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Gregory’s story has a lot to teach us about that tricky thing called discernment.

Back in 2008, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI devoted two General Audiences to this saint.  He began with a helpful outline of his life – born into an important Roman family, serving as prefect of Rome, turning his family’s land into a monastery togregory the greatwhich he retired, then entering the service of the pope during very difficult times in Rome, including the plague, which killed the pope, and then…

The clergy, people and senate were unanimous in choosing Gregory as his successor to thend  See of Peter. He tried to resist, even attempting to flee, but to no avail: finally, he had to yield. The year was 590.

Recognising the will of God in what had happened, the new Pontiff immediately and enthusiastically set to work. From the beginning he showed a singularly enlightened vision of realty with which he had to deal, an extraordinary capacity for work confronting both ecclesial and civil affairs, a constant and even balance in making decisions, at times with courage, imposed on him by his office.

Benedict engages in some more analysis in the second GA. This is useful and important to read. 

Wanting to review these works quickly, we must first of all note that, in his writings, Gregory never sought to delineate “his own” doctrine, his own originality. Rather, he intended to echo the traditional teaching of the Church, he simply wanted to be the mouthpiece of Christ and of the Church on the way that must be taken to reach God. His exegetical commentaries are models of this approach.

And that is what any teacher of the faith, especially a pastor, is called to do.

Moving on:

Probably the most systematic text of Gregory the Great is the Pastoral Rule, written in the first years of his Pontificate. In it Gregory proposed to treat the figure of the ideal Bishop, the teacher and guide of his flock. To this end he illustrated the seriousness of the office of Pastor of the Church and its inherent duties. Therefore, those who were not called to this office may not seek it with superficiality, instead those who assumed it without due reflection necessarily feel trepidation rise within their soul. Taking up again a favourite theme, he affirmed that the Bishop is above all the “preacher” par excellence; for this reason he must be above all an example for others, so that his behaviour may be a point of reference for all. Efficacious pastoral action requires that he know his audience and adapt his words to the situation of each person: here Gregory paused to illustrate the various categories of the faithful with acute and precise annotations, which can justify the evaluation of those who have also seen in this work a treatise on psychology. From this one understands that he really knew his flock and spoke of all things with the people of his time and his city.

Nevertheless, the great Pontiff insisted on the Pastor’s duty to recognize daily his own unworthiness in the eyes of the Supreme Judge, so that pride did not negate the good accomplished. For this the final chapter of the Rule is dedicated to humility: “When one is pleased to have achieved many virtues, it is well to reflect on one’s own inadequacies and to humble oneself: instead of considering the good accomplished, it is necessary to consider what was neglected”. All these precious indications demonstrate the lofty concept that St Gregory had for the care of souls, which he defined as the “ars artium”, the art of arts. The Rule had such great, and the rather rare, good fortune to have been quickly translated into Greek and Anglo-Saxon.

Another significant work is the Dialogues. In this work addressed to his friend Peter, the deacon, who was convinced that customs were so corrupt as to impede the rise of saints as in times past, Gregory demonstrated just the opposite: holiness is always possible, even in difficult times.

He proved it by narrating the life of contemporaries or those who had died recently, who could well be considered saints, even if not canonised. The narration was accompanied by theological and mystical reflections that make the book a singular hagiographical text, capable of enchanting entire generations of readers. The material was drawn from the living traditions of the people and intended to edify and form, attracting the attention of the reader to a series of questions regarding the meaning of miracles, the interpretation of Scripture, the immortality of the soul, the existence of Hell, the representation of the next world – all themes that require fitting clarification. Book II is wholly dedicated to the figure of Benedict of Nursia and is the only ancient witness to the life of the holy monk, whose spiritual beauty the text highlights fully.

