THE QUARANTINE BLOG XXIV: JANUARY 9, 2021

Here we are in the New Year that looks much like the old year. In that old year I started a rabbit I would like to pursue, Mary Magdalene.

I grew up with her as the exemplum of female remorse in the Church, the bad girl who having reformed was either in eternal tears or a haggard saint. I am thinking in the later case of the statue of her, the Penitent Magdalen, by Donatello formerly in the Baptistery of the Duomo in Florence carved from white poplar wood. She looks like a famine victim, haggard, hollow eyed, emaciated. Her teeth are snaggled and she is clothed in her own hair. I thought the first time I saw her she was wearing animal skins. There is something odd about her being clothed in her own hair. It is not penitential dress but erotic garb for a woman to wear only her own hair, even when a bit matted, although the mattedness may signal eroticism gone rotten. I have no conclusion to draw. I am simply puzzled by this malingering carnality.

About fifteen years ago I discovered that the Magdalene I knew was a victim of a conflation creation.  In 591 Pope Gregory I in his Easter sermons melded her with two other women, Mary of Bethany (Luke 10:39) and the unnamed woman in the New Testament (Luke 7:36-50) who washed Christ’s feet and was considered a sinful woman. Being a sinful woman was not interpreted as being gluttonous, prideful, greedy, envious, wrathful, or slothful but as being a prostitute. The Church early in its career narrowed the focus on sin to sex. This is how Mary Magdalene became a legendary prostitute, through papal misrepresentation.

There was as well a second set of legends, of which I was ignorant, in which Mary was Christ’s wife and bore him children. This was a mythology, however, that never took root.

In 1969 the merging of Magdalene with Mary of Bethany and the sinful woman was retracted in the General Roman Calendar by Pope Paul VI. But you can’t revirginify your reputation from papal slander that easily after fourteen hundred years. She is still considered a reformed prostitute by most of the Christian world.

The little we have of written records of Magdalene in the canonical gospels, those accepted by the Catholic Church, tell us she traveled with Christ, gave him financial support, was in contact with the apostles, was witness to the crucifixion, to his burial and was alone or with others a witness to his empty tomb. The accounts of the last event vary widely depending on the gospel being read, but she is always the first to discover the tomb is empty.

In the gospels of Luke and Mark it is also recorded that she was exorcized of seven demons which may mean she underwent seven exorcisms or simply, because of secondary meanings of the number seven in Hebrew at the time, that she was in the power of these demons. Demons were in that era considered the source of mental illnesses. However, this exorcism and demons don’t appear in the gospels until the second century AD. They may be a second century invention.

That she gave Christ financial support means she was wealthy. At that time it was not unusual for well-heeled Jewish women to financially support synagogues. This also suggests they probably had more voice in the community than one might imagine.

Reading outside the cannon, however, things become more complex. The Gnostic Gospels include reference to Mary Magdalene and there is a Gospel of Mary that tells of Christ’s teaching from her perspective.

Gnosticism was a complex web of beliefs that preferred enlightenment through individual insight and understanding over fixed dogma. It considered the material world to be corrupt because it was created by a flawed entity, God. Adam and Eve did not bring evil into the world; it came from the Creator of the world who arranged that all living entities eat each other and are, therefore, in fear of each other.

Two forces exist, one for good, the Godhead and the other evil, the Creator God who is responsible for setting up the system of suffering which exists on earth. Christ is one of a handful of Messengers of the Light sent from the Godhead, which is an It not a He or She, to assist humans in their search for Gnosis, knowledge.

Despite their belief in Christ the Gnostics were declared heretics by the Church as it grew into the stunningly powerful corporation it has become. It may be the most successful in human history. What other corporation could have survived tearing itself in two. Could Microsoft have survived a CEO in Silicon Valley and another of equal reputation and following in Los Angeles? Years of exponential, blatant corruption did take its toll in the Protestant splintering but it is still a very healthy corporation today.

Although the Gnostics produced large numbers of written texts the Church destroyed them with such thoroughness that until the last two centuries all that was known about Gnosticism came from quotations of Gnostic texts in the writings of Christian prelates trying to refute Gnostic heresy. In the nineteenth century scholars attempted to collect these shreds of quotations in order to form an idea of the sect’s beliefs. In 1945 a farmer discovered the Nag Hammad library in an Egyptian town of that name. It consists of thirteen leather-bound papyrus volumes that had been buried in a sealed jar. The books include both Christian and Gnostic texts.

Among those books is the Gospel of Philip, a volume that meanders from subject to subject in a fashion quite confusing to the modern reader. Here is the section that mentions Mary Magdalene.

Two caveats before presenting you with this. One, Wisdom for the Gnostics was feminine, named Sophia, an emanation of the Godhead. Second, Christians and Gnostics greeted each other with a kiss on the mouth, the “kiss of peace”, and there was nothing sexual about it.

     “As for the Wisdom who is called “the barren,” she is the mother of the angels. And the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her on the mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended by it and expressed disapproval. They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’ The Savior answered and said to them, ‘Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.’”

