  Faith on the other hand is not concretized needs no rules or explanations.  It defies dogma and refuses to deify or inscribe anything in stone.  This is the appeal of Guadalupe.  She appeared to a man who could not read or write the language of his conquerors.  Her story had to be transmitted orally.  Whispered lip to ear, the tale spread like wildfire until, within ten years, the entire indigenous population was paying homage to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The Spanish loved it of course.  They co-opted the story and ran with it, but they never understood that Guadalupe’s power arose from an organic home-grown connection already long-established between her people and their land.  Guadalupe appeared on a sacred hill formerly dedicated to the goddess Tonantzin, the maiden aspect of Coatlicue, the Aztec Mother Goddess, associated with the moon. (Notice Guadalupe stands on a crescent moon connecting her with other Maidens of mythology like Artemis, for instance.)  Her appeal to the indigenous population had much to do with her Native American appearance and the fact that she stood, like an equal, to speak to Juan Diego.  In other words, though a Goddess , she came among her people humbly, as one of their own.

It is no accident that her banner has led the fight for freedom throughout the Americas. She has become a symbol for liberation theology and social justice.  And though her followers so often pit themselves against the establishment, the Church itself has had to bow to her authority and power, naming her Patron Saint of the Americas.

Her appeal is universal cutting across all barriers of class, education or wealth.  Her image appears everywhere – tattooed on bodies, enshrined in bathtubs and rock gardens, carved into trees, painted across walls, embossed into t-shirts, coffee cups and wallpaper.  It stands for protection.  It stands for comfort and home.  Somehow, no matter how often it’s repeated, the image never becomes banal of loses its power to please.

Within Guadalupe’s new ugly, hot, and uncharming  modern Basilica faith becomes palpable and impossible to resist.  It breaks down the defenses of logic and rationality, it strips you bare, leaving room at last for wonder and awe.  Riding the moving sidewalk past Juan Diego’s cloak, pressed subway-tight between sweating human bodies.  I swear I smelled roses in the air.

Posted in Art, Community, Cultural icons, Latin America, Storytelling, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment