Unlikely Friendship? The Case of St Mary Magdalene

St Mary Magdalene as Penitent by Pedro de Mena
By Nicolás Pérez – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10226663

St Mary Magdalene and Some Women of Our Own Day who Attract a Negative Press

During one of our recent long, hot, sticky nights I found myself thinking about the hostility of the Taliban to the education of women and girls, and what that might mean for the people of Afghanistan and wherever the Taliban hold influence. From there it was a short step to considering the antipathy many in the West have shown towards Malala, Greta Thunberg or, in a completely different sphere, Emma Raducano. It would be wrong to say the aggressive and belittling remarks they have had to endure are the monopoly of a few middle-aged men (I can certainly point to some really nasty comments by women), but middle-aged men do seem to have been peculiarly irritated by them. For me, that helps to explain the Church’s long-standing awkwardness about Mary Magdalene and the ambivalence in some circles about her being officially proclaimed ‘Apostle to the Apostles’ and her liturgical commemoration being raised to the dignity of a feast. As to her friendship with Jesus, I quite see why, for some, that is beyond the pale. She is too clingy, too feminine — despite being as tough as they come.

How We Like Our Saints To Be

Is it as simple as saying most men (and many women) don’t like smart women, and clerical men feel happier if female saints are either on a pedestal of unassailable purity (e.g. Our Lady, St Thérèse of Lisieux) or can be dismissed as ‘no better than they should be’ and classed either as prostitutes (which St Mary Magdalene was not) or penitents, suggesting that there is something murky in the background? For every dozen men who have waxed lyrical about St Thérèse, for example, I doubt I have heard even one express warm, personal admiration for St Mary Magdalene. Is that why the thought of Jesus and Mary being such good friends as the gospels suggest has led some to speculate that there was a sexual relationship between them (for which there is no evidence) while others dismiss her as being somehow a fringe figure in Christian history (which is absurd). Then there are those who think that Mary Magdalene was more significant than Peter, and there is a huge conspiracy behind the hierarchy of the Church today — an attitude I find equally absurd on the same grounds as those who propose it: the evidence. The plain truth is that Jesus Christ saw in Mary something he did not see in Peter, James or John, something loving enough and steely enough to be entrusted with news of the resurrection — and he clearly enjoyed her company, as he enjoyed the company of his other disciples.

St Mary Magdalene as Penitent

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed my choice of Pedro de Mena’s sculpture to illustrate this post rather than the Fra Angelico or D. Werburg you might have been expecting. It shows Mary as penitent, the way she was viewed for so many centuries in the Church. I have always found it an arresting image and on every visit to Valladolid have always tried to make sure I see it. It proclaims a very important theological truth we are sometimes in danger of forgetting. None of us is without sin. We are all redeemed through God’s gracious action in Christ Jesus. We can concentrate on this aspect or that of a saint’s life, we can be inspired or sometimes the reverse, but we cannot escape the fact of sin. Mary of Magdalene is one of those saints who makes us confront this in ourselves and in others. We are seeing this sin, this sinfulness, in the way in which Traditionis Custodes is being discussed right now: sin has coiled itself round the holiest element of Catholic faith and practice, the celebration of the Eucharist.

We all know that the word eucharist means to give thanks. During two of my most recent hospitalisations, I came very close to dying. As I lay there, wondering if this was indeed to be the end of my earthly life, I found myself reflecting on the efforts people go to for the sake of their ‘legacy’. It didn’t take me long to decide that what I would like for my own legacy is fidelity to the Truth, kindness to others, and gratitude— above all, gratitude, because grace can only grow in a spirit of thanksgiving, and neither fidelity nor kindness is possible without grace. In the gospels St Mary Magdalene exemplifies all these qualities, with a richness of humanity I find immensely attractive. I think she makes a good patron for us still in via, don’t you?


The Tears of the Magdalene

St Mary Magdalene has always been one of my favourite subjects, so forgive me if I repeat some ideas I have already written about at length. 

When the Congregation for Divine Worship instituted this feast and explicitly gave Mary the title ‘Apostle of the Apostles’ (previously used by Rhabanus Maurus and St Thomas Aquinas, be it noted), some expressed dismay. How could she be called an ‘apostle’, wasn’t that to confuse her role as prima testis or first witness to the Resurrection with the power of rulership in the Church, which was limited to men? Some rather unsatisfactory discussion followed which seemed to me at least to say more about the participants’ attitudes to women than deepen anyone’s theological understanding. Centuries of misidentification of Mary as a fallen woman — in itself a telling phrase, given that we are all fallen beings — and a certain uneasiness about her straightforward emotional response to Jesus have left their mark. It seems we must either champion Mary as a feminist icon, or dismiss her as a secondary figure in the gospel narrative, outside the circle of those who really count, Peter, James and John and the rest. Then we remember her tears.