That is a fairly breath-taking put down of the disciples. It is apparent that Magdalene is being compared to Sophia or Wisdom. To segue to Buddhism for a moment, the Drölma, also known as the Green Tara, who could be considered an emanation of the Buddha, represents Wisdom, which Buddhists consider feminine and passive.

But Peter did object to Mary. There was a power struggle that existed and is apparent in the Gnostic gospels. I would say he won. The early Church, even in the time of Paul who had a copious and complex correspondence with women in positions of power among converts, had many women in its structure but it became more an more patriarchal over time and women were pushed off to the side.

A last tidbit is a legend in which, after the discovery of the empty tomb of the resurrected Christ by the three Mary’s—Magdalene, Mary Salome and Mary of Ciopas—the three sailed from Alexandria with some say Joseph of Arimathea, others Santiago, arriving at a fortress on the French coast known as Notre-Dame-de-Ratis, Our-Lady-of-the-Boat. The name was changed over time to Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer and then in 1838 to Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Here she was, so the legend goes, buried. Oddly the Gypsies also have a female saint here and come to celebrate her once a year.

The possibility of Mary, Christ’s mother, Magdalene and the third Mary packing up after seeing the empty tomb to cross the Mediterranean and become missionaries of Christianity seems most unlikely but it does give a different perspective to see these women as independent travelers over sea and land.

Rather than the Pope’s prostitute, out of this patchwork, swatches of possible lives, the Magdalena I envision is a well dressed Jewish matron, her wealth apparent in the quality of the fabric of her well cut dress rather than in its stylishness, wandering the shore and hills of Provence, talking to fisherman and farmers of the new faith. She has dark, expressive eyes and an authoritative manner that even men used to being in command find difficult to confront. There are lines of suffering and sadness about her mouth, but the dark eyes dance with humor and spiritual joy.

It’s worth noting what happens to an individual once she or he has gotten into the maw of an institution or corporation with a particular agenda. The winners write history, of course, but the amount of denigration meted out, the manipulation and excising that goes on is worth being cognizant of.

Her latest incarnation is in a song by the British singer FKA twigs in her album entitled  “Magdalene.”

 

Mary Magdalene

FKA twigs

A woman’s work
A woman’s prerogative
A woman’s time to embrace
She must put herself first
A woman’s touch, a sacred geometry
I know where you start, where you end
How to please, how to curse

Yes, I learnt you needed me
Yes, I’m here to open you
Yes, I know that your heart is blue
(So cold)

I fear before the fire
True as Mary Magdalene
Creature of desire
Come just a little bit closer to me
Step just a little bit closer to me
I can lift you higher
I do it like Mary Magdalene
I want you to say it
Come just a little bit closer ’til we collide

A woman’s hands
So dark and provocative
A nurturing breath that could stroke
Your divine confidence
A woman’s war
Unoccupied history
True nature won’t search to destroy
If it doesn’t make sense

Yes, I learnt you needed me
Yes, I’m here to open you
Yes, I know that your heart is blue
(So cold)

I fear before the fire
True as Mary Magdalene
Creature of desire
Come just a little bit closer to me
Step just a little bit closer to me
I can lift you higher
I do it like Mary Magdalene
I want you to say it
Come just a little bit closer ’til we collide

Ooh, you didn’t hear me now
Ooh, you didn’t hear me when I told you
Ooh, you didn’t hear me now

Mary Magdalene
Creature of desire
Come just a little bit, just a little bit 
Mary Magdalene
Creature of desire
Come just a little bit closer ’til we collide

Ooh, you didn’t hear me now
Ooh, you didn’t hear me when I told you
Ooh, you didn’t hear me now

4 thoughts on “THE QUARANTINE BLOG XXIV: JANUARY 9, 2021

  1. Wow… you are full of surprises. I wasn’t prepared for a learned treatise on the Magdalena. And I loved the poem… but you surprised me…
    Let us talk more about all this and I’ll tell you my Mary Magdalene story.
    Now I’m even more interested in what you’re going to say about Louise Gluck. Brava Karen… XGloria
    El vie, 22 ene 2021 a las 10:08, Karen Swenson () escribió:
    > karenswenson7289095 posted: ” Here we are in the New Year that looks much > like the old year. In that old year I started a rabbit I would like to > pursue, Mary Magdalene. I grew up with her as the exemplum of female > remorse in the Church, the bad girl who having reformed was either ” >

    Like

  2. Thanks Karen, I remember studying the Baptistery at Florence in a college class, and finally got to see it in the stone in 2000.
    Interesting how the prohibitions against any “un-natural” sex acts came from the Old Testament but not, as far as I know, the New.
    The Hebrews – an isolated race in a hostile environment – needed one thing above all: more people. Therefore any sex act that could not result in more people was harshly forbidden.
    Many ‘Christians’ still adhere to this Old Testament thinking, though to my knowledge Christ did not.

    Like

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