Above all he was profoundly convinced that humility should be the fundamental virtue for every Bishop, even more so for the Patriarch. Gregory remained a simple monk in his heart and therefore was decisively contrary to great titles. He wanted to be – and this is his expression – servus servorum Dei.Coined by him, this phrase was not just a pious formula on his lips but a true manifestation of his way of living and acting. He was intimately struck by the humility of God, who in Christ made himself our servant. He washed and washes our dirty feet. Therefore, he was convinced that a Bishop, above all, should imitate this humility of God and follow Christ in this way. His desire was to live truly as a monk, in permanent contact with the Word of God, but for love of God he knew how to make himself the servant of all in a time full of tribulation and suffering. He knew how to make himself the “servant of the servants”. Precisely because he was this, he is great and also shows us the measure of true greatness.

And he’s in The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints. 

amy-welborn-bookgregory-the-great

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Be bloody, bold, and resolute.
Laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth.

Well, that’s not appropriate, is it? Okay, not really, but it’s what naturally popped into my head when I learned about today’s saint and what his name means…

Born in Spain in the 13th century, yet “not born” – the meaning of his nickname, nonnatus. How could that be? Because he was taken from mother, who had died in labor, one month prematurely. The meaning of “born” was via the birth canal, hence emerging via Caesarean section would not come under the strict definition of “born.” (Sorry for the Macbeth spoiler, there.)

Raymond, once an adult, joined the Mercederians:

The Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy is an international community of priests and brothers who live a life of prayer and communal fraternity. In addition to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, their members take a special fourth vow to give up their own selves for others whose faith is in danger.

The Order, also called the Mercedarians, or Order of Mercy, was founded in 1218 in Spain by St. Peter Nolasco Raymond Nonnatusto redeem Christian captives from their Muslim captors. The Order exists today in 17 countries, including Spain, Italy, Brazil, India, and the United States. In the U.S., its student house is in Philadelphia, and it also has houses in New York, Florida, and Ohio.

Today, friars of the Order of Mercy continue to rescue others from modern types of captivity, such as social, political, and psychological forms. They work in jails, marginal neighborhoods, among addicts, and in hospitals. In the United States, the Order of Mercy gives special emphasis to educational and parish work.

****

According to the most reliable Mercedarian tradition, Saint Raymond was born in the town of Portello, situated in the Segarra region of the Province of Lérida at the dawn of the thirteenth century. He was given the surname of Nonnatus or not born because he came into the world through an inspired and urgent incision which the Viscount of Cardona made with a dagger in the abdomen of the dead mother. In his adolescence and early youth, Raymond devoted himself to pasturing a flock of sheep in the vicinity of a Romanesque hermitage dedicated to Saint Nicholas where an image of the Virgin Mary was venerated. His devotion to the Holy Mother of Jesus started there.

He joined the Order of Mercy at a very early age. Father Francisco Zumel relates that young Raymond was a “student of the watchful first brother and Master of the Order, Peter Nolasco.” Therefore, Raymond was a redeemer of captives in Moorish lands. In a redemption which took place in Algiers, they had to stay behind as hostages. It was then that he endured the torment of having his lips sealed with an iron padlock to prevent him from addressing consoling words to Christian captives and from preaching the liberating good news of the Gospel. After he had been rescued by his Mercedarian brothers, Pope Gregory IX appointed him Cardinal of the Church of San Eustaquio. Summoned by the Supreme Pontiff, Raymond was on his way to Rome when he met death in the strong and rocky castle of Cardona in 1240

The image above is from our visit to the Museo de Bellas Artes in Seville – a statue of San Ramon Nonato, as it would be in Spanish. 

He is invoked as a patron of childbirth expectant mothers, midwives, the falsely accused and others.

Here’s a pdf  with more detail about his life. 

Some other interesting facts:

A few years ago, Pope Francis declared a “Year of Mercy.”  It might be helpful to consider that this “beating heart of the Gospel”  – the merciful love of God – has been lived out, shared, expressed and embodied in countless ways over the past two thousand years, not least in the ordinary, amazing thing that happens thousands of times every day in every nation, in which Christ meets us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

It is helpful to study and reflect on the creative and courageous ways in which the saints have reached out to the peripheries and margins with God’s mercy and freedom, risking their own physical lives for the sake of the souls of others.

