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Posts Tagged ‘Bible’

(He’s in it)

 

For an in-depth exploration, as well as a look at some of his letters, go to archive.org to this 19th century biography, in two volumes. (Of course his life and letters are published elsewhere, and in modern versions, but this is…free. )

What you will read about was a man who made tremendous sacrifices to travel across the world, endure great hardship….to teach fisherman and little kids the Creed.

Now think.

Why did he do this? Why did he think it was worth his life?

It seems, according to much of the current conversation in the air about how to spread the Good News which is not to be done by “proselytizing,” but rather by accompanying, that he was mistaken in his approach.

Was he?

Yes, the question of this encounter between Christian creed and various cultures is not uncomplicated. The question has rightly occupied Asian, African and European theologians for decades, and for literary shorthand versions, consider Black Robe and Silence.  Missionaries were not infallible. They made mistakes, they allowed themselves to become compromised, they were short-sighted.  All of that is true.

Even so – and not dismissing those questions – the 21st century observer who is anxious to diminish the importance of the particulars of belief in favor of a purportedly more pastoral engagement – who seems to believe that Jesus is more authentically and powerfully offered and encountered without much concern for the doctrine, and indeed that the specific articulation of belief functions more often than not as an obstacle to encountering Christ (for this is the essence, really of much of the direction of the current conversation ) – has a responsibility, as a Catholic, to engage this question in the context of the whole of Catholic tradition, which includes a lot of people making tremendous sacrifices, not only to live out the corporeal works of mercy, but the spiritual works as well.

Was Francis Xavier doing it wrong? What was the point – having the memorization of credal formulations and prayers, and baptism as the central focus of his missionary work? That model of “making them Christians” in this way…was it wrong?

Well, to explore the question requires us to go beyond simplistic categories, and to ask interesting, serious questions about the deeper spiritual dynamic that is engaged by this process of – dare we say it – making disciples –  the thinking behind it, and the cultural context.

It would require us to look to the past and..wait for it…engage in..dialogue, to listen and be willing to learn. It might even require…humility.

I and Francis Mancias are now living amongst the Christians of Comorin. They are very numerous, and increase largely every day. When I first came I asked them, if they knew anything about our Lord Jesus Christ? but when I came to the points of faith in detail and asked them what they thought of them, and what more they believed now than when they were Infidels, they only replied that they were Christians, but that as they are ignorant of Portuguese, they know nothing of the precepts and mysteries of our holy religion. We could not understand one another, as I spoke Castilian and they Malabar ; so I picked out the most intelligent and well read of them, and then sought out with the greatest diligence men who knew both languages.. We held meetings for several days, and by our joint efforts and with infinite difficulty we translated the Catechism into the Malabar tongue. This I learnt by heart, and then I began to go through all the villages of the coast, calling around me by the sound of a bell as many as I could, children and men. I assembled them twice a day and taught them the Christian doctrine : and thus, in the space of a month, the children had it well by heart. And all the time I kept telling them to go on teaching in their turn whatever they had learnt to their parents, family, and neighbours.

Every Sunday I collected them all, men and women, boys and girls, in the church. They came, with great readiness and with a great desire for instruction. Then, in the hearing of all, I began by calling on the name of the most holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and I recited aloud the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Creed in the language of the country: they all followed me in the same words, and delighted in it wonderfully. Then I repeated the Creed by myself, dwelling upon each article singly. Then I asked them as to each article, whether they believed it unhesitatingly ; and all, with a loud voice and their hands crossed over their breasts, professed aloud that they truly believed it. I take care to make them repeat the Creed oftener than the other prayers ; and I tell them that those who believe all that is contained therein are called Christians. After explaining the Creed I go on to the Commandments, teaching them that the Christian law is contained in those ten precepts, and that every one who observes them all faithfully is a good and true Christian and is certain of eternal salvation, and that, on the other hand, whoever neglects a single one of them is a bad Christian, and will be cast into hell unless he is truly penitent for his sin. Converts and heathen alike are astonished at all this, which shows them the holiness of the Christian law, its perfect consistency with itself, and its agreement with reason. After this I recite our principal prayers, as the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and they say them after me. Then we go back to the Creed, adding the Our Father and the Hail Mary after each article, with a short hymn; for, as soon as I have recited the first article, I sing in their language, “Jesus, Son of the living God, grant us the grace to believe firmly this first article of your faith : and that we may obtain this from you, we offer you this prayer taught us by yourself” Then we add this second invocation : “Holy Mary Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, obtain for us from your most sweet Son that we may believe without hesitation this article of the Christian faith” We do the same after all the other eleven articles.

We teach them the Commandments in the following way. After we have sung the first, which enjoins the love of God, we pray thus : ” Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, grant us the grace to love Thee above all things”  and then we say for this intention the Lord’s Prayer. Then we all sing together, ‘”Holy Mary, Mother of Jesus Christ, obtain for us from your Son the grace to observe perfectly the first of His Commandments” and then we say the Hail Mary. So we go on through the other nine, changing the words of our little invocation as occasion requires. Thus I accustom them to ask for these graces with the ordinary prayers of the Church, and I tell them at the same time that if they obtain them, they will have all other things that they can wish for more abundantly than they would  be able to ask for them. I make them all, and particularly those who are to be baptized, repeat the form of general confession. These last I question after each article of the Creed as it is recited, whether they believe it firmly ; and after they have answered yes, I give them an instruction in their own language explaining the chief heads of the Christian religion, and the duties necessary to salvation. Last of all, I admit them thus prepared to baptism. The instruction is ended by the Salve Regina, begging the aid and help of our Blessed Lady.

As to the numbers who become Christians, you may understand them from this, that it often happens to me to be hardly able to use my hands from the fatigue of baptizing : often in a single day I have baptized whole villages. Sometimes I have lost my voice and strength altogether with repeating again and again the Credo and the other forms.

The fruit that is reaped by the baptism of infants, as well as by the instruction of children and others, is quite incredible. These children, I trust heartily, by the grace of God, will be much better than their fathers. They show an ardent love for the Divine law, and an extraordinary zeal for learning our holy religion and imparting it to others. Their hatred for idolatry is marvellous. They get into feuds with the heathen about it, and whenever their own parents practise it, they reproach them and come off to tell me at once. Whenever I hear of any act of idolatrous worship, I go to the place with a large band of these children, who very soon load the devil with a greater amount of insult and abuse than he has lately received of honour and worship from their parents, relations, and acquaintances. The children run at the idols, upset them, dash them down, break them to pieces, spit on them, trample on them, kick them about, and in short heap on them every possible outrage.

