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Posts Tagged ‘Faith Formation’

— 1 —

Get your travel bug on: The family of Bearing Blog is in Europe at the moment, and the mom is doing a fabulous job blogging it, and just as fabulous a job of feeding her large family while on vacation. I always have such big plans and high hopes for cooking interesting things with new, fascinating ingredients when I’m in a new place, but somehow…takeout always beckons. (Although in my own defense…the takeout can be pretty good….) 

 — 2 —

Most entertaining part of my Thursday was, as I was waiting for piano to be over, standing in a hallway of a college classroom building and watching as successive groups of students approach a door and learn that their scheduled exam had been moved to next week.

Much leaping, skipping, and, since this is a Baptist school, praising of Jesus!

 

— 3 —

I remember a time when the notion of applying to Duke Divinity School would have been akin to applying to Harvard.

Here’s the subject header of an advertising email I received yesterday:

Duke Divinity School: Apply Using Discount Code DukeCT

???

 

 

— 4

Worth a read: “The Borromeo Option”

Despite his importance, Charles Borromeo is little known and appreciated within the English-speaking world, primarily because few of his works have been translated. This lacuna has now been filled with the publication of Charles Borromeo: Selected Orations, Homilies and Writings. J.R. Cihak and A. Santogrossi have furnished us with a superb edition and translation of some of Charles’s most significant texts.

Cihak’s introduction provides a short, but splendid, biography of Charles, and a guide to the historical, ecclesial, and pastoral setting for his writings. There follow four sections, which highlight various aspects of Charles’s work.

The first presents orations that Charles gave at his provincial councils. Here he articulates the need for reform and the nature of the reform. Charles notes that the true bishop “is frequently at prayer and in contemplation of heavenly things.” He is “regularly present in the episcopal residence, and likewise totally dedicated and given over to his episcopal duties.” He is “a true father and pastor of the poor, widows and orphans, a patron of the holy places and assiduous in promoting holy observances.”

There is, however, “another bishop.” He “is remiss or negligent in all of these things, or what is worse, does the opposite.” For Charles, his fellow bishops and priests are to be men of the Gospel who love the Church and the people they serve. Above all, they are to be holy shepherds after the manner their supreme Shepherd – Jesus Himself.

Thus, Charles displays both his love for his fellow bishops and priests as well as the need to challenge them if the Church and people of God are to grow in holiness.

 

— 5 —

From the UK Catholic Herald, “Stop Teaching Our Children Lazy Anti-Catholic Myths:”

Saying that medieval peasants were “extremely superstitious” is one thing; it’s easy to sneer at abstractions. But if you read medieval records of sick people visiting holy shrines, those involved emerge not as stereotypes but as real human beings: men and women from all classes of society, seeking aid in the extremes of pain and suffering, with stories of self-sacrifice and deep personal faith. From a modern viewpoint, some of their beliefs might seem alien, but their fears and hopes are not. These people and their beliefs deserve respect, and at least an attempt at understanding. All this was a sanctification of the everyday, a vision of a world charged with power and meaning – and for medieval scholars, none of it was incompatible with science or learning.

No one would pretend that the medieval period was perfect or that the medieval Church did not have some serious flaws. What’s needed today is a more balanced view, appreciating that the Middle Ages was as complex as any other period in history, and avoiding judgmental, emotive language like “stagnation” and “superstition”. There’s no excuse for it any more.

It has never been easier to access information about the medieval past, especially when a few minutes on Google will lead you to accessible websites written by experts on medieval science and religion, not only debunking myths but also providing more accurate information.

It’s past time for educators and journalists to move beyond the lazy stereotypes about the Middle Ages. The truth is far more interesting.

 

— 6 —

Homeschooling? Going well, with a couple of interruptions this week. Schools were cancelled here on Monday, and my older son had a delayed opening on Tuesday. The public schools were also closed on Tuesday (it had been a proactive decision handed down Sunday night when no one knew if Irma would impact us – it didn’t much), so the science center homeschool class was cancelled, and then the homeschooler had two teeth extracted on Wednesday….so…scattered.

But we did discover this set of fun videos – they are pitched a little younger, but the fact that they’re British evens that out so that they’re quite entertaining to watch for any age:

The Magic of Making:

 

 

— 7 —

Book talk!

As I noted earlier in the week, my old booklet on St. Nicholas has been brought back into print. Get ready for Christmas – especially if you’re a parish or school coordinator of such things!

Celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows with a (still) free download of my book, Mary and the Christian Life.

Get a cheap e-book on Mary Magdalene here – Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies.

As I mentioned last week, The Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories is available.It looks like it’s finally shipping from Amazon in a timely manner…

 But you can also 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.

