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Archive for the ‘Apostles’ Category

Today (Saturday, November 18), Venerable Solanus Casey is being beatified in Detroit.

Here’s more detail.

It will be broadcast live from Ford Field on EWTN, beginning at 4pm Eastern. 

Solanus Casey is very important to us here. My late husband Michael was devoted to him, and, for example, wrote this about Fr. Solanus as “The Priest who saved my life.” Of course, he died just a few weeks after writing that…but there was that other time….

Here’s a good article from the Michigan Catholic about various locations with connection to Fr. Solanus.  

(Here is a blog post of mine, written a few years later, reflecting on the very weirdly timed discovery of a photograph of Michael and Fr. Groeschel at the St. Felix Friary where Fr. Solanus had lived and where Fr. Groeschel had known him.)

Anyway. 

When we lived in Fort Wayne in northern Indiana, we would often find our way to the Solanus Casey Center in Detroit – either because we were going to Detroit for some Solanus Casey Beatificationreason or we were on our way to Canada.  Solanus Casey has been important to our family, and I find him such an interesting person – and an important doorway for understanding holiness.

For that is what Solanus Casey was – a porter, or doorkeeper, the same role held by St. Andre Bessette up in Montreal.  They were the first people those in need would encounter as they approached the shrine or chapel.

And it was not as if Solanus Casey set out with the goal of being porter, either. His path to the Franciscans and then to the priesthood was long and painful and in some ways disappointing. He struggled academically and he struggled to fit in and be accepted, as one of Irish descent in a German-dominated church culture. He was finally ordained, but as a simplex priest – he could say Mass, but he could not preach or hear confessions – the idea being that his academic weaknesses indicated he did not have the theological understanding deemed necessary for those roles.

But God used him anyway. He couldn’t preach from a pulpit, but his faithful presence at the door preached of the presence of God.  He couldn’t hear confessions, but as porter, he heard plenty poured from suffering hearts, and through his prayers during his life and after his death, was a conduit for the healing grace of God.

This is why the stories of the saints are such a helpful and even necessary antidote to the way we tend to think and talk about vocation these days, yes, even in the context of church. We give lip service to being called and serving, but how much of our language still reflects an assumption that it’s all, in the end, about our desires and our plans? We are convinced that our time on earth is best spent discovering our gifts and talents, nurturing our gifts and talents, using our gifts and talents in awesome ways that we plan for and that will be incredible and amazing and world-changing. And we’ll be happy and fulfilled and make a  nice living at it, too. 

I don’t know about you, but I need people like Solanus Casey to surround me and remind me what discipleship is really about.

He’s in the Loyola Kids Book of Heroes. Here’s the first page. 

Solanus Casey Beatification

 

For the most up-to-date news on the cause, check out the Fr. Solanus Casey Guild Facebook page. 

 

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It’s the 100th anniversary of her death today.

Such an amazing woman.  Do you feel tired?  Read her story.

This is one of the best online – it’s thorough, with lots of good quotes from her, and a good image that lays out the scope of her travels:

 

Here’s an excerpt from the chapter on St. Frances Cabrini from my Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints.  To reiterate – it’s an excerpt.  There’s more at the beginning at the end to relate her story to a younger child’s life.  It’s in a section called, “Saints are People who Travel Far From Home,” along with St. Boniface, St. Peter Claver, St. Francis Xavier and  St. Francis Solano. 

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By the late 1880s, Mother Cabrini became interested in a new problem. Hundreds of thousands of Italians moved to America, seeking a way out of the poverty of their new land. Very few of these immigrants were successful right away. Most lived in worse poverty than they’d endured back in Italy. They lived in crowded and dirty apartments, lived on scraps, and were unable to find work. Sad stories traveled back to the home country, right to Mother Cabrini. So Mother "frances cabrini"Cabrini set out on the long trip to America.

