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As promised, this is one of two posts I’m going to write on our trip to Belize and Guatemala (July 16-22, 2017) This one will be about the the practicalities, with tips and mini-reviews, and the other will be on the food, which was consistently great.

Why in the world did you go? Should we?

We went on this trip because my 12-year old has a strong and serious interest in Mayan history and archaeology, his brother was doing another out-of-town activity for the week, and I gave him the chance to pick a destination, and this – specifically Tikal – was it.

There are 2000 Mayan sites in Guatemala alone (some just one mound covering a temple, but still…), some quite extensive. Tikal is the most well known, but is close to some other very interesting sites, so we decided to make it the focus of the trip.

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There are other reasons to go to this part of the world. A lot of North Americans head down there for recreational and adventure reasons – you see more of it in Belize, which is becoming a very popular destination, not only for tanned retirees heading to fish, but families and young people as well. People go diving, fishing, caving and tubing. It’s a popular cruise ship stop. There are lots of all-inclusive resorts (including three owned by Francis Ford Coppola) and it’s popular with North Americans because the first language of Belize is English, they take US dollars everywhere, and the exchange rate is easy to figure out on the fly (basically 2:1 Belize:US).

Guatemala has plenty to recommend in this regard as well, and more, considering the geographical diversity of the country.

People also go to Guatemala for the family and cultural connections they have, and to do mission work. Our flights into and out of Belize each had at least two mission groups aboard, and I saw more than a few vans on the road crammed with blonde-haired Anglos and guitar cases visible through the back window – I assumed they were mission groups ,too. Was I wrong? Maybe, but I doubt it.

So. Should you go?

If you want to, sure!

I felt safe and, after a day or two of adjustment, at ease in the culture. Everyone is very friendly and helpful, and the sites we saw were fascinating. There were many American and European families with younger kids at Tikal – none at the other sites we visited, but then, we were mostly the only people at those sites, anyway, so…..

If Mayan culture interests you or you want to expose your family to that part of our hemisphere’s history, Tikal and the other sites are great. If you have never done anything like this before, it might be a little easier to start in Mexico with Chichen Itza and Uxmal, perhaps using Merida and Campeche as bases or Cancun if that is your thing (although crime is becoming more of a problem in the Mexican resorts, it seems, so I’m not so sure about that…).

Or, if you want your family to experience ancient American cultures…try the Southwest. No, it’s not the Temple of the Jaguar, but it’s still interesting and important to understand.

As for the other activities in the area, they don’t hold much appeal for me at this point. When it comes to outdoor type of activities there’s so much in this country that I haven’t experienced – the Florida Keys, the Rocky Mountains, the Northwest – that any energy for that kind of thing that I have…I’ll direct to those places.

How Should I Get There?

When I first started planning, I assumed we would fly in and out of Guatemala City – until I figured out how far it is from Peten, the area in which theruins that are our focus are located. It would be an 8-9 hour drive unless I wanted to fly from Guatemala City to Flores – which is expensive.

So the next possibility was Belize City, which is what I ultimately decided on. Weirdly, it was cheaper to fly from Birmingham to BC than Atlanta to BC – I mean, I’m happy about that, but that’s not the norm and I don’t know why it was so.

Another option is Flores, which is right there.  Unfortunately flying into Flores from either Birmingham or Atlanta was far too expensive. However, if you can fly, for example, out of Houston, the fare is very decent. So if you can get to a major hub in the southwest, check out the fares for Flores.

I worked this journey as two separate flights. I had enough miles to get us down there on American at no charge, but not enough for a round trip, and the AA flights back were at bad times and expensive. So I opted to fly United, one-way, back from BC. This would have been a lot cheaper if we lived in South Florida or Texas…just sayin’.

Should I Drive?

All right. It depends. I won’t bore you with the back-and-forth I went through in my head on this. Well, not much of it, anyway.

I am a very independent traveler. I like to be in control of my own destiny, at all times. The long-haul public transportation in Belize and Guatemala is confusing and not great, especially in Belize. So, should I drive? My reflexive answer was not “NO!” and in fact, I did consider it.

The real question before I went was renting a car and taking it across the border. It can be done, but it adds a level of complication to the border crossing between Belize and Guatemala that might already be fraught. You have to drive the car through fumigation portals, etc, plus there’s the documents you have to have…yeah. And then you’d have to do it again. All that.

But I will say that after spending a week being driven around Belize and Guatemala, if I were going to do anything like it again, here’s what I would do.

First, though: if you are a timid driver – forget it. Don’t even try. I’m not a timid driver, so given that I see how it all works now, if I went back, and were only going to be in one of the countries, I’d drive, with a couple of caveats.

I’d drive in Belize, no question. The roads are fine, and the driving doesn’t seem too crazy. I wouldn’t drive in Belize City, but then I wouldn’t drive in any foreign city if I could help it.

Secondly, I would sort of  drive in Guatemala. Maybe. Sometimes.

It would be considerably more challenging, but having seen those challenges, I could manage. Yes, the roads are not smooth. Yes, there are people on the side of the road, including little kids some of whom are dragging machetes because every male seems to carry a machete around in rural Guatemala. Yes, there are dogs, horses, chickens and pigs on the side of and often in the road. Yes, there are frequent and potentially damaging speed bumps. Yes, there are loads of motorcycles, perhaps 3% of which are being driven by people wearing helmets, and a surprising number of those motorcyclists are transporting small children and babies. My favorite was: 2 adults on one cycle, with a toddler in between them and a baby in a carrier strapped to the driver’s front.

But yeah, I could do it. However….

The roads leading to most of the ruins except for Tikal are terrible. Even Yaxha, which is a major site, and perhaps the most visited in the area after Tikal, involved about 8 miles of really rough road.  Even if I had the most comprehensive insurance on the planet (which is what I would have), I would be extremely tense about driving those roads myself because, well, what if something happened? I can change a tire, but you know what? I really don’t want to, especially in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country.

And since visiting sites would be our major interest…there’s no reason to spend 70/80 bucks a day on a car that I’d have a nervous breakdown driving because I’d be afraid of puncturing a tire or the gas tank or whatever. And I wouldn’t drive at night. Yeah, all that. So while I don’t particularly like being dependent on others for my transportation, it really doesn’t make any sense to do otherwise. Jesus, take the wheel.

Conclusion?

Renting and driving a car in Belize and Guatemala is expensive, and if you did this, you’d want plentiful insurance coverage (and would be required to get it if you rented in Belize and traveled to Guatemala), which makes it even more expensive.

For long distances, you can take buses, but the Belize buses are not great – don’t know about the Guatemala buses. Mexico has really nice buses, but Belize, at least, doesn’t have that kind of service at this point.

In communities, taxis and collectivos (vans) and tuk-tuks (in Flores and probably other places) are plentiful and inexpensive. Everyone, it seems to me, uses taxis to get around because relatively few people actually own cars. You have a motorcycle, probably, but if you need to carry things or take more people, you just get a taxi, no big deal.

In addition, there are plenty of shuttle services, and every taxi driver you encounter will amywelborn78nose about for more business: So…are you going to Tikal? Do you need a driver? Are you going to the airport? Do you need a driver tomorrow for that? But if you do go long distances via shuttle, build that cost in. So, for example, this past Saturday, I paid $100 (50 each) for us to be driven in a shuttle from San Ignacio, Belize to the Belize Airport, about 73 miles away, with a 90-minute stop at the Belize Zoo. I wish I didn’t have to spend that kind of money, but in the end, hiring a driver ends up being not that much more expensive than renting a car in these countries, and while you don’t have the freedom to go anywhere whenever, you have freedom from stress about responsibility for driving mishaps. Life, as I like to say, is a trade-off.

Where Should I Stay?

Again, I’m writing this for people interested in Tikal and other nearby sites, so I’ll start with Tikal.

If you look at a map, you’ll see several possibilities. People do day trips to Tikal from spots in Belize, as well as closer Guatemalan communities like El Remate and Flores. It’s certainly possible, but there are advantages to staying in the park itself.

The best times to experience Tikal are in the morning and late afternoon. Not surprisingly, those late morning and earlier afternoon hours get hot, plus the jungle is quieter during those hours, as the animals are sensible and taking a rest as well. So to experience the jungle and the ruins in their fullest, in the most convenient way – it makes sense to stay in one of the three hotels located in the park.

It makes particular sense if you’re going to do the Sunrise tour, which necessitates you start walking to Temple IV at about 4:30 am. Adding an hour drive to that would be…torture.

There are three hotels in the park: The Jungle Lodge, the Jaguar Inn and the Tikal Inn.

All are located near each other in the same area. We stayed at the Jungle Lodge, and I was very happy with the accommodations. They are separate cabins that were constructed originally back in the 1950’s for the team from the University of Pennsylvania that was excavating the ruins.

(Here’s an article published in 1970 upon the completion of the team’s work. 

Here’s a set of really interesting archival videos on the project – they are silent and just that – archival – but interesting to dip into.)

The bungalows are very clean – as was my experience in all three places we stayed. There is no air conditioning, but there is a ceiling fan. The unusual thing about this to keep in mind is that most electricity is turned off during certain hours in the middle of the day and from about 10:30 pm to 7 am or so – with the ceiling fans being on a separate generator that keeps running. But if you get up for that Sunrise Tour, if you haven’t brought flashlights (we did), you’ll need your cell phone flashlight, which probably isn’t great. You should take a flashlight anyway because you’ll need it for the walk to Temple IV for the Sunrise Tour, and if you go to another onsite restaurant in the evening, you’ll need it for walking on the grounds – there are no streetlights around the parking lot, it’s pitch black and the great thing? The stars.  I’d never seen them so bright and in such an array. It’s what I had hoped to see at the Grand Canyon but didn’t. Gorgeous.

So yes, the Jungle Lodge is more expensive than other accommodations in towns outside the park, but again – everything has a cost, and it’s up to you what currency you want to use – do you want to pay with money or do you want to pay with the extra time and hassle of being an hour away from the park? I’d say it’s worth it to spend at least one night in the park.

The restaurant at the Jungle Lodge is not what I expected and I wouldn’t recommend it, unless you have nowhere else to go (and there are other places – the other two hotels both have restaurants, and during the day, there are comedors – or small restaurants just down the road. The comedors only take cash though, so be prepared.). The service was fine and the food wasn’t terrible, but it was oddly enough, not at all Guatemalan, Central American or even vaguely Hispanic. It was mostly sort of Italian. Weird and overpriced.

In Flores, we stayed at a hotel owned by the same people – the Isla de Flores. Very nice – good sized room and bathroom. The best noise-blocking windows I’ve ever experienced in a hotel. Could have used them in Madrid where the party just gets started at midnight…

Bookending the trip, we stayed at Martha’s Guesthouse in San Ignacio, Belize. I highly recommend it. Very nice people running the place and the room we stayed in was very large, with a balcony.

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Miscellaneous Tips:

  • When you cross the Guatemala-Belize border, you’ll be immediately swarmed on either side by men offering to exchange money. Don’t do it. I had gotten Guatemalan money before we went – I usually don’t do that, but I knew I would need cash right away to buy Tikal tickets (next tip), so I made an exception this time. It might be a good idea to do the same, but there are secure ATM’s in banks all over the place – not in villages, but in towns.
  • Make sure you understand the process for buying Tikal tickets – research it or if you have a guide, he or she will explain it. Because of long lines, delays and corruption, the government took Tikal ticket-selling away from the park and you must buy them at a branch of a certain bank now – there is a branch at the border and at the airport and other places, but just be prepared. You have to pay cash and know exactly what kind of tickets you want because there are no tickets sold at the park.
  • They take American dollars all over Belize. They also took them in souvenir shops in Flores and at the shops and snack places around the Tikal park. I would advise downloading a currency exchange app on your phone to avoid conflict and confusion – you can just punch it numbers and show it to the clerk or server – end of argument. If you think you might use US dollars in Guatemala, make sure they are clean, unmarked and not too folded or wrinkled. The problem, as our guide explained, is that the Guatemalan banks will not accept US dollars that are in less than good condition – so if a vendor accepts one and tries to deposit them and they’re rejected – they’ve lost that money.
  • San Ignacio, Belize and Flores Guatemala are full of tourists. Young American and European backpackers and adventurers, retired Americans and lots of students. It’s got that kind of vibe – a mix of locals hustling to make a living, mostly off the tourists, and the tourists hoping what they’re experiencing is “authentic” – San Ignacio is much more ramshackle than Flores, though.
  • The tourist-centered economy of these places means that they’re full of tour companies. Choose wisely and read reviews. Plan ahead if you want (I did) but I think it’s easy to pick up a guide or join a tour on short notice.
  • Internet: I have a cel-phone plan through T-Mobil that provides free service overseas. The data is slow, but it’s there. I had access through my phone in most places except in Tikal. It was weird – we trekked through various other jungles that were more isolate than Tikal, and I had access in those places, but not in Tikal. The hotels all had wi-fi, but the Jungle Lodge’s service was provided only in the lobby and at the pool and it was terrible. Everywhere else, the wi-fi was fine. Now. Before anyone scolds about “just unconnect! Be free!” – listen to me.  I am a single mom, who had one minor child up in Chicago while I was in Guatemala. I needed to be available. My finances are all on me – no one else – and I needed to keep an eye on my bank account and credit card account to make sure there were no ATM or other shenanigans brewing. Wi-Fi wasn’t important because I wanted to check Facebook. It was important because most of life is on the internet now, for good or for ill, I’m the head of the household with responsibilities that are all on my shoulders, so yeah…making sure I’m in range is important. No apologies.
  • We prepared, health-wise, by loading up on probiotics for a couple of weeks before. It probably wasn’t necessary. We were very careful and never drank tap water – I don’t think most natives do either – and were fine.
  • Do take good insect repellent. I got this one, and it worked great. We were in a rainforest amid swarms of mosquitos, and they didn’t touch us.
  • What did we pack? Our clothes filled one small satchel. M wore hiking boots and packed his sandals. I took hiking sandals and tennis shoes. We each had a backpack – mine is one I bought for the 2012 trip that holds a camera in the bottom and has a laptop sleeve. I took regular camera, phone, laptop and chargers for each. We had journals and pens, and a couple of books. Two small flashlights, insect repellent, the usual toiletries and basic first aid (band aids, itch cream, antibiotic cream) that I always travel with plus Pepto-Bismol and After-Bite. I wasn’t sure about the Jungle Lodge electricity situation – I knew they turned the power off at night, and didn’t know if that included the fans or not, so I bought a small cheap cordless fan and took that. I didn’t “need” it, as it turned out, but it did add some extra breeze on those two nights.

 

Should I Hire a Tour Guide?

Unless you yourself are an expert on Matters Mayan, yes. You can get the basics about Tikal from a book, but having a good guide puts it all in context. You must have a guide for the Sunrise Tour. The other sites we saw are incomprehensible without prior knowledge or a guide. There was English signage at Tikal, but everywhere else was Spanish only, ,which is decipherable for me, but very basic. As I said above, you can easily grab a guide on site or in one of the outside towns, but I needed a guide and driver for the entire week, so I made arrangements ahead of time – based on recommendations on the TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet discussion boards, I went with Marlon Diaz of Gem Guatemala Travel. It was a great decision – he was smart, flexible, deeply knowledgeable and a great animal spotter as well.  Here’s my TripAdvisor review of his service. 

So there you go…I might add to this as the day goes on and more occurs to me. Ask questions if you like either in the comments or to amywelborn60 – at – gmail – dot- com.

 

Tomorrow: the food. And that will be it for blogging on it – look for an ebook with a complete account in a few weeks, I hope. 

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I picked these up at a religious goods shop in Saltillo, Mexico several years ago.

The salt, oil and incense with the St. Benedict holy card are “bendita,” I was assured by the clerk. (Blessed by a priest).

I was particularly interested in the saint in the center – San Charbel Maklouf – for I had seen his image in several homes during the week.  Why is a Lebanese saint so popular in Mexico?

(For, I was told, he is – along with St. Jude, one of the most popular saints in Mexico.)

The person I was talking to didn’t really know, but I assume at least part of the reason has to do with the fact that Lebanese are an important minority in Mexico, with deep roots going back more than a century. One of the world’s wealthiest men, Mexican telecommunications magnate and New York Times owner  Carlos Slim, is Lebanese -Mexican Maronite. Salma Hayak is part Lebanese-Mexican.

Most of all, of course, he’s popular because of the power of his intercession. I didn’t see it, but it’s common in Mexico to drape statues of San Charbel with ribbons on which you’ve written prayers. You can see lots of images of this here. 

Speaking of St. Charbel, readers may or may not know that Maronite Catholics are not unknown in the South.  Particularly along railroad lines – the Lebanese were one of the ethnic groups that showed up to do the work.  I gave a woman’s day of recollection over in Jackson, Mississippi, once and a huge proportion of the women present claimed Lebanese roots.  Here in Birmingham, the Maronite Catholic Church, St. Elias, is venerable and established.  The Catholic elementary school my boys used to go to had a Maronite school Mass twice a year. Fr. Mitch Pacwa, who lives here, is bi-ritual and regularly celebrates the Maronite liturgy at St. Elias when he is in town. Here is a photo of Fr. Mitch on the occasion of the tour of St. Charbel’s relics, which stopped here a couple of years ago. 

A few years ago, I went to an estate sale, and this one was unusual because there was lots of Catholic stuff.  That’s not a normal feature of estate sales in Birmingham, Alabama.  But this one was very Catholic and specifically, very Maronite.  This was one of my treasures from that day:

Do you have a St. Charbel thermometer?

Didn’t think so.

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We are back in Birmingham. It was sketchy there for a bit last night. Our flight from Belize City took off a little early and went smoothly, but about 30 minutes from Houston, a flight attendant standing in the aisle next to me mouthed to another approaching her, The airport’s closed. 

Oh.

I started working out in my head where an international flight could be diverted – probably Dallas or New Orleans. Dallas would give us a better chance for getting home reasonably on schedule. If it was New Orleans, I could rent a car and drive and be home in five hours. This might work.

