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In the days before the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical forms, Lent had a different shape. I write ad nauseum every year about Septuagisima and the other pre-Lent Sundays, but there is another major difference as well: Passiontide.

In the pre-Vatican II calendar – still used, of course, by those who celebrate the TLM and the Ordinariate, many Anglicans and even Lutherans, this fifth Sunday of Lent is called Passion Sunday and begins the two weeks of Passiontide. 

The image is from the website of a Lutheran church in Spokane. 

One pious tradition that reinforces this theme is that the crosses in the sanctuary are veiled after John 8 is read. It reinforces the “hiddenness” of God. “Truly, you are a God who hides himself,” the prophet Isaiah says of the Lord (Isaiah 45.15). Deus absconditus, Luther called Him—“the hidden God.” This is the over-arching theme of Passiontide: that God has disguised himself in weakness and shame.  As in Lent the Gloria has given us the slip, so in Passiontide the Lord will cloak His glory in suffering. He absconds into the dark chasm of the Cross.

Very Lutheran.

But of course…..

…the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council and their advisors…knew better. 

So.

More on Passiontide and veiling from the New Liturgical Movement. 

The Gospel on Passion Sunday is John 8:46-59.

I really like Fr. Z’s discussion:

We lose things during Lent.  We are being pruned through the liturgy. Holy Church experiences liturgical death before the feast of the Resurrection.   The Alleluia goes on Septuagesima.  Music and flowers go on Ash Wednesday.   Today, statues and images are draped in purple.  That is why today is sometimes called Repus Sunday, from repositus analogous to absconditus or “hidden”, because this is the day when Crosses and other images in churches are veiled.  The universal Church’s Ordo published by the Holy See has an indication that images can be veiled from this Sunday, the 5th of Lent.  Traditionally Crosses may be covered until the end of the celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday and images, such as statues may be covered until the beginning of the Easter Vigil.  At my home parish of St. Agnes in St. Paul, MN, the large statue of the Pietà is appropriately unveiled at the Good Friday service.

Also, as part of the pruning, as of today in the older form of Mass, the “Iudica” psalm in prayers at the foot of the altar and the Gloria Patri at the end of certain prayers was no longer said.  
  
The pruning cuts more deeply as we march into the Triduum. After the Mass on Holy Thursday the Blessed Sacrament is removed from the main altar, which itself is stripped and bells are replaced with wooden noise makers.  On Good Friday there isn’t even a Mass.  At the beginning of the Vigil we are deprived of light itself!  It is as if the Church herself were completely dead with the Lord in His tomb.  This liturgical death of the Church reveals how Christ emptied Himself of His glory in order to save us from our sins and to teach us who we are.

The Church then gloriously springs to life again at the Vigil of Easter.  In ancient times, the Vigil was celebrated in the depth of night.  In the darkness a single spark would be struck from flint and spread into the flames.  The flames spread through the whole Church.    

When in doubt, we turn to our 1947 7th-grade religion textbook. Here you go:

 

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The remembrance of the Seven Sorrows occurred on the Friday after the Passion Sunday.

More, from the New Liturgical Movement:

The Passiontide feast emerged in German-speaking lands in the early 15th-century, partly as a response to the iconoclasm of the Hussites, and partly out of the universal popular devotion to every aspect of Christ’s Passion, including the presence of His Mother, and thence to Her grief over the Passion. It was known by several different titles, and kept on a wide variety of dates; Cologne, where it was first instituted, had it on the 3rd Friday after Easter until the end of the 18th century. Before the name “Seven Sorrows” became common, it was most often called “the feast of the Virgin’s Compassion”, which is to say, of Her suffering together with Christ as She beheld the Passion. This title was retained by the Dominicans well into the 20th century; they also had an Office for it which was quite different from the Roman one, although the Mass was the same. …

….In the wake of the Protestant reformation, the feast continued to grow in popularity, spreading though southern Europe, and most often fixed to the Friday of Passion week. It was extended to the universal Church on that day by Pope Benedict XIII with the title “the feast of the Seven Sorrows”, although none of the various enumerations of the Virgin’s sorrows is referred to it anywhere in the liturgy itself.

 

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Welcome new readers. Check out my books (some linked on the right) and pages with permanent links to themed posts (above.)

Well, that was quite the weekend on the Internets, wasn’t it?

When the Covington Catholic photo flashed across one of my feeds, I freely admit that my first reaction was, “Expel him!” accompanied by several tweets/posts that mercifully existed only in my head.

And then…as it does…a fuller picture started emerging. As it does.

I won’t rehash the whole thing. I wasn’t really intending to add to the verbiage, either, but here I am. If you want to know where I stand on the sequence of events, check out Robby Soave’s piece at Reason. He captures most of my sense of it. I’ve watched other videos out there of the moment, which make one thing very clear to me: that initial narrative of “Boys in MAGA hats surround and taunt Native American protester” is false.

And you might want to stop and pause there. For despite all the other “lessons” and penumbras of meaning being spun, that is where this thing took off: from an image of a kid looking at a protester, which, we were told captured a moment in which these students surrounded a protester, mocked him and one boy, in particular, stood and stared him down, smirking.

But is that what happened? I don’t think so – and this is from watching several videos a couple of times.

What seems to have happened is that group was assembled on the steps, waiting for their bus. There had been this Black Hebrew Israelite group nearby for a while, demonstrating, taunting and filming, and then Nathan Phillips approaches with his group, drumming, chanting and filming, and he heads right into this group of boys who were, it seems doing school chants to both pass the time and distract from the first other group. Phillips walks right into the group – for whatever reason. There’s a video out there of the moments right before the encounter captured in the photos, as well as the encounter itself, and it is nothing like those initial headlines indicated. The student at the center of the controversy is just sort of standing around with the dozens of others, laughing and waiting – and then Phillips stands in front of him, drumming. The student clearly doesn’t really know what to do.  In the most widely-disseminated images, his resting face seems to some like a smirk – but when you look at videos from the other side – there’s one in which he turns and tells one of his classmates arguing with an activist to cool it – he just looks sort of uncomfortable.

So the bottom line is: the initial narrative was inaccurate.

No matter what you make of the students wearing MAGA hats at any time, but particularly representing a Catholic school at the March for Life, their whooping, a few of them tomahawk-chopping – some might have been mocking, some might have been mindless, some might have been unrelated to anything specific, the nature of private education, particularly single-sex private education, masculinity, Smirks Through History, Georgetown Prep, whatever  – none of that matters. It could be that the culture at this school is problematic – the culture at most secondary schools is problematic for one reason or another, and wealthy private schools are usually the worst.

But does that matter in this really very specific moment? Sorry, it just doesn’t. Because the reason these students were condemned, threatened and doxxed was because, it was said – they swarmed and victimized Nathan Phillips. At that moment. And that didn’t happen. Watch the videos. You may not like their behavior.  I get it. I personally still get triggered being around more than, say, three high schoolers at any one time.

You know, we live in times in which we’re not supposed to be all binary and stuff, so, sure,  let’s not be binary. It is just not the case that the only two possible scenarios here are: 1) Privileged White Boys Re-Victimized the Marginalized or 2) Precious Angels are Rowdy but, you know, Angelic. 