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

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Today’s his feast. I always remember Justin Martyr because he was the first of the Fathers of the Church that I really read, back at the University of Tennessee in a class on the history of Christianity. It was in reading Justin I first grasped the continuity of the St. Justin Martyrapostolic Church with Christ and then forward to the present.

You can access his writings here.

Pope Emeritus B16, from 2007:

In these Catecheses, we are reflecting on the great figures of the early Church. Today, we will talk about St Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, the most important of the second-century apologist Fathers.

The word “apologist” designates those ancient Christian writers who set out to defend the new religion from the weighty accusations of both pagans and Jews, and to spread the Christian doctrine in terms suited to the culture of their time.

Thus, the apologists had a twofold concern: that most properly called “apologetic”, to defend the newborn Christianity (apologhíain Greek means, precisely, “defence”), and the pro-positive, “missionary” concern, to explain the content of the faith in a language and on a wavelength comprehensible to their contemporaries.

Justin was born in about the year 100 near ancient Shechem, Samaria, in the Holy Land; he spent a long time seeking the truth, moving through the various schools of the Greek philosophical tradition.

Finally, as he himself recounts in the first chapters of his Dialogue with Tryphon, a mysterious figure, an old man he met on the seashore, initially leads him into a crisis by showing him that it is impossible for the human being to satisfy his aspiration to the divine solely with his own forces. He then pointed out to him the ancient prophets as the people to turn to in order to find the way to God and “true philosophy”.

In taking his leave, the old man urged him to pray that the gates of light would be opened to him.
The story foretells the crucial episode in Justin’s life: at the end of a long philosophical journey, a quest for the truth, he arrived at the Christian faith. He founded a school in Rome where, free of charge, he initiated students into the new religion, considered as the true philosophy. Indeed, in it he had found the truth, hence, the art of living virtuously.

For this reason he was reported and beheaded in about 165 during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor to whom Justin had actually addressed one of his Apologia.

These – the two Apologies and the Dialogue with the Hebrew, Tryphon – are his only surviving works. In them, Justin intends above all to illustrate the divine project of creation and salvation, which is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Logos, that is, the eternal Word, eternal Reason, creative Reason.

Every person as a rational being shares in the Logos, carrying within himself a “seed”, and can perceive glimmers of the truth. Thus, the same Logos who revealed himself as a prophetic figure to the Hebrews of the ancient Law also manifested himself partially, in “seeds of truth”, in Greek philosophy.

Now, Justin concludes, since Christianity is the historical and personal manifestation of the Logos in his totality, it follows that “whatever things were rightly said among all men are the property of us Christians” (Second Apology of St Justin Martyr, 13: 4).

In this way, although Justin disputed Greek philosophy and its contradictions, he decisively oriented any philosophical truth to theLogos, giving reasons for the unusual “claim” to truth and universality of the Christian religion. If the Old Testament leaned towards Christ, just as the symbol is a guide to the reality represented, then Greek philosophy also aspired to Christ and the Gospel, just as the part strives to be united with the whole.

And he said that these two realities, the Old Testament and Greek philosophy, are like two paths that lead to Christ, to the Logos.This is why Greek philosophy cannot be opposed to Gospel truth, and Christians can draw from it confidently as from a good of their own.

Therefore, my venerable Predecessor, Pope John Paul II, described St Justin as a “pioneer of positive engagement with philosophical thinking – albeit with cautious discernment…. Although he continued to hold Greek philosophy in high esteem after his conversion, Justin claimed with power and clarity that he had found in Christianity ‘the only sure and profitable philosophy’ (Dial. 8: 1)” (Fides et Ratio, n. 38).

Overall, the figure and work of Justin mark the ancient Church’s forceful option for philosophy, for reason, rather than for the religion of the pagans. With the pagan religion, in fact, the early Christians strenuously rejected every compromise. They held it to be idolatry, at the cost of being accused for this reason of “impiety” and “atheism”.

Justin in particular, especially in his first Apology, mercilessly criticized the pagan religion and its myths, which he considered to be diabolically misleading on the path of truth.

Philosophy, on the other hand, represented the privileged area of the encounter between paganism, Judaism and Christianity, precisely at the level of the criticism of pagan religion and its false myths. “Our philosophy…”: this is how another apologist, Bishop Melito of Sardis, a contemporary of Justin, came to define the new religion in a more explicit way (Ap. Hist. Eccl. 4, 26, 7).

In fact, the pagan religion did not follow the ways of the Logos, but clung to myth, even if Greek philosophy recognized that mythology was devoid of consistency with the truth.

Therefore, the decline of the pagan religion was inevitable: it was a logical consequence of the detachment of religion – reduced to an artificial collection of ceremonies, conventions and customs – from the truth of being.

Justin, and with him other apologists, adopted the clear stance taken by the Christian faith for the God of the philosophers against the false gods of the pagan religion.