So here, we have an entire religious order (not the only one) established to share God’s mercy in a particular apostolate, and today’s saint willingly and joyfully devoted his life to this – mercy.

 

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From: The Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols

 

And here we go with chapter 4 of Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies.  This chapter covers the earliest stages of patristic thinking about the saint. It’s shorter.

(Why do this? Because her feast is Monday – July 22.)

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  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

For the entire book, available for Kindle for .99 – 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 attended Vanderbilt for my MA.   I was in the graduate school, but my classes were in Vanderbilt Divinity School. (Difference?  I was going for an MA in Church History, not an M.Div – a professional degree. So, Graduate School, not Div School). Most of my classmates were being educated for ministry in some Protestant denomination, mostly Methodist (Vanderbilt being an historically Methodist school) or Lutheran.

One afternoon, I was talking to a friend, a woman who was a Lutheran seminarian.  I cannot remember what seminar we were taking together, but the topic of our conversation was the paper for the course. What would we write about?  We ran over topics, we mused, we discussed.

And what struck me, and what sticks in my mind almost 30 years (!) later  – it’s so weird that I can remember even that we were standing in an office of some sort, talking –  was her end of the conversation. As I said, I don’t remember which class this was, but every possible paper topic she considered had, of course, Martin Luther at the center.  Luther’s views on……Whatever topic as seen through the prism of Luther’s thoughts….     Understanding X in the context of Luther’s writings on Galatians….

And I thought…

How boring.

How boring to have your Christianity defined by the perspective of one theologian who lived in one tiny corner of Christian history. 

(Sorry, Lutherans!)

I’ve thought of that often in the years since, as I’ve been grateful for the dynamic, if sometimes fraught diversity of Catholicism,which simply reflects the reality of what happens when the Word becomes Flesh.  In the Catholic context, it’s most clearly seen, of course, in religious orders, all of which have different – sometimes radically different – charisms and spiritual sensibilities, but co-exist in the awareness that the body as many parts: Dominicans, Franciscans, Benedictines, Jesuits, Cistercians, active orders of women and men….etc.

So it has been over the past few years that I have marveled at some people’s insistence that Pope Francis, in his priorities and public expressions, defines  – or is in the process of redefining Catholicism. What? Actually, that’s not supposed to be the way it is – Catholicism is supposed to define him, as is the case with all of us.  Five tips for happiness from Pope Francis. How can bishops and priests be more like Pope Francis? Following Pope Francis this Lent…..Want to live like Pope Francis?

In addition, as social media takes over the scene and everything, even spirituality, seems to be filtered through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and the like, we see the dominance of I guess what you could call inspirational influencers, people of all denominations and traditions who’ve grabbed these platforms in the name of “faith sharing” and “inspiring” but somehow managed to invariably place themselves – their daily lives, their past and present struggles and victories, their children, their adventures, their advice, their personal care regimes – all at the center of your feed. Constantly.

There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by the particular charism and angle of a particular figure – of course! I certainly am!  A particular figure can help us draw closer to Jesus and the Church, certainly – that person can be our grandmother, our friend, a pastor, a friend, a writer or mystic, an activist or the Pope.  We can see something in that person that sparks us to take a closer look at Christ.

At Christ. 

Just as is the case with religious orders, so it is with saints. As far as I’m concerned, children’s religious education could be totally designed around the lives and thoughts of the saints – you get it all – spiritual formation, history, theology, ecclesiology, liturgy. Boom.

So here are the major saints from this coming week’s calendar (beginning today) – a typical week, really, expressing the diversity of Christ’s Church and the generous way in which God’s grace permeates all of life, at every stage, in every walk of life and every type of person.  We have men and

EPSON MFP image

women, clergy, secular rulers, mystics, martyrs and a fisherman.