But no need. After a few announcements – airport’s closed…airport’s open now…we landed.

Then we got the delightful news that because of lightning, the ground crews were not allowed on the field to guide the planes in, and until lightning moved beyond that 5 mile radius, we were stuck where we were, rain beating down around us.

Welp. My only hope was that this delay would impact all flights – how could it not? – but the United app kept showing my BHM flight on time, which made no sense to me. Finally, it showed a 15 minute delay, which still made no sense, but just in case, I started researching options – there were none. No fights from any airline out of Houston in Birmingham after 7:45 (not that that were many anyway).

Oh well. The only glitch for me was that my older son, who has been at an academic kind of activity week in Chicago with a friend was being driven back by the friend’s dad – and the original plan was for a Sunday travel day. But…then J texted me with the news that they were going to hit it hard and leave Chicago then and go the whole way – he’d spend the night at their house, since they wouldn’t get back until 3 am or so. That was all still fine, but if we were delayed and couldn’t get back until noonish on Sunday….

You don’t have a house key with you.

Because you told me not to take it so I wouldn’t risk losing it. 

Right. 

No, not a huge problem, but still another annoying factor to factor in.

Well, the lightning finally cleared, we taxied and were allowed off the plane. We raced to immigration which was, amazingly, a cavernous empty space. Obviously because the airport had ceased operations for a while, but still startling to see. Through US customs and immigration in 5 minutes? I’ll take it.

Maybe there’s hope!

Or not. If you are not familiar with how to deal with connecting flights after international travel it’s this:

You have to clear US immigration, then get your bag from baggage claim, then recheck it, then go through airport security to get to the domestic part of the airport.  My app was still showing a 7:45 departure, so I was fairly hopeless at this point – because it was 7:35.

(And why did we check a bag? Because you probably know that I usually don’t. Because a couple of the souvenirs we bought wouldn’t have passed through security – a sharp thing and some liquids over 4 ounces. I was really questioning the wisdom of those purchases at this point.)

The baggage handler who would take our bag for recheck scanned things here and there and determined that we still had 19 minutes to make our flight and we might as well try. I was optimistic, based on his word, for about 23 seconds – the time it took to leave him, go up the escalator and see the security line. Pretty long. Ridiculous.

We got through, and while I didn’t think there was hope, we forged on. On the skytrain to the terminal I saw the airport Marriott and figured that would be the night I’d use the one free room I have left in that account. We departed the train, raced to the gate, and the first word I saw was DEPARTED.  I stopped dead in my tracks, disappointed but not surprised, when a guy in a beautiful crimson Roll Tide t-shirt said, “Oh, it hasn’t left yet. We haven’t even started boarding . I don’t know why it says that.”

Thank. You.

…and the flight attendant was in a very good mood, and was generous with food and drink with those of us in the back of the plane – some of them were finally getting home after some 24-hour delays out of Denver, I guess. My car started when I got to it, and the conversation between the two passengers behind me was weirdly related to my life in quite specific ways and while at first I thought, Huh, that’s weird, as time went on, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was more than weird and that maybe I’m really supposed to do the things I’ve been intuiting I’m supposed to be doing.  I mean, I could have been seated in front of two people talking about real estate or health care or their grandkids or sports, but no, they were talking about this particular thing with these particuar references. Huh.

So anyway, we got home, we’ll be reunited in a few hours, and we’ll have a week of finishing up summer work, piano, perhaps another person in the family having braces put on his teeth and then the boys go off to Florida for one more jaunt before school starts, both in another building and at home….

(I said I wasn’t going to write in detail about the trip here on the blog, and I’m not – except for two posts. I want to do a wrap-up post about the food, which was consistently the best of any trip that I’ve taken abroad – and a post with practical suggestions for those who might be considering such a trip themselves.)

 

 

Scenes from Saturday, our last day. We stopped at the Belize Zoo on our way to the airport from San Ignacio. Even the airport food in Central America is very good – at least in Belize it was. 

 

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Post title because I’m celebrating survival tonight, and because the restaurant in the photos above was built for the crew of Survivor: Guatemala back in 2005 when the season was filmed at Yaxha. Another excellent meal.

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— 1 —

So, yes, some of us are in Guatemala this week. As a backup for this blog, I scheduled reprints of Mary Magdalene posts from last year. For the life of me, I can’t remember if I actually proofread and updated them, so this all might be quite awkward. My internet has been mostly terrible, and when I’ve had it, I’ve used it mostly to make sure my ATM card hasn’t been skimmed and my bank account drained, so I hope you have enjoyed the Mary Magdalene posts, whatever they say. Read the book! 

— 2 —

The rest of this post will be mostly photos, and not the best ones, even. I have been using a real camera for this trip, but failed to bring the little card reader I need to put them on my computer, since this tiny thing doesn’t have an SD slot. So you’ll have to make do with my phone photos, which are okay, but not as comprehensive as what’s on the…camera. Remember those?

But …I will say this, and I will say it here mostly to hold myself to it. I am not going to post a comprehensive trip report. I’m going to write it in book form and publish it on Amazon – for a very nominal fee, yes, but I really think I have enough to write about here for at least 20-25,000 words, but I don’t want to bother with a traditional publisher – and I don’t think a traditional publisher will be interested.  I mean, who the hell wants to go through a year of writing/editing/thinking about marketing/rewriting/selling some little book about my Guatemala trip? Nobody, not even me. But I’m willing to spend a few weeks on it, and toss it out there for whomever is interested.

There was a day when writers did this sort of thing all the time, and there were magazine publishers who were willing to put out a long-form article or newspaper publishers who would serialize, but no more. I’ve decided that for this kind of experience, a series of blog posts is selling myself and interest readers short. So hopefully, when I get back, I can buckle down and do this thing.

Send thoughts and prayers my way, please!

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Hate  ” thoughts and prayers your way,” by the way. We pray to God, not send prayers to each other. So, just kidding. 

— 3 —

So, yes. This has been a week of ruins:

 

Tikal, Yaxha, Uaxactun, Aguateca and Ceibal have been visited. Not all pictured. 