When Mary first gazed at the Risen Christ through her tears, she did not know him. Then, with eyes washed clean of sin and deformity, she knew him truly and worshiped him. In the life of each one of us there must be that moment of recognition, that instant of grace, when we pass from not knowing to knowing. It is the moment of the heart’s conversion, of repentance and re-making, and it is all God’s work. I don’t see Mary Magdalene as a feminist icon or as a second-rate figure in the gospel narrative but as an immense encouragement to us all. For monks and nuns particularly, familiar as we ought to be with the gift of tears*, she is a powerful reminder of what we ourselves hope to become. May St Mary Magdalene pray for every one of us, male or female, clerical or lay.

*I am referring here to a phenomenon sometimes experienced in prayer when tears flow freely and sweetly, an effect of divine grace at work in the soul. It is much discussed by early monastic writers and is not to be confused with a morbid or unhealthy response to God. The Sarum Missal contains a beautiful prayer for the gift of tears.


For Easter Sunday 2018

Piero della Francesca: Resurrection
Piero della Francesca: Resurrection

‘In the early morning,’ ‘before the sun had risen,’ ‘while it was still dark’: these phrases capture something of the mystery of the Resurrection. In the half-light only the eyes of faith see clearly. Is it any wonder, then, that St Mary Magdalene is the ‘apostle to the apostles’, that, through eyes washed clean with tears, she saw the Lord? Throughout Holy Week our attention has been focused on the terrible duel between good and evil and on those who surround Jesus with menace or sheer misunderstanding: Judas, Caiphas, Pilate, Peter. It has been a very male business, but now the women edge into the picture. They stood by the Cross, they anointed Jesus’ dead body and now they proclaim the Resurrection. Peter’s momentary failure will be forgiven; the disciples will be transformed by the gift of the Holy Spirit; and all our own sin and failure will be swallowed up by the empty tomb. Christ is risen, alleluia, alleluia!Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Easter Tuesday 2017

Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico
Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico

Today’s gospel, John 20.11-18, is shocking in its intensity. Early in the morning Mary Magdalene meets the Risen Christ in a garden. As always in these Resurrection narratives, there is something about his appearance that prevents immediate recognition; and in any case, Mary is weeping. But she sees more clearly through her tears than many a disciple who turns the cold gaze of reason upon him. Her heart has been washed clean by love, and it is that purity of heart which enables her to recognize her Lord.

Monastic tradition honours the gift of tears. Indeed, praying for compunction of heart is a very necessary part of every novitiate — and it does not end there. Until we realise the enormity of our sinfulness and the wonderful forgiveness of God, we are apt to be harsh in our judgement of others and resistant to grace. There is a beautiful prayer for the gift of tears in the Sarum Missal, which looks back to the experience of the Israelites in the desert:

O Almighty and most merciful God, who caused a fountain of living water to spring forth from a rock for your people in their thirst; draw tears of compunction from our stony hearts that we may weep over our sins, and, by your mercy, deserve to obtain pardon for the same. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

There is also another, more elaborate one, by St Augustine; but no words are really necessary. The ‘sharp dart of longing love’ is all that is required, and Mary Magdalene shows us how richly and warmly the prayer of humble love and faith is answered.

Fra Angelico has captured the moment of blissful meeting between Jesus and Mary — in a garden, in springtime, with only the dark entrance to the tomb to remind us of what went before. Our own meeting with the Risen Christ may be just as unexpected. Let us make sure we are ready for it, for to be surprised by grace is also to be surprised by joy; and like Mary Magdalene, we are not to keep that joy and grace to ourselves but to proclaim it: to be, like her, an apostle of the Resurrection.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Seeing Clearly | Easter Tuesday 2014

Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico
Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico

Today’s gospel about the meeting between Mary Magdelene and the Risen Christ has always been a favourite of mine. I love the fact that the meeting takes place in a garden, and that Mary is weeping unashamedly. She mistakes the person she sees for a gardener, but once she hears the Lord’s voice her tears enable her to see more clearly than any other. She sees with the eye of a heart washed clean by love. That is what purity means and what the gift of tears bestows. There is a beautiful prayer in the Sarum Missal for the gift of tears, as well as a longer, more ornate one by St Augustine; but no words are really necessary. The ‘sharp dart of longing love’ is all that is required.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St Mary Magdalene, Mgr Battista Ricca and Public Reputation

I have been taking a little holiday from blogging for all kinds of reasons, not least that I had nothing to say that others were not saying better, but today’s feast of St Mary Magdalene and the allegations made against Mgr Battista Ricca have made me think about public reputation and I’ve decided to share my thoughts, such as they are, on this blog.

Most of us don’t have to worry about our public reputation. We are so obscure that, beyond our immediate family, only a handful of friends and acquaintances have any opinion on the matter. Those who have had their characters blackened by others are more sensitive on the subject. They know how unfounded rumours are transmuted into facts, and long after they thought all was ‘done and dusted’, the untruths continue to shape the narrative of their lives. St Mary Magdalene, for example, is often misidentified as a notorious sinner. Down the ages she has been portrayed as a whore and worse. We are told that Jesus cast out seven demons from her (which is morally neutral at the least), but beyond that, everything we read about her in the gospels is positive. She dearly loved the Lord and saw him more clearly through her tears than any of her un-weepy brethren. To her was entrusted the first news of the Resurrection. So, why, then, is she often spoken of in slighting terms? I think it has something to do with that misidentification I spoke of earlier. Although long regarded as a misreading of the text, something of the mud has stuck. If she was not a notorious sinner, she was too ‘womanly’, too ’emotional’. I suspect myself that she was quite steely when need be, and she remains part of the gospel narrative because the evangelists simply couldn’t write her out of the story. She is too important for us who come after; and the attempts of some to downplay her importance merely underlines her significance for believers.