It could be just a weird situation that happened one day in one small corner of the world.

You start there. You try to get that right. 

Here’s another video that picks up after Philips picked this particular MAGA-hatted teen to drum in front of. I actually think this is one of the more illustrative videos out there (we’ll see if it’s still there by the time you read this – it might well have been memory-holed by YouTube). And it reinforces my position of “weird situation that happened for a few minutes, people drifted away, so why are we all talking about it?” 

Basically, Philips is in the kid’s face for several minutes, drumming and chanting – who knows why – and everyone around them is either watching, slightly confused, or filming, except for one activist with Philips (his grandson, I think) who is loudly and profanely arguing with a student. At some point the bulk of the kids start chanting something, but it’s clearly their school chant, and they’re not even looking at the drummer. And then, most of them drift away, to the bus, I’m assuming.

We could say a lot about this – about the impact of the crazy fast news cycle, ideology and perception and the sewer that is social media, but I’ll let others carry that load.

I want to highlight two reactions.

First, Fr. James Martin. Who, very early on, went to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook with his hot take:

I am as disgusted by the contemptuous laughter of the mass of students as I am moved by the quiet dignity of the solitary man who continues to chant. Those students could learn much from this elder, if they had chosen to. Or if they choose to.

 

24 hours later, Fr. Martin published some more thoughts, beginning:

Regarding the controversy over Covington High School: I will be happy to apologize for condemning the actions of the students if it turns out that they were acting as good and moral Christians. The last thing I want is to see Catholic schools and Catholic students held in disrepute.

And I’ve certainly been wrong before.

..and ending with a call to attend to this teachable moment:

 

Another essential lesson, which transcends whatever happened in Washington this weekend: an understanding of the appalling treatment that Native Americans have endured in our country. That lesson needs to be learned regardless of what you think of Covington High School.

This Teachable Moment can offer us, if we are open, lessons about dialogue, encounter and reconciliation during this coming week, which is, believe it or not, Catholic Schools Week.

Of course, Catholic Schools week is not this coming week. But I digress.

There’s no sense in any of this that Fr. Martin has watched the videos of this encounter. One is under no obligation to engage with this issue at all, much less spend time with the videos or the testimonies, unless, of course, one has decided to issue opinions. Then you should probably try to be informed. And when you’re trying to be informed, you don’t have to depend on, as Fr. Martin, does, musing about different “narratives” that have “emerged.” You just sort of go to the tape, watch it, and take a stand. And maybe watching all of that still leads you to think that the kids behaved disrespectfully. Sure. But base it what’s actually out there, rather than sighing about the Mysteries of All Those Darn Narratives.

Gosh!

Image result for gif shrug

 

My point is that Fr. Martin entered the fray right away, characterized the encounter in a way that is now widely disputed and says, well, he’ll apologize if  the boys were acting as “good and moral Christians.”  – not – if my characterization of the incident was incorrect. 

Ah.

And of course, one might wonder if part of the dialoguing Teachable Moment he wants to facilitate might touch on journalistic ethics, social media ethics and critical thinking skills.

Anyway, let’s move to Catholic apologist Mark Shea, who began his Facebook post (now deleted) on the matter with:

The MAGA goons were threatening confrontation with a small clutch of black protestors. (sic) As is done in his tradition, Phillips intervened with a drum and a chant to draw fire to himself. It was an act of peacemaking. The goons then mobbed and mocked him and he did not respond in kind. This was classic non-violence. The attempt to paint this as “elderly man with drum terrorizes 70 innocent athletic douchebags” is a narrative only the Right Wing Lie Machine would have the gall to promote

So, to repeat, Catholic apologist Mark Shea characterized the students from Covington Catholic High School as “MAGA goons” and “athletic douchebags.”

Image result for what gif mad men

 

Sunday evening, Mark has published a piece at Patheos apologizing a bit – although his Facebook and Twitter posts calling these teenagers “MAGA goons” are still up.  He has now embraced the narrative that Phillips was a peacemaker, so there’s that. (I repeat – look at this video and see if it would strike you, if you were there as “Oh, this fellow is trying to bring peace into this situation as he drums in my face and his grandson yells at my classmate.”   He also says,

I disliked the “Crucify Them!” response because I think punishment should be ordered toward redemption, not destruction.

But….MAGA goons…athletic douchebags.

New Evangelization, I guess. *Shrugs.*

Shea also talks alot about the incident without being terribly specific about his takeaway from what he saw on the matter on which he’s opining, using another writer’s sequence of events.

Which, of course, is a defining characteristic of contemporary online rhetoric: to vaguely describe a situation, group people into categories, declare their motivations – but without many specific citations because 1) you don’t have time because you know something else is going to come down the pike for commentary in the next hour or so and 2) you know that your readers are going to be satisfied with the non-specific narrative you offer because they don’t have time to source it either, and are also busy waiting for the next thing.

****

Bottom line takeaways:

  • If you are going to comment on this moment, comment on the moment. Watch the evidence that’s out there closely, then link the words and ideas in your commentary to pieces of evidence.
  • Don’t bother with commenters who can’t be bothered to do that and who prefer to build narratives out of ideology, straw men and caricature.
  • Maybe think about the impact instant communication and social media has on our perception of events and their importance. Consider this:

What happened in your neighborhood over the weekend? Do you even know your neighbors? Your community?

It’s like that joke you see during election year:

Me yesterday: Has no idea who my city council representative is

Me today: Tweets three times on the shifts from red to blue in California’s 33rd electoral district.

Or, in church terms – being an expert on the scandals in the Archdiocese of Whatever, while never engaging with one’s own local church.

Social Media and the internet puts us in touch with the world and tempts us to believe that we can impact the world with just a click – and that if we can know about it and if we can influence it, we must. 

And yes, yes, good comes out of it.

But is it really that much good? Is it worth it? Is it really better?

Remember that the foundation of all sin is pride. Right there. Pride. So, maybe before I post a Hot Take, I should think – why am I doing this? If the reasons come down to nothing more than virtue signalling or a sense that *I* have “followers” who are super interested in my life or my opinion and I owe them a hot take – or I have to keep my profile nice and high by entering into this fray – pride. 

It might be worth it to consider, in moments like this, the “power” of all this as a temptation. A temptation to put our energies into conflicts and issues that are none of our concern and that we really can’t do anything about – so we’ll ignore the people right around us whom we might actually be able to be in deeper communion with and help. 

The time one spends on a screen evaluating the look on the face of a kid I don’t even know, will never meet, doing something I’d never have heard about if not for people following other people with cameras – what could I have been doing with that time that involved people on my street, in my neighborhood, or in my own community? Heck – my family? 

Could it be that there’s a force that is seeking to discourage us from deep communion with others by deluding us with a promise of false power and false connection  – and mostly false power – so that we’ll spend all of our time and energy chasing that with nothing left for real-life encounters – the kind that really change the world?

 

 

 

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amy_welbornI am writing this Tuesday night, with the hopes that I can get something else substantive out on the day that’s called Wednesday. 