— 4 —

Nature has been spotted:

Just the tiniest fraction. Most photos were taken with the camera. The oddest thing is – you think before you go to somewhere like this that Seeing a monkey in the wild in a tree will be the most amazing thing ever!” And the first two times, it is. And then you realize that they’re like Guatemalan squirrels, and you get over it.

— 5 —

Food:

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And all of it has been fantastic, and none of it been served in anything but fairly basic restaurants. Comedors – sort of like a diner.

The very humbling thing is that every bit of it has been actual food, not  Cysco can contents warmed up or stuff from Sam’s or Cotsco’s thawed and heated. It’s real food, really cooked right there in the kitchen using ingredients that someone nearby either grew or caught or raised. This is real farm-to-table, and for far less than 30 bucks a plate and without the attitude or pretense.

Left: dining room in Flores. Right: Kitchen in village near Uaxactun ruins. 

— 6 —

And just encounters and experiences:

 

— 7 —

Oh, and Star Wars background scenes. That, too.

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For further reference…go here. 

 

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

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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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I’m out of blogging range at the moment, so enjoy this repeat from Mary Magdalene Week 2016…

Continuing with my “reprinting” of De-Coding Mary Magdalene.  This is a long chapter that lays out the claims of and arguments against the gnostic writings that some claim present Mary Magdalene as the special companion of Jesus and the leader of the real Christian movement, suppressed by the patriarchal Peter and his ilk.

In a way this is old news, for much of this moment seems to have passed beyond ten or so years ago when, thanks to The Da Vinci Code and other books, “Magdala Christianity” was all the rage in some quarters. It’s still around though. Do a search for “Mary Magdalene” “July 22” “celebration” and you’ll come up with plenty of nuggets:

Celebrating Mary Magdalene and her message which is so powerful for us at this time… and embracing the Magdalene within each and everyone of us and our story.

 

Find out how Mary the Mother and Mary Magdalene were part of an ancient Lineage of the Sacred Mystery Schools of Isis in Egypt. They were the Keepers of the Lineage of Light. Honoring the feminine was the deepest truth of the secret teachings of the Holy Grail. Discover why the Celtic Lineage of Feminine power holds a key to the healing of modern society. Revered as the sacred keepers of the mystical knowledge of the stars these women were the anointed ones who kept the frequencies of light alive in the darkest of times. Mary Magdalene’s in sacred partnership with Christ embodied the union of both sexual and spiritual beauty. Healing the split between sexual and spiritual power is a key for women of all cultures in these dark times.

Pope Francis has just aknowleged her as one of the beloved Apostles and although many of us have known this for many many years it is a direct call to honor the feminine throughout the world.

Pope declares Mary Magdalene the Apostle to the Apostles – this is huge!!!

The 2016 Feast Day of Mary Magdalene is now an internationally celebrated landmark occasion of the highest order because of the Pope. This paves the way for a major shift in consciousness regarding the state of women in the world. The Pope has taken a powerful stand. We celebrate and aligned with his decision to lift the Feast Day of Mary Magdalene and place her – on par with that of the other Apostles. …

Please join us and help spread the word of this incredible celebration that will prayerfully uplift the consciousness so all can see and feel the deep worthiness of women and deeply appreciate the men who join us in this sacred honoring. Who are we honoring— YOU— the sacred holy one as is expressed and danced and known in a greater and deeper truth. For who is Mary Magdalene in all of these different archetypes if not aspects of ourselves – aspects which we now elevate to the highest state.

Okay.

So on to chapter 3….

 

Over the past twenty years, interest in Mary Magdalene has exploded. Books, websites, seminars, and celebrations of her feast day on July 22 have multiplied, as many in the West, particularly women, look to her for inspiration.

Ironically, though, much of this interest in this great Christian saint is being fueled by texts other than the Christian Scriptures. The popular websites devoted to Mary Magdalene refer to her as “The Woman Who Knew All” (www.magdalene.org). One of the more popular treatments of Mary Magdalene, The Woman with theAlabaster Jar: Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail, by Margaret Starbird, emphasizes Mary as “Bride 9781879181038_p0_v2_s118x184and Beloved” of Jesus. And, of course, there’s The Da Vinci Code, the mega-selling novel that has brought these depictions of Mary Magdalene to a mass audience. Brown’s novel brings it all together in one convenient package: Mary Magdalene was the spouse of Jesus, bore his child, and was the person he really wanted to lead his movement. This movement, of course, was about nothing the New Testament suggests it is, but was rather a wisdom movement dedicated to help humanity reunite the masculine and feminine principles of reality.

So in this context, Mary Magdalene was the “real” Holy Grail, since she was the vessel that carried Jesus’ child and his teaching. But she’s more: she’s a “goddess” — a mythical figure through whom the divine can be encountered.

It’s all very confusing. It’s also ironic, given the constant modern criticism that the claims of traditional Christianity are suspect because they can’t be “proven,” or because the texts upon which its claims are based are too ancient to be trusted. The modern devotion that so many seem to have to this figure of Mary is actually based, in part, on far less trustworthy sources and has no relation to the Mary we meet in Scripture.

So where does it start? Of course, much of this revisioning is rooted completely in the present, in a mishmash of conspiracy theories, false history, and wishful thinking that we will address in the last chapter. But the truth is that Mary Magdalene wouldn’t be the subject of interest from many of her contemporary fans outside traditional Christianity if it weren’t for some other ancient texts: the writings produced by Gnostic Christian heresies.

Secret Knowledge

Here’s the short version. From about the second through the fifth centuries, a movement that we now call “Gnosticism” was popular in many areas around the Mediterranean basin. “Gnosticism” is a word derived from the Greek word gnosis, which means“knowledge.” Although there were various Gnostic teachers and movements over the centuries, most of them shared a few common characteristics, succinctly described by Father Richard Hogan in his book Dissent from the Creed: Heresies Past and Present (Our Sunday Visitor, 2001):

“Gnostics claimed a special knowledge,a gnosis. Included in this special gnosis was an understanding that there was God Who created the spiritual world and a lesser anti-god who was responsible for the material (evil) world. Gnosticism represents a belief in dualism.There is a good and an evil. Evil is material and physical. Good is spiritual and divine.