I had been living for nearly four months in a Christian village, occupied in translating the Catechism. A great number of natives came from all parts to entreat me to take the trouble to go to their houses and call on God by the bedsides of their sick relatives. Such numbers also of sick made their own way to us, that I had enough to do to read a Gospel over each of them. At the same time we kept on with our daily work, instructing the children, baptizing converts, translating the Catechism, answering difficulties, and burying the dead. For my part I desired to satisfy all, both the sick who came to me themselves, and those who came to beg on the part of others, lest if I did not, their confidence in, and zeal for, our holy religion should relax, and I thought it wrong not to do what I could in answer to their prayers. But the thing grew to such a pitch that it was impossible for me myself to satisfy all, and at the same time to avoid their quarrelling among themselves, every one striving to be the first to get me to his own house ; so I hit on a way of serving all at once. As I could not go myself, I sent round children whom I could trust in my place. Tliuey went to the sick persons, assembled their families and neighbours, recited the Creed with them, and encouraged the sufferers to conceive a certain and wellfounded confidence of their restoration. Then after all this, they recited the prayers of the Church. To make my tale short, God was moved by the faith and piety of these children and of the others, and restored to a great number of sick persons health both of body and soul. How good He was to them ! He made the very disease of their bodies the occasion of calling them to salvation, and drew them to the Christian faith almost by force !

I have also charged these children to teach the rudiments of Christian doctrine to the ignorant in private houses, in the streets, and the crossways. As soon as I see that this has been well started in one village, I go on to another and give the same instructions and the same commission to the children, and go I go through in order the whole number of their villages. When I have done this and am going away, I leave in each place a copy of the Christian doctrine, and tell ail those who know how to write to copy it out, and all the others are to learn it by heart and to recite it from memory every day. Every feast day I bid them meet in one place and sing all together the elements of the faith. For this purpose I have appointed in each of the thirty Christian villages men of intelligence and character who are to preside over these meetings, and the Governor, Don Martin Alfonso, who is so full of love for our Society and of zeal for religion, has been good enough at our request to allot a yearly revenue of 4000 gold fanams for the salary of these catechists. He has an immense friendship for ours, and desires with all his heart that some of them should be sent hither, for which he is always asking in his letters to the King.

There is now in these parts a very large number of persons who have only one reason for not becoming Christian, and that is that there is no one to make them Christians. It often comes into my mind to go round all the Universities of Europe, and especially that of Paris, crying out every where like a’ madman, and saying to all the learned men there whose learning is so much greater than their charity, ‘ Ah ! what a miiltiude of souls is through your fault shut out of heaven and falling into hell . Would to God that these men who labour so much in gaining knowledge would give as much thought to the ac- count they must one day give to God of the use they have made of their learning and of the talents entrusted to them ! I am sure that many of them would be moved by such considerations, would exercise themselves in fitting meditations on Divine truths, so as to hear what God might say to them,^-* and then, renouncing their ambitions and desires, and all the things of the world, they would form themselves wholly according to God’s desire and choice for them. They would exclaim from the bottom of their hearts : ” Lord here am I ; send me whithersoever it shall please Thee, even to India!” Good God ! how much happier and how much safer they would be ! With what far greater confidence in God’s mercy would they meet their last hour, the supreme trial of that terrible judgment which no man can escape ! They would then be able joyfully to use the words of the faithful servant in the Gospel : “Lord, Thou gavest me five talents; behold, I have gained beside them other five.” They labour night and day in acquiring knowledge, and they are very diligent indeed in understanding the subjects which they study ; but if they would spend as much time in that which is the fruit of all solid learning, and be as diligent in teaching to the ignorant the things necessary to salvation, they would be far better prepared to give an account of themselves to our Lord when He shall say to them : “Give an account of thy stewardship.” I fear much that these men, who spend so many years in the Universities in studying the liberal arts, look more to the empty honours and dignities of the prelature than to the holy functions and obligations of which those honours are the trappings. It has come to this pass, as I see, that the men who are the most diligent in the higher branches of study, commonly make profession that they hope to gain some high post in the Church by their reputation for learning, therein to be able to serve our Lord and His Church. But all the time they deceive themselves miserably, for their studies are far more directed to their own advantage than to the common good. They are afraid that God may not second their ambition, and this is the reason why they will not leave the whole matter to His holy will. I declare to God that I had almost made up my mind, since I could not return to Europe myself, to write to the University of Paris, and especially to our worthy Professors Cornet and Picard, and to show them how many thousands of infidels might be made Christians without trouble, if we had only men here who would seek, not their own advantage, but the things of Jesus Christ. And therefore, dearest brothers, ‘ pray ye the Lord of the harvest that He send forth labourers into His harvest.’

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Just a couple few pages from recent books, offered in the hope that they will help the children in your life experience Advent in a deeper way.

First, remember that my Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories is organized according to the liturgical year. The stories retold for Advent include “Prophets Say That a Messiah is Coming,” “Prophets Describe the Messiah,” “Zechariah Meets the Angel Gabriel” and so on.

The first reading today refers to the Messiah, the Branch grown for David. In The Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols, I cover the Jesse Tree – the traditional artistic rendering of this concept.

Note how it’s organized – and this the organization of the entire book. On the left side for every entry is a short, simple explanation for younger children. On the right is a more in-depth entry for older students.

Please consider sharing these books with your local Catholic parish and school classrooms – every classroom should have a set!

 

For more Advent resources, go here.

And for a rich representation of the Tree of Jesse and more historical background, visit Daniel Matsui. 

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Heading out for the long weekend, but the weather indicates that rain is going to be a feature of our location, so here’s hoping I do more than sit on a runway on Saturday. As per usual, check Instagram, especially stories, for updates.

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I’ve blogged almost every day this past week about one thing or another, so just click backwards for some more of this kind of thing if you like. In particular, you might be interested in yesterday’s posts on St. Francis of Assisi.

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Today’s the feastday of St. Faustina, who’s in the Loyola Kids Book of Heroes. 