It was the choice of the truth of being against the myth of custom. Several decades after Justin, Tertullian defined the same option of Christians with a lapidary sentence that still applies: “Dominus noster Christus veritatem se, non consuetudinem, cognominavit – Christ has said that he is truth not fashion” (De Virgin. Vel. 1, 1).

It should be noted in this regard that the term consuetudo, used here by Tertullian in reference to the pagan religion, can be translated into modern languages with the expressions: “cultural fashion”, “current fads”.

In a time like ours, marked by relativism in the discussion on values and on religion – as well as in interreligious dialogue – this is a lesson that should not be forgotten.

To this end, I suggest to you once again – and thus I conclude – the last words of the mysterious old man whom Justin the Philosopher met on the seashore: “Pray that, above all things, the gates of light may be opened to you; for these things cannot be perceived or understood by all, but only by the man to whom God and his Christ have imparted wisdom” (Dial. 7: 3).

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When it comes to instant video social media-type stuff, I toyed with Snapchat a bit last year. I started mostly because my daughter wanted me to join so she could share Snaps with me, and then we went to Italy for three weeks, and I thought it would be an efficient way of getting and sharing video.

But I didn’t really like it that much, and when Instagram unveiled a similar feature – Instagram Stories – I tried it out and found I liked it much better. The most important difference to me between the two was that Instagram makes it very, very easy to share on Instagram Stories after the moment – with Snapchat, you can load up saved images and videos, but it’s a hassle and it doesn’t have the same look as the in-the-moment Snaps.

And so what Snapchat wants you to do is engage with the app in the moment – and I don’t want to do that. I want to take a quick photo or snip of video, save it for later uploading, and then focus on the moment of what’s happening in front of me. I didn’t want to have to be stopping and saying, “Wait, let me upload this to Snapchat.”  I prefer to just take my photos, and later, when the event is over, upload.

All of that is by way of introduction to a few words about who I am actually still following on Snapchat (besides my daughter) – it’s down to two:

Everest No Filter

and David Lebovitz.

David Lebovitz is an American Paris-based food writer – he wrote the book on homemade ice cream and has other excellent books, and his website is invaluable.  He uses Snapchat very well, and I really enjoy it – I don’t get into social media very much at all, but I do look forward to David’s daily forays through Paris (although he’s been in the US for a few weeks now – that’s interesting too) and his work in the kitchen.  He uses the medium very, very well.

I started following Everest No Filter last year – it’s the Snapchat account of Adrian Ballinger and Cory Richards. Ballinger is a climber, and while Richards obviously climbs as well, he’s also known as a photographer.  They started Everest No Filter last year as an account for people to follow them as they attempted to scale Everest (duh) with no supplemental oxygen.  Last year, Richards made it, but Ballinger didn’t – although not by much.

It’s Everest climbing season again, and so they are back. I have no plans to climb Mount Everest, nor do I have any other extreme sporting goals, but I am just hooked on the Everest No Filter Snapchat – it’s fascinating to learn about the work and effort that goes into a climb like this, and the two are very honest about the challenges. It is always thought-provoking to me to learn about people going through a great deal of effort to accomplish a goal and to wonder, for myself…what is worth that? 

If you don’t have and don’t want to bother with Snapchat, you can see a lot of the #EverestNoFilter stuff at their YouTube channel – they also periodically do Facebook Live events, too. The Everest No Filter website, with links to all their social media, is here. 

— 2 —

Not Mount Everest:

amy-welborn

— 3 —

That’s Ruffner Mountain, about fifteen minutes from our house. It was part of last weekend’s adventures.

Car show was just at the park on the other side of the hill from our house. We walked there. 

— 4 —

This week’s aural adventures centered around The North – the North of England, that is.

I discovered that last fall, Melvyn Bragg (of In Our Time) had presented a series of programs on the North of England – they are just excellent.  

A few highlights:

The Glories of the North concerns the “Northumbrian Renaissance” – the flourishing of intellectual, artistic and spiritual life of the early medieval period, centered on three things: The Ruthwell Cross, the Lindesfarne Gospels, and the Venerable Bede. It was quite moving, really.

— 5 —

Northern Inventions and the Birth of the Industrial Revolution is self-explanatory, of course, but expresses a train of thought that Bragg has often elucidated on In Our Time and something that I – the product of a long line of humanities-type people on both sides – have only recently come to appreciate, especially as the fruit of homeschooling – the creativity and genius of those engaged in science and industry and, quite honestly (and he deals with this) the snobbery of elites who downplay these achievements – England’s greatest contribution to world history, as Bragg would say it – completely undervalued by elites.

