a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Light at the Water’s Edge:
In Pursuit of Mary Magdalene
Imagine it. Mary Magdalene in her upper room, after supper, her guests finishing the last of their sweets, reclining on cushions, while she enthralls listeners with stories of her life with Jesus. She might recount some humorous escapade that transpired on the road to Jerusalem. Or a terrifying incident when they hid from religious leaders. And, surely many times, Mary reveals sacred truths told by Jesus to her alone, which she now shares with others. As she does this, they marvel at Mary’s special knowledge. The way she is transformed as her story unfolds. The way she reflects Wisdom.
Mary’s listeners would have been familiar with Wisdom as an aspect of the divine. The men had grown up studying the scriptures formally in school. Men and women alike heard sermons in synagogues throughout their lives. Discourse on scriptural interpretations was abundant in Jewish families. From the book of Wisdom, they might have heard that King Solomon adored Wisdom because “she is a breath of the power of God and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty…she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.” They would have recalled from the book of Proverbs that Wisdom says of herself, “When [the LORD] established the heavens I was there…I was beside him, like a master worker…whoever finds me finds life….”
Gnostic traditions speak of certain human beings who, because of their ability to understand, receive mystical instruction from the risen Christ. In Dialogue of the Savior, we find a “woman who knew the All.” This woman is Mary Magdalene. What happened to that Mary; the one who reflected Wisdom; the one of whom Peter complained that he was tired of her commentaries and her domination of the group; the one whose right to speak was defended by Jesus; the one whom Jesus praised for her superior understanding? Going up against Peter, Mary Magdalene became the standard-bearer for gnostic teachers. Her collaborative relationship with Jesus was so grave a threat to early church orthodoxy that by the year 200 C.E. her voice, and women’s voices in general, was silenced in the leadership of the church.
Recently when I was presenting my book, Disciple: A Novel of Mary Magdalene, at a women’s retreat, I asked my audience, “When you hear the name Mary Magdalene, what do you think of?” The answers came back in tiny explosions, like popcorn—Catholic saint; gnosticism; healed by Jesus; The Da Vinci Code; Jesus’ wife; royal bloodline; repentant prostitute; Apostle of the Apostles; and even, Sophia. (Wisdom!)
There is reason to believe that Mary Magdalene was a real woman in a real relationship with Jesus of Nazareth. Three sources are available as I pursue her: events written about her, words reportedly spoken by her, and perceptions that I intuit from my years of studying her. The first two sources are primarily academic, explored through history and literature. But it is the third source that matters most to me, informed by history and literature certainly, but nonetheless, my own spiritual path.
The four gospel writers in the Christian Testament tell variously of Jesus’ healing her of demon possession, of her taking part in Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and following him to Jerusalem, of her standing near at his crucifixion and burial, and discovering his empty tomb. In the extra-canonical Gospel of Philip there is a story in which the other disciples, offended by Mary’s favored rank among them, demand that Jesus tell them why he loves her more than all of them. Elsewhere, she is reported, after Jesus’ death, to have gone out with the apostles to preach the Word.
All of this makes me wonder: Who does Mary Magdalene say that she is? Mary Magdalene’s own words reveal much. Her voice can be heard in the Christian Testament where she is portrayed as the primary witness to the birth of the Christian faith. In the Gospel of John, the resurrected Jesus appears to Mary and sends her on a mission: “Go to my brothers and sisters and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father….’” She accepts the mission, goes to the disciples, announces “I have seen the Lord!” and tells them everything that Jesus had told her. Thus did Mary Magdalene become Apostle of the Apostles.
In some ancient texts Mary Magdalene is a leader—sometimes the leader—of the Jesus movement after his death. My favorite story about her is found in the Gospel of Mary. The disciples are assembled, grieving for the dead Jesus and terrified for themselves, worried that the authorities would find them and place them under arrest. In the way that Jesus had often done, Mary rises to address their group. She encourages them and reminds them of his promise to be with them always. She recounts a vision in which the Lord appeared to her and revealed new teachings, which she then introduces to the others. Again offended by her special relationship with Jesus, some of the men dismiss the idea that Jesus would have appeared to her in that unique way. Mary is deeply pained and turns on Peter to say, “Do you think that I’ve made all this up secretly by myself or that I am telling lies about the Savior?” This is evidence that Mary Magdalene represented the gnostic opinion that Jesus’ continuing presence, beyond the physical, revealed mysteries to those who were capable of comprehending. This opinion also symbolizes Mary’s apostolic authority, an intolerable challenge to early church orthodoxy.