Reading: 

Well, an unexpectedly long wait at the orthodontist enabled me to finish yet another Goodis novel – this one called Nightfall – very, very good, intriguingly composed, flitting between past and present, between conscious and subconscious. And the more I think about it, the more I sense a bit of a twist on the usual noir theme of existential angst. In this one, the angst and yearning is for something concrete. What bridges the gap? What helps a man see that he might not be so alone in the universe as he thought?

Family.

And once again, really, people  – no, you can’t judge a book by its cover.

amywelborn

 

 

The plot: we meet Vanning – a man living in New York City working as a commercial artist, but is under the burden of being implicated in a past murder out west in Colorado.  There’s really no doubt that he did kill someone, but why? And was it murder or should we define it as self-defense? And where’s the loot from the bank robbery that he somehow ended up with? And who’s this dame who met his eye across the bar? Is she friend or foe?

In that way, it’s of course completely of the genre: a man caught up in circumstances, now on the run. Because this protagonist is essentially a good person, escape from responsibility for his actions is not really what he’s about. It’s more – having been pulled into criminals’ lives by pure accident, he’s trying to sort out whether there is any way he can stay hidden but also own up to his responsibility while bearing certainly fair, but not unjust consequences for what he tumbled into.

In a way, it’s an existential question: here we are in the midst of circumstances not completely of our making – how much are we responsible for? What price should we pay for the harm we’ve been a part of, whether what we’ve done has been accidental or purposeful? What pound of flesh will and should be demanded of us?

The most striking throughline of this novel has to do with the role of family, not only in Vanning’s life, but in the two other principal male characters: John, the leader of the goons who’s entrapped Vanning in their scheme, and Fraser, the New York City detective who’s been put on the case and sense that while Vanning might certainly have killed someone, his responsibility might well be mitigated by other, unknown circumstances.

I’ll start with Fraser. He’s a major character in this novel, and Goodis does a beautiful job of sketching out a solid, interesting, affectionate marriage between him and his wife who truly is his rock, not only in providing an oasis of sanity in a crazy world, but acting as a sounding board as he works out the puzzles he’s uncovering. It’s real, rare and touching.

She studied his eyes. She said, “You never buy yourself anything.”

“I do all right.”

“You do fine,” she said. She got up and walked toward him. Her fingers moved through his hair. “Someday you’ll be important.”

He smiled up at her. “I’ll never be important,” he said. “But I’ll always be happy.” He took her hand and kissed it and looked up at her again. “Won’t we?”

“Of course.”

“Sit on my lap.”

“I’m gaining weight.”

“You’re a feather.”

She sat on his lap. He drank some more lemonade and gave her some. She fed him a little more salad and took some herself. They looked at each other and laughed quietly.

“Like my hair?”

He nodded. He put his hand against her head, played with her hair. “You women have it tough in summer. All that hair.”

“In winter it comes in handy.”

“I wish it was winter already. I wish this case was over with.”

“You’ll get it over with.”

“It’s a problem.”

She gave him a sideway smile. “And you eat it up.”

“Not this one,” he said. “This one’s different. Something about this one gives me the blues. The way he talked. That tone. I don’t know——”

She stood up. “I want to see if the kids are asleep.”

Fraser lit a cigarette, leaned back a little to watch her as she crossed the living room. When the wall cut her off, he leaned forward and dragged deeply at the cigarette and stared at the empty glass in front of him. A frown moved onto his forehead and became more of a frown. The empty glass looked very empty.

A phone conversation, beginning with the wife:

“Do you have a plan?”

“Vaguely.”

“Anything to work on?”

“Just Vanning. I better hang up now. I’m beginning to worry again. Vanning isn’t enough. I need something else. It’s like waiting for rain in the desert.”

“Maybe you can talk to him again.”

“If I could find a good excuse.”

“But there’s only forty-eight hours——”

“Don’t remind me,” he said. “Every time I look at my watch I get sick.”

“Does it make you feel better, talking to me?”

“A lot.”

“Stay there and talk to me.”

“All right, dear.”

“Tell me things.”

“Things you don’t know already?”

“Anything you want to tell me.”

“Even if it’s unimportant?”

“Even if it’s silly,” she said.

 

John is a criminal and a terrible person, but guess what? In an Augustinian way, even he is motivated by a desire for the good. He wants the money so he can buy a boat and just sail the seas with his girl:

 

As if Vanning had not interrupted, John went on, “It was going to be the last. After the split and expenses, I figured on a little more than two hundred grand for myself. And then I’d wait awhile until things blew over and I’d go back to Seattle and get in touch with that girl. Look, I’ll show you something.”

Holding the revolver at his side, John used his other hand to extract a wallet from a hip pocket. He opened the wallet, handed it to Vanning. Under celluloid there was a picture of the girl. She was very young. Maybe she wasn’t even twenty. Her hair came down in long, loose waves that played with her shoulders. She was smiling. The way her face was arranged it was easy to see that she was a little girl, and skinny, and probably not too brilliant.

Vanning handed back the wallet. He bit his lower lip in a thoughtful way and he said, “She’s pretty.”

“Good kid.” John replaced the wallet in his pocket.

“Does she know?”

“She knows everything.”

“And where does that leave her?”

“Up a tree, for the time being,” John said. “But she doesn’t care. She’s willing to wait. And then we’re going away together. You know what I always wanted? A boat.”

“Fishing?”

“Just going. In a boat. I know about boats. I worked on freighters tripping back and forth between the West Coast and South America. Once I worked on a rich man’s yacht. I’ve always wanted my own boat. That Pacific is a big hunk of water. All those islands.”

“I’ve seen some of them.”

“You have?” John leaned forward. He was smiling with interest.

“Quite a few of them. But I didn’t have time to concentrate on the scenery. There was too much activity taking place. And smoke got in the way.”

John nodded. “I get it. But just think of working out from the West Coast with all that water to move around in. All those islands out there ahead. A forty-footer with a Diesel engine. And go from one island to another. And look at them all. No real estate agent to bother me with the build-up. Just look them over and let them give me their own build-up. And let me make my own choice.”

…. “When I have that boat,” John said, “I won’t wait. I’ll get on the boat with her and we’ll shove off. Did you ever stop to think how cities crowd you? They move in on you, like stone walls moving in. You get the feeling you’ll be crushed. It happens slow, but you imagine it happens fast. You feel like yelling. You want to run. You don’t know where to run. You think if you start running something will stop you.”

“I don’t mind cities,” Vanning said.

“Cities hurt my eyes. I don’t like the country, either. I like that water. I know once I get on that water, going across it, going away, I’ll be all right. I won’t be nervous any more.”

And then finally, Vanning himself. He has been caught up in this terrible situation, when all he really wants is just a normal, deeply ordinary life:

 

He worked, he ate, he slept. He managed to keep going. But it was very difficult. It was almost unbearable at times, especially nights when he could see the moon from his window. He had a weakness for the moon. It gave him pain, but he wanted to see it up there. And beyond that want, so far beyond it, so futile, was the want for someone to be at his side, looking at the moon as he looked at it, sharing the moon with him. He was so lonely. And sometimes in this loneliness he became exceedingly conscious of his age, and he told himself he was missing out on the one thing he wanted above all else, a woman to love, a woman with whom he could make a home. A home. And children. He almost wept whenever he thought about it and realized how far away it was. He was crazy about kids. It was worth everything, all the struggle and heartache and worry, if only someday he could marry someone real and good, and have kids. Four kids, five kids, six kids, and grow up with them, show them how to handle a football, romp with them on the beach with their mother watching, smiling, so proudly, happily, and sitting at the table with her face across from him, and the faces of the kids, and waking up in the morning and going to work, knowing there was something to work for, and all that was as far away as the moon, and at times it seemed as though the moon was shaking its big pearly head and telling him it was no go, he might as well forget about it and stop eating his heart out.

