Many Faces of the Magdalene

Hello, my name is Christine Irving. I am ordained both as a priestess of Isis and a priest in the Gnostic Church of Saint Mary Magdalene. As such, I’m empowered to write liturgy, create and lead rituals, name babies, marry lovers and bury the dead. I have great faith in the power of ritual to sanctify the passages of our lives. I am also a storyteller and I believe in the potential for story to inform and instruct.

Like some of you, I found traditional Christianity unsatisfying not because of the original teachings propounded by Rabbi Jesus, but because of the overwhelming and weighty patriarchal hierarchy superimposed upon his life and wisdom. The institution of Christianity carries too many sins for me to easily forgive and so, for a long time, I turned my back on it.

Mary Magdalene came into my life unexpectedly. I was attending a conference in Geyserville, California at my home temple – the Temple of Isis. One of the things on the program was a Gnostic mass – at the time I had no idea what that meant. The mass was incredibly beautiful and emotional. At the end many women, including myself, were weeping.

Much as I loved being a participant, I kept visualizing myself standing in front of a congregation offering that mass. A little research led me to its source, Bishop Rosamonde Miller who leads the Ecclesia Gnostica Mysteriorum, which means Church of Gnostic Mysteries. I made an appointment to see her and she turned out to be a fascinating, charismatic woman who was of course, incredibly busy. Too busy to take me under her wing, but she did offer to initiate me, in a very simple, but profound ceremony into the Holy Order of Mary Magdalene. I recognized the name, but other than vague Sunday School memories I knew nothing about Magdalene. In place of what I had come seeking, Bishop Miller was offering me an unexpected gift. I surrendered my disappointment and accepted. Standing with Rosamonde as she held a veil over both our heads and whispered a short invocation, I was startled to feel a palpable presence standing beside me. Not being given to visions or psychic experiences, it truly surprised me. Who was Mary Magdalene and what did she want with me?

Thus, the journey began. Eventually, I found another mentor, studied, became ordained and compiled my own mass. In the process, I reclaimed my Christian heritage and made peace with my roots. Magdalene continues to guide and encourage me to this day. Most recently, she inspired my latest work of fiction, a historic novel about her life after the crucifixion.

This morning, I want to stick to what the New Testament says about her. The four gospels mention her by name fourteen times. Once Luke introduces her, they all tell roughly the same story – she was a faithful follower and supporter of Jesus who paid close attention to his teaching. She stood as witness to the crucifixion, from the beginning to end of that grisly scene, and did not deny him or turn away. She tended to Jesus’s body during the days of mourning following his death. She was the first to see and speak to the risen Christ and he charged her with giving the other disciples news of his resurrection.
The first thing to remember about Magdalene is her humanity. There is nothing supernatural about her – she works no miracles, suffers no martyrdom; neither heals the sick nor raises the dead. She is simply an extraordinary ordinary human being- we all know at least one. Lots of you are sitting in this room.

Luke introduces her. He says:
 After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming         the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.

Several women are listed here, all of them noted for paying the disciples’ way out of their own pockets. This seems to indicate that they were respectable women, drawn from established walks of life – just as the male disciples had been. 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 often 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.
Imagine the balm such serenity offered Jesus who was being idolized, acclaimed, reviled, and misunderstood. Magdalene, having faced the chaotic maelstrom of madness, would not be fazed by the storm of controversy and high feeling surrounding her Rabbi. Her mind, searching for new meaning, new patterns could absorb his teachings eagerly without judgment or distortion.

Magdalene became his eyewitness. How invaluable it must have been, to have an onlooker who recalled one day’s journey from the next, one supplicant from another; who remembered honestly what was said yesterday or the day before, or the day before that. Imagine how comforting it might be to have a sounding board to test your own sense of what was true. It might keep you sane in a world of misinformation, danger and turbulent emotion.

All sentient beings want to be recognized. I long to be seen. You want your life to be witnessed. She wants the glow of her pregnancy remembered. He doesn’t want it forgotten that he caught a fly ball at the end of the ninth and won the game. Your witnesses are living proof that you exist, that you are real. Jesus knew he would die soon. It must have consoled him to have in Magdalene a witness cleansed of cant, hypocrisy and guile who would remember what he said and who he was.

Returning to Luke and his description of Jesus and his travelling band of followers, let’s envision the group trekking for long days down dusty roads and across rolling hills, encountering orchards and fields, springs and rivulets, pasture and forest. We can safely surmise sunrise, sunset and long siestas to wait out the hot afternoons of the Middle East. We know they talked often among themselves and with strangers. We can imagine Jesus walking beside first one companion then the other, sometimes in silence, sometimes deep in conversation.

The dictionary defines companion as: a person who is frequently in the company of, or accompanies another or others; a mate or match for something. Companion has its roots in the words ‘with’ and ‘bread’ – so a companion is one with whom you share bread.
Bread – the staff of life – is an ancient symbol for nourishment and hospitality. In Jewish tradition a blessing always accompanies the division of a loaf. In Christian tradition, bread is associated with the Eucharist derived from Judaism’s Passover feast. After Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount he fed the crowd bread, knowing that the act of sharing food would establish camaraderie among them, underscoring the message of the Beatitudes; grounding his words in something visceral and real.

Companionship is a synonym for friendship – in this case a friendship built on the shared hardships, dangers, delights, and discouragements of the road. Literature and film are full of stories about unlikely companions, forced by circumstance to travel together, who end up dear friends. Consider Don Quixote, Star Trek, Thelma and Louise, Little Miss Sunshine, Lord of the Rings, or The Wizard of Oz. Like bread the word journey carries a wealth of associations – chief among them Life itself.

