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John of the Cross was born in 1542 in the small village of Fontiveros, near Avila in Old Castille, to Gonzalo de Yepes and Catalina Alvarez. The family was very poor because his father, Gonzalo, from a noble family of Toledo, had been thrown out of his home and disowned for marrying Catalina, a humble silk weaver.

Having lost his father at a tender age, when John was nine he moved with his mother and his brother Francisco to Medina del Campo, not far from Valladolid, a commercial and cultural centre. Here he attended the Colegio de los Doctrinos, carrying out in addition several humble tasks for the sisters of the Church-Convent of the Maddalena. Later, given his human qualities and his academic results, he was admitted first as a male nurse to the Hospital of the Conception, then to the recently founded Jesuit College at Medina del Campo.

He entered the College at the age of 18 and studied the humanities, rhetoric and classical languages for three years. At the end of his formation he had a clear perception of his vocation: the religious life, and, among the many orders present in Medina, he felt called to Carmel.

In the summer of 1563 he began his novitiate with the Carmelites in the town, taking the religious name of Juan de Santo Matía. The following year he went to the prestigious University of Salamanca, where he studied the humanities and philosophy for three years.

He was ordained a priest in 1567 and returned to Medina del Campo to celebrate his first Mass surrounded by his family’s love. It was precisely here that John and Teresa of Jesus first met. The meeting was crucial for them both. Teresa explained to him her plan for reforming Carmel, including the male branch of the Order, and suggested to John that he support it “for the greater glory of God”. The young priest was so fascinated by Teresa’s ideas that he became a great champion of her project.

For several months they worked together, sharing ideals and proposals aiming to inaugurate the first house of Discalced Carmelites as soon as possible. It was opened on 28 December 1568 at Duruelo in a remote part of the Province of Avila.

This first reformed male community consisted of John and three companions. In renewing their religious profession in accordance with the primitive Rule, each of the four took a new name: it was from this time that John called himself “of the Cross”, as he came to be known subsequently throughout the world.

At the end of 1572, at St Teresa’s request, he became confessor and vicar of the Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila where Teresa of Jesus was prioress. These were years of close collaboration and spiritual friendship which enriched both. The most important Teresian works and John’s first writings date back to this period.

Promoting adherence to the Carmelite reform was far from easy and cost John acute suffering. The most traumatic episode occurred in 1577, when he was seized and imprisoned in the Carmelite Convent of the Ancient Observance in Toledo, following an unjust accusation. The Saint, imprisoned for months, was subjected to physical and moral deprivations and constrictions. Here, together with other poems, he composed the well-known Spiritual Canticle. Finally, in the night between 16 and 17 August 1578, he made a daring escape and sought shelter at the Monastery of Discalced Carmelite Nuns in the town. St Teresa and her reformed companions celebrated his liberation with great joy and, after spending a brief period recovering, John was assigned to Andalusia where he spent 10 years in various convents, especially in Granada.

He was charged with ever more important offices in his Order, until he became vicar provincial and completed the draft of his spiritual treatises. He then returned to his native land as a member of the General Government of the Teresian religious family which already enjoyed full juridical autonomy.

He lived in the Carmel of Segovia, serving in the office of community superior. In 1591 he was relieved of all responsibility and assigned to the new religious Province of Mexico. While he was preparing for the long voyage with 10 companions he retired to a secluded convent near Jaén, where he fell seriously ill.

John faced great suffering with exemplary serenity and patience. He died in the night between 13 and 14 December 1591, while his confreres were reciting Matins. He took his leave of them saying: “Today I am going to sing the Office in Heaven”. His mortal remains were translated to Segovia. He was beatified by Clement X in 1675 and canonized by Benedict XIII in 1726.

John is considered one of the most important lyric poets of Spanish literature. His major works are four: The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Dark Night, The Spiritual Canticle and The Living Flame of Love.

In The Spiritual Canticle St John presents the process of the soul’s purification and that is the gradual, joyful possession of God, until the soul succeeds in feeling that it loves God with the same love with which it is loved by him. The Living Flame of Love continues in this perspective, describing in greater detail the state of the transforming union with God.

The example that John uses is always that of fire: just as the stronger the fire burns and consumes wood, the brighter it grows until it blazes into a flame, so the Holy Spirit, who purifies and “cleanses” the soul during the dark night, with time illuminates and warms it as though it were a flame. The life of the soul is a continuous celebration of the Holy Spirit which gives us a glimpse of the glory of union with God in eternity.

The Ascent of Mount Carmel presents the spiritual itinerary from the viewpoint of the gradual purification of the soul, necessary in order to scale the peaks of Christian perfection, symbolized by the summit of Mount Carmel. This purification is proposed as a journey the human being undertakes, collaborating with divine action, to free the soul from every attachment or affection contrary to God’s will.