“According to the Gnostics, a disaster at the beginning of the world had imprisoned a divine ‘spark’ in human beings, i.e., in the evil world of material Creation.This divine element had lost the memory of heaven, its true home. Salvation consisted in knowing that this ‘spark’ existed and liberating it from the human body.” (Hogan, p. 43)

 

The creation myths of Gnosticism that describe this imprisonment are quite complex and intricate. Just as intricate were the Gnostic visions of what salvation was about. The emphasis, naturally, was on knowledge, rather than faith, life, or love. The way to salvation involved knowing the truth about human origins and then knowing the way to progress, both in this life and the next, through the various layers of reality that were imprisoning that sacred spark.

Early Gnosticism, which predates Christianity, drew from many sources, including Platonic philosophy and Egyptian mythology. Christian Gnosticism used the Gospels 516ywedgjtl-_sx321_bo1204203200_and other Christian traditions, eliminating elements that were not consistent with Gnostic thinking. So, for example, Gnostic Christian teachers taught that Jesus was not really human — since the material world is evil. Valentinus, who lived around the year 150 in Rome, taught an extraordinarily complex story of Jesus being the product of the yearnings of Sophia — the personification of wisdom. Historian David Christie-Murray describes it in the following way:

“Christ,who brings the revelation of gnosis (self-consciousness), clothed himself with Jesus at baptism and saves all spiritual mankind through his resurrection,but had only a spiritual body. Men can now become aware of their spiritual selves through him and return to their heavenly origin. When every spiritual being has received gnosis and becomes aware of the divinity within himself, the world-process will end. Christ and Sophia, after waiting at the entrance of the Pleroma [the center of spir-itual, divine life] for spiritual Man, will enter the bridal chamber to achieve their union,followed by the Gnostics and their higher selves, their guardian angels.” (A History of Heresy[Oxford UniversityPress, 1989], p. 29)

This is just one example, but Gnostic Christianity is really simply a variation on this theme: Creation is evil. Jesus was not fully human. He did not suffer or die. Redemption cannot, of course, be achieved through such a means, for it involves the material body, which is sinful anyway. Salvation is not available to all, but only those with special knowledge. This way of thinking infiltrated many other systems of the time, including Christianity.

Those who tried to merge Gnostic thinking with Christianity produced writings, some of which survive, mostly in the context of quotations in the works of Christian writers arguing against them. In the late nineteenth century, some Gnostic Christian texts, not seen before, were discovered, and even more in the mid-twentieth century. The discovery of these texts caused a stir among some who believed that, more than giving an insight into a Christian heresy, these texts opened a world to what they believed could be the real story of Christianity that was concealed by orthodox Christian leaders.

Consequently, over the past century or so, these Gnostic texts have been rediscovered and reinterpreted. Some have taken their existence as proof that there was a whole other, and long-hidden, response to Jesus’ ministry, one with roots as ancient as those we see in the Gospels, and just as legitimate. The modern re-visioning of Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ bride, as the special recipient of his wisdom, and as the foundress of an alternative mode of Christianity owes much to the fascination with these Gnostic writings.

Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on your point of view — what we actually know of the history of early Christianity just can’t back up these exalted claims for Mary Magdalene or even of any substantive link between Jesus’ ministry and Gnostic Christianity and Gnostic writings.

The simplest way to put it is this: Gnostic Christian texts tell us a lot about Gnostic Christian heresies in the second through the fifth centuries. They tell us nothing about the historical figures of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Peter, or the origins of Christianity in the first century.

So what follows is that these Gnostic texts tell us nothing substantive about the real Mary Magdalene, either, and that all those who use them in that way are engaging in, at best, misguided efforts, and, at worst, deceitful misuses of historical materials.

But it continues, nonetheless, and for a reason: this technique of suggesting that the Gnostic Christian texts reveal secret truths about early Christianity and who Jesus “really” was and what he “really” taught serves to undercut not only the New Testament but also the Church that produced it and is formed by it.

As I’ve done talk radio shows discussing this matter, I’ve heard it again and again: “All of these works were written so long after the events they describe — they’re all equally dependable and undependable. What version of Jesus you choose doesn’t matter, for there’s no way to know the truth, anyway.”

That’s just not true. Early Christianity was an enormously complex movement, about which we cannot claim to know everything.

But we do know — and any serious scholar will affirm — that Jesus did not teach Gnostic platitudes and did not marry Mary Magdalene, who then embarked on a life of teaching Gnostic platitudes of her own and emanating divine energy.

It just didn’t happen.

But because these Gnostic texts are so important in so many contemporary treatments of Mary Magdalene, we definitely need to look at them and understand what they’re really about.

 

Know Nothing

 

It’s somewhat challenging to describe Gnosticism because it wasn’t an organized movement, a religion, or even a homogeneous philosophical school. Perhaps the best way to describe it would be to compare it to the self-help movement of our day. For some reason, in the last part of the twentieth century, this notion of the importance of self-esteem took hold in our culture and infiltrated almost every aspect of life, including religion.Two hundred years ago, Christian thinkers and preachers of any denomination would have been appalled at the suggestion that a goal of Christian faith is to help the believer feel better about herself or help her overcome insecurities and self-doubts. On the contrary, despite their differences, Chris-tians and Protestants alike would have described the goal of the Christian life as believing rightly and shaping your life in a way that meet’s God’s standards and spares one an eternity in hell.

Gnosticism was, of course, more complex and cosmic than this. But it’s a decent example to start with, for, like the self-esteem movement, Gnosticism wasn’t confined to groups that identified themselves explicitly as “Gnostic” and separate from other religions. It infiltrated and impacted almost everything it rubbed against, including Judaism and Christianity.

You can see the problems. Gnosticism wasn’t a minor movement. In most major cities of the Roman Empire during these centuries, Gnosticism and even Gnostic Christianity thrived. Most of our knowledge of Gnostic Christianity comes from its Christian opponents, great theologians like St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, and St. Clement of Alexandria, who all wrote against Valentinus, for exam-ple, and quoted copiously from his writings in doing so.

