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Archive for the ‘Mary’ Category

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

If you want a version formatted for the Kindle – it’s .99 here. 

 

 

 

 

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

Come Meet Jesus: An Invitation from Pope Benedict XVI

The Power of the Cross

 

Not free, but cheap: Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies. 

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August is devoted to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which is an entry in my new book, The Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols. 

For more on the book, go to the Loyola site here. 

Ask you local Catholic bookstore to order it!

I have copies here – you can get them and some of my other titles here. 

For more on the series, go here. 

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— 1 —

First, take a look at this. It might have appeared on your social media feed as it did mine. It’s singer Alfina Fresta, who has spastic dystonic tetraparesis. She is supported here by Stefania Licciardello, president of the Neon Cultural Association, which offers performers with and without disabilities the opportunity to perform together. 

It’s lovely. It’s what the world should look like: no one invisible, mutuality and support simply a way of life.

— 2 —

Last week, I linked to Emily Stimpson Chapman’s moving post on the adoption process. Well, earlier this week, Emily and Chris’ son Toby was born. As Emily says in her post: We have been snuggling non-stop ever since and are completely in love. Continued prayers are greatly appreciated, though, both for his birth parents and for this little guy, who is going to have a rough few days as some bad stuff works its way out of his system.

— 3 —

I read a most unusual book this week. It’s called Raising the Dad. As you can tell from the listing, the reader reviews don’t average out very well, but I liked it. It was nothing like I expected. The premise is that a father long believed dead is revealed to be alive. Consequences ensue. Going into it, I’d assumed that the dad had been, I don’t know – off in Italy or in Tahiti for thirty years and reappears, but that’s not it at all. This particular plot point might stretch credulity, medically speaking, but I went with it, and found it quite thought-provoking.

Without spoiling much, I’ll just say that the novel challenges, in an unusual and unexpected way, the contemporary assumption that only lives that embody certain qualities are worth living, and that the only meaningful relationships we can have are with fully conscious individuals.

Worth a look.

— 4 —

Speaking of books – I finished writing one this week. Actually, just today (Thursday). I’m ecstatic and relieved. Can you feel it? See, it’s not due until January, but I was determined to get it done before my 8th grader started back to school.  This might be my last “free” year for  few years, since we are probably going to home/roadschool high school with this one. I didn’t want to spend the first part of the (school) year working on a project that is more of an assigned thing rather than one that’s more dependent on my creativity, when I’ll actually have time and space to Think.  Yes, the words I bring to this project are my own and are far from formulaic (I hope), but still – there’s a template, and my job was to fill it in.

Not that I turned it in. It could be published right now (with some editing…I guess…), but it will be better if I let it sit and come back to it with, as we say, fresh eyes. So I’ll do that – let it sit until December, open it back up, hopefully not weep from despair, do some edits and tightening, add any new good stories that have popped up, and ship it off in January.

And in the meantime, I sent a file of the manuscript 1) to myself – since my main file cabinet these days is my email and 2) to my daughter, just in case. 

— 5 –

Morbid? Maybe. I prefer to think of it as “prepared.”

With, I admit, a dose of superstition.

For you see – and may remember from previous posts – before I go on big trips, I always send my adult kids very detailed itineraries, along with my attorney’s information, health and travel insurance information, passport copies and so on. We now call it “The Itinerary of Death.” As in “Mom’s going to Japan – she should be sending the Itinerary of Death soon.”

The motivation is twofold. Yes, I want as little trouble as possible in case something happens. Mike didn’t have a will, and that was a mess. My dad had a will, but was unprepared in other ways when he died, and as the only child and executor, I was left to straighten it out. I want things to go easily for those I’m leaving behind – especially if it happens suddenly.

Secondly, yeah, I’m superstitious. As in: If I overprepare, nothing’s going to happen. 

Obviously, that’s not going to work forever. But I’ll keep trying.

— 6 —

Speaking of books – look!

I finally got my copies!

You can find it at the Loyola site here and Amazon here, and hopefully at your local Catholic bookseller soon, along with all the rest of the Loyola Kids books – a great matched set to gift your local Catholic school and parish – every classroom needs a set, don’t you think?

I’ll write more about the book next week. 

NOTE: If you really want a copy soon – I have them for sale at my online bookstore (price includes shipping)  Email me at amywelborn60 AT gmail if you have a question or want to work out a deal of some sort.

— 7 —

No family travel or movie-watching this week. One kid did a youth group paintball excursion, while the other went with a friend to a water park, so at least some people got out while Mom was feverishly, obsessively finishing a project that isn’t due for five IMG_20180726_222819.jpgmonths. (Oh, did I already mention that?) The older one worked several evenings, and the younger one did watch a couple of movies on his own, but again – I was in here, writing, checking off a box, writing some more, checking off  another box.