These saints  would certainly welcome you, advise you to the best of their ability, teach you, listen to you, pray with you and be glad that you were inspired by some element of their life and thinking, but would also be horrified to think that you might be defining your Christian faith by their particular spiritual path rather than that of Christ through His Church.  Because, you know, that’s humility. Real humility, which understands when stuff is becoming to much about yourself and your personal vision and in humility – backs off.

In most of these images, the gaze of the saints is certainly fixed, and in their example, they invite us to look, not at them, but with them.

"amy welborn"

July 20: Apolinnaris

July 21: Lawrence of Brindisi, Doctor of the Church

July 22: Mary Magdalene

July 23: Bridget of Sweden

July 24: Charbel Maklhouf

July 25: James, Apostle

Come back every day this week for a bit more on each of these saints. 

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Continuing with my “reprint” of portions of Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies. (Part 1, Part 2)  This is a long chapter that lays out the claims of and arguments against the gnostic writings that some have asserted 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. If you do a quick search, you’ll see some related events next week, and I’m sure there are more:

We welcome you to join us July 20, 21, and 22nd for our Online Mary Magdalene Sisterhood Retreat! …One of the Keeper’s of The Rose Code Lineage, Mary Magdalene’s Presence is re-emerging strongly on the planet during this time of pivotal shift through our consciousness and guiding us in remembering our Feminine Womb Power, Erotic Innocence, Sacred Relationship, Service, Rapture, and Devotion.

Women of Wisdom in conjunction with Movement For Peace will be part of the 3rd Annual Global Event called Awakening the Magdalene in a Powerful Global Prayer For Peace. This event is being coordinated with events being held in Spain, France and Scotland, where people will be engaged in the prayer for peace. Event is free and will include walking the labyrinth to experience the peace and spirit of Mary Magdalene, exposure to Yoga Nidra, Cranial Sacral Therapy, Art as Meditation, and more. 

And these gnostic writings are still widely misread, so it’s worth reviewing what they are – and aren’t.

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, Christians 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, Refutation of 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 Magdalene — 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?

Below: The pages on Mary Magdalene from the Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols. As a new school year approaches, please consider purchasing copies of this and other Loyola Kids titles for your local Catholic parish and school!

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I got a little hung up on the trip blogging because at some point I decided I should just go through the entire trip in order – and that quickly became a discouraging, daunting task. Mostly because I thought I might do a single post on Seville, but we were there for two weeks, and..what should I do?

So last night, I said, forget it. I’ll just blog topically and randomly, as is my wont. It will all be eventually organized in the proper order on the Travel page anyway.

When we went to Madrid several years ago (my daughter was working in Germany, and this was our way of meeting her for spring break – we’d been to Germany at Thanksgiving and she was ready for a change of scenery by that point), Toledo emerged as a possible day trip, but it lost out to Segovia, and I’m glad. Toledo is filled with daytrippers, and I think we got more out of our time there from not being a part of those hordes.

You might know the aspect of Toledo from El Greco, who settled here and painted it, memorably.

Image result for el greco toledo

That’s all I knew about it, really. Striking setting, old, former capitol. I’d considered staying for longer, and I’m glad we didn’t. Two days was enough. Not that we saw every corner, but there was something about the place that made me ready to leave.

There’s really no mystery about it – and it wasn’t the fact that it was blisteringly hot (high 90’s) during our time there. As I walked around, the best comparison I could come up with was Venice. Toledo certainly has more actual residents than Venice does, even in that historic center – I saw them shopping and sitting in government services waiting rooms (I wasn’t in those waiting rooms – the doors were wide open to the street), and you can see that the city spreads far out beyond the iconic rise on the river bend. But that historic center does seem predominantly tourist-centered in a way that, say, Seville, wasn’t. When I travel, what I enjoy experiencing is that mix of deep history and culture in the midst of vibrant contemporary life. Toledo struck me as more of a museum. Interesting with lots to see in a stunning setting – but still, a museum.