Oh, my word.

And even in a chance encounter – Vanning, an artist, takes some time to stroll in some galleries in the city. He has a conversation with a painter, who lets him know where his deepest happiness lies:

“My wife and I, we have three girls and a little boy. Every night I come home to a festival, a beauty pageant, a delightful comic opera right there in the little house where I live. There’s so much yelling. It’s wonderful.”

What a fantastic insight, a marvelous way to look at your life – before you go home tonight, before everyone’s together, consider how you’re imagining the scene: as a bother, a trial, an endurance race? Or how about you’re about to open the door to…a delightful comic opera right there in the little house where I live. …so much yelling…it’s wonderful. 

And know that David Goodis  was only married for a couple of years and never had any children himself.  To know this makes his characters’ yearnings even more poignant.

So yeah, back to the genre – there’s suspense, not only because you want to know what happens, but also – more grippingly – you want to see if justice will be done. It’s why art in a truly nihilistic culture becomes so dull: if there’s nothing at stake, who cares?

Just one more brief note: one of the things I enjoy about Goodis’ writing is his exploration of his characters’ mental processes – how they think, how they arrive at conclusions. He’s really very good at prying into characters’ brains. So here, Vanning’s trying to figure out how to solve his problem:

It kept jabbing away at him, the desire to get out of this city, to travel and keep on traveling. But it wasn’t traveling. It was running. And the desire was curtained by the knowledge that running was a move without sensible foundation. Retreat was only another form of waiting. And he was sick of waiting. There had to be some sort of accomplishment, and the only way he could accomplish anything was to move forward on an offensive basis.

He was part of a crowd on Madison Avenue in the Seventies, and he was swimming through schemes, discarding one after another. The schemes moved off indifferently as he pushed them away. He walked into a drugstore and ordered a dish of orange ice. Sitting there, with the orange ice in front of him, he picked up a spoon, tapped it against his palm, told himself to
take it from the beginning and pick up the blocks one by one and see if he could build something.

There weren’t many blocks. There was John. There was Pete and there was Sam. There was the green sedan. There was the house on the outskirts of Brooklyn. None of those was any good. There was the man who had died in Denver. And that was no good. There was Denver itself. There were the police in Denver. The police.

A voice said, “You want to eat that orange ice or drink it?”

Vanning looked up and saw the expressionless face of a soda clerk.

“It’s melting,” the soda clerk said.

“Melting,” Vanning said.

“Sure. Can’t you see?”

“Tell me something,” Vanning said.

“Anything. I’m a whiz.”

“I’ll bet you are. I’ll bet you know everything there is to know about orange ice.”

“People, too.”

“Let’s stay with the orange ice.”

And staying with the orange ice, he figures it out. He figures out how to begin again.

No, this isn’t Dosteovsky. Got it. But reading this kind of stuff – slightly more substantive mid-century pulp fiction – is a far better use of my time than scrolling through the latest Hot Takes to the latest news. Maybe it will grab you, maybe not. But here it is.

I’m all about sharing more. Not maybe the finest or the most perfect – just…more. I’m pretty convinced that one of the keys to mental, emotional and spiritual health is the proper perspective, and the core to finding and holding onto the proper perspective is the proper perspective: I’m not the center of the universe.  Out there in the present, back there in the past, I find different things, and ironically and paradoxically, in those different things, I find more that’s the same. Venturing out is the place where I find solid ground.

Update:  After I finished writing this, I read one more Goodis novel (yes, read it all last night) – Street of No Return.  It’s got a really intriguing premise and pretty killer framework: A former Sinatra-like figure whose career and voice were destroyed when he got mixed up with some shady characters has ended up on Philadelphia’s Skid Row, a penniless, homeless drunk. Over the course of one night, he gets wrongly blamed for murdering a cop and discovers a bad cop-assisted plot to fuel race riots so one particular criminal gang can take over a section of the city….yeah it’s kind of a crazy mess and nowhere near as compelling as the others, but bottom line is that I found Goodis’ imaginary world  and his characters pretty intriguing, from the washed-up singer to the elderly African-American bootlegger to the preening dirty cop.

And with that – I’ve had my fill. On to something else. Maybe even some history.

Writing: I’m in Living Faith. Here you go for that. 

Still working on my story! This week. Not that I have a clue what I’ll do with it, but it needs to get out of my brain, stat.

 

 

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MondayGood morning, all. What a weekend. What a week on the horizon. And it’s only going to intensify over the next month before midterm elections hit us, and then we’ll have weeks of sorting through that….

My survival technique? Keep with what you want to follow, but prioritize real life in encountering people face-to-face.  Read old books. Look up and around and out the window. Say your prayers.

Anyway:

Reading:

The Burglar is one of the more astonishing books I’ve read in recent years. Not because it was magnificent, but because it the overall impact was so unexpected. What Goodis was trying to do was so unusual. It’s a book that I’m not going to be able to stop thinking about for a while, nor do I want to put it out of my head, either. It’s giving me much to think about –  mostly about how existential questions get filtered through pop culture in surprising ways.

I wrote about author David Goodis here. The Burglar is also in the Library of America collection, along with Dark Passage. This time, the protagonist is not innocent or unjustly accused – he’s a professional thief – but the novel is really not about his thieving. It’s about why he’s a thief, the sense of honor that binds him to the people he’s with and shapes his life, and ultimately it’s about the source and potential price of being faithful to one’s code of honor.

And because it’s mid-century, and because it’s noir, it’s a bleak, tight work in which we’re pondering a man who’s pondering the cold reality of being, in the end, alone. And dead.

What I can’t stop thinking about is that The Burglar has some fairly Deep Thoughts coursing through it and some evocative writing, all bound up in this package:

amy-welborn

The last two chapters are quite astonishing, really, and I keep imagining the reaction of the reader who picked up this paperback at the five-and-dime, settled down for a pulpy scorcher of a read, and ends up with our protagonist and the young woman he’s bound by honor to protect out in the inky-dark ocean off Atlantic City in an extended scene that is really a metaphor for life’s forces and our choices combining and pulling us down, down, down.

The plot is: Nat Harbin is a professional thief in his early 30’s. He’d gotten into the business when, as a starving teen orphan, he’d been picked up hitchhiking by a pro who had a young daughter. Eventually the pro is killed during a job and Harbin, the girl and two other men gradually form a family of sorts, a family in which each individual has a burglaring specialty. We meet them in the midst of a huge heist of a stash of emeralds from a Philadelphia mansion. What ends up happening is that a dirty cop decides to take advantage of the situation, enlists a woman named Della to ensnare Harbin, all with the end of getting the emeralds themselves.

