MARY AND THE MYSTICS
The heart of the Christian life is prayer, and throughout our history Mary Magdalene has often been found in that heart, pointing the way to Christ. Like any saint, Christians have looked to her as a model, and have prayed for her intercession.
In this chapter, we’ll look at some important figures in the Christian spiritual tradition, mostly women, and how they have been inspired and nourished by the example of Mary Magdalene. Some found parallels between their lives and hers. Others found strength in her identity as a repentant sinner, or in the model of solitary con-templation offered by the legends they knew. The lives of all of these prayerful people help us see the tremendous positive power the figure of Mary Magdalene has held in the lives of many Christians.
Like a Sister
Margery Kempe is one of the more vivid figures to emerge from the medieval period, partly because she left extensive autobiographical writings (dictated to a priest), but also because her experiences are so extreme to the point that today we might indeed diagnose her as mentally ill.
She was an Englishwoman, born in the late thirteenth century, married, and the mother of fourteen children. She eventually convinced her husband to live with her as a brother, and from that point embarked on a number of pilgrimages — to the Holy Land, Rome, Santiago de Compostela, Norway, and Germany. Her Book of Margery Kempe is an invaluable record of the period in general, and of religious life and sensibilities in particular.
The Book records visionary experiences, most of which involve Margery, who refers to herself as “said creature,” in the midst of a biblical scene, observing and interacting with the other participants, often weeping copiously. Her visions reflect a knowledge of some of the medieval religious plays featuring Mary Magdalene, as well as a work called Meditations on the Life of Christ, a very popular devotional believed to have been written by St. Bonaventure, but now ascribed to a figure known as “Pseudo-Bonaventure.”
Margery joins Mary Magdalene and others at the cross. She mourns with them. For ten years, on every Good Friday, she weeps for five or six hours. After the Resurrection, she displaces Mary Magdalene, and converses with Christ herself, receiving his assurance that if Mary Magdalene could be forgiven of her sins, so should Margery. She, along with the Virgin, expresses sorrow at the imminent physical departure of Jesus, and is comforted by him.
Margery draws strength from Mary Magdalene, then, as a model of a sinner who loved Christ and was devoted to him. The imagery she offers, of herself mourning over the dead Christ, kissing his feet and caring for his body, is evocative of spiritual writing and art of the period in which Mary Magdalene is playing that same role:
[Jesus to Margery Kempe:] “Also, daughter, I know . . . how you call Mary Magdalene into your soul to welcome me for, daugh-ter,I know well enough what you are thinking.You think that she is the worthiest, in your soul, and you trust most in her prayers next to my mother, and so you may indeed, daughter, for she is a very great mediator to me for you in the bliss of heaven.” (Book of Margery Kempe, chapter 86, in Medieval Writings on Female Spirituality, edited by Elizabeth Spearing [Penguin Books, 2002], p. 251)
The Second Mary Magdalene
Similar comfort was found by St. Margaret Cortona (1247-1297), who is actually called the “Second Mary Magdalene.” She was born in Tuscany, and as a young adult woman she became lovers with a nobleman, bore him a child, and lived with him for nine years. The man was murdered, at which point Margaret took her child and fled, first to her family’s home, where she was rejected, and then to a Franciscan friary. Her subsequent life as a Franciscan tertiary was marked by continued battles with temptations of the flesh (she is a patron saint of those battling temptation), repentance, and service to the poor.
Obviously, her past life led to her identification with the popular memory of St. Mary Magdalene, repentant sinner — and like Margery Kempe, Margaret found solace in Mary’s penitent life. The following was related by one of her early biographers:
“Shortly before her death, she had a vision of St. Mary Magdalene, ‘most faithful of Christ’s apostles, clothed in a robe as it were of silver, and crowned with a crown of precious gems, and surrounded by the holy angels.’ And whilst she was in this ecstasy Christ spoke to Margaret, saying:‘My Eternal Father said of Me to the Baptist:This is My beloved Son;so do I say to thee of Magdalene:This is my beloved daughter.’ On
another occasion we are told that ‘she was taken in spirit to the feet of Christ, which she washed with her tears as did Magdalene of old;and as she wiped His feet she desired greatly to behold His face,and prayed to the Lord to grant her this favor.’ Thus to the end we see she was the same; and yet the difference.” (Saints for Sinners, by Alban Goodier, S.J. [Ignatius Press, 1993], p. 46)
Bathed in Blood
St. Catherine of Siena is one of the most fascinating women of the medieval period, and considering the competition, that is saying quite a bit.