Purification which, if it is to attain the union of love with God must be total, begins by purifying the life of the senses and continues with the life obtained through the three theological virtues: faith, hope and charity, which purify the intention, the memory and the will.

The Dark Night describes the “passive” aspect, that is, God’s intervention in this process of the soul’s “purification”. In fact human endeavour on its own is unable to reach the profound roots of the person’s bad inclinations and habits: all it can do is to check them but cannot entirely uproot them. This requires the special action of God which radically purifies the spirit and "amy welborn"prepares it for the union of love with him.

St John describes this purification as “passive”, precisely because, although it is accepted by the soul, it is brought about by the mysterious action of the Holy Spirit who, like a burning flame, consumes every impurity. In this state the soul is subjected to every kind of trial, as if it were in a dark night.

This information on the Saint’s most important works help us to approach the salient points of his vast and profound mystical doctrine, whose purpose is to describe a sure way to attain holiness, the state of perfection to which God calls us all.

According to John of the Cross, all that exists, created by God, is good. Through creatures we may arrive at the discovery of the One who has left within them a trace of himself. Faith, in any case, is the one source given to the human being to know God as he is in himself, as the Triune God. All that God wished to communicate to man, he said in Jesus Christ, his Word made flesh. Jesus Christ is the only and definitive way to the Father (cf. Jn 14:6). Any created thing is nothing in comparison to God and is worth nothing outside him, consequently, to attain to the perfect love of God, every other love must be conformed in Christ to the divine love.

From this derives the insistence of St John of the Cross on the need for purification and inner self-emptying in order to be transformed into God, which is the one goal of perfection. This “purification” does not consist in the mere physical absence of things or of their use; on the contrary what makes the soul pure and free is the elimination of every disorderly dependence on things. All things should be placed in God as the centre and goal of life.

Of course, the long and difficult process of purification demands a personal effort, but the real protagonist is God: all that the human being can do is to “prepare” himself, to be open to divine action and not to set up obstacles to it. By living the theological virtues, human beings raise themselves and give value to their commitment. The growth of faith, hope and charity keeps pace with the work of purification and with the gradual union with God until they are transformed in him.

When it reaches this goal, the soul is immersed in Trinitarian life itself, so that St John affirms that it has reached the point of loving God with the same love with which he loves it, because he loves it in the Holy Spirit.

For this reason the Mystical Doctor maintains that there is no true union of love with God that does not culminate in Trinitarian union. In this supreme state the holy soul knows everything in God and no longer has to pass through creatures in order to reach him. The soul now feels bathed in divine love and rejoices in it without reserve.

Dear brothers and sisters, in the end the question is: does this Saint with his lofty mysticism, with this demanding journey towards the peak of perfection have anything to say to us, to the ordinary Christian who lives in the circumstances of our life today, or is he an example, a model for only a few elect souls who are truly able to undertake this journey of purification, of mystical ascesis?

To find the answer we must first of all bear in mind that the life of St John of the Cross did not “float on mystical clouds”; rather he had a very hard life, practical and concrete, both as a reformer of the Order, in which he came up against much opposition and from the Provincial Superior as well as in his confreres’ prison where he was exposed to unbelievable insults and physical abuse.

His life was hard yet it was precisely during the months he spent in prison that he wrote one of his most beautiful works. And so we can understand that the journey with Christ, travelling with Christ, “the Way”, is not an additional burden in our life, it is not something that would make our burden even heavier but something quite different. It is a light, a power that helps us to bear it.

If a person bears great love in himself, this love gives him wings, as it were, and he can face all life’s troubles more easily because he carries in himself this great light; this is faith: being loved by God and letting oneself be loved by God in Jesus Christ. Letting oneself be loved in this way is the light that helps us to bear our daily burden.

And holiness is not a very difficult action of ours but means exactly this “openness”: opening the windows of our soul to let in God’s light, without forgetting God because it is precisely in opening oneself to his light that one finds strength, one finds the joy of the redeemed.

Let us pray the Lord to help us discover this holiness, to let ourselves be loved by God who is our common vocation and the true redemption. Many thanks.

And for children. He’s in the Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints – here are a couple of the pages that I can reproduce for you. He’s in the section, “Saints are people who create.”

 

"amy welborn"

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Repost from last year, but Newman is always worth revisiting. 

On this first Sunday of Advent, the Scripture readings speak to us of what God promises his faithful ones, and of the need to prepare, for that is what we do during this season: prepare for his coming.

There is no lack of resources for keeping ourselves spiritually grounded during this season, even if we are having to battle all sorts of distractions, ranging from early-onset-Christmas settling in all around us to  the temptation to obsessively follow the news, which seems to never stop, never leave us alone.

Begin with the Church. Begin and end with the Church, if you like. Starting and ending your day with what Catholics around the world are praying during this season: the Scripture readings from Mass, and whatever aspects of daily prayer you can manage – that’s the best place to begin and is sufficient.