Now take the case of Mgr Battista Ricca. When I read Sandro Magister’s original article, my heart sank. My first reaction was to believe everything he wrote and to become angry. Another priest who does not live chastely and brings the whole Church into disrepute! But then I began to think rather than just react. Who was providing the information and why? It might be true, it might be false, but why was it emerging now; who would profit by it, and who would lose by it? Put like that, the whole thing became much more complex, involving as it does the pope’s attempts to reform the Vatican Bank and the rumours of corruption and vested interests at the highest levels of the Curia. The most measured article on the subject I have yet read is to be found here. The author makes several important points, but one of the most important will pass many people by: the right to a good name. We do not yet know whether Mgr Ricca is guilty of any of the things alleged against him. If he is, words fail me. If he is not, those who have made the accusations have gravely injured him.

Perhaps we all need to take more care in what we say and write about others. It is a short step from the suppressio veri to the suggestio falsi. That does not mean we should naively believe that all allegations of misconduct against someone are false, or that we should not take seriously warnings and advices we are given. On the contrary, we should weigh them and heed them. But we also need to cultivate a certain generosity of mind, a fairness and decency which refuses to make assumptions that are injurious to others. St Mary Magdalene’s reputation has suffered through many centuries because someone somewhere first thought about her meanly, then expressed that meanness of thought in words. May she pray for us, that we never do likewise.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Apostle to the Apostles

Mary of Magdala has always received a raw deal from some members of the Church. Belittled as a former prostitute (there is no evidence for her ever having been one — in any case, why would that justify disparagement?), looked at slightly askance because of the seven demons Jesus cast out of her, and then put beyond the pale by her tears and clingy behaviour towards the Risen Christ (see today’s gospel, John 20. 11-18), Mary is everything some people find objectionable. She does not conform to the ideal of Pure Femininity on the one hand, nor Gracious Motherhood on the other. She is, in fact, extremely awkward, slipping between categories, acting in unexpected ways, and confronting us with the unpalatable fact that, like the Master she followed, Mary of Magdala is holy because she is truly herself. She looks at Jesus through her tears and he responds to the love he sees in her. She is called by name and entrusted with proclaiming the Good News to the disciples. It is one of the most beautiful and understated vocation narratives in the whole Bible, and it is a vocation that confers no status, no privilege, only mission — a mission that comes from that moment of communion between Jesus and Mary in the garden.

Mary’s role as apostle to the apostles is often played down, treated as a mere prelude to the important business of getting Peter and John to the empty tomb, but Matthew and Luke concur in naming women as the first witnesses to the Resurrection. It is worth thinking about what that means in the context of first-century Palestinian Jewish society. It was clearly odd enough and significant enough for the evangelists to record, and the Church has been wondering about it ever since. God’s ways are so often not our ways, and they puzzle us. In chapter 3 of the Rule, St Benedict urges the abbot to listen to the advice of all, especially the most junior brethren, because God often reveals what is better to the younger. God has a habit of springing surprises on us but we have to be open to them. We have a tendency to say that is not how it is meant to be. God does not speak through such people. God cannot speak through such people.

Today would be a good day for thinking about the people we barely notice, the ones to whom we don’t pay much attention or even positively dislike but who may have something to say that we should hear. It may not be a religious message as such (beware the self-appointed messengers of God!), but it could be something about ourselves or the world we live in or the values we aspire to that we have not really taken in. Today would also be a good day to spend a little more time in prayer, just being with God. Our mission, too, must proceed from communion with Him.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St Mary Magdalene

Friend of Jesus and apostle to the apostles, Mary Magadalene has nevertheless suffered centuries of opprobrium as a ‘scarlet woman’. No doubt it suited some to identify the seven demons cast out of her as demons of lust, but really there is no justification for doing so. Our only biblical source — Luke — barely mentions her before telling us about her role at Jesus’ death and resurrection. In the Middle Ages we find legends which detail her activity as a leader of the early Church and portray her as ending her life as a hermit in the wilderness, where she was clad only in her long hair. She was indeed a mulier fortis, an admirable model for women today.

There is a photo of Pedro de Mena’s  image of Mary Magdalene meditating on the Crucifix, 1664, which is now in the Museo Nacional Colegio de San Gregori, Valladolid, here (many thanks to Dr Southworth for providing the link). It is not only great art but also one of the most moving depictions of Mary Magdalene that I know. However, here is a link you may also enjoy, to a modern web-based ‘Book of Hours’ by Jan Richardson, The Hours of Mary Magdalene. It makes use of many of the Magdalene legends and will make you think (I hope).