 

 

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Every other day or so I offer a digest of what I’m reading, watching, listening to and so on. I’ve not read any books since yesterday, but I did read this article – which you should be able to access if you’re interested – on the collapse of early 19th century religious orders in Peru. 

For many years, the sudden collapse of the major religious orders in Peru shortly after independence has interested this author. For the religious orders, Lima had been what it was for the viceroy: the center of the organizational structure for most of the continent with the stately conventos and lavishly endowed churches to attest to the importance of that position. Yet, within a relatively short period, 1826-1830, the grandeur faded and the power disappeared. Why?

And even if you’re not interested…I’ll tell you what interested me. First the tone of the article – published in 1982 and written by Antonine Tibesar, a Franciscan friar and historian – deeply scholarly, but refreshing in its (not surprising) deep understanding of religious life from the inside. Secondly – well, the history – a good thing, since it’s an article about history. What Tibesar is asking is just what the title suggests: in the early 19th century, religious orders collapsed in Peru. Why? Well, the simple and obvious answer is that the Spanish government had been sporadically, but intensely determined to secularize religious orders (that is put the orders out of business and require any man or woman who sought to remain a priest or nun to prove they had a means of support and place themselves under the control of a bishop) and that drive made its way over to the newly independent Peru.

There were other shenanigans, which I can’t quite parse out, perhaps because I’m tired. But in the end, Tibesar blames other religious as much as he does the secular governments for the capitulation.

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And I only go on as long as I have about this as a reminder of the complexities of religious history: that if Catholicism is struggling in Europe and South America – well, it has been struggling, off and on, in often profound ways – for centuries.

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A couple of local churchish notes. First, the rector of our Cathedral has made available a booklet he’s put together about baptism in the Extraordinary Form – which is happening more and more down here.  You might find it interesting and useful. 

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Secondly, the Church in Russellville, Alabama is experience tremendous growth, people-wise, and needs a building to match. Here’s more at our rector’s blog about it, plus a video about the parish. 

The Servant of God Fulton J. Sheen made a great deal of money through his work on television and the talks and special media appearances he did besides. But one of the (surprising?) things we discover upon studying his life is that not only did he donate most of his earnings to the missions, but he also used some of his funds to build churches in poor areas — including in the South. There are churches in Alabama that were built by Archbishop Sheen! In spite of the celebrity he enjoyed, he lived rather frugally and was quite generous where it mattered the most.

I am not aware of a Fulton Sheen-like person who might help with this current project and great need, but it is similar in scope.  In the small town of Russellville, Alabama(pop. approx. 10,000), there is the parish of the Good Shepherd. Or as many of its parishioners know it — “Buen Pastor”. The town has a large population of Hispanic immigrants, many of whom work in the area chicken processing plants (maybe in the past you’ve eaten some chicken that met its fate in Russellville!). In the past, the church was built with great support from Filipino immigrants. With some exceptions, the Catholic population in Russellville has long had a large immigrant component.

The current church seats 200. Each Sunday, Fr. Vincent Bresowar, its pastor, has to put out chairs wherever he can find the space. Under his good leadership the parish has grown. But he is only one priest: he could add more Masses to accommodate the growing community, but priests are only supposed to say so many Masses per day (basically, two Monday-Saturday and three on Sunday, max). Fr. Bresowar routinely has to go over the “legal limit” to accommodate his community. He generously does so — but celebrating so many Masses wears down a priest. I know this from experience.

What they need in Russellville is a new and larger church. Fr. Bresowar has purchased an adjacent property to ensure sufficient space for the new church and a real parking lot that begins to accommodate the crowds. He has had a local architect design a building that actually looks like a church and he has employed a great consultant to help with the interior decoration. Cutting every possible corner while also recognizing that a church building is built first of all for the glory of God, Fr. Bresowar has come up with a plan that will cost in the ballpark of $2.5 million.

Bishop Robert J. Baker, in consultation with the College of Consultors of the Diocese of Birmingham, has approved a Capital Campaign so that Fr. Bresowar and parishioners may begin in earnest to raise the needed funds. Remember: this is a primarily immigrant community. They are very resourceful people and will do their part. But they are not pulling in large salaries. They are open to life and have numerous families. They are often helping their families in their home countries, who live in destitution. Some of them will be able to give “in-kind”, helping with the construction and finishing. They will host many fundraisers. But in the end, we need to go outside this community to raise the money needed.

 

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Finally, from the Catholic Herald  – Michael Duggan on Patrick Leigh Fermor’s glimmers of religion:

Leigh Fermor was full of admiration and respect for the role that the monks of the West had played in history, for the centuries in which they were the only guardians of things he loved: literature, the classics, scholarship and the humanities. He also found that the company of the small number of living monks‎ he was permitted to speak with was like the company of any civilised, well-educated Frenchmen “with all the balance, erudition and wit that one expected, the only difference being a gentleness, a lack of haste, and a calmness which is common to the whole community”.

More profoundly, he also came to appreciate the role of monasteries in what is sometimes called the economy of salvation. It was their belief in the necessity and efficacy of prayer – “a principle so utterly remote from every tendency of modern secular thought” – that explains the sacrifices these men made. Vows embracing poverty, chastity and obedience were destined to smite “all fetters that chained them to the world, to free them for action, for the worship of God and the practice of prayer; for the pursuit, in short, of sanctity.”

Leigh Fermor smiled at the fact that the monastic habitat should prove “favourable to ambitions so glaringly opposed”: his ambition, on the one hand, to get a book finished and his publisher off his back, and, on the other hand, the ambitions of the monks. These men, he found, could still embark on those “hazardous mystical journeys of the soul” which culminate in “blinding moments of union with the Godhead”, the very inkling of which, “since Donne, Quarley, Herbert, Vaughan and Traherne wrote their poems, has drained away from life in England”.

In the Introduction to A Time to Keep Silence, Paddy grappled briefly with the question of what his experiences inside the monastery walls might ultimately signify. He wrote that he was profoundly affected by the places he described. Though unsure about what his feelings amounted to, he was convinced that they were “deeper than mere interest and curiosity, and more important than the pleasure an historian or an aesthete finds in ancient buildings and liturgy”. In monasteries, he found “a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world”. Describing himself as no stranger to “recalcitrance or scepticism or plain incapacity for belief”, he implies nevertheless that he had been the beneficiary of a “supernatural windfall”.