Along the way, there are encounters that escalate the way they do only in noir and in the movies, life compressed into meaningful gazes across restaurants, quick cab rides and blunt statements of desire. Every time I read a noir novel, I can’t help but hear the male protagonist speak in Humphrey Bogart’s voice. Typical of Goodis, there is also this intense deep-dive into the protagonist’s consciousness, a commitment to show us what it’s like to see, feel and think.

The thing was purely a matter of timing. To know just when to walk out. And he knew as sure as he was sitting here, this was the time to walk out. Right now. To tell the driver to stop the cab. To open the door and slide out, and walk away, and keep walking.

She held him there. He didn’t know how she was doing it, but she held him there as though she had him tied hand and foot. She had him trapped there in the cab, and he looked at her with hate.

“Why?” she said. “Why the look?”

He couldn’t answer.

She said, “You frightened?” Without moving, she seemed to lean toward him. “Do I frighten you, Nat?”

“You antagonize me.”

“Listen, Nat—”

“Shut up,” he said. “Let me think about this.”

She nodded slowly, exaggerating the nod. He saw her profile, the quiet line of her brow and nose and chin, the semi-delicate line of her jaw, the cigarette an inch or two away from her lips, and the smoke of the cigarette. Then he took his eyes and pulled them away from Della, and then without looking at Della, he was seeing her. The ride to the library took up a little more than twenty minutes, and they weren’t saying a word to each other, yet it was as though they talked to each other constantly
through the ride. The cab pulled up in front of the library and neither of them moved. The driver said they were at the library, and neither of them moved. The driver shrugged and let the motor idle and sat there, waiting.

After a while, the driver said, “Well, what’s it gonna be?”

“The way it’s got to be,” she said. As she floated her body toward Harbin, she gave the driver an address.

What’s it gonna be? The way it’s got to be. 

Well.

What are we doing all of this for, this life business? These choices? Ever wonder? Harbin tries to convince Gladden to pursue a plan, even though it might take months:

She stared at the backboard behind Harbin’s head. “Emeralds,” she said. “Chunks of green glass.”

In a desperate situation, Harbin’s dealing with an antagonist who is probably going to kill him if he gets a chance. I was struck by this simple metaphor that succinctly captures an internal dynamic:

There was a sudden hysteria in Hacket’s tone and Harbin grabbed at it as though it were a rope dangling toward him with quicksand the only other thing around.

The dialogue in this moment – actually a dreadful moment – made me laugh out loud. Someone has a clear sense of reality:

As Della walked in, her eyes were pulled to the red on the floor and Baylock’s dead face resting against the shiny red. She turned away quickly from that. She waited until Hacket had closed the door and then she stared at him. Her voice was low and quivered just a little. “What are you, a lunatic?”

Hacket stood looking at the door. “I couldn’t help it.”

“That means you’re a lunatic.” 

And then this, in which our protagonist expresses his essential solitude and the power of the crowd:

“One thing for certain. We didn’t do it. I wanted those three cops to live. I wanted Dohmer to live. I wanted Baylock to live. For Christ’s sake,” he said, and he saw her gesture, telling him to talk lower, “I never wanted anyone to die.” He stared ahead, at the people seated in the pavilion, the people on the boardwalk, and indicating them, he said, “I swear I have nothing against them. Not a thing. Look at them. All of them. I like them. I really like them, even though they hate my guts.” His voice went very low. “Yours too.”

“They don’t know we’re alive.”

“They’ll know it if we’re caught. That’s when it starts. When we get grabbed. When we’re locked up. That’s when they know. It tells them how good they are and how bad we are.”

If you check out other reviews of this book at Goodreads, you’ll find similar reactions.

On the boardwalk, he approached the hotel, he saw the sun hitting the silvery rail that separated the raised boards from the beach. There were a lot of people on the beach and most of them wore bathing suits. The beach was white-yellow under the sun. He looked at the ocean and it was flat and passive, with the heavy heat coming down on it, giving it the look of hot green metal. The waves were small and seemed to lack enthusiasm as they came up against the beach. In the water the bathers moved slowly, without much enjoyment, getting wet but not cool. He knew the water was warm and sticky and probably very dirty from the storm of Saturday night. Even so, he told himself, he would like to be in there in the ocean with the bathers, and maybe he and Gladden would have themselves a swim before leaving Atlantic City. The thought was an extreme sort of optimism but he repeated the thought and kept repeating it as he moved toward the entrance of the hotel.

I was going to take a break from all of this, but then I started Nightfall last night and was reeled in, both by the initial mystery, but also by the very real, affectionate relationship between a police detective and his wife – which warms my heart, but also fills me with dread because I’m thinking this can’t end well, because nothing ends well in this world.

Writing: I worked on the short story all weekend, pulled together some of the travel posts (see the page above) and tried to unravel All the Problems. Strangely, they remain knotted. I’ll be in Living Faith on Wednesday. Go here for that. 

Listening: My son’s jazz teacher gave him “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” to work on, with the Dave Brubeck variations on the same to listen to. It’s a beautiful thing, this Brubeck – he winds through some standard jazz stylings, then works out an invention/fugue type thing and then something that sounds a little like Liszt. So we’ve been listening a lot to that.

 

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As you may or may not know, every day of the liturgical year is full of saints’ memorials.  I’m sure there is a technical explanation somewhere as to which make it on to the universal calendar and why. If you go to the generally published calendar, say at Universalis, you find one saint mentioned, but there  are others.   But we do remember several saints on this day. If you have one of those multi-volume editions of Butler’s, you know what I mean – and also here, which lists most of the daily memorials.

So for example, there’s St. Alberto Hurtado Cruchaga, a recently canonized saint from Chile, and one with – as is the case with all saints – an interesting story.

From the Vatican website:

…born in Viña del Mar, Chile, on 22 January 1901; he was orphaned when he was four years old by the death of his father. His mother had to sell, at a loss, their modest property in order to pay the family’s debts. As a further consequence, Alberto and his brother had to go to live with relatives and were often moved from one family to another. From an early age, therefore, he experienced what it meant to be poor, to be without a home and at the mercy of others.

He was given a scholarship to the Jesuit College in Santiago. Here he became a member of the Sodality of Our Lady and developed a lively interest in the poor, spending time with them in the most miserable neighborhoods every Sunday afternoon.

When he completed his secondary education in 1917, Alberto wanted to become a Jesuit, but he was advised to delay the realization of this desire in order to take care of his mother and his younger brother. By working in the afternoons and evenings, he succeeded in supporting them; at the same time, he studied law at the Catholic University. In this period, he maintained his care for the poor and continued to visit them every Sunday. Obligatory military service interrupted his studies, but once he fulfilled this duty he went on to earn his degree early in August 1923.

On 14 August 1923 he entered the Novitiate of the Society of Jesus in Chillán. In 1925 he went to Córdoba, Argentina, where he studied humanities. In 1927 he was sent to Spain to study philosophy and theology.

However, because of the suppression of the Jesuits in Spain in 1931, he went on to Belgium and continued studying theology at Louvain. He was ordained a priest there on 24 August 1933, and in 1935 obtained a doctorate in pedagogy and psychology. After having completed his Tertianship in Drongen, Belgium, he returned to Chile in January 1936. Here he began his activity as professor of religion at Colegio San Ignacio and of Pedagogy at the Catholic University of Santiago. He was entrusted with the Sodality of Our Lady for the students, and he involved them in teaching catechism to the poor. He frequently directed retreats and offered spiritual direction to many young men, accompanying several of them in their response to the priestly vocation and contributing in an outstanding manner to the formation of many Christian laymen.