I found this wonderful, even moving homily from Newman, centered on worship as preparation for the Advent of God. The spiritual and concrete landscape that is his setting is particular to England in the early winter and might not resonate with those of us living, say, in the Sun Belt or in Australia, but nonetheless, perhaps the end-of-the-year weariness he describes might seem familiar, even if the dreary weather does not. I’ll quote from it copiously here, but it deserves a slow, meditative read. 

YEAR after year, as it passes, brings us the same warnings again and again, and none perhaps more impressive than those with which it comes to us at this season. The very frost and cold, rain and gloom, which now befall us, forebode the last dreary days of the world, and in religious hearts raise the thought of them. The year is worn out: spring, summer, autumn, each in turn, have brought their gifts and done their utmost; but they are over, and the end is come. All is past and gone, all has failed, all has sated; we are tired of the past; we would not have the seasons longer; and the austere weather which succeeds, though ungrateful to the body, is in tone with our feelings, and acceptable. Such is the frame of mind which befits the end of the year; and such the frame of mind which comes alike on good and bad at the end of life. The days have {2} come in which they have no pleasure; yet they would hardly be young again, could they be so by wishing it. Life is well enough in its way; but it does not satisfy. Thus the soul is cast forward upon the future, and in proportion as its conscience is clear and its perception keen and true, does it rejoice solemnly that “the night is far spent, the day is at hand,” that there are “new heavens and a new earth” to come, though the former are failing; nay, rather that, because they are failing, it will “soon see the King in His beauty,” and “behold the land which is very far off.” These are feelings for holy men in winter and in age, waiting, in some dejection perhaps, but with comfort on the whole, and calmly though earnestly, for the Advent of Christ.

And such, too, are the feelings with which we now come before Him in prayer day by day. The season is chill and dark, and the breath of the morning is damp, and worshippers are few, but all this befits those who are by profession penitents and mourners, watchers and pilgrims. More dear to them that loneliness, more cheerful that severity, and more bright that gloom, than all those aids and appliances of luxury by which men nowadays attempt to make prayer less disagreeable to them. True faith does not covet comforts. It only complains when it is forbidden to kneel, when it reclines upon cushions, is protected by curtains, and encompassed by warmth. Its only hardship is to be hindered, or to be ridiculed, when it would place itself as a sinner before its Judge. They who realize that awful Day when they shall see Him face to face, whose {3} eyes are as a flame of fire, will as little bargain to pray pleasantly now, as they will think of doing so then….

….We cannot have fitter reflections at this Season than those which I have entered upon. What may be the destiny of other orders of beings we know not;—but this we know to be our own fearful lot, that before us lies a time when we must have the sight of our Maker and Lord face to face. We know not what is reserved for other beings; there may be some, which, knowing nothing of their Maker, are never to be brought before Him. For what we can tell, this may be the case with the brute creation. It may be the law of their nature that they should live and die, or live on an indefinite period, upon the very outskirts of His government, sustained by Him, but never permitted to know or approach Him. But this is not our case. We are destined to come before Him; nay, and to come before Him in judgment; and that on our first meeting; and that suddenly. We are not merely to be rewarded or {4} punished, we are to be judged. Recompense is to come upon our actions, not by a mere general provision or course of nature, as it does at present, but from the Lawgiver Himself in person. We have to stand before His righteous Presence, and that one by one. One by one we shall have to endure His holy and searching eye. At present we are in a world of shadows. What we see is not substantial. Suddenly it will be rent in twain and vanish away, and our Maker will appear. And then, I say, that first appearance will be nothing less than a personal intercourse between the Creator and every creature. He will look on us, while we look on Him.

….Men sometimes ask, Why need they profess religion? Why need they go to church? Why need they observe certain rites and ceremonies? Why need they watch, pray, fast, and meditate? Why is it not enough to be just, honest, sober, benevolent, and otherwise virtuous? Is not this the true and real worship of God? Is not activity in mind and conduct the most acceptable way of approaching Him? How can they please Him by submitting to certain religious forms, and taking part in certain religious acts? Or if they must do so, why may they not choose their own? Why must they come to church for them? Why must they be partakers in what the Church calls Sacraments? I answer, they must do so, first of all and especially, because God tells them so to do. But besides this, I observe that we see this plain reason {8} why, that they are one day to change their state of being. They are not to be here for ever. Direct intercourse with God on their part now, prayer and the like, may be necessary to their meeting Him suitably hereafter: and direct intercourse on His part with them, or what we call sacramental communion, may be necessary in some incomprehensible way, even for preparing their very nature to bear the sight of Him.

Let us then take this view of religious service; it is “going out to meet the Bridegroom,” who, if not seen “in His beauty,” will appear in consuming fire. Besides its other momentous reasons, it is a preparation for an awful event, which shall one day be. What it would be to meet Christ at once without preparation, we may learn from what happened even to the Apostles when His glory was suddenly manifested to them. St. Peter said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” And St. John, “when he saw Him, fell at His feet as dead.” [Luke v. 8. Rev. i. 17.]….