Over the next thirty-seven years, Mother Cabrini was constantly on the move, starting schools, orphanages, and hospitals for Italian immigrants, and others in need. In the first few years she traveled between New York, Nicaragua, and New Orleans. After having a dream in which she saw Mary tending to the sick lying in hospital beds, Mother Cabrini started Columbus Hospital in New York City.

After she founded the hospital, Mother Cabrini made trips back to Italy to organize more nuns for work in America. Between these trips, she and some sisters headed south to Argentina. The sisters went by way of Panama and then Lima, Peru. They made the journey by boat, train, mule, and on foot.

Back in the United State, Mother Cabrini traveled constantly taking her sisters to Chicago, Seattle, and Denver. It was in Chicago that Mother Cabrini, at the age of sixty-seven, passed away. She’d begun her work with just a handful of sisters. By the time she died, fifty houses of sisters were teaching, caring for orphans, and running hospitals. Her order had grown to almost a thousand sisters in all.

Image source

“I will go anywhere and do anything in order to communicate the love of Jesus to those who do not know Him or have forgotten Him.”

We visited the Cabrini shrine in NYC in 2003. That was when the high school to which the chapel where her relics rest was still open.

A pilgrimage group from a local Catholic school filled some of the pews, so Katie got the benefit of hearing the last part of the Shrine staffer’s very enthusiastic talk about Mother Cabrini, which she probably absorbed much more deeply than she would have if I were lecturing her. She caught the stories of the two miracles associated with Mother Cabrini’s beatification and canonization – a nun cured of cancer, and a baby whose retinas had been damaged by too intense of a solution of silver nitrate drops after birth. Eyesight restored, baby grew up to be ordained a priest at Mother Cabrini’s tomb, and, according to the staffer in her memorable (to Katie) accent, “He had the biggest blue eyes you ever saw!”

Of course, Mother Cabrini’s remains are there under the altar, and the staffer also said that for a time, the eyes on the face (a reconstruction) were open, so it was a very useful place to send misbehaving schoolkids for contemplation of their sins.

Here’s the story of that miracle:

Into infant Peter Smith’s eyes the rushed nurse has deftly dropped, carefully pulling back each lid to get it all in, not 1-percent silver-ni­trate solution, but 50-percent silver-nitrate solution. Even 5-percent to 25-percent solution is used only on unwanted human tissue — tumors, for instance — because it eats away flesh as effectively as electric cauter­izing tools. Fifty-percent solution will gradually bore a hole in a solid piece of wood. And it has already been at work on the soft human tissue of infant Peter’s eyes for two hours…

….

That afternoon and evening as the spiritual daughters of Frances Cabrini, foundress of the hospital and their religious order, go off duty, they gather one by one in the chapel. All the long night they remain there begging Mother Cabrini, dead only three years, to obtain from the bountiful heart of Jesus the healing of the Smiths’ whimpering infant. Mae is with them, praying her heart out too.

At nine o’clock the next morning, when Kearney and Horan arrive at the nursery, to their astonishment they find baby Peter’s eyelids much less swollen and pussy. Gently the eye specialist opens the eyelids, his stomach tightening as he prepares to see the ravages on the delicate eye tissue of the deadly acid.

Instead, looking back at him with the vague, slightly unfocused gaze of the one-day-old are two perfect eyes.

And he did, indeed, become a priest, as did his brother:

On Friday, January 13th, Missionary Sisters along with many others, had the opportunity to join Fr. John Frances Xavier Smith at the St. Frances X. Cabrini Shrine in New York City as he shared the story of the miracle of his brother, Fr. Peter Smith. Fr. Peter Smith’s eye tissue and sight restoration was Mother Cabrini’s first miracle.

Fr. John took us back in time to old New York as he shared the story he had heard from his mother, Margaret Riley Smith. She would retell time and time again the particulars of this miracle that occurred on March14, 1921. He repeated several times how she commented on seeing Peter after his birth and how blue his eyes were. Peter was born healthy and normal but a nurse’s mistake of [administering] the [incorrect dosage of] silver nitrate solution [to baby Peter] ate through his corneas and some of his facial skin.