So – I’m definitely glad we went. The Cathedral was spectacular, with one of the most helpful and engaging audio guides I’ve heard, the setting was beautiful and thought-provoking and seeing the El Grecos – memorable. But I didn’t regret leaving – I didn’t think, “I could come back here” as I’ve felt in some other places, large (Seville), medium (Padova, Italy) and small (Uzes, France).

As I mentioned, we didn’t stay in the center. In retrospect, having walked around and seen some of the parking areas, I think we definitely could have managed a different arrangement with a hotel closer in – but not knowing the layout, I was hesitant to commit. So the Marriott it was! 

It’s about a kilometer from the center, and walkable, but…not in near 100 degree heat. I mean – you could do it, I suppose, but starting your day out with a kilometer walk, partly uphill, in that kind of weather, doesn’t make for a great rest of the day. So we took the bus which stopped on the hour right outside the hotel.

Highlights:

Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes, founded by Ferdinand and Isabella, who intended to be buried here, but ended up in Grenada. I highlight for you the weird monkey on a chamber pot and the prayer on display before the high altar, also pictured. It was nice to see what was on display presented in a way consistent with its original (and continuing) purpose.

 

 

El Greco Museum. There are, of course, several El Greco pieces on display in situ around Toledo, but photographs are not allowed in most of those places. Here at the El Greco Museum, they were – it’s basically a replica of his house, built by some wealthy fellow to highlight a collection. It’s not expensive to get in (maybe 4 Euros? And that was just for me), and it’s not huge, but it’s worth seeing, especially for these portraits of the apostles.

We arrived just as a huge, boisterous group of senior citizens did – so boisterous they had to be shushed by the attendants – glad they were having a good time! But we were able to outrun them and reach the important rooms before they got there.

 

 

We did walk back to our hotel that night – it cooled down a bit, and I wanted to see the area down by the river. You can’t see it from the photos, but fish of some sort were attempting to swim upstream over the little “falls.”

 

 

IMG_20190625_213337It’s one of my favorite parts of traveling – those early evening hours when you’re wandering back “home” and people are horsing around. They drive me a little nuts, but thinking about traveling on my own without them? Doesn’t actually hold much appeal to me.

Next morning – view from the hotel and breakfast.

 

 

Then, on the bus, up to the city. First stop: the Jesuit church of San Ildenfonso – wonderful art inside, and a tower with a great view:

 

 

My favorite detail on the Mary statue is that she’s holding the sword aimed at the dragon’s head. Awesome.

Then, the Cathedral. It is…huge. You don’t just wander in – I think it was ten Euros to enter and tour, and that is a price I can’t argue with. You can mutter, “It’s a church, you shouldn’t charge to enter it,” but with a structure like this, of great historic importance and such an attraction – sure. There’s no way you could maintain the structure and offer the experience without charging something, and ten Euros struck me as very reasonable. I don’t often get audio guides, but I’m certainly glad we got this one – it was very well done, with the explanations just the right length, and engaging as well. You can, of course, read about the Toledo Cathedral in all sorts of places and see wonderful, better images, so here are just a few:

 

 

Some notes:

The St. Christopher is huge – the length of a wall. The audio guide explained that it was a popular belief that if you saw an image of St. Christopher, you’d be protected from death on that day – so they painted this image of the saint so, well…no one could miss seeing it when they entered! Burgos had a similarly huge St. Christopher painted in their cathedral.

In the photo on the third row to the right, you see an oculus – it’s part of a fascinating structure, including a highly ornamented piece opposite – called El Transparente. More:

El Transparente is a Baroque altarpiece in the ambulatory of the Cathedral of Toledo. Its name refers to the unique illumination provided by a large skylight cut very high up into the thick wall across the ambulatory, and another hole cut into the back of the altarpiece itself to allow shafts of sunlight to strike the tabernacle. This lower hole also allows persons in the ambulatory to see through the altarpiece to the tabernacle, as if were transparent, so to speak. It was created in 1729-1732 by Narciso Tomé and his four sons (two architects, one painter and one sculptor). The use of light and of mixed materials (marble, bronze, paint, stucco) may reflect the influence of Bernini’s Cathedra Petri in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome.