…. It is my desire and hope one day to take possession of my inheritance: and I come to make myself ready for it, and I would not see heaven yet, for I could not bear to see it. I am allowed to be in it without seeing it, that I may learn to see it. And by psalm and sacred song, by confession and by praise, I learn my part.

And what is true of the ordinary services of religion, public and private, holds in a still higher or rather in a special way, as regards the sacramental ordinances of the Church. In these is manifested in greater or less degree, according to the measure of each, that Incarnate Saviour, who is one day to be our Judge, and who is enabling us to bear His presence then, by imparting it to us in measure now. A thick black veil is spread between this world and the next. We mortal men range up and down it, to and fro, and see nothing. There is no access through it into the next world. In the Gospel this veil is not removed; it remains, but every now and then marvellous disclosures are made to us of what is behind it. At times we seem to catch a glimpse of a Form which we shall hereafter see face to face. We approach, and in spite of the darkness, our hands, or our head, or our brow, or our lips become, as it were, sensible of the contact of something more than earthly. We know not where we are, but we have been bathing in water, and a voice tells us that it is blood. {11} Or we have a mark signed upon our foreheads, and it spake of Calvary. Or we recollect a hand laid upon our heads, and surely it had the print of nails in it, and resembled His who with a touch gave sight to the blind and raised the dead. Or we have been eating and drinking; and it was not a dream surely, that One fed us from His wounded side, and renewed our nature by the heavenly meat He gave. Thus in many ways He, who is Judge to us, prepares us to be judged,—He, who is to glorify us, prepares us to be glorified, that He may not take us unawares; but that when the voice of the Archangel sounds, and we are called to meet the Bridegroom, we may be ready….

…And what I have said concerning Ordinances, applies still more fully to Holy Seasons, which include in them the celebration of many Ordinances. They are times {12} when we may humbly expect a larger grace, because they invite us especially to the means of grace. This in particular is a time for purification of every kind. When Almighty God was to descend upon Mount Sinai, Moses was told to “sanctify the people,” and bid them “wash their clothes,” and to “set bounds to them round about:” much more is this a season for “cleansing ourselves from all defilement of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God;” [Exod. xix. 10-12. 2 Cor. xii. 1.] a season for chastened hearts and religious eyes; for severe thoughts, and austere resolves, and charitable deeds; a season for remembering what we are and what we shall be. Let us go out to meet Him with contrite and expectant hearts; and though He delays His coming, let us watch for Him in the cold and dreariness which must one day have an end. Attend His summons we must, at any rate, when He strips us of the body; let us anticipate, by a voluntary act, what will one day come on us of necessity. Let us wait for Him solemnly, fearfully, hopefully, patiently, obediently; let us be resigned to His will, while active in good works. Let us pray Him ever, to “remember us when He cometh in His kingdom;” to remember all our friends; to remember our enemies; and to visit us according to His mercy here, that He may reward us according to His righteousness hereafter.

From a 1945 9th grade religion textbook, Our Quest for Happiness: the Story of Divine Love

 

Expectation or waiting is a dimension that flows through our whole personal, family and social existence. Expectation is present in thousands of situations, from the smallest and most banal to the most important that involve us completely and in our depths. Among these, let us think of waiting for a child, on the part of a husband and wife; of waiting for a relative or friend who is coming from far away to visit us; let us think, for a young person, of waiting to know his results in a crucially important examination or of the outcome of a job interview; in emotional relationships, of waiting to meet the beloved, of waiting for the answer to a letter, or for the acceptance of forgiveness…. One could say that man is alive as long as he waits, as long as hope is alive in his heart. And from his expectations man recognizes himself: our moral and spiritual “stature” can be measured by what we wait for, by what we hope for.           -B16, 2010

 

 

 

Expectans Expectavi

The candid freezing season again:
Candle and cracker, needles of fir and frost;
Carols that through the night air pass, piercing
The glassy husk of heart and heaven;
Children’s faces white in the pane, bright in the tree-light.

And the waiting season again,
That begs a crust and suffers joy vicariously:
In bodily starvation now, in the spirit’s exile always.
O might the hilarious reign of love begin, let in
Like carols from the cold
The lost who crowd the pane, numb outcasts into welcome.

-Anne Ridler (1912-2001) , who introduces the poem: 

This poem, ‘Expectans Expectavi’, which is the title of a psalm, “I waited patiently for the Lord”, is about waiting, written at the end of the last war when the whole world, really, seemed to be holding its breath for the return of ordinary life, and all the soldiers from overseas, and I thought of it in the wintertime, at Christmas, with the carols and the children’s faces, recalling the refugees of the time. The poem happened to be chosen to be posted up on the underground, so although I never saw it myself, several of my friends have been surprised by it in the middle of a crowd of people standing up in the tube train.