 

 

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— 1 —

Wow. Has it really been a week…and I’ve posted nothing ? Sorry about that. I am focused on finishing writing this book, which I hope will happen today (Friday). It’s a very solid first draft. I’ll let it sit for a couple of weeks then take a couple of days to go back through it. That’s the point at which I’ll sharpen the writing, strip out the verbiage and tighten the lines of thought.  That’s the enjoyable part of the process, to me. Much better than the “Sitting looking at the computer on the other side of the room knowing you need to work but you don’t want to” part.

Then it will be on to The Next Thingwhich will keep me very busy until March. Which is good.

(I do tend to post daily on Instagram Stories. Some of that finds its way here, but not all.)

 

 — 2 —

This is a fabulous story of faith and life, from the Catholic Spirit.   

The ultrasound technician squeezed gel onto Justina’s abdomen and positioned the wand, picking up a gestational sac and a heartbeat. The couple was elated. Then, a second sac and a second heartbeat. Twins! As the Kopps were wrapping their head around two at a time, the technician found a third sac and a third heartbeat. They were now outnumbered, and they started laughing.

Justina recalls teasing Matt, telling him that parents of triplets must automatically grow a third arm.

Then the technician came across a fourth sac. Empty, she said, suggesting that there had been a fourth baby, but he or she had never developed. Justina recalled feeling a sense of peace with that, trusting that he or she would join a sibling in heaven.

That’s when her doctor came into the room and grabbed her foot. As the technician was going over the three babies again for the doctor and to get more photos, she moved to show him the blighted ovum in the empty sac. This time, it didn’t look empty, and the technician found a heartbeat — the strongest of the four. The Kopps just continued to laugh in disbelief, they said.

“This is quite the shock, huh?” Justina recalled the doctor saying, obviously shocked himself. Even with Justina’s fertility treatments, the probability of quadruplets was so low that statistics didn’t exist.

Justina and Matt said they laughed about the news for two days, and then, overwhelmed, they panicked. Family and friends’ joy helped them have courage that they could handle the task, with God’s help.

 

— 3 —

Tonight, they’re filming a movie just a block from my house:

Bigger Movie

It’s called Bigger. Here’s the synopsis:

The inspirational tale of the grandfathers of the fitness movement as we now know it, Joe & Ben Weider. Battling anti-Semitism/racism as well as extreme poverty the brothers beat all odds to build an empire & inspire future generations.

 

The movie, which spans the 1920s to the 1970s, is adapted from the Weider brothers’ book “Brothers of Iron,” and it stars Tyler Hoechlin from Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” and MTV’s “Teen Wolf” as Joe Weider and Aneurin Barnard from Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic “Dunkirk” as Ben Weider.

“It’s the story of two poor, young immigrant boys who grew up in a Montreal ghetto, and they experienced anti-Semitism, they experienced extreme poverty, (and) they cobbled together eight dollars to launch what became a multibillion-dollar empire,” Jones said….

…The Weider brothers founded the International Federation of Body Builders, which sponsored the Mr. Olympia and Mr. Universe competitions, and in the late 1960s, Joe Weider groomed a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had moved to America from his native Austria and began training under Weider in Los Angeles.

Why are they filming here?

“We originally were going to shoot this in Montreal because the Weider brothers are from Montreal,” Jones said. “We actually went up there and did location scouting, but we ended up choosing Birmingham because our director (Gallo) does not like to fly. It’s a quirky situation.

Birmingham locations will double for Montreal, New Jersey and Los Angeles, Jones said. Near the end of the filming, the “Bigger” crew will film in the Mobile area, which will double for the beaches of California, he said.

Among the Birmingham locations will be the Alabama Theatre, the Lyric Theatre, Temple Emanu-El and serveral others, he said.