(I am a fairly disorganized, reactive, INFP, come-what-may person in general, but when it comes to this kind of project, I am very, very organized – I make a schedule, I write that schedule out, and stick to it. Simply put: I want to keep projects like this in their proper place in my life, freeing myself up to be all drifting and meditative for the rest of the day. Boxing this type of work in a strict schedule is the way to make that happen.)

I did watch, late one night, a bit of Lost in Translation. I’d seen it in theaters when it came out, and recall liking it – and had intended to rewatch it before we went to Japan – I’m glad I didn’t waste my time. I do like Bill Murray in almost anything, but wow, this film struck me as so simplistically racist and willing to exploit stereotypes. Yes, the scene in the beginning  where the commercial director goes on and on for a while, a speech which then the translator says to Murray comes down to “look to the right” – was funny because it echoes my experience in convenience stores, where the cashiers just talk and talk in a way that seems almost ritualistic, and really, all they’re saying is, “Thank you, and here’s your change.”

But I ended up only watching half of it. I was so deeply annoyed at the Scarlett Johansson character for being so helpless and unadventurous, I couldn’t stand watching her any more.  There’s also a way to capture that fish-out-of-water experience without resorting to stereotypes, and Coppola didn’t do it here.

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

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Continuing with my “reprint” of portions of Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies. (For previous chapters, just scroll down or click back…) 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. 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?

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How to raise children like the saints:

Pray for their deaths, leave them in the care of others and join a monastery, leave THEM in a monastery..

and so on. 

Today is the memorial of St. Rita, known for many things, among them, her clear-eyed view of her children’s lives, earthly and eternal:

Rita Lotti was born near Cascia in Italy in the fourteenth century, the only child of her parents, Antonio and Amata. Her parents were official peacemakers in a turbulent environment of feuding families.


At an early age Rita felt called to religious life; however, her parents arranged for her to be married to Paolo Mancini. Rita accepted this as God’s will for her, and the newlyweds were soon blessed with two sons.


One day while on his way home, Paolo was killed. Rita’s grief was compounded with the fear that her two sons would seek to avenge their father’s death, as was the custom of the time. She began praying and fasting that God would not allow this to happen. Both sons soon fell ill and died, which Rita saw as an answer to her prayers.

From The Church’s Most Powerful Novenas. 

Whether or not your faith can take you that far at the moment, it’s worth pondering, worth allowing your self-understanding as a parent  – or simply a person who is connected to others – to be jolted, challenged and questioned.

It’s worth pondering on what we really believe and what we really want and hope for others and what we really think would be the worst and best things that could ever happen to them.

Raising children to be fulfilled in this world, happy with who they are in this world, and helpful to others in this world is good of us, but it’s also very 21st century First World of us. Parental bonds naturally bring deep desires to protect our children from any kind of harm or suffering, and of course it makes sense to have our parental goal be that vision of thriving, successful adults. Who still call, of course.

But if we’re parenting like the saints, we’re nudged to consider different definitions and frameworks and paradigms. We’re sometimes even confronted with examples of what we’d today call bad – terrible – parenting.

That is not to say that we look to saints because all of their decisions were good ones. They weren’t and we don’t. It is also true that there is nothing much easier than using religion as a tool to manipulate others and escape responsibility. I’m really involved in church and God clearly has a mission for me that requires all my time there  can often be more simply translated as I’d rather not be around my family, thanks. 

But if we’re serious about the Catholic thing, we do look to patterns, and the pattern we see is that when the saints think about other people, they’re concerned, first and foremost, with the state of their souls.

Now, we’d argue that  – we are too! Because we can quickly direct our purported concern with “souls” into that “self-fulfillment” door that rules the present day. That is: your deepest desires, as you understand them at this moment, must come from God – because they’re so deep and you can’t imagine being yourself without them. So this is what God wants. What you want. And that’s: fulfillment, happiness and feeling okay about what you’re doing here and now. What more can we want for ourselves, for our children?

St. Rita offers….another paradigm.

And so does S. Marie de l’Incarnation – the great mystic and missionary to New France, died in 1672, canonized in 2014. 

I’m currently reading From Mother to Son: The Selected Letters of Marie de l’Incarnation to Claude Martin.  It seems appropriate to be reading these letters and learning about this fascinating relationship on the feastday of St. Rita.

Marie was widowed at the age of twenty, left with a young son. She spent years – not only working in a family business and supporting her son – but discerning. It was a discernment that led to her, at the age of 32, when her son was 11 – into joining the Ursulines, and, a few years later, heading to Canada, where she would live, minister, and eventually die, never having seen her son with her physical eyes again.

So yes, she left her son with relatives so she could join a cloistered convent then sail across the sea.

The argument is made that viewed in historical context, this decision is not as strange as it seems to us today. Families tended to be more extended, parents died a lot, one-fourth of all marriages in France during this period were second marriages, children were sent off to school, sent to live in better circumstances with better-off relations and so on.