Links to good commentaries on the readings of Advent are at the blog called The Dim Bulb. Excellent. 

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— 1 —

As I mentioned last week, The Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories is available. Amazon doesn’t have it shipping until next week (and by next week, it will probably be…the next week) But you can certainly order it from Loyola, request it from your local bookstore, or, if you like, from me – I have limited quantities available. Go here for that.

— 2 —

Bible stories? For kids? Aren’t there plenty of books like that out there already? Well, yes and no.

Here’s the niche I want to fill with my book:

When do most Catholics, adult and children, encounter Scripture? During Sunday Mass. So it made sense to me to offer a book that would reflect that reality and build on it.

So the stories in the book – written for a 5-11 age reading/read aloud level – are arranged according to the liturgical season during which you would most likely hear them in the context of Sunday  or a feastday Mass. That means, of course, that it’s not comprehensive – if you don’t hear it at Sunday Mass, it is most likely not in the book, although I did make a couple of exceptions for readings that are strongly associated with a particular season and might be heard during a weekday Mass.

The stories are retold, faithful to Scripture – I am a stickler about that. Some re-tellings of Scripture impose, for example, emotions or thoughts on figures in the narrative that aren’t actually explicitly in Scripture. I don’t do that.

Following the narrative of each story are thoughts relating the story to either the particular feast or liturgical season or some other spiritual or theological point (sacraments prayer, virtues, and so on), and then finally, a question for reflection and a very short prayer.

— 3 —

The book includes lovely maps as endpapers, a basic liturgical calendar, wonderful illustrations, of course, and an introduction that will hopefully help families and catechists use the book in meaningful ways.

What I hoped to do was to bring children and families more deeply into the dynamic of reading the Scriptures as a Catholic– that is, in unity with the Church. We hear the Scriptures in a liturgical context, we apply them to our own lives, we return to the liturgy with new insights – and we’re always part of that weOf course reading Scripture as an act of individual devotion and study is good and important, but even that must be in the context of our awareness of Revelation as a reality that’s for and about the cosmos, not just our little microcosm in one corner of it, and so to situate our hearing of the Word in the Church, the Body of Christ.

— 4 —

Speaking of books, I am finally getting around to “publishing” some of my out-of-print books for Amazon Kindle. There are other means of epublication, of course, but I can only handle one formatting effort at a time. You can find it here:

I’ll be doing Mary and the Christian Life next. Just as soon as I finish some actual other work this coming weekend.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post on this, I have taken the free version of Mary Magdalene down for the moment – just until I give it some time on Amazon. Then the free pdf will be back up at my website. I’ll do the same with Mary and the Christian life and the others: remove the free version for the first few weeks it’s on Amazon, and then offer it free again as well.

— 5 —

So how’s the homeschooling going? Thanks for asking! Well, if a bit scattered. I am not sure how the “unschooling” part is coming – we’ll see at the end of September – at that point, we’ll take a look at all of the daily and weekly record sheets (which are being maintained) – look at topics read about, books read, trips taken, and see what that looks like. What I keep telling him is that he needs to think about nine months from now – what does he want and hope to see when he looks back over the whole year?

Decent advice for the rest of life, I think.

— 6 —

So no big changes from what I’d said we’d be doing: Komen Pre-Algebra math review pages every day (fractions and decimals so far), Art of Problem Solving Pre-Algebra – finished chapter 1 and are beginning chapter 2. He’s been reading various magazines (National Geographic, National Geographic History, Archaeology) and non-fiction books on topics that interest him. He’s currently memorizing the list of US Presidents as a framework for History Bee prep. We do our daily liturgical prayer/Saint of the Day/poem reading. The Spanish curriculum arrived yesterday, so he’ll start that next week (his choice).  He had some heavy duty music theory this week – learning about the different kinds of minor keys/scales, which is all new to me, too. We had to do some supplementary video-watching for that. He’s watched various science/nature related videos – this on Daddy Long-Legs, for example.   Various videos from The Kids Should See ThisWe went to the zoo.  The homeschool boxing class got underway.  Piano lesson.

Another trip to Moss Rock Preserve. He climbed, made the acquaintance of a stick bug:

 

September will be very busy. His science center classes will be on Tuesday mornings. Photography class Thursday mornings. Boxing Tuesday afternoons. Piano Thursday afternoons. Getting two teeth pulled. Piano recital in mid-September. Our zoo does a “Zookeeper for a day” thing – really half a day, and of course, it ain’t free, but I justify the cost by saying…well, I’m not paying $600/month tuition any more, so I think I can swing this.  He’ll be doing that – in the reptile house – one afternoon in September, as well.  I thought they only allowed his age group to do this zookeeper for a day thing in either the children’s zoo (farm animals) or with birds, but when I contacted them, they said they’d just added the reptile house as an option – which is of course, our favorite. Although he likes birds quite a bit, too. But given the chance to hang out with the big snakes and lizards for an afternoon? Much more exciting.