….

Not only was a skylight cut into the top of the thick back wall of the cathedral across the ambulatory behind the high altar, but another hole was cut into the high altar itself to allow the shafts of sunlight to illuminate the tabernacle like a spotlight.

After the two holes were cut, Tomé and his sons designed a way to visually connect the two by sculpting a fantastic company of angels, saints, prophets and cardinals. Abstract designs suggesting flowing robes and foliage hang over corners to mask the details of the architectural piercings. Along the edges of the skylight they arranged an array of Biblical figures who seem to tumble into the cathedral. At the outer edge of the opening sits Christ on a bank of clouds and surrounded by angels. The back side of the altarpiece was converted to a tower of marble which reaches from the floor to the ceiling. Intricate groups of figures were assembled so that the opening to the tabernacle could be hidden yet permit light to pass through.

The photo to the far right on the last row? Paschal Candle holder.

I was struck, as I always am, every time, in places like this, by sights such as you see in the photo on the right in the second row. Dozens – even, given the course of traffic in a single day – hundreds or thousands – of people standing, studying these images, which are not just images, but images that tell a story – the story of Jesus, the story that meets the deepest yearnings of the heart of every person standing there.

We wonder, we worry, constantly – how do we get people into churches? 

Guess what – in places like this – here they are. Here they are. 

 

We stopped in many other churches, ate some very good middle-eastern food, bought IMG_20190626_134620 (2)sweets from more cloistered nuns (left hand photos, top down), saw the remnants of what must have been a spectacular Corpus Christi procession, saw a couple more unphotographical El Grecos, then went back to the hotel to cool off, then – since it doesn’t get dark until about ten o’clock – headed out in the car, first to a castle south of the city. I’d read about it on TripAdvisor – it’s abandoned, high up on a hill – just what we needed to balance out the tourist hordes. The drive in the rental car was a little dicey – a rocky road with lots of switchbacks – but we did it, and my final bill from the rental car company arrived with no extra charges, so I guess I did fine. It was amazing and cooler up there than down below.

 

We then found a mall – this one – again, one of my favorite things to do when traveling. You can’t pay me to go into a mall in the United States, but I do love experiencing non-tourist shopping in other countries. It’s just so interesting to see what’s different – and what’s exactly the same. We ate at the food court, having found, of course a 100 Montaditos. The most popular restaurant, though? McDonald’s of course, and it wasn’t even close. The lines were five deep there – with Burger King right across the way, employees standing around, looking bored…

And the next morning….adios, Toledo! 

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Last post: Basic itinerary.

This post: how we got around:

 

In Seville, we mostly walked. And walked. And walked.

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Not usually with bulls, though. 

The central area of Seville is quite, quite walkable. Hardly anything more than a kilometer away – it would have been like nothing if it hadn’t been near or at a hundred degrees most days. We did the bus twice – the first time when we took our grandson/nephew down to the Aquarium from our apartment. Walking a mile and a half img_20190614_130303is fine, but not a great way to start the day with a five-year old if you would like to maintain his enthusiasm. Buses are much better for that. The second time involved the bullfight museum and the Basilica of La Macarena – Seville’s most revered image of the Virgin. I got the bright idea of going to the bullfight museum…but then we couldn’t get tickets for anytime earlier than 90 minutes from that moment. So I went ahead and got the tickets, and then got the next bright idea – that we’d go visit the Basilica – we had just enough time to do it, and All the Information told me it would be re-opening soon – at 4:30. It was just a little far to walk in that time, so sure – bus.

Well, we missed the bus the first time – we were standing in the shade a bit away, it swung by, paused….and left, with us running after it. Too bad! So we waited a few minutes until the next one came, took the bus up to the Basilica…and found that it actually didn’t re-open until five. Ah. By that point, I didn’t feel like walking back to the bus stop and waiting, so I just hailed a taxi to take us back – it was about 1 Euro more than the bus would have been for all of us.

