Last Sunday I had the great pleasure of speaking from the pulpit at a local Unity church. It’s been a long time since I donned my robes and spoke to a congregation. I am very grateful to Reverend Ellen Davis for inviting me. My talk, Many Faces of the Magdalene, considered Mary Magdalene as Mad Woman, Witness, Companion and Teacher. As it happened, a person who happens to be bi-polar was present. The fact that I chose mental illness as a reference point meant a great deal to them.
Of course, “I chose” is inaccurate. I never really choose what to say; instead I sit down to write with both the intention of addressing a topic and the willingness to engage in a creative act. After that, some kind of synchronistic, serendipitous collaboration takes place. With what I don’t know, nor am I willing to attach a name to the ineffable, but I do feel blessed to interact with it. Happily, fortunately my interactions with creativity are mostly benign and fairly quiet. Other people aren’t so lucky.
By quiet, I don’t mean silent – in another time and place, given my propensity to speak out publicly, I could easily have been locked up in an asylum, clapped into stocks, or burned both for the content of my speech and also for my admission to collaborating with some outside energy. Perhaps that time and place aren’t as far away after all ‑ my husband invited a fundamentalist co-worker to church on Sunday, but he wouldn’t come because Unity wasn’t “Christian enough” and he feared contamination.
I think madness is relative. It operates on a sliding scale along which all human beings their places. Madness can be biological and/or psychological; either way it’s contextual. Likewise, in my opinion, grace and circumstance are the chief components of sanity. When we speak of the Mad Woman, we are speaking of us all.
Here’s an excerpt from Sunday (follow the link to read the entirety of Many Faces of the Magdalene)
What distinguishes the Magdalene is that seven devils have come out of her. She has been possessed by demons, but now she is cured. Nowadays, we equate demonic possession with schizophrenia or pathology. Such women are considered mad.
In my life, I’ve known several women who have returned from that dark tortured place. Women, who attempted suicide, suffered psychotic episodes, stole, destroyed and raged; women driven past the point of endurance by unspeakable suffering. Those survivors, the ones returned to health and sanity, have been among the bravest, wisest and most compassionate of my friends. They’ve taught me the value of staying present, counting my blessings and making gratitude my spiritual practice. From my own experience with them, I surmise that Mary Magdalene, freed of her demons, did not forget what it meant to be grief-stricken, enraged, humiliated or terrified. I imagine it gave her the empathy one needed to participate in the work Jesus did as he spoke to crowds and dealt with sick and suffering multitudes.
Madness, terrible as it is, brings with it a certain wild freedom from inhibitions and restraints. It allows or forces one to dare anything. No matter how horrifying the experience or consequence of unbridled license, one returns to equilibrium with a new appreciation for which rules are sensible and useful and which ridiculous, unnecessary or even harmful. Furthermore, audacity, defiance, and dare-deviltry often bring self-confidence, courage and self-reliance in their wake. What doesn’t kill you strengthens you.
I imagine, in Mary Magdalene, a mind brought to madness by a buzzing cloud of shattered dreams and expectations. Something has happened to turn her world upside down and completely disorient her. Why else would any woman, in any age, be wandering around the countryside by herself acting crazy? When Jesus, with a word, a touch or some simple act of kindness brings her back to herself, she knows who she is. Her mind, emptied of confusion becomes clean, calm and replete with silence – the place of perfect witnessing.