— 7 —

I have taken some reins from the unschooler, though…you knew that would happen, didn’t you?

He reads a lot, but it’s very much leisure reading, which is just fine, but I did think…well, maybe I should be a bit more directive on this….so we agreed that he’d always have a “school-type” book going as well, of either his or my choice. So we’re starting with Animal Farm – which will be a good way for him to dive into various areas of history as well.

Then I read this article – “Memorize That Poem!” which is very, very good. 

It’s so good, I’d invite you to share it with any educators in your life or circle. We have done quite a bit of poetry memorization around here over the years, but it really fell by the wayside last school year with both of them in school. This was the nudge I needed for revival.

By the 1920s, educators increasingly questioned such poetry’s “relevance” to students’ lives. They began to abandon memorization in favor of teaching methods that emphasized self-expression, although the practice remained popular until about 1960 — and still endures in some foreign language classes (to pass a college Russian course, I had to memorize some Pushkin).

The truth is that memorizing and reciting poetry can be a highly expressive act. And we need not return to the Victorians’ narrow idea of the canon to reclaim poetry as one of the cheapest, most durable tools of moral and emotional education — whether you go in for Virgil, Li Po, Rumi or Gwendolyn Brooks (ideally, all four).

How does memorizing and reciting someone else’s words help me express myself? I put this question to Samara Huggins, 18, the winner of the 2017 national Poetry Out Loud contest, in which high school students recite poems before a panel of judges. She performed “Novel,” by the avant-garde 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud — not an author who, at first glance, has much in common with Ms. Huggins, a teenager from the Atlanta area.

Yet every good poem grapples with some essential piece of human experience. “Rimbaud wrote that poem when he was young, and he was talking about love. I related to him,” Ms. Huggins said. (He writes: “We talked a lot and feel a kiss on our lips/Trembling there like a small insect.”)

“Reciting a poem will help you express what you’re trying to say,” she told me. “It’s like when I need to pray about something, I’ll look into a devotional, and those words can start me off.” Ms. Huggins grew up Episcopalian, but even the resolutely secular need to borrow words of supplication, anguish or thanks every now and then.

Susan Wise Bauer, a writer whose best-selling home-school curriculums are based on classical and medieval models and stress memorization, told me that “you can’t express your ineffable yearnings for a world that is not quite what you thought it was going to be until you’ve memorized three or four poems that give you the words to begin.” She learned William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood” when she was 8. “Every decade I grow older, I understand a little more what he means about that sense of loss of wonder,” she said.

Understanding a good poem is hard — all the more reason to memorize it. Ask students to write a paper on Wordsworth, and once they turn it in, they consign the text to oblivion. But if they memorize his lament, years from now — perhaps while they are cleaning up their child’s chocolate-smeared face after birthday cake — they may suddenly grasp his nostalgia for “Delight and liberty, the simple creed/Of Childhood” and the bittersweet truth that “Our noisy years seem moments in the being/Of the eternal Silence.”

Of course, this writer’s evangelizing on behalf of poetry brought to mind all of my own evangelizing about the role of literature – and sacred literature, prayer, liturgy and yes, faith – in bringing us out of our own small narrow worlds and situating us in reality – which is much bigger than we are, and bigger than we  know.

So yes, poetry. We’ll be back at it –  next week. One good poem a month, that’s all. Now to figure out which one…

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I finally got off my tail and began the project of re-purposing as many of our out-of-print books as I can. It’s not as if I don’t have other things to do – homeschooling a 7th grader, writing a book that’s due on December 15, writing another shorter book for independent release…but it’s been weighing on me, so I decided it was time to begin. Plus, since I’ll be putting out the Guatemala book as a Kindle book, I thought it would be good practice to go ahead and start publishing books that had already been written and edited.

(For those of you who wonder about rights. Generally what happens – and this is the case with these books – once a book goes out of print, the rights revert to the author, so that she can do whatever she likes with them. The advent of digital has made that a bit more complicated – some publishers are reverting print rights back to authors but retaining digital rights, for example, so they can continue to benefit from that revenue stream. And some publishers are holding onto all rights, maintaining a large back catalog in theory, even though they’re not actually publishing the older books – frustrating a lot of authors who would really like to have the rights to their own books back….)

So here’s my first attempt – available for pre-order from Amazon. Once I get the hang of it, I might publish in other formats – Smashwords, etc, but this is it for now. For the moment, I have taken the free pdf off my website, mostly because I am not sure how Amazon feels about offering something for sale on their site while giving it away somewhere else. I’ll do this for a while and see what happens.

Why not just leave it up as a free pdf? Because I can reach more people this way, that’s why. There isn’t another book like this out there – a popular, non-wacky look at Mary Magdalene and her cultus with a bit of a devotional twist. I’ve mentioned the book to various publishers in passing, letting it be known that if anyone wanted to republish it, I’d be happy to discuss it, but no one’s interested…so why not do it myself?