— 6 —

The Radical North offers a quick look (all the programs are about half an hour) on the reforming movements that came out of the North. What I appreciated about this program is the due credit given to religion – in this case, Unitarianism, Quakerism and Methodism.  In particular, the role of Methodism in the development of trade unionism and sensitivity to workers’ rights, a role which one scholar on the program quite forthrightly said was vital and had been unfairly downplayed by Marxist-leaning historians since the 60’s (Beginning with E.P. Thompson, whose Making of the English Working Class was the first non-textbook college text I ever had. I had knocked off my history major freshman requirements in the summer, so I was able to take an upper-level history course the winter of my freshman year – it was a junior-level course on the Industrial Revolution, and oh, I felt so special, in there with the older students and no more schoolbooks, but instead the thick, important feeling Thompson in hand.

He even took us on a field trip to a textile mill that was, somehow, still operating somewhere in East Tennessee. )

So Thompson – you dissed the religionists, but the sight of that cover still gives me a frisson of excitement that even I was welcome in a world of intellectual engagement with Important Things.

It was worth doing.

So yes. Take a listen to The Matter of the North.  It’s worth your time. 

— 7 —

Perhaps you saw it earlier in the week...and perhaps you didn’t. So here it is, the cover of my next book, coming out in August (they say):

amy_welborn2

Secondly, since May is Mary’s month, it’s a good time to read a free book about her, originally published by Word Among Us, now out of print and available in a pdf version here.

Amy Welborn and Michael Dubruiel

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

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I had a friend – a saintly friend who died seven years ago next week – who, as I said, was saintly and much holier than I.

I have written about her before, mostly about the time I visited her a couple of months before she died of the cancer she had been fighting for years, and that was finally winning. She talked about how she felt about what was coming, and one of the things she talked about was Purgatory.

I can’t wait to go to Purgatory, she said. To have everything but love burned away. Nothing but love left.

Anyway, this is not about that.

One of the things Mollie used to mention was how watching people receive Communion was a spiritual act for her. To watch women, men and children each receive the Lord and walk away, Christ dwelling within, was something profound.

I get it. But at the same time, I want to say:

Stop staring at me.

For me, that moment of Communion is, indeed strong. Taking in the congregation as a whole, all of us, present in the moment of sacrificial Love, bound in and by Him, I know I’m living in what is most really Real and it’s a glimpse of Heaven. But still. Come on.

Stop staring!

The demise of the hand missal is what did it, and it was no accident. Many of you weren’t there, but in those post-Vatican II years of “renewal,” the anti-private prayer at Mass game was strong. THIS IS NOT PRIVATE PRAYER, they said. THIS IS LITURGY, WHICH MEANS WORK OF THE PEOPLE. YOUR PRIVATE PRAYER TIME COMES LATER.

Stop praying privately!

How that was supposed to work, I never really understood. I mean, even if I’m praying with others, I’m still here and I’m still praying out of my own self, which is not obliterated in the Community Borg..but anyway.

To this end, congregations were told to pay attention.  They were encouraged to be social before and after Mass in the sanctuaries. Missalettes were removed from pews so you could not follow along with the readings privately. The Proclamation of the Word was originally and primally an oral activity, and so two thousand years later, You Must Just Listen as a Community and May Not  Follow Along with Your Own Set of Private Eyes, despite the useful invention of moveable type and widespread literacy. Hand missals, full, not only of the prayers of the Mass, but prayers for Mass and other occasions, once ubiquitous, stuffed with holy cards that marked the owner’s journey from First Communion through marriage and parenthood, through prayers for lost keys and lost jobs and lost children, through sickness, through the inevitability of suffering, decline and death…pray for us! 

Gone.

 Mass is not the time for private prayer.

Post-Communion time was the prime battlefront. Kneeling was discouraged in some locations, with Standing as a Community, at the Ready to Welcome the Lord became the normal posture. Standing, yes, and singing. This is what expresses our identity as the Body of Christ. This moment is for visibly witnessing to this community and is not….NOT for private prayer.

STOP PRAYING.

And so we did. Yup. But most of us don’t sing, we don’t have anything to help us pray, so we stare instead.

Good job!

I’m sure more than a few of us come to that moment with Mollie’s spiritual vision and indeed, witnessing our brothers and sisters encounter the Lord is part of our own post-Communion prayer.

But I think most of us would welcome a little help, too.

Magnificat certainly fills a gap here. But why not revive that hand missal? They do still exist, you know. Or include a variety of private (yes, I said it) pre- and post-Communion prayers in missalettes?

There are, of course, quite a few small, hand-held Catholic prayer books out there that include these types of prayers. There are some good ones (recommend your favorites), but they tend to have a dated, crowded aspect about them – I think the market is there for a prayer book of this type that does not feel like it was printed from plates last used in 1950 and found in the church basement. Not  – let me repeat NOT with “contemporary” prayers penned by a committee, either.