In the end, Paddy never fully cashed in this windfall. A Time to Keep Silence was published in 1957, but there were to be no more books on an exclusively religious theme. His life (a quite extraordinary one, in ways I have barely touched on here) was filled with many different interests, pleasures and friendships, some of which would have thrown up serious obstacles to any burgeoning Catholicism.

He had an open relationship with his wife, Joan Rayner, who was also a committed atheist.  While he stayed on in Rome to witness (and “swoon” at) the coronation of Pope John XXIII in 1958, his primary reason for being in the Eternal City in the first place was to conduct an affair with a young divorcee.  Three pages of A Time to Keep Silence are devoted to the conflicts and mysteries of chastity.

I am speculating, of course, but perhaps Leigh Fermor’s temperament – that old, latent religious mania – sometimes led him back towards the threshold of belief, only for his appetites to lead him away again, down the path of least resistance, garlanded with pleasures, adored by friends and lovers, and adoring them in return.

Many of us know some version of this dilemma.  We need a strong motive to turn our backs on the worldly delights which converged on Patrick Leigh Fermor like iron filings on a magnet, in favour of the less certain rewards that emanate from spiritual dread and spiritual joy.  As Artemis Cooper has pointed out to me, Paddy (unlike, say, Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene) “could live without answers to the big questions: what am I doing here, why is there evil in the world, what has God got to do with it.  These big themes didn’t preoccupy him much.”

To those who’ve read the books and letters, this observation has the ring of truth.  But could it be that Patrick Leigh Fermor was able to live a life seemingly unpreoccupied by God because of the knowledge that he had acquired at first-hand in places like Saint Wandrille and La Grande Trappe?

This was the knowledge that, all the while, in those monasteries scattered across the West, which he called “silent factories of prayer”, there were other civilized, well-educated gentlemen just like him who had succeeded in abandoning everything.  And that they had done so in order to help their fellow-men, and themselves, to meet something he had intuited himself during those brief pockets of time spent in monastic cells, woods and cloisters, something which he and most of us push to the back of our minds for most of the time, and to which he gave a name: “the terrifying problem of eternity”.

There is a strange thread of connection between all of these items. I’m not sure what it is, exactly….

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

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From The Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols. 

My kids know all about St. Jerome because we frequent art museums, and St. Jerome is a very popular subject. I don’t think you can hit a museum with even the most meager medieval or renaissance collection and not encounter him. And since the way I have engaged my kids in museums since forever  – besides pointing out gory things – is to do “guess the saint” and “guess the Bible story” games -yes, they can recognize a wizened half-naked skull-and-lion accompanied St. Jerome from two galleries away.

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Good children’s books on St. Jerome:

Oh my gosh!

Margaret Hodge’s version with paintings by Barry Moser is..OUT OF PRINT?!

Well, thank goodness we have a copy, and hey, publishers…somebody pick this up and bring it back into print. Free advice, no charge.

Not surprisingly, Rumer Godden’s version is also out of print. 

Oh well…maybe you can find them at the library? Again…Catholic publishers..get on this!

I have St. Jerome in The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints under “Saints are people who help us understand God.”

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And now…from 2007. Two GA talks devoted to Jerome. From the first:

What can we learn from St Jerome? It seems to me, this above all; to love the Word of God in Sacred Scripture. St Jerome said: “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ”. It is therefore important that every Christian live in contact and in personal dialogue with the Word of God given to us in Sacred Scripture. This dialogue with Scripture must always have two dimensions: on the one hand, it must be a truly personal dialogue because God speaks with each one of us through Sacred Scripture and it has a message for each one. We must not read Sacred Scripture as a word of the past but as the Word of God that is also addressed to us, and we must try to understand what it is that the Lord wants to tell us. However, to avoid falling into individualism, we must bear in mind that the Word of God has been given to us precisely in order to build communion and to join forces in the truth on our journey towards God. Thus, although it is always a personal Word, it is also a Word that builds community, that builds the Church. We must therefore read it in communion with the living Church. The privileged place for reading and listening to the Word of God is the liturgy, in which, celebrating the Word and making Christ’s Body present in the Sacrament, we actualize the Word in our lives and make it present among us. We must never forget that the Word of God transcends time. Human opinions come andgo. What is very modern today will be very antiquated tomorrow. On the other hand, the Word of God is the Word of eternal life, it bears within it eternity and is valid for ever. By carrying the Word of God within us, we therefore carry within us eternity, eternal life.

And from the second

Truly “in love” with the Word of God, he asked himself: “How could one live without the knowledge of Scripture, through which one learns to know Christ himself, who is the life of believers?” (Ep. 30, 7). The Bible, an instrument “by which God speaks every day to the faithful” (Ep. 133, 13), thus becomes a stimulus and source of Christian life for all situations and for each person. To read Scripture is to converse with God: “If you pray”, he writes to a young Roman noblewoman, “you speak with the Spouse; if you read, it is he who speaks to you” (Ep. 22, 25). The study of and meditation on Scripture renders man wise and serene (cf. In Eph.,Prol.). Certainly, to penetrate the Word of God ever more profoundly, a constant and progressive application is needed. Hence, Jerome recommends to the priest Nepotian: “Read the divine Scriptures frequently; rather, may your hands never set the Holy Book down. Learn here what you must teach” (Ep. 52, 7). To the Roman matron Leta he gave this counsel for the Christian education of her daughter: “Ensure that each day she studies some Scripture passage…. After prayer, reading should follow, and after reading, prayer…. Instead of jewels and silk clothing, may she love the divine Books” (Ep. 107, 9, 12). Through meditation on and knowledge of the Scriptures, one “maintains the equilibrium of the soul” (Ad Eph., Prol.). Only a profound spirit of prayer and the Holy Spirit’s help can introduce us to understanding the Bible: “In the interpretation of Sacred Scripture we always need the help of the Holy Spirit” (In Mich. 1, 1, 10, 15).

A passionate love for Scripture therefore pervaded Jerome’s whole life, a love that he always sought to deepen in the faithful, too. He recommends to one of his spiritual daughters: “Love Sacred Scripture and wisdom will love you; love it tenderly, and it will protect you; honour it and you will receive its caresses. May it be for you as your necklaces and your earrings” (Ep. 130, 20). And again: “Love the science of Scripture, and you will not love the vices of the flesh” (Ep. 125, 11).