(But no, I won’t be doing a print version. That’s a whole other level of hassle…..)

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— 1 —

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

— 2 —

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

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

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

Send thoughts and prayers my way, please!

amy-welborn8

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

— 3 —

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

 

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

— 4 —

Nature has been spotted:

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

— 5 —

Food:

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

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

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

— 6 —

And just encounters and experiences:

 

— 7 —

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

amywelborn8

For further reference…go here. 

 

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And here we go with chapter 4 of De-Coding Mary Magdalene. This chapter covers the earliest stages of patristic thinking about the saint. It’s shorter.

I hope what you notice that one of the things I try to do here (and in everything I write along this line, as well) is to help the reader understand not only Mary Magdalene herself, but broader (to use a big word) epistemological matters as well. How to read the Bible. How to understand early Church History. It’s one thing to throw factoids at people. It’s important in the long run, however, to open them up to the greater issues of, not just what to know, but how to know – especially about religious matters – in a culture in which they are told, repeatedly, that all knowledge, especially about religion, is fundamentally uncertain, relative, and ideological.

For previous chapters:

Chapter one: Introducing Mary Magdalene in the Bible

Chapter two: Mary Magdalene at the Resurrection

Chapter three: Mary Magdalene in Gnostic writings

As I have said before, feel free to use this material in any way you wish, even copying them for parish discussion groups. The full pdf is available here. 

While Gnostic writers were — or perhaps weren’t – – writing about Mary Magdalene, favored student of the Gnostic Jesus, orthodox Christian writers had a few things to say as well during those early centuries of Christianity.
She didn’t dominate the scene, but a few thinkers found her an intriguing figure, helpful in understanding the nature of faith and redemption. She’s represented in art from the period as well, most often in her role as “myrrhophore” — one of the women bringing oils and spice to Jesus’ tomb.

It’s that theme that we see most frequently: Mary Magdalene as faithful disciple and witness to the empty tomb, and then, digging a little deeper, Mary as the New Eve and Mary as the Church, symbolized with power and passion in the Old Testament Song of Songs.

Those who think that the Gnostics were more appreciative of Mary Magdalene than were orthodox Christians who were perhaps busy demonizing her might be in for a surprise. Many early Church Fathers had no problem identifying Mary Magdalene in quite exalted terms: “Apostle to the Apostles” and “Equal-to-the-Apostles,” titles which may be now neglected in the West, but which remain her primary identification in Eastern Christianity to this day.

‘Come, My Beloved’

It might be helpful, before getting to Mary herself, to set the scene. When we talk about the “early Church” and the “early Church Fathers” and their writings, what exactly do we mean?

For the purposes of this chapter, “early Church” means Christianity up to the late sixth century, at which point we start creeping into the early Middle Ages, or the Dark Ages, as they are quite unfairly called.

During this period, Christianity spread throughout the Middle East, into Africa, far into Europe, and even into India. The time began, of course, with most of that area (with the exception of India) as part of the Roman Empire, where Christianity was illegal. By the time the sixth century rolled around, the old Roman Empire had collapsed, new kingdoms and empires had taken shape, and Christianity was not only legal in all of them, but was the established religion in most as well, a situation that would last until the rise of Islam in the eighth century.

By the end of the first century, a basic church structure of presbyters (priests) and bishops was beginning to evolve (we can even see this in the New Testament: for example, in the First Letter of Paul to Timothy). The religious landscape was not the same as it is today: there were no seminaries, no universities, and of course, no publishing houses or religious newspapers. But there were theologians, spiritual writers, and bishops, who wrote and preached. Many of their works have survived and are available in English — even on the Internet — today.

Most commonly, the texts that we can read that give us an idea of what these Christians were thinking and how they believed and practiced their faith are:

  • Defenses of Christianity against skeptics and heretics.
  • Commentaries on Scripture.
  • Catechetical instructions.
  • And not coming from individuals but from church communities were liturgies and,beginning in the fourth century,
  • decrees from gatherings of bishops.

So you see, although there is much we don’t know, a great deal of evidence has survived that gives us an excellent picture of Christian life in its first five centuries of life. It is not as mysterious and ambiguous as some claim. Christian thinkers were seeking to deepen their understanding of the Gospel, in the context of a culture that was extremely hostile to them, as well as intellectually and religiously diverse.

There’s a good reason people still read the writings of these early Church Fathers. Their situation was not that different from ours. They were dealing honestly and tenaciously with the most fundamental aspects of Christian faith, and they were trying to make them understandable to a world that, while skeptical, was obviously deeply in need of Christ. Two thousand years is a long time — but not long enough for human nature and humanity’s need for Christ to change.

These early Christian writers viewed the literal truth of Scripture — in which they firmly believed, by the way — as a starting point. From that factual level, they routinely set off exploring nuance, making connections, and discovering useful analogies and allegories. Patristic writing is extremely rich in that way.