The buses in Seville were – in my limited experience – prompt and clean. Very prompFare was $1.40, payable in cash, change actually given, which sort of shocked me.

Train to Cordoba was fine, although Spanish trains seem far more expensive than trains in at least Italy and France. Yes, they do offer discounts when you book in advance, and img_20190617_174007I’m sure Spanish residents use all sorts of plans and cards to get better deals, but still – I’ll just compare it to our brief stint in Italy. The train between Pisa and Lucca – about a 30 minute ride – was E 3.60, last minute, purchased before boarding. The train between Seville and Cordoba – longer, yes, but still a ride less than an hour – could not be had for less than E11, even in advance, and even on non-high-speed trains. I suppose there are differences in financial structures and support than impact that, but train travel in Spain was simply not as attractive as it had been in Italy in the past.

Above: walking to the Cordoba train station.

As I mentioned in the last post, I didn’t actually commit to renting a car for the second part of the trip until a couple of days before the moment arrived. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to do it, although I’d driven in other countries before, and one stop in the last part of our trip would necessitate a car, absolutely. But still, I would have occasional seizures of hesitancy, and scramble around Google Maps, trying to figure if there were other destinations we could explore that were more friendly to train travel. There might have been, but it would have required me re-arranging my brain – and some of the destinations (like Guadalupe) would have been incredibly complicated to visit if we’d not had a car.

So…a car it was. Rented from Hertz, through the Hertz site. About $200 for ten days, pickup in one city, dropoff in another, much insurance paid for plus insurance through my Amex card.

I am extremely wary of 3rd-party sites when it comes to things like car rentals in foreign countries. Having that extra layer of responsible parties just might mean adding one more party who doesn’t want to help you when things go wrong, handing you back to the party in the previous layer…who would also like to not bother with you, and hands you back.

I read a lot of travel disaster stories and a great many of them involve aspects of travel booked through third-party sites, it seems to me.

International Driver’s License obtained through AAA, as you’re told to do – pay $20, get a form that you can show cops. There’s all sorts of conflicting information out there as to whether it’s required in various countries. All I can say is – the rental agency never asked for it at any point, and since I wasn’t stopped at any point, I don’t know if la policia would have actually asked to see it, rather than just my US state license.

I picked up the car in Seville, at the train station. I could have done so at the airport, but I wasn’t going to the airport, the airport was farther away, and my son and his family were going to the train station anyway on Saturday, so why not? The reason some warn against picking up a car at the train station rather than the airport has to do with traffic for the driver new to driving in Spain – the airport’s further away from the city, of course. But the train station is very near a highway, it was a Saturday, so there wasn’t much traffic – it was fine.

In fact, being introduced to driving in Spain on a weekend was an unintentionally excellent idea. I recommend it. I drove through and out of Seville, up to Merida, then to Caceres, and the next day to Trujillo and back to Caceres, going through the towns, parking in the middle of the towns – with no problems or issues, simply because it was a weekend and traffic was so light.

There were only two points during those ten days in which I felt a little harried behind the wheel – the first was in Talavera de la Reine – our stop on the way to Toledo. It was the middle of a weekday, everyone was out, and I found myself in the midst of traffic I hadn’t expected. I wasn’t keen on driving around in that and found parking as soon as I could, perhaps further away from the Basilica than needed, but at least I was off the road and away from all those other drivers, impatiently tailing me around roundabouts. The second was Tuesday in Bilbao – it was okay, but getting out of town at the end of our day there was a little tense, simply because it was around 5pm on a weekday. Only almost mowed over a couple of pedestrians.