In Magdalene, Jesus found a companion who understood the subtleties and silences in his teachings. Who looked at him and saw when he was hungry or tired, rested or eager. A friend, whose deep compassion allowed her to understand what he suffered and to accept his destiny.

And so we come to the Teacher.

In the New Testament Gospels, Mary Magdalene is all action. She never speaks, so why do I call her Teacher? Jesus, like Buddha, tells his followers to be like him, not in imitation, but by embodying what he has taught them in their own lives. Magdalene’s actions reveal that she has taken her Rabbi’s words to heart, incorporated them and become a living example of his teaching.

The Eastern Orthodox Church reveres Mary Magdalene as the Apostle to the Apostles. She is in fact the ultimate disciple. When others run away, she stands firm. She accepts the teachings of her Lord, listens to and recalls his words and obeys his injunction to remember and repeat them. In the end, Magdalene’s courage and ability to witness allows her to return to the tomb, accept the enormity of the risen Christ and then report to the other disciples what she has seen.

The book of Acts names many women who held services in their homes, acted as deacons in the early church, and organized congregations. Gnostic texts show Magdalene instructing and explaining what Christ said. The Gospels don’t tell us what happened to Magdalene after Pentecost, the day when the spirit of God rushed in like a wind and descended upon all the followers of Jesus, allowing them to preach in dozens of languages, but there’s no reason to suppose she suddenly became less obedient, faithful or bold.
Given the evidence, I believe she did become a teacher, preaching through the towns and villages of her land just as Jesus had. I think she became well known and popular, commanding respect and authority in her own right. Why else would a church, infamous for misogyny, feel compelled to include her so prominently in “the greatest story ever told?”

So what can we learn from the Mad Woman, the Witness, the Companion and Teacher?
From the Mad Woman we learn to spin gold out of straw. She asks us to remember that every grief, disappointment, regret or wound can teach us, if we let it, to be strong, wise, courageous and compassionate. Look back at your own lives and see if this is true. Where do the greatest lessons lie?

The Mad Woman also says, “Be a little crazy. Think outside the box, rock the boat, dare to be different. Free yourself from what no longer serves.”
Every day we are brought face to face with illogical, irrational, unfathomable events – some of them miraculous and some, like the shootings at Columbine and Connecticut, overwhelmingly brutal. If we allow room within ourselves for a little chaos, a little mystery and confusion, our minds will be less brittle, less inclined to snap when things become completely incomprehensible.

The Witness offers us a new way to look at the world, to see the Kingdom of God all around us by noticing the details. She begs us to look past the surface and find out why and how what is came to be. The habit of inquiry engenders understanding, understanding engenders compassion. Buddha said, “To understand everything is to forgive everything.” We don’t have the time, energy or information to understand even a portion of all that is, but we can remember that if we did know it all we could forgive. We can accept that the potential for empathy and forgiveness is always ours. That acceptance, that willingness to listen, offers us a choice. Will we look into the eyes of a homeless man or woman and actually see the person standing there? Or will we allow our gaze to slide across them as if they were invisible?

Magdalene’s role as Companion speaks to the need for friendship and mutual support. American culture has made an icon out the Loner. Self-sufficiency and personal independence are cherished values in our culture. Good values, but sometimes we get too self-reliant, too unwilling to share ourselves with anyone. Magdalene asks us to remain willing to connect, to make a habit of sharing ourselves honestly in encounters with friends and strangers, no matter how brief the meeting and to begin with the assumption of good will.

Even a moment of shared companionship can brighten me and restore my inner equilibrium. Since moving to Texas, I’ve been struck by the great common courtesy and routine helpfulness of strangers. My life is much the richer for it. The cultural roots of such kindness lie deep in ancient laws of hospitality, originating thousands upon thousands of years ago in the Middle East. Arabs carried the tradition westward across Africa. The Moors took it north into Spain. Spaniards brought it to Mexico. Texans made it their own. Hospitality assumes that both parties are willing to temporarily suspend bias and suspicion in order to break bread together in peace. That willingness inserts a little ease into the moment. It allows breathing room for further assessment wherein one might discover a mutual acquaintance or a shared interest in chess or cattle or a thousand other subjects. It offers a little space into which understanding can grow.

A Companion is willing to look past the façade of personality, to take a chance on what, she’s betting, is another human being full of interests and insights worth learning about. I spoke earlier of the companionship of the road. Well, we’re always on the road, always on this journey. Companionship eases the way. Sharing the bread of our stories passes the time, strengthens the heart and soul, nourishes, sustains and defends us. Shared wisdom helps avoid pitfalls and the friend who has your back may save your life.
From the Teacher we learn to “walk our talk” to act out the precepts and ideals we believe in so they become more than mere words or good ideas. She also encourages us to “talk our walk” – to share our ideas, skills, insights and knowledge as we go through life. “Networking” and “win/win” are modern catchwords for this idea. There’s an old adage that says, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and he’ll never go hungry again.” Magdalene might have taught that herself.

At the beginning of this talk I mentioned Mary Magdalene’s humanity. It’s important for two reasons – one it tells us that everything she stands for- all the roles and suggestions I’ve presented are perfectly possible for anyone to take on. The other reason is Christ’s incarnation. He took on an almost impossible schizophrenic task. Though still God, his job on Earth demanded commitment to his own humanity. He needed Magdalene, a flawed resourceful human being, to act as model, friend and confidant.

To be conscious of one’s humanity with all its terrible crazy pitfalls and still be willing to look it in the eye and embrace it completely is perhaps our greatest test as human beings. I am lucky to have found Magdalene as witness, teacher and companion in this great undertaking. Perhaps, she can also accompany you.

© Christine irving

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One Response to Many Faces of the Magdalene

  1. Pingback: Magdalene as Mad Woman | Mused by Magdalene

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