So for them, Mary Magdalene was more than a woman at a tomb, just as Jesus had been more than a man on a cross. In Jesus, all of history is redeemed and all of creation is reconciled to God.

Into this richness step ordinary men and women like you and me, people like Peter, Levi, John, and Mary. As they live and move in Jesus’ shadow, listening and responding to him, they, too, become more. Their actions evoke other figures’ responses to God’s out-stretched hand. Their doubt, faith, sin, and redemption become more than just their own, as we look at them and see echoes of our own lives and, in fact, of the whole human story.

So, for example, when some of these writers meditated on Mary Magdalene, they saw her responding to the Good News of redemption and eternal life — in a garden. It recalled another scene, at the beginning of salvation history, also in a garden in which a woman and a man disobeyed God, and humanity fell. And so, for some, Mary Magdalene became a sort of New Eve, long before the title had attached itself to the Virgin Mary.

For example, St. Cyril of Alexandria, who lived in the fifth century, said that because of Mary Magdalene’s witness at the empty tomb, all women were forgiven of Eve’s sin (Haskins, p. 89). St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory of Nyssa also made the connection:

“She is the first witness of the resurrection, that she might set straight again by her faith in the resurrection, what was turned over by her transgression.” (St. Gregory of Nyssa,Against Eunomius3.10.16, quoted in The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament, by Jane Schaberg [Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002], p. 87).

The image of a woman grieving and waiting in a garden evoked another image for Christians: that of the great love poem in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Song of Songs (also known as the Canticle of Canticles or Song of Solomon).

The third-century Christian writer Hippolytus made a great deal of this in his own commentary on the Old Testament book. He brings in not only Mary Magdalene but also the other women reported at the tomb in the various Gospels, and sometimes in confusing ways. The female image, rooted in specific figures, becomes more generally symbolic but, with Mary Magdalene as one of them, echoes the deep desire of the bride in the Old Testament book, her desire for her beloved, as they seek Jesus at the tomb:

“ ‘By night, I sought him whom my soul loveth’: See how this is fulfilled in Martha and Mary. In their figure, zealous Synagogue sought the dead Christ. . . . For she teaches us and tells us: By night I sought him whom my soul loveth.” (Hippolytus,third century, quoted in Haskins, p. 61)

Finally, writers during this period cited Mary Magdalene for her witness at the tomb and sharing the Good News with the apostles. Hippolytus, who was also a bishop, referred to her as “Apostle to the Apostles.” Other Church Fathers also praised Mary for her role as a witness, some holding that through her example, all women are honored and, in a sense, redeemed.

A fourth-century Eastern poet named Ephrem used this image, although, confusingly to us, he conflates Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the following (as we saw in the last chapter, this was a characteristic of Syrian Christianity in this period):

“At the beginning of his coming to

earth A virgin was first to receive him, 

And at his raising up from the grave

To a woman he showed his resurrection.

In his beginning and in his fulfillment

The name of his mother cries out and is present.

Mary received him by conception

And saw an angel at his grave.”

(Quoted in Haskins, p. 90)

 

In this early period of Christian reflection, theological and spiritual writers worked in a relatively simple garden. Scripture — both Hebrew and Christian Testaments — was their primary source. Their sense of who Mary Magdalene was and of her importance for Christians was derived completely from that. She was historically significant because she was the first to see the empty tomb and the Risen Christ. Her role evoked other women in other gardens, and another layer of reflection was woven, celebrating Mary Magdalene as a New Eve or as representing the Church as the expectant bride seeking her bridegroom, Christ — but all because of what the Christian tradition had testified about her role in the events of the Resurrection.

The story of Mary Magdalene obviously does not end here, for at this point — the fifth and early sixth centuries — some images, quite familiar to us today, have not yet appeared. What of the penitent Magdalene? The prostitute? The evangelizer of the French?

Where these came from we shall soon see, as we enter the Middle Ages, a period of intense creativity and legend-building, in which the evidence of Scripture was revered, but popularly viewed as only the beginning to far more interesting tales.

 

Questions for Reflection

  1. Why did early Christian thinkers refer to Mary Magdalene as the “New Eve?”
  2. Why did they connect Mary Magdalene to the Song of Songs?
  3. What do you think of this approach to interpreting Scripture? Do you find it helpful or not?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Okay.

So on to chapter 3….

 

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

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

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

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

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

Secret Knowledge

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It just didn’t happen.

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

 

Know Nothing

 

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

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

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

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

 

Ancient Words

 

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

 

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

 

Pistis Sophia (third century)

 

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

 

The Gospel of Philip (third century)

 

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

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

 

The Gospel of Thomas (third century)

 

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

 

The Gospel of Mary (third century)

 

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

 

A ‘Few’ Problems

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scholar Stephen J. Shoemaker summarizes this perspective:

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

Questions for Reflection

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

 

 

 

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