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.
The 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.
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 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 breakthrough 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