 

— 4

I do think that if a person is convinced they want to work In The Movies, all that’s needed to cure that bug is take them to a film location. I suppose it has its charms and attractions but it’s really a whole lot of waiting….and waiting…

 

Speaking of lurking around movie sets, some of you may recall that I spent an evening watching the filming of a little tiny scene of a movie in London in the spring. That was The Phantom Thread  – the trailer was released this past week and my post about the little I saw is here.  The very first shot in the trailer (it’s quick) is of Fitzroy Square, which was right around the corner from our apartment and through which we walked every day to get places.

— 5 —

This is good news and perhaps the backstory is news to many of us as well:

Pence delivered the keynote address at the JW Marriott hotel for the annual In Defense of Christians conference’s Solidarity Dinner and told the hundreds of attendees that President Donald Trump has ordered the U.S. State Department “from this day forward” to stop funding the United Nations’ ineffective relief efforts. Instead, he said the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) would also funnel support to the churches, agencies and organizations working directly with persecuted communities victimized by the Islamic State (ISIS) and other terror groups.

“Christians in the Middle East should not have to rely on multinational institutions when America can help them directly,” Pence stated.

“We will no longer rely on the United Nations alone to assist persecuted Christians and minorities in the wake of genocide and the atrocities of terrorist groups,” he added. “The United States will work hand in hand with faith-based groups and private organizations to help those who are persecuted for their faith. This is the moment, now is the time, and America will support these people in their hour of need.”  …

…Andrew Doran, IDC vice president and senior policy adviser, told the Register that Pence’s announcement is “a game changer” for the survival of Christians and other minorities in Iraq.

“All organizations doing aid for the victims of genocide and crimes against humanity, who were working with religious institutions, Christians in particular, have to be feeling enormously encouraged following the vice president’s speech tonight,” he said.

Throughout the past three years, Iraq’s displaced Christians, consisting mostly of Assyrians, Syriacs and Chaldeans living in their ancestral homeland of Mosul and the Nineveh Plain, were completely supported and sustained by the region’s churches and other forms of private support — not the United Nations. Christians considered U.N. camps too dangerous to enter and consequently did not receive direct humanitarian aid through U.N. agencies.

— 6 —

Of course, there’s going to be a lot of Reformation talk over the next few days. I’m with the Cardinal on this one:

German cardinal Gerhard Müller has said the Protestant Reformation was not a “reform” but a “total change of the foundations of the Catholic faith”.

Writing for Italian website La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said modern-day Catholics often discuss Martin Luther “too enthusiastically”, mainly due to an ignorance of theology…

…Cardinal Müller strongly contradicted this view, however, saying it is wrong to think Luther’s intent was simply to fight abuses in indulgences or the sins of the Renaissance Church, the Cardinal said.

“Abuses and bad actions have always existed in the Church. We are the Holy Church because of the grace of God and the sacraments, but all Church men are sinners, all need forgiveness, contrition, and penance.”

Instead, Luther abandoned “all the principles of the Catholic faith, Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition, the Magisterium of the Popes and Councils, the episcopate.”

It is therefore unacceptable to say that Luther’s reform was “an event of the Holy Spirit” because “the Holy Spirit helps the Church to maintain its continuity through the Church’s magisterium”.

— 7 —

Here’s art historian Elizabeth Lev on another aspect:

Against the Catholic claim of the rootlessness of Protestant thought, Luther said his teaching was “not a novel invention of ours but the very ancient, approved teaching of the apostles brought to light again.” The Protestants sought not “to have anything new in Christendom” but instead struggled “to hold to the ancient: that which Christ and the apostles have left behind them and have given to us.” They claimed that this teaching had been “obscured by the pope with human doctrine, aye, decked out in dust and spider webs and all sorts of vermin, and flung and trodden into the mud besides, we have by God’s grace brought it out again … to the light of day.”

So, who had the claim to tradition? Which teaching had the martyrs died for? What role did relics play — testimony to ancient history, or were they, as John Calvin wrote in his Treatise on Relics, an “abomination”?