For Jerome, a fundamental criterion of the method for interpreting the Scriptures was harmony with the Church’s Magisterium. We should never read Scripture alone because we meet too many closed doors and could easily slip into error. The Bible has been written by the People of God and for the People of God under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Only in this communion with the People of God do we truly enter into the “we”, into the nucleus of the truth that God himself wants to tell us. For him, an authentic interpretation of the Bible must always be in harmonious accord with the faith of the Catholic Church. It is not a question of an exegesis imposed on this Book from without; the Book is really the voice of the pilgrim People of God and only in the faith of this People are we “correctly attuned” to understand Sacred Scripture.

Finally, Pope Benedict XV wrote an encyclical about St. Jerome on the 1500th anniversary of his death, and in it declared him the patron of all who study Sacred Scripture. You can read it here. 

Immense, then, was the profit Jerome derived from reading Scripture; hence came those interior illuminations whereby he was ever more and more drawn to knowledge and love of Christ; hence, too, that love of prayer of which he has written so well; hence his wonderful familiarity with Christ, Whose sweetness drew him so that he ran unfalteringly along the arduous way of the Cross to the palm of victory. Hence, too, his ardent love for the Holy Eucharist: “Who is wealthier than he who carries the Lord’s Body in his wicker basket, the Lord’s Blood in his crystal vessel?”[128] Hence, too, his love for Christ’s Mother, whose perpetual virginity he had so keenly defended, whose title as God’s Mother and as the greatest example of all the virtues he constantly set before Christ’s spouses for their imitation.[129] No one, then, can wonder that Jerome should have been so powerfully drawn to those spots in Palestine which had been consecrated by the presence of our Redeemer and His Mother. It is easy to recognize the hand of Jerome in the words written from Bethlehem to Marcella by his disciples, Paula and Eustochium:
What words can serve to describe to you the Savior’s cave? As for the manger in which He lay – well, our silence does it more honor than any poor words of ours. . . Will the day ever dawn where we can enter His cave to weep at His tomb with the sister (of Lazarus) and mourn with His Mother; when we can kiss the wood of His Cross and, with the ascending Lord on Olivet, be uplifted in mind and spirit?[130]

Filled with memories such as these, Jerome could, while far away from Rome and leading a life hard for the body but inexpressibly sweet to the soul, cry out: “Would that Rome had what tiny Bethlehem possesses!”[131]

68. But we rejoice – and Rome with us – that the Saint’s desire has been fulfilled, though far otherwise than he hoped for. For whereas David’s royal city once gloried in the possession of the relics of “the Greatest Doctor” reposing in the cave where he dwelt so long, Rome now possesses them, for they lie in St. Mary Major’s beside the Lord’s Crib. His voice is now still, though at one time the whole Catholic world listened to it when it echoed from the desert; yet Jerome still speaks in his writings, which “shine like lamps throughout the world.”[132] Jerome still calls to us. His voice rings out, telling us of the super-excellence of Holy Scripture, of its integral character and historical trustworthiness, telling us, too, of the pleasant fruits resulting from reading and meditating upon it. His voice summons all the Church’s children to return to a truly Christian standard of life, to shake themselves free from a pagan type of morality which seems to have sprung to life again in these days. His voice calls upon us, and especially on Italian piety and zeal, to restore to the See of Peter divinely established here that honor and liberty which its Apostolic dignity and duty demand. The voice of Jerome summons those Christian nations which have unhappily fallen away from Mother Church to turn once more to her in whom lies all hope of eternal salvation. Would, too, that the Eastern Churches, so long in opposition to the See of Peter, would listen to Jerome’s voice. When he lived in the East and sat at the feet of Gregory and Didymus, he said only what the Christians of the East thought in his time when he declared that “If anyone is outside the Ark of Noe he will perish in the over-whelming flood.”[133] Today this flood seems on the verge of sweeping away all human institutions – unless God steps in to prevent it. And surely this calamity must come if men persist in sweeping on one side God the Creator and Conserver of all things! Surely whatever cuts itself off from Christ must perish! Yet He Who at His disciples’ prayer calmed the raging sea can restore peace to the tottering fabric of society. May Jerome, who so loved God’s Church and so strenuously defended it against its enemies, win for us the removal of every element of discord, in accordance with Christ’s prayer, so that there may be “one fold and one shepherd.”

And finally, Fr. Steve Grunow:

There is another quality of St. Jerome’s character that will console many of us who struggle to be virtuous and holy, a quality which surprises many whose image of sanctity lacks a sense of how Christ’s holiness transforms human character. Jerome was known for being a cantankerous fellow. He struggled at times with the virtue of patience, could be overbearing with those who disagreed with him, and had a reputation for being cranky. One commentator on Saint Jerome’s life noted that perhaps Jerome chose to be a hermit, not so much as a heroic act of sacrifice, but because had he not lived alone, he most assuredly would not have been a saint! 

The spiritual lesson for us in this might be to remember that saints are not born with perfect characters and that even the holiest among us has become that way over time. This means that saints have shared with us all the qualities and weaknesses that vex us. However, flaws in character did not assuage them from seeking to know Christ and to live in such a way that their relationship with him was evident in their way of life. 

Therefore we should never believe that our weaknesses be justified as an excuse that exempts us from living as disciples of the Lord Jesus. The saints know their weaknesses and can readily admit them, but they also accept them as opportunities to for conversion and humility. 

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She was, after the Blessed Virgin herself, the most widely-venerated saint of the Medieval period, and July 22 is her feast day. Yes, it’s a Sunday – so we don’t celebrate it. But we’ll celebrate anyway.