Born in 1347, the youngest of twenty-five children, Catherine was intensely devout, but uninterested in taking the usual route for young women like herself, which would have been joining a reli-gious community. She became associated with the Dominicans — whose patron was Mary Magdalene, remember — as a tertiary, but operated with a startling degree of independence for a woman of her era. We remember her today for her letters, her spiritual writ-ings (dictated to her confessor, Blessed Raymond of Capua), and her determination to play a role in reforming the papacy, at that time in exile in Avignon, France, and corrupted by luxury.
Catherine saw Mary Magdalene as a second mother, having dedicated herself to her in a special way upon the death in child-birth of her sister, Bonaventura, an incident that seems to have been an important motivator in Catherine’s spiritual life. When Bonaventura died, Catherine envisioned herself at the feet of Christ, with Mary Magdalene, begging for mercy. Her biographer noted Catherine “doing everything she could to imitate her to obtain forgiveness” (quoted in Haskins, p. 179). Blessed Raymond summarizes Catherine’s devotion in the following passage:
“‘Sweetest daughter, for your greater comfort I give you Mary Magdalen for your mother.Turn to her in absolute confidence; I entrust her with a special care of you.’ The virgin gratefully accepted this offer. . . . From that moment the virgin felt entirely at one with the Magdalen and always referred to her as her mother.” (Quoted in Jansen, p. 303)
In terms of her personal spirituality, Catherine looked to Mary Magdalene as a model of repentance and faithfulness, never leaving Jesus at the cross. Nor, she determined, would she, faithfully persevering in fidelity despite the extraordinary risks she faced in confronting the most powerful figure of the day — the pope — with evidence of his own sins.
[Catherine of Siena on Mary Magdalene, the “loving disciple”:] “Wracked with love, she runs and embraces the cross.There is no doubt that to see her master, she becomes inundated with blood.” (Quoted in Haskins, p. 188)
St.Teresa of Ávila
The sixteenth century was a period of conflict and reform for the Catholic Church. At the beginning of the century, there was only one Christian Church in the West, but by the end there were scores of different churches and movements emanating from the Protestant Reformation.
The Catholic Church, faced with the consequences of, in part, its own weakness and corruption, responded to the Reformation with its own inner purification, commonly called the Counter-Reformation, or the Catholic Reformation. The Council of Trent, meeting over several years mid-century, standardized prayer and liturgical texts, mandated seminary training for priests, and confidently restated traditional Catholic teaching on justification, Scripture, Tradition, and the life of the Church.
Change doesn’t come only from the top, though. When a reforming spirit is in the Catholic air, inevitably groups rise up to meet the challenge and undertake the work. It happened, for example, in the thirteenth century with the rise of the mendicant orders.
Some argue it is happening today with the rising popularity of groups like Communion and Liberation, Opus Dei, and the Neo-Catechumenal Way.
The sixteenth century was no different. It was the era that saw the establishment of the Jesuits, who evangelized with vigor and focus, under the direct supervision of the pope. It was also the era that saw the reformation of many religious orders. One of the most important leaders on this score was St. Teresa of Ávila, who worked tirelessly to reform the Carmelites in Spain.
Not that she started out life as a reformer. Teresa entered religious life at an early age, but did not pursue holiness with much vigor. Many convents in that period had devolved to essentially groups of well-off women dwelling together, living only nominally religious lives.
Teresa lived this way until her forties, when illness prompted a change of heart. In the wake of her conversion, Teresa was inspired to reform existing houses of her order and establish new ones that would be expressions of a sacrificial road to holiness. Teresa was also a great mystic and teacher of prayer. Her works — including her Life, the Way of Perfection, and The Interior Castle — are still widely read today.