An astonishing find on the Via Salaria on May 31, 1578, gave the Church a potent response. The entrance to one of the Christian catacombs was accidently discovered by some workmen, leading to the underground burial sites with thousands of tombs. These mass graves, lost since the 9th century, were decorated with hundreds of paintings, witnesses to the early Christian Church and its beliefs.

Antonio Bosio, a young lawyer-turned-archaeologist who was close to Philip Neri’s new congregation of the Oratorians, took it upon himself to explore these underground sites. Dubbed the “Columbus of Underground Rome,” his lifetime of work was crowned with the publication, three years after his death, of Roma Sotterranea Cristiana: a guide to the catacombs, complete with illustrations.

 

 

And maybe, in “honor” of the anniversary, take a look back at this article I wrote last year on women and the Reformation.
For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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I’m sharing with you here the chapter on the Assumption from my book Mary and the Christian Life. You can click on each image for a larger, clearer version, or you can just make your life easier by downloading a pdf version of the book here. 

 

 

Interested in more free books? The following are all links to pdf versions of books of mine that our now out of print. Feel free to download and share and even use in the parish book groups.

De-Coding Mary Magdalene

Come Meet Jesus: An Invitation from Pope Benedict XVI

The Power of the Cross

 

 

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All right! A couple of publications this week: first, on Flannery O’Connor, in Catholic World Report – which you saw if you were here yesterday. 

(I do blog almost every day…in some form or other. One of the few left! Most of the action has moved to Facebook and Twitter, of course, but I #resist that, especially the Facebook part. I just use it to toss out links, mostly and sometimes post family photos for a smaller sub-group of my “friends” group.)

Secondly, in the Catholic Herald– on relics. Most of it’s behind a firewall, but the beginning is here. 

And yes, I am working on the Guatemala thing. Got the prologue and one chapter done. I have a rather tedious project I must finish this weekend, but after that, my early fall will be working on this and getting a new Loyola book rolling.

This one will be out soon! The Amazon entry says the 8th, but I’m not sure if that is correct. I was told I’d have it mid-month.

Remember…you can help Catholic authors – all of us – by gifting our books to schools and parishes – and requesting that your local public library purchase them as well.

— 2 —

 

Old school. Today is the feast of St. John Vianney, whose life was part of the inspiration for Georges Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest. Ages and ages ago, I wrote a super short piece on the novel for Liguori. It’s here.

— 3 —

Life’s going to  change around here next week. School starts for the older one and he’ll be driving himself so…

amy-welborn

He’s been driving himself to work all summer, but school is in a different part of town with far more challenging traffic. So I have two years of that to look forward to, thnx.

]— 4 —

And…it’s back to the Homeschool for the 7th grader. We’ll see how life goes after this. I’ll write more about it next week when we things calm down a bit – I have a busy beginning of the week, plus a project I have to, have to have to finish this weekend. The schooling is going to be mostly of the Un-type, with math being the exception (AOPS Pre-Algebra). Everything else will be up to him.

— 6 —

Lengthy but important read, I think. From The Atlantic: “Have Smarthphones Desroyed a Generation?”  

The article takes on and expands what I have long felt was an important negative of internet/smartphone use – especially the young: the potential for anxiety and depression that results from exaggerated, continual, never-ending social pressure.

Share this, especially with teachers and school administrators, in the hopes that it will encourage them to move away from the delusion that a school best serves its students and families by preparing them for life in the 21st century by taking away books, papers and pens and putting making life onscreen and inscreen even more difficult to escape.

— 7 —

No family movies this week what with work and travel. One watched Innerspace, which is currently on Netflix. Another got one of the Star Wars movies from Redbox.

Currently being read around our house: The Andromeda Strain, The Jungle (for school), The Fellowship of the Ring and by HEAVENS I’m going to finish Doctor Thorne this week. I will.

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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St. Ignatius was in my Loyola Kids Book of Saints, and you can read the entire chapter here:

Because he had spent all those months in his sickbed, Ignatius got bored. He asked for something to read. He was hoping for adventure books, tales that were popular back then: knights fighting for the hands of beautiful ladies, traveling to distant lands, and battling strange creatures.