But independent copies of some Gnostic Christian texts do exist, and it’s these texts that form the basis of the modern, non-Christian devotion to Mary Magdalene.

 

Ancient Words

 

In the nineteenth century, several discoveries broadened scholarly comprehension, and eventually popular understanding, of Gnosticism. An ancient work of the Christian Hippolytus, Refutationof All Heresies, lost for centuries, was discovered in 1842 in a Greek monastery. This work, of course, quoted many heretics, including Gnostics. More important to many was the rediscovery (in the British Museum) and then translation of Pistis Sophia (into English in 1896), a probably third-century work in which Mary Mag-dalene — and Mary, the mother of Jesus, by the way — figure prominently in dialogue with Christ. Snippets of other Gnostic texts existed, but the real revolution in this area came in 1945 with the discovery in Egypt of the Nag Hammadi library, a collection of Coptic texts, bound in leather, and dating from the late fourth and early fifth centuries, that included many Gnostic works (as well as a partial copy of Plato’s Republic). Hidden in jars and stored in caves, it is thought that the library belonged to a Gnostic Christian monastery.

 

The Nag Hammadi collection contains fifty texts in thirteen codices (a form of book), three of which — the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Dialogue of the Savior — are of interest to those intrigued with Mary Magdalene. Other Gnostic texts believed to mention Mary Magdalene, and found outside the Nag Hammadi library, are the Gospel of Mary and the Pistis Sophia. These texts emerged from different periods and reflect different strands of Gnosticism. All are discussions between Jesus and various other figures, mostly about the nature of the soul, the after-life, and the end of time. Let’s take a brief look at how each of them treats the figure called “Mary.”

 

Pistis Sophia (third century)

 

This work consists of extensive dialogues between Jesus, who has been on earth teaching for eleven years since the Crucifixion, and others, including women. Mary, his mother, takes an enormous role, and several times a “Mary,” not explicitly identified as either his mother or anyone else, including Mary of Magdala, is mentioned and praised for her understanding, and is even the subject of envy by other disciples.

 

The Gospel of Philip (third century)

 

This work is made up of dialogues and sayings of Jesus in conversation with his disciples. It mentions the Magdalene, “who was called his companion,” along with “Mary his mother and her sister,” as three who “always walked with the Lord.” The passage, quite provocative to some, ends with the sentence, “His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.”

This work also contains the passage describing Jesus as kissing Mary Magdalene often and the rest of the disciples disapproving,asking, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” Jesus’ answer is obscure, but implies that she is more enlightened than they are. Those who see this kiss bestowed by Jesus as an expression of a unique companionate relationship are missing the point in a big way. In Gnosticism, the kiss is symbolic. As one scholar points out: “The Logos lives in those whom he has kissed, hence the disciples’ jealousy, for they are not yet worthy of the kiss” (Jorunn Jacob-sen Buckley, quoted in The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages, by Katherine Ludwig Jansen [Princeton University Press, 2000], p. 27).

 

The Gospel of Thomas (third century)

 

This, the most well-known of all the Gnostic writings, is a collection of sayings, many of which are also found in the canonical Gospels, but with a heavy dose of the androgynous themes that contemporary readers find so appealing. A “Mary” is mentioned once (the other female character is a “Salome”), as Peter asks Jesus to make her leave. Jesus, in a passage that is not often quoted by modern fans of this gospel, says, “I myself will lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”

 

The Gospel of Mary (third century)

 

This is another dialogue, this time beginning with Jesus but ending with a “Mary,” who is identified as the one Jesus loved “more than the rest of the women” and as the primary teacher, in a rather subtle competition, it seems, with Peter.

 

A ‘Few’ Problems

 

These, then, are the basic texts that modern devotees of Mary Magdalene use to support their case that she was an important leader of early Christianity, and probably in an intimate relation-ship with Jesus — but even if not, that her wisdom was esteemed by him above the other male disciples, and that there was friction between Mary Magdalene and the male disciples. This friction, in the eyes of some, reflects a real, historical division in early Christianity between those who followed Mary as a teacher and those who followed Peter.

There are numerous problems with using these documents to support this view of Mary Magdalene. Let’s look at a few of them.

To begin with, this position assumes that the Gnostic texts reflect first-century events. The simple truth is, they do not. No scholars date any of the texts earlier than the second or third centuries. The view they present of Jesus, his teachings, and his ministry are radically different from what we read in the Gospels, which were all composed before the end of the first century. Scholars of all types consistently consider the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament to be the starting point for studying the history of early Christianity. They may disagree on what the texts mean, but none would suggest, for example, that the Gospel of Mary is of equal value with the canonical Gospels in determining what the early Jesus movement was all about.

518hvfnbhsl-_ac_ul320_sr210320_No, the Gnostic texts “tell” us exactly what they should: namely, the ways that Gnostic Christian heretics took the basics of the Christian story and molded them to fit Gnostic thinking. Since some elements of Gnosticism were interested in questions of gender and androgyny, that concern is reflected in some texts, and in the roles played by female figures. They might reflect a greater role for women in some Gnostic sects, or they might even reflect a desire to demean the role of Peter, recognized as the chosen leader of orthodox Christianity.

But if you take the time to read these works yourself, you’ll see that they are radically different from the canonical Gospels in tone and content. (The Gnostic texts are not long, and all are available on the Internet. The Gospel of Mary, at least the fragment that we have today, is reproduced in full in Appendix B of this book.) The canonical Gospels, with all of their very human, flawed figures, are reflective of an attempt to present events accurately, through the prism of faith, certainly, but accurately nonetheless. The Gnostic writings are preachy, tendentious, obtuse, and . . . well . . . Gnostic in their concerns.

So the contemporary thinkers who suggest that a strand of “Magdalene Christianity” was born from Mary’s early leadership that was eventually suppressed by those loyal to Peter are basing their conclusions on the most tenuous of threads: that these Gnostic writings, written some two hundred years after the fact by Gnostics, reflect an ancient, hidden relationship between Mary and Jesus.

Let’s take this one step further. Who’s to say that the “Mary” mentioned in all of these writings is, each and every time, Mary Magdalene?