As Pope St. Gregory the Great said of her (as is quoted in the Office of Readings today)

 We should reflect on Mary’s attitude and the great love she felt for Christ; for though the disciples had left the tomb, she remained. She was still seeking the one she had not found, and while she sought she wept; burning with the fire of love, she longed for him who she thought had been taken away. And so it happened that the woman who stayed behind to seek Christ was the only one to see him. For perseverance is essential to any good deed, as the voice of truth tells us: Whoever perseveres to the end will be saved.
  At first she sought but did not find, but when she persevered it happened that she found what she was looking for. When our desires are not satisfied, they grow stronger, and becoming stronger they take hold of their object. Holy desires likewise grow with anticipation, and if they do not grow they are not really desires. Anyone who succeeds in attaining the truth has burned with such a great love. As David says: My soul has thirsted for the living God; when shall I come and appear before the face of God? And so also in the Song of Songs the Church says: I was wounded by love; and again: My soul is melted with love.
  Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek? She is asked why she is sorrowing so that her desire might be strengthened; for when she mentions whom she is seeking, her love is kindled all the more ardently.
  Jesus says to her: Mary. Jesus is not recognised when he calls her “woman”; so he calls her by name, as though he were saying: Recognise me as I recognise you; for I do not know you as I know others; I know you as yourself. And so Mary, once addressed by name, recognises who is speaking. She immediately calls him rabboni, that is to say, teacher,because the one whom she sought outwardly was the one who inwardly taught her to keep on searching.
I wrote a book about St. Mary Magdalene, rather horrendously titled De-Coding Mary Magdalene (an allusion to the previous DVC-related book…I argued against it, but…lost)…but I did enjoy researching and writing the book – the history of MM’s cultus is quite revealing about both Western and Eastern Christianity. The Da Vinci Code moment has mercifully past, but I hope St. Mary Magdalene’s hasn’t.
Our Sunday Visitor took the book out of print, but I’ve republished it in digital form under the title Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies. You can purchase it for .99 here. 
Over the past week, I’ve excerpted portions of the book. Scroll back to see those excerpts.

Mary Magdalene was an enormously important figure in early Christianity. She was, after the Blessed Virgin Mary, the most popular saint of the Middle Ages. Her cultus reveals much about medieval views of women, sexuality, sin, and repentance. Today, Mary Magdalene is experiencing a renaissance, not so much from within institutional Christianity, but among people, mostly women, some Christian, many not, who have adopted her as an inspiration and patron of their own spiritual fads, paths, and fantasies.

Mary Magdalene is the patron saint of contemplatives, converts, pharmacists, glove makers, hairdressers, penitent sinners, perfumers, sexual temptation, and women.
This book is a very basic introduction to the facts and the fiction surrounding Mary Magdalene. We’ll unpack what Scripture has to say about her identity and role in apostolic Christianity. We’ll see how, very soon after that apostolic era, she was adopted by a movement that remade her image in support of its own theological agenda, a dynamic we see uncannily and, without irony, repeated today.

We’ll look at the ways in which both Western and Eastern Christianity have described, honored, and been inspired by her, and how their stories about her have diverged. During the Middle Ages in the West, Mary Magdalene’s story functioned most of all as a way to teach Christians about sin and forgiveness: how to be penitent, and with the hope of redemption open to all. She made frequent appearances in religious art, writing, and drama. She inspired many to help women and girls who had turned to prostitution or were simply destitute. She inspired Franciscans and Dominicans in their efforts to preach reform and repentance.

It all sounds very positive, and most of it, indeed, is. That’s not, however, the idea we get from some contemporary commentators on Mary Magdalene’s historical image.

Many of you might have had your interest in the Magdalene piqued by the novel The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. In that novel, Brown, picking up on strains bubbling through pop culture and pseudo-historical writings of the past fifteen years or so, presents a completely different Mary Magdalene than the woman we meet in the Gospels and traditional Christian piety. She was, according to Brown, Jesus’ real choice to lead his movement; a herald of Jesus’ message of the unity of the masculine and feminine aspects of reality; a valiant and revered leader opposed by another faction of Jesus’ apostles led by Peter; the mother of Jesus’ child; and in the end, some sort of divine figure herself. Mary Magdalene is no less than the Holy Grail herself, bearing the “blood” of Jesus in the form of his child.

A glorious figure, indeed, was this Mary Magdalene, but one that a patriarchal church could not permit to flourish. So, the story goes, a new image of Mary was created: that of the penitent prostitute. This Mary Magdalene, degraded and demeaned, was the tool of a conspiracy to degrade and demean women in general, and to bury the “truth” of Mary Magdalene’s leadership in early Christianity once and for all.

…….

The Magdalene-Spouse-Queen-Goddess-Holy-Grail theories are not serious history, so, frankly, we are not going to bother with them until the final chapter, and then only briefly. What we will be looking at — the history of the person and the imagery of Mary Magdalene — is daunting, rich, and fascinating enough.

The contemporary scholarship on Mary (and, indeed, on much of the history of Christian spirituality and religious practices) is growing so fast and is so rich that all I can do here is simply provide an introduction. A thorough, objective introduction, I hope, but the fact is that the burgeoning scholarship on Mary Magdalene is quite vast, and much of it, particularly that dealing with the medieval period, is not yet available in English. I have provided an annotated bibliography at the end of this book for those readers interested in pursuing this subject in more depth.
Our brief survey will undoubtedly be revealing, as we rediscover how deeply Mary Magdalene has been revered, used, and yes, misused and misunderstood by Christians over the centuries. The story, I hope, will be provocative in the best sense. For the fact is, the greatest interest in Mary Magdalene in the West today comes from those outside of or only nominally attached to the great course of traditional apostolic Christianity. Roman Catholics, in particular, seem to have lost interest in her, as, it must be admitted, they have in most saints.

Lots of people are listening to a Magdalene of their own making, a figure with only the most tentative connection to the St. Mary Magdalene of centuries of traditional Christian witness.

May the story recounted in the book play a part in reclaiming Mary Magdalene, so that we may hear her speak clearly again, as she does in the Gospels: for Jesus Christ, her Risen Lord.

***

From Pope Benedict XVI:

The story of Mary of Magdala reminds us all of a fundamental truth: a disciple of Christ is one who, in the experience of human weakness, has had the humility to ask for his help, has been healed by him and has set out following closely after him, becoming a witness of the power of his merciful love that is stronger than sin and death.

****

In 2012, we went to Mass a couple of times at La Madeleine.  Here’s a post on it, and below is a lousy photograph of the the altarpiece, St. Mary Magdalene being transported to heaven:

 

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A final chapter from Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies (full text available here for .99).  I have skipped a few – this is chapter 10, which describes the role of Mary Magdalene in the lives of late medieval and counter-reformation mystics and spiritual writers.