In these works, we see the influence of Mary Magdalene on Teresa, primarily, as she has been for the other women we’ve looked at, as a model of fidelity and repentance:
“I had a very great devotion to the glorious Magdalene,and very frequently used to think of her conversion — especially when I went to Communion. As I knew for certain that our Lord was then within me, I used to place myself at His feet, thinking that my tears would not be despised. I did not know what I was saying; only He did great things for me, in that He was pleased I should shed those tears,seeing that I so soon forgot that impression. I used to recommend myself to that glorious saint,that she might obtain my pardon.” (Life, 9:2)
The story of Mary Magdalene’s contemplative years in the wilderness and her association with the quiet, listening Mary (in contrast to the busy Martha) also appealed to Teresa, unsurprisingly:
“Let us, then, pray Him always to show His mercy upon us, with a submissive spirit,yet trusting in the goodness of God. And now that the soul is permitted to sit at the feet of Christ, let it con-trive not to quit its place, but keep it anyhow. Let it follow the example of the Magdalene; and when it shall be strong enough, God will lead it into the wilderness.” (Life, 21:9)
Asceticism, an important part of Teresa’s spirituality (although never to extremes, she firmly taught), was understood by her and others in this period as a means of penance for one’s own sins, as well as the sins of others. Here, again, Mary Magdalene was a model:
“Indeed the body suffers much while alive, for whatever work it does, the soul has energy for far greater tasks and goads it on to more, for all it can perform appears as nothing.This must be the reason of the severe penances performed by many of the saints, especially the glorious Magdalene, who had always spent her life in luxury.This caused the zeal felt by our Father Elias for the honor of God, and the desires of St. Dominic and St. Fran-cis to draw souls to praise the Almighty. I assure you that, for-getful of themselves, they must have passed through no small trials.” (Interior Castle, 4:16)
Teresa, like many other women, saw in Mary Magdalene a model for faithful discipleship through difficulty, an ideal penitent, and an inspiring contemplative.
During this same era, another kind of Catholic reformer was working in another part of Europe. St. Francis de Sales — a gifted writer, preacher, and spiritual director — was the bishop of Geneva, although throughout most of his career, because of the Calvinist control of that city, he could not openly lead his flock. He wrote, unusually for this period, specifically for the laity, very aware of the particular challenges of living in the world.
His Introduction to the Devout Life is a lovely, practical, and charming classic, and it is still indispensable. His letters of spiritual direction, many of them written to his close friend and fellow reformer St. Jane Frances de Chantal, are carefully crafted to answer the specific needs of their recipients. In one of his letters of spiritual direction, written to one Rose Bourgeois, an abbess who, much like Teresa of Ávila, was attempting to reform her own life and that of her convent in a way more faithful to the demands of the Gospel, Francis draws on the image of the contemplative Magdalene in a lovely way:
“Dear daughter,what a good way of praying,and what a fine way of staying in God’s presence: doing what He wants and accept-ing what pleases Him! It seems to me that Mary Magdalene was a statue in her niche when,without saying a word,without mov-ing, and perhaps even without looking at Him, she sat at our Lord’s feet and listened to what He was saying.When He spoke, she listened; whenever He paused, she stopped listening; but always, she was right there.” (Letters of Spiritual Direction, by Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal [Paulist Press, 1988], p. 152)
Mary Magdalene’s place in medieval and early modern Catholic spirituality was firm and clear. Her example encouraged Christians to see their own sins clearly and honestly, and hopefully approach the Lord for forgiveness. Her faithfulness to Jesus, an important part of the Passion narratives in the Gospels, was an accessible expression of fidelity. Her identity as a contemplative, fueled by the legend of her time in the wilderness, as well as her identification with Mary, sister of Martha, provided a model for women who sought to pursue a life of deep prayer, singularly devoted to Christ.
Questions for Reflection
- In what ways did these medieval spiritual writers find Mary Magdalene inspiring?
- How did they respond to her identity as “Apostle to the Apos-tles,” within the context of their times?
- Does the image of Mary Magdalene inspire you in similar ways?