But for some reason, two completely different books were brought to Ignatius. One was a book about the life of Christ, and the other was a collection of saints’ stories.

Ignatius read these books. He thought about them. He was struck by the great sacrifices that the saints had made for God. He was overwhelmed by their love of Jesus.

And Ignatius thought, “Why am I using my life just for myself? These people did so much good during their time on earth. Why can’t I?”

Ignatius decided that he would use the talents God had given him—his strength, his leadership ability, his bravery, and his intelligence—to serve God and God’s people.

While Ignatius continued to heal, he started praying very seriously. God’s peace filled his heart and assured him that he was on the right path.

When Ignatius was all healed and ready to walk and travel again, he left his home to prepare for his new life. It wasn’t easy. He was 30, which was considered old in those days, and he was getting a late start in his studies for the priesthood. In those days, the Mass was said only in Latin, and Latin was the language all educated people used to communicate with each other. Ignatius didn’t know a bit of Latin. So for his first Latin lessons, big, rough Ignatius had to sit in a classroom with a bunch of 10-year-old boys who were learning Latin for the first time too!

That takes a different kind of strength, doesn’t it?

saints

 

Take Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.

In The Words We Pray, I wrote about the Suscipe Prayer. That chapter is excerpted here:

The more you roll this prayer around in your soul, and the more you think about it, the more radical it is revealed to be.

One of the primary themes of the Spiritual Exercises is that of attachments and affections. Ignatius offers the account of “three classes of men” who have been given a sum of money, and who all want to rid themselves of it because they know their attachment to this worldly good impedes their salvation.

The first class would really like to rid themselves of the attachment, but the hour of death comes, and they haven’t even tried. The second class would also like to give up the attachment, but do so, conveniently, without actually giving anything up.

Is this sounding familiar at all?

The third class wants to get rid of the attachment to the money, which they, like the others, know is a burden standing in the way. But they make no stipulations as to how this attachment is relinquished; they are indifferent about the method. Whatever God wants, they want. In a word, they are the free ones.

The prayer “Take Lord, receive” is possible only because the retreatant has opened himself to the reality of who God is, what God’s purpose is for humanity, and what God has done for him in a particularly intense way.

A Response to God’s Love

The retreatant has seen that there is really no other response to life that does God justice. What love the Father has for us in letting us be called children of God, John says (1 John 3:1). What gift does our love prompt us to give?

In ages past, and probably in the minds of some of us still, that gift of self to God, putting oneself totally at God’s disposal, is possible only for people called to a vowed religious life. Well, God didn’t institute religious life in the second chapter of Genesis. He instituted marriage and family. I’m not a nun, but the Scriptures tell us repeatedly that all creation is groaning and being reborn and moving toward completion in God. Every speck of creation, everything that happens, every kid kicking a soccer ball down a road in Guatemala, each office worker in New Delhi, every ancient great-grandmother in a rest home in Boynton Beach, every baby swimming in utero at this moment around the world—all are beloved by God and are being constantly invited by him to love. And all can respond.

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And here we go with chapter 4 of De-Coding Mary Magdalene. This chapter covers the earliest stages of patristic thinking about the saint. It’s shorter.

I hope what you notice that one of the things I try to do here (and in everything I write along this line, as well) is to help the reader understand not only Mary Magdalene herself, but broader (to use a big word) epistemological matters as well. How to read the Bible. How to understand early Church History. It’s one thing to throw factoids at people. It’s important in the long run, however, to open them up to the greater issues of, not just what to know, but how to know – especially about religious matters – in a culture in which they are told, repeatedly, that all knowledge, especially about religion, is fundamentally uncertain, relative, and ideological.

For previous chapters:

Chapter one: Introducing Mary Magdalene in the Bible

Chapter two: Mary Magdalene at the Resurrection

Chapter three: Mary Magdalene in Gnostic writings

As I have said before, feel free to use this material in any way you wish, even copying them for parish discussion groups. The full pdf is available here. 