For excerpts from other  chapters:

Chapter one: Introducing Mary Magdalene in the Bible

Chapter two: Mary Magdalene at the Resurrection

Chapter three: Mary Magdalene in Gnostic writings

Chapter four: Mary Magdalene in Patristic writings

MARY AND THE MYSTICS

The heart of the Christian life is prayer, and throughout our history Mary Magdalene has often been found in that heart, pointing the way to Christ. Like any saint, Christians have looked to her as a model, and have prayed for her intercession.

In this chapter, we’ll look at some important figures in the Christian spiritual tradition, mostly women, and how they have been inspired and nourished by the example of Mary Magdalene. Some found parallels between their lives and hers. Others found strength in her identity as a repentant sinner, or in the model of solitary con-templation offered by the legends they knew. The lives of all of these prayerful people help us see the tremendous positive power the figure of Mary Magdalene has held in the lives of many Christians.

Like a Sister

Margery Kempe is one of the more vivid figures to emerge from the medieval period, partly because she left extensive autobiographical writings (dictated to a priest), but also because her experiences are so extreme to the point that today we might indeed diagnose her as mentally ill.

She was an Englishwoman, born in the late thirteenth century, married, and the mother of fourteen children. She eventually convinced her husband to live with her as a brother, and from that point embarked on a number of pilgrimages — to the Holy Land, Rome, Santiago de Compostela, Norway, and Germany. Her Book of Margery Kempe is an invaluable record of the period in general, and of religious life and sensibilities in particular.

The Book records visionary experiences, most of which involve Margery, who refers to herself as “said creature,” in the midst of a biblical scene, observing and interacting with the other participants, often weeping copiously. Her visions reflect a knowledge of some of the medieval religious plays featuring Mary Magdalene, as well as a work called Meditations on the Life of Christ, a very popular devotional believed to have been written by St. Bonaventure, but now ascribed to a figure known as “Pseudo-Bonaventure.”

Margery joins Mary Magdalene and others at the cross. She mourns with them. For ten years, on every Good Friday, she weeps for five or six hours. After the Resurrection, she displaces Mary Magdalene, and converses with Christ herself, receiving his assurance that if Mary Magdalene could be forgiven of her sins, so should Margery. She, along with the Virgin, expresses sorrow at the imminent physical departure of Jesus, and is comforted by him.

Margery draws strength from Mary Magdalene, then, as a model of a sinner who loved Christ and was devoted to him. The imagery she offers, of herself mourning over the dead Christ, kissing his feet and caring for his body, is evocative of spiritual writing and art of the period in which Mary Magdalene is playing that same role:

[Jesus to Margery Kempe:] “Also, daughter, I know . . . how you call Mary Magdalene into your soul to welcome me for, daugh-ter,I know well enough what you are thinking.You think that she is the worthiest, in your soul, and you trust most in her prayers next to my mother, and so you may indeed, daughter, for she is a very great mediator to me for you in the bliss of heaven.” (Book of Margery Kempe, chapter 86, in Medieval Writings on Female Spiritualityedited by Elizabeth Spearing [Penguin Books, 2002], p. 251)

The Second Mary Magdalene

Similar comfort was found by St. Margaret Cortona (1247-1297), who is actually called the “Second Mary Magdalene.” She was born in Tuscany, and as a young adult woman she became lovers with a nobleman, bore him a child, and lived with him for nine years. The man File:Giovanni Lanfranco - Ecstasy of St Margaret of Cortona - WGA12453.jpgwas murdered, at which point Margaret took her child and fled, first to her family’s home, where she was rejected, and then to a Franciscan friary. Her subsequent life as a Franciscan tertiary was marked by continued battles with temptations of the flesh (she is a patron saint of those battling temptation), repentance, and service to the poor.

Obviously, her past life led to her identification with the popular memory of St. Mary Magdalene, repentant sinner — and like Margery Kempe, Margaret found solace in Mary’s penitent life. The following was related by one of her early biographers:

“Shortly before her death, she had a vision of St. Mary Magdalene, ‘most faithful of Christ’s apostles, clothed in a robe as it were of silver, and crowned with a crown of precious gems, and surrounded by the holy angels.’ And whilst she was in this ecstasy Christ spoke to Margaret, saying:‘My Eternal Father said of Me to the Baptist:This is My beloved Son;so do I say to thee of Magdalene:This is my beloved daughter.’ On
another occasion we are told that ‘she was taken in spirit to the feet of Christ, which she washed with her tears as did Magdalene of old;and as she wiped His feet she desired greatly to behold His face,and prayed to the Lord to grant her this favor.’ Thus to the end we see she was the same; and yet the difference.” (
Saints for Sinners, by Alban Goodier, S.J. [Ignatius Press, 1993], p. 46)

Bathed in Blood

St. Catherine of Siena is one of the most fascinating women of the medieval period, and considering the competition, that is saying quite a bit.

Born in 1347, the youngest of twenty-five children, Catherine was intensely devout, but uninterested in taking the usual route for young women like herself, which would have been joining a reli-gious community. She became associated with the Dominicans — whose patron was Mary Magdalene, remember — as a tertiary, but operated with a startling degree of independence for a woman of her era. We remember her today for her letters, her spiritual writ-ings (dictated to her confessor, Blessed Raymond of Capua), and her determination to play a role in reforming the papacy, at that time in exile in Avignon, France, and corrupted by luxury.

Catherine saw Mary Magdalene as a second mother, having dedicated herself to her in a special way upon the death in child-birth of her sister, Bonaventura, an incident that seems to have been an important motivator in Catherine’s spiritual life. When Bonaventura died, Catherine envisioned herself at the feet of Christ, with Mary Magdalene, begging for mercy. Her biographer noted Catherine “doing everything she could to imitate her to obtain forgiveness” (quoted in Haskins, p. 179). Blessed Raymond summarizes Catherine’s devotion in the following passage:

“‘Sweetest daughter, for your greater comfort I give you Mary Magdalen for your mother.Turn to her in absolute confidence; I entrust her with a special care of you.’ The virgin gratefully accepted this offer. . . . From that moment the virgin felt entirely at one with the Magdalen and always referred to her as her mother.” (Quoted in Jansen, p. 303)

In terms of her personal spirituality, Catherine looked to Mary Magdalene as a model of repentance and faithfulness, never leaving Jesus at the cross. Nor, she determined, would she, faithfully persevering in fidelity despite the extraordinary risks she faced in confronting the most powerful figure of the day — the pope — with evidence of his own sins.