In 1941 Father Hurtado published his most famous book: “Is Chile a Catholic Country?” The same year he was hurtadoasked to assume the role of Assistant for the Youth Movement of the Catholic Action, first within the Archdiocese of Santiago and then nationally. He performed these roles with an exceptional spirit of initiative, dedication and sacrifice.

In October 1944, while giving a retreat, he felt impelled to appeal to his audience to consider the many poor people of the city, especially the numerous homeless children who were roaming the streets of Santiago. This request evoked a ready and generous response. This was the beginning of the initiative for which Father Hurtado is especially well-known: a form of charitable activity which provided not only housing but a home-like milieu for the homeless: “El Hogar de Cristo”.

By means of contributions from benefactors and with the active collaboration of committed laity, Father Hurtado opened the first house for children; this was followed by a house for women and then one for men. The poor found a warm home in “El Hogar de Cristo”. The houses multiplied and took on new dimensions; in some houses there were rehabilitation centers, in others trade-schools, and so on. All were inspired and permeated by Christian values.

In 1945 Father Hurtado visited the United States to study the “Boys Town” movement and to consider how it could be adapted to his own country. The last six years of his life were dedicated to the development of various forms in which “El Hogar” could exist and function.

In 1947 Father Hurtado founded the Chilean Trade Union Association (ASICH) to promote a union movement inspired by the social teaching of the Church.

From the blog of Ottowa Archbishop Terry Prendergrast:

In 1941, he published a book which sent shock waves through the country:Is Chile a Catholic Country? It was a provocative title which pointed up both the increasing mediocrity of Chilean Catholic life and the renewing force of his own vision. In its pages, he opened up an offensive against materialism, its toxic effects on the young, its atrophying of vocations, and, above all, the way its pernicious cultural impact aggravated the plight of the poor.

Alberto was years ahead of his time in his approach to social issues. ‘Injustice’, he insisted with enviable clarity, ‘causes far more evil than can be repaired by charity’. So he advocated and made his own the arduous tasks of reading, social analysis, planning action, establishing institutions and deepening that Ignatian contemplative regard which takes in the whole world and is free enough to see just how bad things truly are. It was the antithesis of feel-good, charitable giving, but he knew that in it he would find God.

With this in mind, he undertook a gruelling trip to post-war France to update his thinking. Once again he stood out from the crowd. A fellow Jesuit describes his intervention at a conference as ‘a cry of anguish but at the same time an irresistible lesson in pure, ardently supernatural zeal’.

The trip enthused him greatly. Doubtless, he had already begun to sense in Europe the tremors which would lead to Vatican II. The prophet in him, meanwhile, grasped the shadow-side of that renewal, an advancing secularism and ‘a tendency to forget the true values of the Church, its traditional vision’.

Few individuals can take in a truly panoramic vision, seeking refuge instead in petty dualisms: either charity or justice, either tradition or renewal. How did Hurtado sustain such imposing breadth?

He once wrote: ‘I am often like a rock that is beaten on all sides by the towering waves. For an hour, for a day I let the waves thrash against the rock; I do not look toward the horizon, I only look up to God.’

From the homily of Pope Benedict XVI at his canonization in 2005:

“You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart…. You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Mt 22: 37, 39). This was the programme of life of St Alberto Hurtado, who wished to identify himself with the Lord and to love the poor with this same love. The formation received in the Society of Jesus, strengthened by prayer and adoration of the Eucharist, allowed him to be won over by Christ, being a true contemplative in action. In love and in the total gift of self to God’s will, he found strength for the apostolate.

He founded El Hogar de Cristo for the most needy and the homeless, offering them a family atmosphere full of human warmth. In his priestly ministry he was distinguished for his simplicity and availability towards others, being a living image of the Teacher, “meek and humble of heart”. In his last days, amid the strong pains caused by illness, he still had the strength to repeat: “I am content, Lord”, thus expressing the joy with which he always lived.

For a more thorough, in depth introduction to this saint, take a look at this longer article by a fellow Jesuit (pdf). I read it last night, and it’s very helpful.

As an advisor and spiritual guide to those working for El Hogar de Cristo, Hurtado always taught the importance of combining a solid spiritual life with the apostolate. The spiritual contribution of collaborators shared equal importance with the physical works. In a letter to a sister who was lamenting her failure to give more time to the movement, he described the role of the Communion of the Saints, an essential part of his spirituality.

Up until now you have helped the children with your work, your lessons, your affection; now you continue helping them with your affection, your patience, your prayer, your very sincere desire to continue doing them good. There is a truly consoling dogma, that of the Communion of Saints. It teaches us that there is not a single one of our actions that lacks a social value. Never do we merit solely for ourselves, since all our actions hold a deep social value. In doing good, in suffering with patience, in praying, we always profit for others, for the entire Church militant on earth, for those waiting in purgatory; we give joy to the just in heaven, and, in a special way, we help those who are most intimately tied to us. In this way you continue working for Hogar not only with affection, but also with the same, or even greater, efficacy than before.

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All right. Got to finish this Japan-Blogging – this week. So, every day – every day  –  I’ll be here with a little something. Finish it up, then move on.

I’ll begin with a couple of days of randomness.  Just remember, too: when I utter pronouncements like “In Japan…” or “Japan is…” it reflects about ten whole days of life in Tokyo, Kyoto and oh, that one afternoon in Osaka. So, yes – vast experience.

I wanted to go to Japan because we’d never been to Asia, and it seemed that this would be a tourist-friendly place to begin. And it was. I found it very easy to get around and the places to which we traveled were all very clean and felt safe. I’d have no hesitation about traveling to Japan by myself.

So, first: clean and quiet.

Yes, Japan is (here we go…) very clean. I only experienced a couple of even near-shabby areas: tourist-heavy and insanely busy Shibuya and some back areas of Shinjuku – around the famed robot restaurant and, I think in an area where there were a few love hotels. That felt sketchy and was a little grungy.

But other than that: no trash anywhere, no graffiti.

Also, no public trash cans. (Something that’s happening in increasing numbers of cities because of terrorism fears, I know) None. I don’t think they exist except right near food stalls or convenience stores. So how does that work? Wouldn’t the lack of trash cans make it more likely for there to be trash on this street?

Not in Japan. First, the Japanese have a very deep, strong culture of personal responsibility and respect for public spaces. You may have heard that in many, if not most Japanese schools, students share responsibility for cleaning the school (I have read that many workplaces operate with the same expectation). At the end of the school day, students and teachers work together to clean classrooms, shared spaces and restrooms. When this is how you’re raised from preschool, no, you are not going to see a public street or park as something to use any way you please. It is such a common sense practice, isn’t it? I’m sure there are schools – perhaps Montessori – that practice this in the US, but really…why not everywhere?

Secondly, consider – what does a trash can do? It collects trash. It gives trash a home right there in your public space – like it deserves to be there. If you, as a culture, want a super-clean public space, it makes sense to evict trash – in any form – from that space.