Further, even if the current selection out there were to remain static, it seems to me that parishes would be doing a real service -an act of mercy, shall we say – by encouraging their use and making them available at low cost.

It is not a matter of going all fascist in the opposite direction now. It is about recognizing that people, in those moments after Communion, are seeking to deepen that encounter with the Lord. Many would welcome the use of prayers to do so, and it is the parish’s job to provide them with the opportunity and the means. Buy a bunch and sell them! Why not?

Let me interject another point here. I said that it’s not about being authoritarian in the “private prayer” direction either. What I mean by this plays off of one of my observations about this post-V2 era: how the liturgical changes, intended to bring the congregation more into the action of the Mass, did so by taking away the congregation’s freedom.

In the pre-Vatican II liturgy, all the burden was on the priest and the other ministers. It was their visible actions that defined the Mass and they were to be performed in specific ways, under pain of sin.

If you think about it, what the congregation did was almost irrelevant, as long as they didn’t touch the  Host and were present from one specific point to another.

Which, of course, in the eyes of liturgical reformers was part of the problem: the promotion of a minimalist, spectator role for the congregation.

Swing, pendulum!

….to the point at which the priest can do whatever the heck he wants, but the congregation’s incorrect actions are given the side-eye and finger-shake.

Members of the congregation are told that they must stand, sit and kneel as a group at these points, and they must sing and pray aloud…with gusto! (has anyone ever been in a congregation in which the celebrant orders the congregation to do a Do Over of a response with more vigor? I have) and they will not receive Communion if they dare to kneel and the children must march out for their own Liturgy of the Word, you must stand and march to Communion when the usher directs you to and you should not privately pray because…this is the liturgy, not your private prayer time

Now, in my limited experience, this is a Middle-Class Caucasian American Catholic problem.

When I have gone to Mass in Europe, when I have gone to Hispanic Masses in the US, when I have attended Easter Catholic liturgies…I don’t feel this. People come and go. Their postures are all over the place most of the time. A good portion of the congregation might be doing the same thing at any given time, but those that are doing something different…are fine.

And then Communion?

Scrum.

Which I like. It takes the pressure off.

So where was I in this blog post I was going to dash off in twenty minutes?

The post-Vatican II emphasis on the Participation of the People in the Mass has come, in many places, to somehow mean The Controlled Movement of the People in the Mass.  As we sit in churches  barren of décor, with nothing to read to help us focus and pray, we watch others walk up in the line when the usher greeter welcoming committee member tells them to, we watch the priest clean the vessels, and we wait for it all to be over.

But at least we’re all doing the same thing in community by God.

Prayer happens. It does. But I do think it’s time to get over that reflexive fear of Private Prayer! During Mass! and consider the possibility that some people’s experience of the reality of our Communion with the Lord and with each other, so profound at the moment, might be helped along by the provision of books with appropriate pre- and post-Communion prayers, and the encouragement to use them.

My true, real and deep pet peeve related to this involves school Masses. Catholic schools are about formation. About helping children draw closer to the Lord by giving them every resource we possibly can to help them focus on Him in this stage of life in which they are open and seeking, and in a culture that encourages them to focus on themselves instead of anything solid and real outside of themselves.

Magnifikid is good, but is a disposable and for Sunday Mass.

I would love to see a publisher produce an inexpensive, attractive, but not twee or childish Mass book especially for groups of CatmAGholic children. It would include the main parts of the Mass in English and Latin, the rite for Benediction, and a few pre and post Communion prayers. That’s it. Nothing more fancy than that. Sell it in bulk, teach schools how to teach their kids to use them, and boom. More choices, more active participation than just sitting and watching the first grade trail up the aisle, hands folded over chests for their blessing while not singing “Our God is Here.” Yes, there are children’s missals, but I am thinking about something that falls between that kind of vinyl-bound actual book and a flimsy pamphlet and that is not as picture heavy as a typical “Mass for Children” book. Something that a school or parish can publish in bulk and pull out for Masses and encourage children to use. Perhaps it exists? If so..tell me!

Note that this is not a screed against “how people act in Mass,” even though it may sound like it. Some bloggers do that. I don’t. I stand (or kneel or sit..whatever) in awe of every congregation of which I am a part and indeed, contemplating the diversity of people there and praying for their needs, whatever they might bed, forms a bedrock of my own experience at Mass.

But still, it  bothers me to see all of us – us – just..staring at the Communion line as it creeps up that aisle.

Because it is a struggle to focus, isn’t it? You are curious to see who’s there. You’re starting to think about what you have to do and where you have to go later. Your kids are poking at each other. You know you should be praying, and indeed you want to, for Jesus is here, right now, but you are not a Spiritual Master, it’s hard to concentrate, it’s hard to know what you want to say, what you could say, what you should say, and it’s really hard to know, simply, how to listen, since you know that’s what you should be doing right now, above anything else.