[Catherine of Siena on Mary Magdalene, the “loving disciple”:] “Wracked with love, she runs and embraces the cross.There is no doubt that to see her master, she becomes inundated with blood.” (Quoted in Haskins, p. 188)

St.Teresa of Ávila

The sixteenth century was a period of conflict and reform for the Catholic Church. At the beginning of the century, there was only one Christian Church in the West, but by the end there were scores of different churches and movements emanating from the Protestant Reformation.

The Catholic Church, faced with the consequences of, in part, its own weakness and corruption, responded to the Reformation with its own inner purification, commonly called the Counter-Reformation, or the Catholic Reformation. The Council of Trent, meeting over several years mid-century, standardized prayer and liturgical texts, mandated seminary training for priests, and confidently restated traditional Catholic teaching on justification, Scripture, Tradition, and the life of the Church.

Change doesn’t come only from the top, though. When a reforming spirit is in the Catholic air, inevitably groups rise up to meet the challenge and undertake the work. It happened, for example, in the thirteenth century with the rise of the mendicant orders.

Some argue it is happening today with the rising popularity of groups like Communion and Liberation, Opus Dei, and the Neo-Catechumenal Way.

The sixteenth century was no different. It was the era that saw the establishment of the Jesuits, who evangelized with vigor and focus, under the direct supervision of the pope. It was also the era that saw the reformation of many religious orders. One of the most important leaders on this score was St. Teresa of Ávila, who worked tirelessly to reform the Carmelites in Spain.

Not that she started out life as a reformer. Teresa entered religious life at an early age, but did not pursue holiness with much vigor. Many convents in that period had devolved to essentially groups of well-off women dwelling together, living only nominally religious lives.

Teresa lived this way until her forties, when illness prompted a change of heart. In the wake of her conversion, Teresa was inspired to reform existing houses of her order and establish new ones that would be expressions of a sacrificial road to holiness. Teresa was also a great mystic and teacher of prayer. Her works — including her Life, the Way of Perfection, and The Interior Castle — are still widely read today.

In these works, we see the influence of Mary Magdalene on Teresa, primarily, as she has been for the other women we’ve looked at, as a model of fidelity and repentance:

“I had a very great devotion to the glorious Magdalene,and very frequently used to think of her conversion — especially when I went to Communion. As I knew for certain that our Lord was then within me, I used to place myself at His feet, thinking that my tears would not be despised. I did not know what I was saying; only He did great things for me, in that He was pleased I should shed those tears,seeing that I so soon forgot that impression. I used to recommend myself to that glorious saint,that she might obtain my pardon.” (Life, 9:2)

The story of Mary Magdalene’s contemplative years in the wilderness and her association with the quiet, listening Mary (in contrast to the busy Martha) also Teresa_de_Jesúsappealed to Teresa, unsurprisingly:

“Let us, then, pray Him always to show His mercy upon us, with a submissive spirit,yet trusting in the goodness of God. And now that the soul is permitted to sit at the feet of Christ, let it con-trive not to quit its place, but keep it anyhow. Let it follow the example of the Magdalene; and when it shall be strong enough, God will lead it into the wilderness.” (Life, 21:9)

Asceticism, an important part of Teresa’s spirituality (although never to extremes, she firmly taught), was understood by her and others in this period as a means of penance for one’s own sins, as well as the sins of others. Here, again, Mary Magdalene was a model:

“Indeed the body suffers much while alive, for whatever work it does, the soul has energy for far greater tasks and goads it on to more, for all it can perform appears as nothing.This must be the reason of the severe penances performed by many of the saints, especially the glorious Magdalene, who had always spent her life in luxury.This caused the zeal felt by our Father Elias for the honor of God, and the desires of St. Dominic and St. Fran-cis to draw souls to praise the Almighty. I assure you that, for-getful of themselves, they must have passed through no small trials.” (Interior Castle, 4:16)

Teresa, like many other women, saw in Mary Magdalene a model for faithful discipleship through difficulty, an ideal penitent, and an inspiring contemplative.

Practical Advice

During this same era, another kind of Catholic reformer was working in another part of Europe. St. Francis de Sales — a gifted writer, preacher, and spiritual director — was the bishop of Geneva, although throughout most of his career, because of the Calvinist control of that city, he could not openly lead his flock. He wrote, unusually for this period, specifically for the laity, very aware of the particular challenges of living in the world.

His Introduction to the Devout Life is a lovely, practical, and charming classic, and it is still indispensable. His letters of spiritual direction, many of them written to his close friend and fellow reformer St. Jane Frances de Chantal, are carefully crafted to answer the specific needs of their recipients. In one of his letters of spiritual direction, written to one Rose Bourgeois, an abbess who, much like Teresa of Ávila, was attempting to reform her own life and that of her convent in a way more faithful to the demands of the Gospel, Francis draws on the image of the contemplative Magdalene in a lovely way:

“Dear daughter,what a good way of praying,and what a fine way of staying in God’s presence: doing what He wants and accept-ing what pleases Him! It seems to me that Mary Magdalene was a statue in her niche when,without saying a word,without mov-ing, and perhaps even without looking at Him, she sat at our Lord’s feet and listened to what He was saying.When He spoke, she listened; whenever He paused, she stopped listening; but always, she was right there.” (Letters of Spiritual Direction, by Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal [Paulist Press, 1988], p. 152)

Silent Witness

Mary Magdalene’s place in medieval and early modern Catholic spirituality was firm and clear. Her example encouraged Christians to see their own sins clearly and honestly, and hopefully approach the Lord for forgiveness. Her faithfulness to Jesus, an important part of the Passion narratives in the Gospels, was an accessible expression of fidelity. Her identity as a contemplative, fueled by the legend of her time in the wilderness, as well as her identification with Mary, sister of Martha, provided a model for women who sought to pursue a life of deep prayer, singularly devoted to Christ.

Questions for Reflection

  1. In what ways did these medieval spiritual writers find Mary Magdalene inspiring?
  1. How did they respond to her identity as “Apostle to the Apos-tles,” within the context of their times?
  2. Does the image of Mary Magdalene inspire you in similar ways?

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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 Sunday – 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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