Supporting this practice is the fact that walking down the street eating or drinking (or smoking – but I’ll get to that in a minute)  – is just not done in Japan. It’s a serious breach of etiquette to eat while walking down the street. Drinking is not as rare, but still not common.  I saw a bit of water/coffee consumption on trains, but not much at all, and no eating.

Which makes the prevalence of street food in Japan seem…awkward at first. I get my fish-shaped stuffed pancake or my okonomiyaki or my ice cream, for pete’s sake –  from the vendor – what do I do?

You stand right there and eat it, Missy, is what you do. If the vendor isn’t quite sure that you know this, he or she will point to the stool or shelf with condiments nearby and say “Eat there, please – no takeaway.”

And then you throw away any trash, right there.

In my (brief) experience, Japanese shopkeepers of any type are also always prepared to take your trash. I stood in a souvenir shop in Kyoto with a fistful of crumpled up paper for some reason, and the cashier made eye contact with me, smiled, and held out her hand.

The only exception to public trash receptacles that you see – and you see a lot of them – are recycle bins for plastic bottles that are always right next to drink vending machines – of which there are a lot in Japan. Maybe one or two every block? Yep. Selling water, tea, iced coffee, soft drinks and juices. With the little recycle bins right next to it. I suppose you were expected to just chug whatever right there? I’m not sure about that.

Oh, smoking. People do smoke in Japan – perhaps at higher rates than they do in the United States at this point. You can even still find candy cigarettes in Japan. Exotic! But of course – of course – you don’t see folks walking down the street smoking. Every train station (and, I presume office building) has smoking rooms and there are even smoking “rooms” right on the street – enclosed spaces with benches where people stop and grab a smoke.

So there. You can compare the two cultures – the US and Japan – and wonder how much money we can spend, how many more people we can hire and how much more education we can offer to make our public spaces cleaner. You can do that, sure, but it’s useless. The difference isn’t funding or staffing. It’s cultural: Clean public spaces are going to happen , in a culture in which children grow up cleaning their own schoolrooms – and in a culture with a strong sense of personal responsibility and social cohesion and conformity. As is common to observe, those cultural and social norms have a shadow side, to be sure, but well, at least those shadows know where  to put their food wrappers, right?

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Her feast is on a Sunday this year, but that doesn’t mean we still can’t learn more about St. Mary Magdalene. So, as I’ve done for the past couple of years, I’m going to offer a daily excerpt from my book Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies, now available as an e-book for .99.

Remember, that the book was written in the context of the Da Vinci Code fever, so I pay particular attention to the gnostic writings that Brown and others whose work he used depended on for their claims.

So. Chapter 1:

Before the legends, myths, and speculation, and even before the best-selling novels, there was something else: the Gospels.

The figure of Mary Magdalene has inspired a wealth of art, devotion, and charitable works throughout Christian history, but if we want to really understand her, we have to open the Gospels, because all we really know for sure is right there.

The evidence seems, at first glance, frustratingly slim: an introduction in Luke, and then Mary’s presence at the cross and at the empty tomb mentioned in all four amy-welborn-book2Gospels. Not much to go on, it seems.

But in the context, the situation isn’t as bad as it appears. After all, no one besides Jesus is described in any detail in the Gospels, and even the portrait of Jesus, as evocative as it is, omits details that we moderns are programmed to think are important. Perhaps, given the context, the Gospels tell us more about Mary Magdalene than we think.

Trustworthy?

Before we actually meet the Mary Magdalene of the Gospels, it might be a good idea to remind ourselves of exactly what the Gospels are and how to read them.

The word “Gospel” means, of course, “good news,” or evangel in Greek, which is why we call the writers of the Gospels evangelists. The four Gospels in the New Testament have been accepted as the most authoritative and accurate writings on Jesus’ life since the early second century. Even today, scholars who study early  Christianity, whether they are believers or not, know that when studying Jesus and the early Christian movement, the Gospels and other New Testament writings are the place to begin.

Sometimes in my speaking on this issue, I have fielded questions about the reliability of the Gospels. A questioner will say something like, “Well, they were written so long after the events, how can we trust them to tell the truth?”

In addition, even those of us who have received some sort of religious education might have been taught, implicitly, to be skeptical of the Gospels. We’re reminded, right off, that the Gospels are not history or biography, and that they tell us far more about the community that produced them than about Jesus himself.

In short, all of this gets distilled into the conviction that when it comes to early Christianity, all documents and texts are of equal value in telling us about Jesus. You can’t pick the best according to historical reliability, so you pick the one with the “story” that means the most to you. So, if the Gospel of Mark displeases you, you can go ahead and create your Jesus from what you read in the Gospelof Philip or the Pistis Sophia.

Sorry, but it just doesn’t work that way. As we will see in more detail when we get to the Gnostic writings, there is simply no comparison between the four canonical Gospels and other writ-ings. The canonical Gospels were not written that distant from the events described — forty or fifty years — and were written in an oral culture that took great care to preserve what it heard with care; the community’s history depended on it. When you actually read the Gospels, you see comments here and there from the evangel-ists themselves about what they were trying to do, and part of that involved, according to their own admission, being as accurate as possible (see Luke 1:1-4, for example).

No, the Gospels are not straight history or biography in the contemporary sense. They are testaments of faith. But they are testaments of faith rooted in what really happened. The evangelists, and by extension, the early Christians, were not about making up stories for which they would later, oddly, give their lives. They were not cleverly presenting their inner psychological transformations in the form of concrete stories. They were witnesses to the amazing action of God in history, through Jesus. amy-welborn-book3They are testimonies of faith, yes, but faith rooted in the realities of God’s movement in the world.

It’s also good to listen to modern Gospel critics carefully. More often than not, those who disdain the Gospels are quick to claim some other text as “gospel,” as the source of truth. Their choice of what to believe usually has far less to do with historical reliability than it does with other factors.

So, no, not all historical texts are equally reliable. When it comes to Jesus and the events of the mid-first century, the canonical Gospels are really the only place to begin.

Now, on to Mary Magdalene.

Magdala

Luke introduces us to Mary Magdalene in chapter 8 of his Gospel:

 

“Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, preach-ing and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out,and Joanna,the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.” (Luke 8:1-3)

So here she is: a woman from whom Jesus had driven seven demons, joined with other women, also healed by Jesus, who had left their lives behind to follow him.

Mary is mentioned first in this list, as she is in every list of female disciples, in every Gospel, similar to the way that in lists of the twelve apostles Peter’s name always comes first. The precise reason for Mary’s consistent preeminence is impossible to determine, but we can guess that it might have much to do with her important role related to the Resurrection, as well as to recognition of her faithfulness to Jesus.

These women “provided for them out of their means.” This might mean one of two things, or both: that the women assisted Jesus and his disciples by preparing meals and so on, or that they supported them financially. The second explanation is supported by the presence of Joanna, the wife of a member of Herod’s court, on the list. Perhaps some of these women were, indeed, wealthy enough to give Jesus’ ministry a financial base. (Some legends about Mary have played off of this, as we will see later, suggesting that she was quite wealthy and actually owned the town of Magdala.)