Different people are helped in this moment by different things: contemplating the congregation, the priest’s actions, the crucifix, the art in the church, listening to the music, singing the music, smelling the remaining scent of incense, fingering beads, closing one’s eyes and listening, opening one’s eyes and seeing.

And one of those things that can help are words printed on a page in a small book you’ve slipped in your purse or pocket, words that reflect what others – hundreds, thousands and millions – have found in this moment, in this Presence. It is good to have that book, to open it up right now in this place, present with your own quiet, noisy, still, moving, wandering crowd – to open it up in this Presence, see those words, and join them.

Soul of Christ, sanctify me
Body of Christ, save me
Blood of Christ, inebriate me
Water from Christ’s side, wash me
Passion of Christ, strengthen me
O good Jesus, hear me
Within Thy wounds hide me
Suffer me not to be separated from Thee
From the malicious enemy defend me
In the hour of my death call me
And bid me come unto Thee
That I may praise Thee with Thy saints

and with Thy angels
Forever and ever

 dorothyday-at-mass

Dorothy Day at Mass. Source.

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As promised, I’m going to be spending this week on the blog writing about homeschooling – how we got there, why we’re hitting the pause button, and what I learned from the experience.

And let me say before I get rolling here that I don’t fancy myself any kind of expert on homeschooling at all. There are people out there – mostly women – who have been doing this for decades. What I’m sharing is worth little in comparison to all of their wisdom and experience – Elizabeth Foss, Maureen Wittmann – and so many more. It’s just my experience that I’m putting out there, not only so I have a record for myself, but so that the curious who might be on the fence about homeschooling have one more perspective and set of experiences to consider.

I think, though, that before (again) you read about what lead me to the point of homeschooling, I might as well set out my bottom-line takeaway from the past four years – things I intuited before, but that homeschooling helped me see and articulate more clearly:

School is only one place where education happens. The problem has become that school-centered professional, predominantly government and corporate funded instructional systems have made themselves synonymous with “education.” This identification manifests itself on the local level when schools and their particular systems and expectations seek to dominate the lives of individuals and families. The growing popularity of homeschooling is an expression of dissatisfaction with this regime, a recognition that enabling and encouraging authentic education of individuals is not the goal of these systems at all and that real education is best found in freeing oneself, one’s children, and one’s family from these false and even damaging expectations. This freedom can take the form of creating or getting involved in alternative types of school more suited to a particular goal, or it can take the form of homeschooling…in all of its various forms.

In other words, what ultimately moved us into homeschooling was a deep dissatisfaction with days, weeks and months of inefficiently used and even wasted time and the expectation that of course we wanted to live a life dominated by the priorities and paradigms of the very institution that was wasting that time, and of course I wanted my kids’ self-image and understanding of what it means to be an educated person and person of wisdom to be formed by the paradigms of those schools, systems, testing companies, textbook corporations and state and federal governments.

And, since it’s private schools we were involved in, paying for the privilege as well.

In other words, after twenty-five years as a parent in these systems, about ten teaching, and of course, my own experience as a student over the years…I’d had enough.

The question would be, though, was I willing to make the sacrifices to do what my conscience was telling me was right?

But today, background:

My parents were both educators.

My Catholic mother (who died in 2001) attended both public and Catholic schools growing up in Maine. The public school classes were conducted in English, the Catholic school classes partly in French, partly in English. My mother developed tuberculosis as a teenager and never actually graduated from high school. She eventually got a BFA from the University of Arizona and almost a Master’s in Library Science from the University of Texas.

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(She didn’t want to write a thesis, so never finished). She spent a bit of time between Tuscon and Austin teaching English to mostly Native Americans high school students down in Ajo, Arizona in the mid 1950’s. She was a children’s librarian for a little while in DC, before she had me.

My non-practicing Methodist father (died in 2011) was public school all the way and graduated from high school at the age of sixteen. All of his college degrees, culminating in his PhD in Political Science, were from the University of Texas. He taught at various state universities, landing at the University of Tennessee in 1973, from where he retired.

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Deep in study at Paris Junior College

His parents were both educators. His mother was a life-long public elementary school teacher, mostly in small and medium-sized Texas towns. His father was a public-school high school teacher who spent summers working for graduate degrees, eventually earning a PhD in History from the University of Texas, then teaching in junior colleges. His sister, my late aunt, was a life-long public school elementary teacher married to a life-long public high school teacher and coach.

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Between them, they taught thousands.