After all, there are only a couple of incidents — in the Gospelof Philip and Pistis Sophia — in which the Magdalene is specifically mentioned. The much-vaunted Gospel of Mary speaks only of a “Mary,” does not specify the Magdalene, and gives no identifying clues to tie her into the historical figure of Mary Magdalene, despite modern editions tacking “Magdalene” on to the title. Even the Gospel of Philip, which has been held up by many as evidence of a “companion” relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, is not as clear as it seems on who that Mary is. A close reading of the text indicates, a growing number of modern scholars suggest, that the female figure is a composite, mythical “Mary,” representing the feminine aspect of reality.

One of the features of some contemporary celebrations of Mary Magdalene is that the Gnostic writings indicate a tension between her and Peter and the other disciples, thereby implying a separate strand of “Magdalene Christianity.” Entire books have been written on this. That view, of course, is dependent on reading these Gnostic texts as if the Mary in conflict with the disciples is, in fact, Mary Magdalene. That’s by no means certain.

In the Pistis Sophia, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is described as being in conflict with the disciples. On a couple of other occasions, another Mary is described in the same way, and many assume this Mary is Mary Magdalene, although she is not explicitly identified in this way. However, some scholars — looking at the way this Mary is described, as “blessed among women” and “called blessed by all generations” — believe that a case could be made for identifying this Mary as Jesus’ mother. At the very least, it is not certain at all that she is Mary Magdalene, who does, in turn, play a prominent role in the dialogues in Book Two of the work.

Scholar Stephen J. Shoemaker summarizes this perspective:

In summary then, the Gnostic Mary’s identity is by no means a simple matter, nor is her identification with Mary of Magdala as certain as it is frequently asserted in modern scholarship. The particular spelling of the name Mary is in no way a reliable criterion distinguishing the two women, even though this is the most frequently advanced argument in favor of the Gnostic Mary’s identity with Mary of Magdala. If anything, the spellings Mariam and Mariamme appear to favor an identification with Mary of Nazareth, as I have demonstrated elsewhere. Likewise, the writings of the New Testament fail to resolve this problem, since they show both Marys to have equally been important figures in early Christian memory. Even the Magdalene’s role as apostola apostolorum in the fourth gospel does not tip the balance in her favor, since in early Christian Syria, where it seems most likely that the Gnostic Mary traditions first developed, it was believed that Christ first appeared to his mother, Mary of Nazareth, commissioning her with a revelation to deliver to his followers.

Moreover, despite frequent assertions to the contrary, there is significant evidence that early Christians occasionally imagined Mary of Nazareth in situations similar to those in which the Gnostic Mary is found: she converses with her risen son, expounds on the cosmic mysteries, and reveals her son’s secret teachings to the apostles, with whom she is occasionally seen to be in strife. Such is especially evident in the Pistis Sophia, a text whose interpretation has been tightly controlled by the last century’s interpretive dogmas. Both this text and the Gospel according to Philip make clear that the Gnostic Mary traditions do not have only a single Mary in view. Although many will no doubt continue to take refuge in the Gospel according to Philip’s description of Mary Magdalene as the Savior’s favorite, we should not forget that the New Testament identifies Mary of Nazareth as the ‘favored one,’ who has ‘found favor with God.’ (“Rethinking the ‘Gnostic Mary’: Mary of Nazareth and Mary of Magdala in Early Christian Tradition,” Journal of Early Christian Stud-ies, 9:4, pp. 588-589)

 

Why take so much time to unpack this? Because it’s terrifically important in getting Mary Magdalene right. Many contemporary activists have adopted Mary Magdalene as a representative of an alternative vision of Christianity, based partly on wishful thinking, partly on her role in the canonical Gospels, but confirmed, in their minds, by the evidence of these Gnostic writings. In them, they see traces of an ancient tension, an ancient movement within the followers of Jesus that held up Mary Magdalene as a wisdom teacher, as the one Jesus designated as his successor.

Their vision sounds plausible to those unfamiliar with the original texts, or even to those who only read them in translation, interpreting them according to the assumptions of the promoters of “Magdalene Christianity.” But ancient texts are usually not as simple to interpret as we think or would like to think.

A careful, objective reading shows, quite simply, first, that the figure of Mary of Nazareth played an unquestionably important role in some Gnostic texts. Why hasn’t she been chosen and celebrated by modern interpreters as the special chosen one of Jesus? Second, while Mary Magdalene does appear in these texts, most of the evidence for “Magdalene Christianity” is derived from the presence of a “Mary” who is, in fact, not clearly identified as Mary Magdalene, and is probably either a mythical composite female figure or Mary of Nazareth. Most importantly, though, all of the figures in these Gnostic writings really function on a level of symbol more than historical reality. Scripture scholar John P. Meir sums up the case quite well:

 

“I do not think that the . . . Nag Hammadi codices (in particular the Gospel of Thomas) offer us reliable new information or authentic sayings that are independent of the NT [New Testa-ment].What we see in these later documents is rather the reac-tion to or reworking of NT writings by . . . gnostic Christians developing a mystic speculative system.” (A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus,Vol. 1 [Doubleday, 1991], p. 140)

As we will see throughout the rest of this book, Mary Magdalene is a great saint, and a woman worthy of our interest and honor. But there is simply no evidence that she was who her modern interpreters would like her to be. The Gnostic texts that they use to make the case tell us nothing about early Christianity in the first century, and the “hints” that some read in them, suggesting an ancient tradition being preserved about a leadership role for Mary Magdalene in competition with Peter, are by no means certainly about Mary Magdalene, and in some cases might even refer to Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Further, if you read the documents yourself, you will see how ambiguous they really are, how easily they lend themselves to selective reading, and even how, in parts, the Gnostic writings contradict what their modern proponents would have them say.

 

In short, when dealing with Mary Magdalene, Jesus, and the Gnostics, don’t trust the interpreters. Go right to the source.

 

Questions for Reflection

  1. What was Gnosticism? Do you see traces of Gnostic thinking in the world today?
  2. How do some try to use Gnostic writings in regard to Mary Magdalene? What are the flaws to their approach?
  3. What do the Gnostic writings tell us about the Mary Magdalene of history?

 

 

 

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