All of this is true, but we also know from Marie’s story that her son did not cheerfully accept either of her decisions – he ran away and turned up at the convent gate, and so on.

But, as it does, life went on, and in the end, Claude entered religious life himself as a Benedictine, and he and his mother exchanged letters for decades – and he eventually worked hard to collect her writings and present them to the world as the fruit of the mind of a saintly woman.

I’m going to finish this book today and write more about it tomorrow. So come back for that. But until then:

You were abandoned by your mother and your relatives. Hasn’t this abandonment been useful to you? When I left you, you were not yet twelve years old and I did so only with strange agonies known to God alone. I had to obey his divine will, which wanted things to happen thus, making me hope that he would take care of you. I steeled my heart to prevail over what had delayed my entry into holy religion a whole ten years. Still, I had to be convinced of the necessity of delivering this blow by Reverend Father Dom Raymond and by ways I can’t set forth on this paper, though I would tell you in person. I foresaw the abandonment of our relatives, which gave me a thousand crosses, together with the human weakness that made me fear your ruin. 

When I passed through Paris, it would have been easy for me to place you. The Queen, Madame the Duchess d’Aiguillon and Madame the Countesss Brienne, who did me the honor of looking upon me with favor and who have again honored me with their commands this year, by their letters, wouldn’t have refused me anything I desired for you. I thanked Madame the Duchess d’Aiguillon for the good that she wanted to do for you, but the thought that came to me then was that if you were advanced in the world, your soul would be in danger of ruin.  What’s more, the thoughts that had formerly occupied my mind, in wanting only spiritual poverty for your inheritance and for mine, made me resolve to leave you a second time in the hands of the Mother of goodness, trusting that since I was going to give my life for the service of her beloved Son, she would take care of you….I have never loved you but in the poverty of Jesus Christ in which all treasures are found….

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— 1 —

Other than Writing Things (look for me in Living Faith on Monday, by the way) – a music-heavy week around here. The big state competition is Friday – and may even be over as you read this. So there’s been a lot of practicing, especially of the Kabalevsky concerto movement that he is playing with his teacher.

IMG_20180508_174857.jpgI’ll have more to say after it’s over. I’m superstitious that way.

I may even post some video.

(If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen it in Stories – snippets through the week.)

It’s not that I’m any kind of stage or Tiger Mom as far as this business goes. It’s simply this: He’s been working on these four pieces for almost a year. He’s performed them in various settings (including retirement homes and a temporary residence for cancer patients as part of the requirements for being in the Honors Ensemble). I don’t give a flip whether or not he “wins” – I simply don’t want him to walk into this, bearing the fruit of a year’s worth of hard work, and then blunder in a way that throws him off and then throws off the piece – the consequence being that in this particular setting, the fruit of his work won’t be evident.

— 2 —

The work is bearing fruit in other ways, to be sure. He’s just begun taking jazz piano, which is coming fairly easily to him – but only because of the kind of work he’s been doing in classical piano for three years. Same with rock – his friend down the street takes rock guitar lessons, and they’ve invited M to play with the band for the recital – and he can pull it off with not much time because of Beethoven and Kabalevsky.

But still….dozens, if not hundreds of hours on this Kabalevsky, in particular….it sure would be nice….

— 3 —

So there’s that. Stress levels have also been heightened this week because of

AP Physics exam

The end of the 2nd year of law school

Ready for the school year to be over. Oh, and you know how parents of older children always say to parents of younger kids: You’ll look back to the years of no sleep and potty training and think…that was easy.

There’s a reason. It’s true. Cleaning up a puddle of urine on three hours of sleep is nothing compared to the stress of giving counsel to young adults worried about the course of the rest of their lives and their relationships  and then watching them drive away in 2-ton death machines.

— 4 —

And then there’s son #2 who has his own news – a writer of many stories and a few novels, all unpublished, he has decided to go the e-book route, and going about it in a very methodical way. He’s publishing short collections of stories over the next few months, and then releasing a novel in the fall.

You can find his website here. There are links to all the collections.

The collection you can purchase now is here.

And here he is on Twitter, chronicling the process of writing his next book.

Please go check it out!!

— 5 —

 Okay, this is fantastic:

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fstpaulsbhm%2Fposts%2F2020270931557798&width=500

 

Come to Birmingham for Pentecost!!

— 6 —

The Lumen Christi Institute:

Founded in 1997 by Catholic scholars at the University of Chicago, the Lumen Christi Institute brings together thoughtful Catholics and others interested in the Catholic tradition and makes available to them the wisdom of the Catholic spiritual, intellectual, and cultural heritage.

They’ve just started making podcasts of their sponsored talks available as free podcasts. The page with links to the various podcast sites (Itunes, Google Play store, etc.) is here. 

— 7 —

Mother’s Day is  Sunday, so it’s too late to order this online, but I’d bet your local Catholic bookstore has it: 

It would also be a great end-of-year gift for a teacher or DRE! 

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First Communion

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

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