There’s not a similar lineage on my mother’s side – her background was so different in every way. She was older (born in 1924) and her family was all French-Canadian. She was the first generation born in the US (New Hampshire) and the men in her family were all business people with some professionals – the uncle who raised her was a dentist – and the women tended to be homemakers, as far as as I know. Her only sibling, a brother, was an engineer, aEPSON MFP imagend his wife, my aunt, was a life-long fifth grade school teacher, though.

(My mother had ended up in Arizona because of respiratory problems, as one did in the 1940’s and 50’s – producing, as I understand, in the present day in the Southwest, the most highly-allergic demographic in the country, as all those emigrants prone to asthma and allergies intermarried….)

Oh, and me? Public school up until high school. Diocesan Catholic high school. I had mostly positive experiences of public school growing up. Catholic high school started to get problematic, but that was perhaps more because of the times in Catholic education (1974-78) than anything else.  Public four-year university (Go Vols) and private graduate university (Vanderbilt). I taught theology and some history in Catholic schools. Have not been in a classroom since 1999.

All that is to say that my background does not see school as the enemy – not even public school! My grandparents and parents taught in public schools to diverse populations. My mother’s stories from her time in Ajo were something else. It was challenging and frustrating, like anything else, but they worked on, teaching, mostly supported from above (administration) and below (families/culture/society). My own experience as a public school student in the 1960’s and 70’s was not a burden to me. It was boring at times, but mostly fine, the only hiccup being the construction of an open classroom building where I ended up for 4th

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If you look at the next image..you’ll see the same picture. Almost 50 years later.  

through 6th grade. It was so modern….but I think it sort of drove the teachers crazy even as everyone was on board the New Classroom Model. If you can imagine, the way it was set up was that the 4th-6th grade module was a huge half-circle part of the building – I’m imagining the whole building was perhaps clover-shaped. The library was in the middle – my primary memory of the library being reading Are You There, God, It’s Me Margaret during library time, being too timid to actually check it out.

Anyway, each grade had two sections, each of those arranged in one arc of that half-circle. There was a lot of movement and a lot of noise, but I actually have pretty strong memories of much of the work we did, particularly in 5th and 6th grade – some of it decent (projects on animals and countries that I can still picture), some of just too characteristic of the period – draw a picture illustrating Feelin’ Groovy. We sang Both Sides Now in chorus. We also sang One Tin Soldier , which was SUPER CONTROVERSIAL.

But here’s the thing: It was flawed, as all human activities are, but it served its fundamental purpose well and did not dominate our lives. There was homework, but not too much. There was some standardized testing once a year, but just a few days. There was not incessant, constant communication with home, and there was not, even though in some areas schools were an important part of community identity, this notion that when your kid entered first grade your whole family was becoming a part of a school family that was going to journey together towards human wholeness and mastery of the skills necessary to succeed in the 20th century.

No, there was still a sense that that journey towards human wholeness, the mastery of skills, and yes, even your own level of understanding, knowledge and wisdom – and where you chose to direct that – was on you.

We’ll help you develop the tools. We’ll teach to read, write, compute and point you in the direction of more specific skills and resources. Once in a while, a teacher might change a life and a school might be important to compensate for what was missing at home especially in cultures of low literacy, but really. Most of the time, school was just school.

Now, a caveat. We all know that any government school system has other goals, as well, mostly related to the formation of Good Citizens, and now, compliant consumers. Catholic schools are, and have always been about the formation of the whole person and salvation of souls. So if that pressure to have the school be such an important, formative part of a family’s life and a child’s formation was not felt, it was probably in part because cultural and social institutions were still tending to be on the same page, so there wasn’t the anxiety of a huge job that one of them was going to have to be tackling all alone. And while pedagogical pedants had been hard at work theorizing since the late 19th century, we (parents and others) had not ceded them complete power…yet.

So what am I saying?

My  family of educators were proud of what they did, but they also understood that schools were institutions like any other. They were systems that could change, that were run by flawed human beings with varied goals and agendas. There was nothing divinely ordered or inherently necessary about a school, much less a particular type of school or educational paradigm. And the higher up you got, the worse it could get and the less tied you were to The Way Things Are. There’s a reason the “academic novel” gets a whole genre of its own, and that genre is known for satire, irony, dark humor and the occasional murder.

My family of educators understood that the classroom gave you a start. It gave you a nudge, opened a space, but that one did not define one’s educational level by grades or by how much school one had completed. I mean…my mother was the smartest person any of us knew, didn’t graduate from high school, but still went to college. We lived in university communities, and when you do that, you know many people who have many degrees, but are also idiots.

Most education happened outside the classroom, by reading, being engaged in culture, religion, social life and politics, by creating music, meals, crafts or gardens, by traveling, by immersing yourself in local history, by going to church and Sunday school, through the spiritual life, by talking, arguing and discussing, and simply being quiet and contemplating the night sky, the ripples on a lake, the soft, smooth skin of your grandchild’s plump hand or the thin, spotted skin of your own.