Mary Magdalene as leader of the Jesus movement is the image that, for me, is the most powerful and the most useful. It is the way she guides me on my path. Jane Schaberg’s landmark work, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene, puts forth a compelling portrait of Mary Magdalene and makes me vibrate in resonance. I see elements of my professional and personal life: Mary lives in an androcentric and patriarchal world. She speaks boldly in her group and plays a leadership role among the men, some of whom are in conflict with her. She has mystical visions. More importantly, in Schaberg’s portrait of Mary Magdalene, I see some of my spiritual aspirations: Mary is prominent among Jesus’ followers because she has a superior understanding of his message and is his intimate companion. Jesus defends her against those who do not understand her.
What has this to do with my path? Stated simply, this view of Mary Magdalene provides a model of women and men in community together as disciples of Jesus, both with him and after his death, sharing leadership and guided by Wisdom. This is the kind of leadership that is situational, not hierarchical, that arises based on everyone’s gifts, called on as needed. I have experienced this phenomenon in organizations, though very rarely, and have come away longing for more. I came to ask myself the timeless question: How can we embrace our differences and live with each other without violence, but, rather, with creativity and appreciation? I learned to listen for Wisdom from unlikely individuals—the divine coming through unexpected voices around me. And then, I began to hear from Wisdom directly in one particular activity: earth-digging.
I can’t say I am an avid gardener, or even a competent one. But I know this—when I am sitting in the soil in my garden performing the most mundane of tasks, weeding for example, I hear a few words directing me, answering a question I didn’t know I had. Or, in one dramatic instance, to leave my job and change my life. I identify this kind of knowing with Mary Magdalene’s Wisdom experience: the kind of knowing that allows me to live my story and tell my story and trust the outcomes, whatever they might be.
Years ago I traveled in Israel to the ruins of ancient Magdala on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. I suppose I was looking for Mary Magdalene, to test her presence in the very place she might have sat on a stone wall telling stories.
After a 70-mile drive from Jerusalem through the intense summer heat, I spot a brick and chain link fence just ahead, behind which is the object of my desire. I am at once exhilarated and apprehensive. What if nothing waits for me here? What if the stones are silent?
A man appears from the edge of the property and looks at me through the gate. I take him to be a member of the Assadi family, Arab caretakers of a Roman Catholic site in the Jewish homeland. My heart pounds as he and I stand face to face on opposite sides of the fence.
I have come so far. Will he let me in?
No, sorry, he cannot.
He will not, though I plead with him. I had been warned, and I should have been prepared to be turned away. Even so, I am disappointed and frustrated. Have I not earned admission? Here, in the seventh decade of my life, the one thing I want is on the other side of this fence, and I am locked out. Is this how Mary and all the other women disciples and teachers felt when they watched their spiritual work steadily eclipsed and buried—like these ruins of Magdala?
Reluctantly, I release my hold on the fence and walk a few steps toward the Sea of Galilee to gaze out across the water. It is cooler here in the shade of broad-leaf trees and palms which line the shore. I hear a trickle of water and look down to see the tiniest of streams flowing through the undergrowth to where the lapping of the lake takes the stream into itself. Suddenly, I remember the moment I walked away from my corporate career, my pension, and my ego, the moment I turned from the world of commerce and flowed into the dark unknown of the soul, pursuing God. And, then, I am in the water, with Mary, climbing into a boat, ready for a trip to the northern edge of the sea, to Capernaum, where crowds are waiting to hear the message of peace.
I want to take something home from this holy place. And it appears. The feather of a dove, at my feet. I imagine this dove to be a descendant of the ordinary, grey, ubiquitous type that Mary might have shooed away from her newly seeded garden. And a light comes on in me: Mary is not bound by this wire around her earthly territory. This man-made fence does not hold her in. I meet her here, at the water’s edge. I meet her everywhere I am.
Susan Little left a successful corporate career to become a spiritual counselor, sacred dancer, and writer. Her previously published works on Mary Magdalene are ‘Disciple: A Novel of Mary Magdalene’ and a scholarly essay in ‘Goddesses in World Culture,’ Patricia Monaghan, Editor. www.disciplemary.com