While Gnostic writers were — or perhaps weren’t – – writing about Mary Magdalene, favored student of the Gnostic Jesus, orthodox Christian writers had a few things to say as well during those early centuries of Christianity.
She didn’t dominate the scene, but a few thinkers found her an intriguing figure, helpful in understanding the nature of faith and redemption. She’s represented in art from the period as well, most often in her role as “myrrhophore” — one of the women bringing oils and spice to Jesus’ tomb.

It’s that theme that we see most frequently: Mary Magdalene as faithful disciple and witness to the empty tomb, and then, digging a little deeper, Mary as the New Eve and Mary as the Church, symbolized with power and passion in the Old Testament Song of Songs.

Those who think that the Gnostics were more appreciative of Mary Magdalene than were orthodox Christians who were perhaps busy demonizing her might be in for a surprise. Many early Church Fathers had no problem identifying Mary Magdalene in quite exalted terms: “Apostle to the Apostles” and “Equal-to-the-Apostles,” titles which may be now neglected in the West, but which remain her primary identification in Eastern Christianity to this day.

‘Come, My Beloved’

It might be helpful, before getting to Mary herself, to set the scene. When we talk about the “early Church” and the “early Church Fathers” and their writings, what exactly do we mean?

For the purposes of this chapter, “early Church” means Christianity up to the late sixth century, at which point we start creeping into the early Middle Ages, or the Dark Ages, as they are quite unfairly called.

During this period, Christianity spread throughout the Middle East, into Africa, far into Europe, and even into India. The time began, of course, with most of that area (with the exception of India) as part of the Roman Empire, where Christianity was illegal. By the time the sixth century rolled around, the old Roman Empire had collapsed, new kingdoms and empires had taken shape, and Christianity was not only legal in all of them, but was the established religion in most as well, a situation that would last until the rise of Islam in the eighth century.

By the end of the first century, a basic church structure of presbyters (priests) and bishops was beginning to evolve (we can even see this in the New Testament: for example, in the First Letter of Paul to Timothy). The religious landscape was not the same as it is today: there were no seminaries, no universities, and of course, no publishing houses or religious newspapers. But there were theologians, spiritual writers, and bishops, who wrote and preached. Many of their works have survived and are available in English — even on the Internet — today.

Most commonly, the texts that we can read that give us an idea of what these Christians were thinking and how they believed and practiced their faith are:

  • Defenses of Christianity against skeptics and heretics.
  • Commentaries on Scripture.
  • Catechetical instructions.
  • And not coming from individuals but from church communities were liturgies and,beginning in the fourth century,
  • decrees from gatherings of bishops.

So you see, although there is much we don’t know, a great deal of evidence has survived that gives us an excellent picture of Christian life in its first five centuries of life. It is not as mysterious and ambiguous as some claim. Christian thinkers were seeking to deepen their understanding of the Gospel, in the context of a culture that was extremely hostile to them, as well as intellectually and religiously diverse.

There’s a good reason people still read the writings of these early Church Fathers. Their situation was not that different from ours. They were dealing honestly and tenaciously with the most fundamental aspects of Christian faith, and they were trying to make them understandable to a world that, while skeptical, was obviously deeply in need of Christ. Two thousand years is a long time — but not long enough for human nature and humanity’s need for Christ to change.

These early Christian writers viewed the literal truth of Scripture — in which they firmly believed, by the way — as a starting point. From that factual level, they routinely set off exploring nuance, making connections, and discovering useful analogies and allegories. Patristic writing is extremely rich in that way.

So for them, Mary Magdalene was more than a woman at a tomb, just as Jesus had been more than a man on a cross. In Jesus, all of history is redeemed and all of creation is reconciled to God.