And for kids, in being let loose at 3 pm, doing whatever until dinner, and running out and then doing it some more.

 

So, that’s where I came from, and that’s where I was. Schools and education were in my blood. All of my older children had gone to Catholic elementary schools, and one to Catholic high school, and I believed in Catholic education, but it wasn’t deep in my family background, either as an ideal or something to reject.  I was respectful and grateful for the institutions, but by no means in awe or idolatrous of any system and knew that most of my real learning – and that of everyone I knew – happened outside of the classroom.

In terms of my own life with my two remaining kids at home in 2011, I was not ecstatic with institutional education, but was fairly comfortable with the agreement I thought we had reached. After all, I only had a decade or so left, but who’s counting. I’d send cooperative kids in every day and support what they were doing in school. School was then going to do its part: teach the basics, enrich, inspire a little. School was going to do no harm. School, because it was called “Catholic,” was going to be holistically, counter-culturally Catholic.  I wasn’t asking school to transform our lives, but I was expecting that school wasn’t going to waste my kids’ time or my money. School would do its thing, and then school would step back and school would get  out of the way.

Deal?

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50 years later, hanging on a different wall in a different time, still amid stacks of books, with different people learning in different, unexpected ways. 

 

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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.

In addition to the continuing celebrations of Mary Magdalene as a goddess-figure, something else on the horizon is Dan Brown’s puzzling release of The Da Vinci Code in a “young adult” version – as if the original were too erudite and layered for the kids. Anyway, I don’t know if this new edition will interest anyone, but just in case it does and you meet someone who has JUST DISCOVERED this amazing truth about the “real” Mary Magdalene…here you go.

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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A quick rundown of last week, which was all over the place, liturgy-wise.

Palm Sunday and the Good Friday service were at St. Barnabas, a small parish that is not too far from us – a little farther than the Cathedral, but still, maybe just three miles. I admit  – freely– that we attended those liturgies at that parish for reasons related to time.  No shame. The Sunday Mass time (10) is quite convenient (the *best* Mass time, IMHO) and on Friday, for various reasons, we couldn’t get to the 3pm service at the Cathedral, so that left us with evening services, wherever we could find one.  It’s a small church, so things like the procession with Palms and the Veneration of the Cross would not be as long as they would be in other, larger parishes, and at this point, we’ll take it. I don’t get protests – at all – but given the boys’ serving responsibilities and the heaviness of the Triduum, a small parish doing it simply and doing it right is a very good thing to experience.

Holy Thursday at the Cathedral with the fitting, amazing music we are spoiled with there.

Good Friday, in addition to the nighttime service, we got to the Stations of the Cross at the Cathedral at noon. A permanent deacon led the stations, while three priests heard confessions during the service.  Penitents lined against the walls.

Visiting family responsibilities precluded the Vigil this year, but the boys served at Casa Maria Convent and Retreat House.

Excellent, well-prepared homilies all-round – I mean, homilies that were obviously  the fruit of close  study, preparation and a keen pastoral sensitivity. And all preached from a prepared text. It’s fine.   

"amy welborn"

Related to Catholic Things in Birmingham, Alabama, of course you know that after many, many years of stroke-related disability, most of which she has been in the cloister in care of her sisters, Mother Angelica died on Easter Sunday.

By far the best commentary so far is Bishop Robert Barron’s:

I can attest that, in “fashionable” Catholic circles during the eighties and nineties of the last century, it was almost de rigueur to make fun of Mother Angelica. She was a crude popularizer, an opponent of Vatican II, an arch-conservative, a culture-warrior, etc., etc. And yet while her critics have largely faded away, her impact and influence are uncontestable. Against all odds and expectations, she created an evangelical vehicle without equal in the history of the Catholic Church. Starting from, quite literally, a garage in Alabama, EWTN now reaches 230 million homes in over 140 countries around the world. With the possible exception of John Paul II himself, she was the most watched and most effective Catholic evangelizer of the last fifty years.

"mother angelica"

I reached the point on the Current Project in which, within the space of a day, I transitioned from despair to complete confidence – in meeting the deadline, that is.  well, the second deadline, that is – after spring break made it clear that the first deadline was impossible.  It’s a good feeling – not as good as finishing the thing and getting it out of my brain forever, but almost.

What messed me up as, not only spring break, but the structure of this year’s spring break, which must be divided between San Diego and Charleston.

So, yes, I’m typing this on a plane, presently descending into Houston, and from there on to San Diego, here I’ll be speaking at the Catholic Library Association and signing books for both OSV and Loyola at NCEA– so if you know anyone who will be at either convention, tell them to stop by and say hi!

 

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