Other than that, most of my driving was on highways – motorways  – as the GPS lady called them. My experience driving these roads was similar to what it had been in France – very relaxing, and for the same reason, I think. The speed limit for cars is 120 km/hour (about 75 mph). I don’t know if it is the same for trucks, but I don’t think it is, because they all seemed to be going at least 15-20 km/slower and they stuck to it. Trucks don’t pass cars on these highways – they generally seem to stick in the left lanes. So with that absence of barreling semis and no billboards to speak of (sorry, Shunnarah!), you have a much calmer driving landscape.

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Trujillo in the distance.

And roundabouts? As I’ve mentioned, I’m a fan. Once you get the hang of it and understand the yielding and that if you are exiting soon, you should hang right as soon as you can – they’re great. I particularly like them because they offer a more tolerant approach to mistakes and changes of mind. You miss your turn? Just drive around again, and there you are. Very…European. 

The only thing I didn’t like and really didn’t understand was the way directional arrows – really just triangles – are painted on Spanish roads. I can’t find an image online of one, and I didn’t photograph it – because obviously, we’d be in the car when we saw it, but picture this:

In the lane you’re driving in, you are approaching a triangle painted in your lane indicated the proper direction traffic should be flowing.  Imagine what this might look like – perhaps, if you’re imagining it, you’re envisioning being in your car and seeing the triangle painted on the road, with a side facing you and one of the vertices pointing away from you. Like an arrow.

But no.

It’s the opposite. For some reason, they do the opposite – a flat side facing away from you indicates the direction of traffic with the vertex pointing at you. I can’t tell you how many times I would get mildly, momentarily freaked out when glancing down and seeing that triangle pointing at me and my car. Am I going the right way?! Yes, my navigator would assure me. Yes, yes. Or, as the Spanish would say, si-si-si. 

I encountered a few toll roads I wasn’t expecting and wasn’t prepared for, but luckily had enough change for or by accident and happenstance got into a lane that took cards, so no disasters there. I stuck to the speed limit, so I don’t think I got a ticket, although in Spain, they don’t seem to have the law patrolling for speeders, but instead use some sort of Super Secreto Radar, and you think you’re fine when surprise  – a traffic ticket turns up in your mailbox a few weeks later.

And, finally, parking. That, rather than the challenges of driving, was the real reason I considered alternatives to driving. I was just really concerned about parking the car in these old towns designed for horsecarts, not cars. Where would I park? How would I know where to park? Would I have to parallel park on narrow stone roads?? That was a needless worry – and I didn’t have to go to the lengths I did to find “HOTEL WITH PARKING PROVIDED” either. Lesson really learned there – for of course, all of these towns are crazy to drive in, no one really wants to drive in them, and the towns don’t want to be clogged with cars either, so of course, there is plenty of parking available in lots right outside the centers, within easy walking distance of anything you’d want to stay, and even hotels.

One of the parking garage companies – I encountered this in a couple of places – has the tickets (we think) jerryrigged with chips or something so that after you pay, you don’t even have to insert it or even make contact with a machine before the barrier arm lifts – it just. There may be something else going on – perhaps an attendant has been watching via camera and knows you paid and raises the arm? But whatever the case, it was efficient and impressive.

Conclusion: I’m glad I rented the car. We were able to see things we would have missed if we’d traveled by bus or train. No way we could have reached Guadalupe as easily as we did, or made the out-of-the way stops we did with as much efficiency. Costwise, it just might have been a wash. If we’d just gone to major sites, even as expensive as train travel is in Spain, when you throw in the cost of parking and gas, I’m thinking it would have been about the same for the three of us. Hard to say, though. Either way, you see things you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Left to right: Underground parking in Talavera de la Reine; free parking lot a few hundred meters from our inn in Guadalupe; parking garage outside the old city of Caceres, a ten minute walk from our hotel. 

 

Two spots where a slightly larger car came in handy – driving up the dirt switchbacks leading up to the castle on the left, south of Toledo, and then taking the hard way up a very rocky road to this overlook and then down a dirt path – instead of the slightly easier way involving only rural dirt roads and no straight uphill path of rocks – to the Sad Hill Cemetery.

 

And some of us even rode boats.

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More Travel blogposts here. 

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