What stands out about Mary is that she’s identified, not by her relationship to a man, as most women would be at that time, but to a town. This indicates that Mary wasn’t married, and perhaps even that she had outlived her father and other male relatives: she was a single woman, able to give support to Jesus out of gratitude for what he had done for her.

Magdala was located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, about four miles north of the major city of Tiberias. Today, it is a village with a few hundred inhabitants, some abandoned archaeological digs, and only the most inconspicuous memorials to its most well-known inhabitant.

“Magdala” is derived from the Hebrew Migdal, which means “fortress” or “tower.” It was also called “Tarichea,” which means “salted fish,” a name which reveals the town’s primary industry during the first century, the salting and pickling of fish. Excavations led by Franciscans in the 1970s revealed a structure that some think was a synagogue (others a springhouse), as well as a couple of large villas and, from later centuries, what might be a Byzan-tine monastery. Magdala is described by Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, as having forty thousand inhabitants, six thou-sand of whom were killed in one of the battles during the Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-70), but most modern historians believe those numbers are far too high.

Jewish tradition suggests that Magdala was ultimately destroyed as a punishment for prostitution, and another strain holds that in ancient times Job’s daughters died there. Pilgrim accounts from the ninth through the thirteenth centuries report the existence of a church in Magdala, supposedly built in the fourth century by St. Helena, who discovered the True Cross in Jerusalem.

By the seventeenth century, pilgrims reported nothing but ruins at Magdala.

Possessed

Mary — like Peter, Andrew, and the other apostles — walked away from life as she knew it, abandoned everything to follow Jesus. Why?

“. . . from whom seven demons had gone out.”

Exorcism is an aspect of Jesus’ ministry that many of us either forget about or ignore, but the Gospels make clear how important it is: Mark, in fact, describes an exorcism as Jesus’ first mighty deed, in the midst of his preaching (1:25). Some modern com-mentators might declare that what the ancients referred to as pos-session was nothing more than mental illness, but there is really no reason to assume that is true. The “demons,” or unclean or evil spirits, we see mentioned sixty-three times in the Gospels were understood as forces that indeed possessed people, inhabiting them, bringing on what we would describe as mental problems, emotional disturbances, and even physical illness. The symptoms, however, were, to the ancient mind, only that: symptoms. The deeper problem was the alienation from the rest of the human family and from God produced by this mysterious force of evil.

In the world in which Jesus lived, seven was a number that symbolized completion, from the seven days of creation (Genesis 1:1-2:3) to the seven seals on God’s book in Revelation (5:1) and the seven horns and eyes of the Lamb in the same vision (5:6). Mary’s possession by seven demons (also explicitly mentioned in Mark 16:9) indicates to us that her possession was serious and overwhelming — total, in fact. She was wholly in the grip of these evil spirits, and Jesus freed her — totally.

So of course, she left everything and followed him.

It’s worth noting now, even though we’ll discuss it more later, that nowhere in the New Testament is the condition of possession synonymous with sinfulness. The “sinners” in the Gospels — the tax collectors, those who cannot or will not observe the Law, the prostitutes — are clearly distinguished from those possessed. Some Christian thinkers have linked Mary Magdalene to various sinful, unnamed women in the Gospels because of her identification as formerly possessed. There may be reasons, indeed, to link Mary to these women, but possession is not one of them, because the conditions — possession and sinfulness — are not the same thing in the minds of the evangelists.

Disciple

The evangelists used the texts, memories, and oral traditions they had at hand to communicate the Good News about Jesus. Because they were human beings, their writing and editing bears the stamp of their unique concerns and interests. Just as you and a spouse might tell the same story, emphasizing different aspects of it to make different points — perhaps you want to tell the story of your missed flight as a warning about being organized and prepared, and he wants to tell it as a way to highlight the need to go with the flow — the evangelists shaped the fundamental story of Jesus in accord with what struck them as the most significant points of his life and ministry, what their audiences most needed to hear.

In the eighth chapter of his Gospel, Luke has finished introducing Jesus, and is ready to really help his audience understand what being a disciple means. He begins by describing who is following Jesus — the Twelve and the women — and then offers a general description of what Jesus’ ministry is about. Jesus then tells his first parable (the parable of the sower and the seeds, which is the first parable Jesus relates in all of the Gospels), then quickly calms a storm, performs another dramatic exorcism, raises a little girl back to life, and in the midst of it tells his followers, firmly, that his blood relations are not his family, but rather those who “hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).

So that’s the context of the introduction of Mary Magdalene and the other women — not just to set the stage, to complete the cast of characters, because Luke, like all of the other evangelists, didn’t have vellum to spare to do such a thing. Every word he wrote had a purpose, and it was very focused — here, to set before us, in quick, strong strokes, what this kingdom of God was all about. What do we learn from the presence of the women?

First, we learn that women are present, period. Women were not chattel slaves in first-century Judaism, by any means, but neither were they often, if ever, seen leaving their ordinary lives to follow a rabbi. In fact, scholar Ben Witherington describes this conduct as “scandalous” in the cultural context (Women in the Ministry of Jesus [Cambridge University Press, 1984]):

“We know women were allowed to hear the word of God in the synagogue but they were never disciples of a rabbi unless their husband or master was a rabbi willing to teach them.Though a woman might be taught certain negative precepts of the Law out of necessity,this did not mean they would be taught rabbinic explanations of Torah. For a Jewish woman to leave home and travel with a rabbi was not only unheard of, it was scandalous. Even more scandalous was the fact that women, both respectable and not, were among Jesus’ traveling companions.” (Witherington, p. 117)

And not just any women, either. As we noted earlier, Mary Magdalene was once possessed by seven demons. In this culture, those possessed were ostracized — one man Jesus exorcised is described as living in a cemetery (Luke 8:27). Mary Magdalene, formerly at the margins of society, has been transformed by Jesus and is now welcomed as a disciple. The barriers of class, too, are broken, Luke hints, with the presence of Joanna, the wife of a per-son of stature. In God’s kingdom, Luke makes clear, the world we know is being turned upside down.

Just as every phrase and scene in the Gospels is carefully chosen under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so are the parts of the Gospel related. We meet Mary Magdalene here, but we will not see her again for many chapters — until the Passion narrative begins. But when we do encounter her — again, with the other women — here’s what she will be doing: she will be standing near the cross, she will then be preparing Jesus’ body for burial, and later she will see and witness to the empty tomb, and encounter the risen Jesus.

Mary will be serving, still. She serves, watches, and waits, the only remaining link between Jesus’ Galilean ministry, his Passion, and the Resurrection. She is introduced as a grateful, faithful dis-ciple, and that she will remain, a witness to the life Jesus brings.

 

Already, there’s a sort of mystery: what were these demons? What exactly happened to Mary? The evangelists don’t tell us, perhaps because they and Mary herself knew that life with Jesus is not about looking back into the past, but rather rejoicing in God’s power to transform our lives in the present.

 

Questions for Reflection

 

  1. What do we know about Mary Magdalene’s life from the Gospels?
  1. What does her presence in Jesus’ ministry tell you about the kingdom of God that Jesus preached?
  2.   How has God acted in your life with power? How do you respond to that? How would you like to respond?

 

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