Into this richness step ordinary men and women like you and me, people like Peter, Levi, John, and Mary. As they live and move in Jesus’ shadow, listening and responding to him, they, too, become more. Their actions evoke other figures’ responses to God’s out-stretched hand. Their doubt, faith, sin, and redemption become more than just their own, as we look at them and see echoes of our own lives and, in fact, of the whole human story.

So, for example, when some of these writers meditated on Mary Magdalene, they saw her responding to the Good News of redemption and eternal life — in a garden. It recalled another scene, at the beginning of salvation history, also in a garden in which a woman and a man disobeyed God, and humanity fell. And so, for some, Mary Magdalene became a sort of New Eve, long before the title had attached itself to the Virgin Mary.

For example, St. Cyril of Alexandria, who lived in the fifth century, said that because of Mary Magdalene’s witness at the empty tomb, all women were forgiven of Eve’s sin (Haskins, p. 89). St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory of Nyssa also made the connection:

“She is the first witness of the resurrection, that she might set straight again by her faith in the resurrection, what was turned over by her transgression.” (St. Gregory of Nyssa,Against Eunomius3.10.16, quoted in The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament, by Jane Schaberg [Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002], p. 87).

The image of a woman grieving and waiting in a garden evoked another image for Christians: that of the great love poem in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Song of Songs (also known as the Canticle of Canticles or Song of Solomon).

The third-century Christian writer Hippolytus made a great deal of this in his own commentary on the Old Testament book. He brings in not only Mary Magdalene but also the other women reported at the tomb in the various Gospels, and sometimes in confusing ways. The female image, rooted in specific figures, becomes more generally symbolic but, with Mary Magdalene as one of them, echoes the deep desire of the bride in the Old Testament book, her desire for her beloved, as they seek Jesus at the tomb:

“ ‘By night, I sought him whom my soul loveth’: See how this is fulfilled in Martha and Mary. In their figure, zealous Synagogue sought the dead Christ. . . . For she teaches us and tells us: By night I sought him whom my soul loveth.” (Hippolytus,third century, quoted in Haskins, p. 61)

Finally, writers during this period cited Mary Magdalene for her witness at the tomb and sharing the Good News with the apostles. Hippolytus, who was also a bishop, referred to her as “Apostle to the Apostles.” Other Church Fathers also praised Mary for her role as a witness, some holding that through her example, all women are honored and, in a sense, redeemed.

A fourth-century Eastern poet named Ephrem used this image, although, confusingly to us, he conflates Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the following (as we saw in the last chapter, this was a characteristic of Syrian Christianity in this period):

“At the beginning of his coming to

earth A virgin was first to receive him, 

And at his raising up from the grave

To a woman he showed his resurrection.

In his beginning and in his fulfillment

The name of his mother cries out and is present.

Mary received him by conception

And saw an angel at his grave.”

(Quoted in Haskins, p. 90)

 

In this early period of Christian reflection, theological and spiritual writers worked in a relatively simple garden. Scripture — both Hebrew and Christian Testaments — was their primary source. Their sense of who Mary Magdalene was and of her importance for Christians was derived completely from that. She was historically significant because she was the first to see the empty tomb and the Risen Christ. Her role evoked other women in other gardens, and another layer of reflection was woven, celebrating Mary Magdalene as a New Eve or as representing the Church as the expectant bride seeking her bridegroom, Christ — but all because of what the Christian tradition had testified about her role in the events of the Resurrection.

The story of Mary Magdalene obviously does not end here, for at this point — the fifth and early sixth centuries — some images, quite familiar to us today, have not yet appeared. What of the penitent Magdalene? The prostitute? The evangelizer of the French?

Where these came from we shall soon see, as we enter the Middle Ages, a period of intense creativity and legend-building, in which the evidence of Scripture was revered, but popularly viewed as only the beginning to far more interesting tales.

 

Questions for Reflection

  1. Why did early Christian thinkers refer to Mary Magdalene as the “New Eve?”
  2. Why did they connect Mary Magdalene to the Song of Songs?
  3. What do you think of this approach to interpreting Scripture? Do you find it helpful or not?

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