Archive for July, 2020

Love at the Center

July 31st, 2020

Being Peaceful Change

Love at the Center
Friday,  July 31, 2020

Blessed are the peacemakers: they shall be recognized as children of God. —Matthew 5:9

Today many think we can achieve peace through violence. The myth that violence solves problems is part of the way we think and is in direct opposition to all great religious teachings. Our need for immediate control leads us to disconnect the consistency, connection, and unity between means and ends. We even named a missile created for the destruction of humanity a “peacekeeper.” But such peace is a false peace, the Pax Romana of mutually assured destruction (MAD). We must wait and work for the Pax Christi of mutually assured forgiveness.

The above verse from Matthew is the only time the word “peacemakers” is used in the whole Bible. A peacemaker literally is the “one who reconciles quarrels.” Jesus is clearly not on the side of the violent but on the side of the nonviolent. Jesus is saying there is no way to peace other than peacemaking itself.

Coretta Scott King reflects on her husband Martin Luther King, Jr.’s commitment to nonviolence with love at its center:

Noncooperation and nonviolent resistance were means of stirring and awakening moral truths in one’s opponents, of evoking the humanity which, Martin believed, existed in each of us. The means, therefore, had to be consistent with the ends. And the end, as Martin conceived it, was greater than any of its parts, greater than any single issue. “The end is redemption and reconciliation,” he believed. . . .

Even the most intractable evils of our world—the triple evils of poverty, racism, and war which Martin so eloquently challenged in his Nobel lecture—can only be eliminated by nonviolent means. And the wellspring for the eradication of even these most economically, politically, and socially entrenched evils is the moral imperative of love. In his 1967 address to the anti-war group Clergy and Laity Concerned, he said:

When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God” [1 John 4:7].

If love is the eternal religious principle, Martin Luther King, Jr. believed, then nonviolence is its external worldly counterpart. He wrote:

At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. The nonviolent resister would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives. [1]

Being Peaceful Change

July 30th, 2020

Holistic Peace
Thursday,  July 30, 2020

Peaceful change starts within us and grows incrementally from where we are. Our social and physical location will influence the problems we see and the solutions we can imagine. We must “think globally and act locally” as did Nobel Peace Prize winner Professor Wangari Maathai (1940–2011).

Maathai devoted herself to environmental and democratic reform in her native Kenya.

As a young academic biologist at the University of Nairobi in the 1970s . . . Maathai grew concerned about the environmental devastation created in Nairobi by widespread deforestation. She recognized that a massive replanting program could both save the land and provide a source of income for Nairobi’s poor. So in 1977 she founded a small local organization that paid Nairobi women to plant trees. The organization soon grew into a nationwide and then pan-African one known as the Greenbelt Movement. Since its inception, the movement has planted upwards of forty million trees in Africa and provided sources of income for nearly one million women.

The genius of Maathai’s vision was its holistic awareness of the linkage between environmental sustainability and economic opportunity. . . . [1]

In her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Wangari Maathai said,

[The Green Belt Movement] participants discover that they must be part of the solutions. They realize their hidden potential and are empowered to overcome inertia and take action. They come to recognize that they are the primary custodians and beneficiaries of the environment that sustains them.

Entire communities also come to understand that while it is necessary to hold their governments accountable, it is equally important that in their own relationships with each other, they exemplify the leadership values they wish to see in their own leaders, namely justice, integrity and trust.

Although initially the Green Belt Movement’s tree planting activities did not address issues of democracy and peace, it soon became clear that responsible governance of the environment was impossible without democratic space. Therefore, the tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya. Citizens were mobilized to challenge widespread abuses of power, corruption and environmental mismanagement. . . .

Through the Green Belt Movement, thousands of ordinary citizens were mobilized and empowered to take action and effect change. . . . They learned to overcome fear and a sense of helplessness and moved to defend democratic rights.

In time, the tree also became a symbol for peace and conflict resolution. . . .

It is 30 years since we started this work. Activities that devastate the environment and societies continue unabated. Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own—indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder. This will happen if we see the need to revive our sense of belonging to a larger family of life, with which we have shared our evolutionary process.

In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other.

That time is now. [2]

Look With the Eyes of Compassion

July 29th, 2020

Being Peaceful Change

Look with the Eyes of Compassion
Wednesday,  July 29, 2020

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (born 1926) is one of the world’s most influential spiritual teachers. During the Vietnam War, his work for peace brought him into friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, and other Christians who shared his belief that peace must be who we are, not just something we demand. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches:

This capacity of waking up, of being aware of what is going on in your feelings, in your body, in your perceptions, in the world, is called Buddha nature, the capacity of understanding and loving. . . . It is with our capacity of smiling, breathing, and being peace that we can make peace.

Many of us worry about the world situation. We don’t know when the bombs will explode. We feel that we are on the edge of time. As individuals, we feel helpless, despairing. The situation is so dangerous, injustice is so widespread, the danger is so close. In this kind of situation, if we panic, things will only become worse. We need to remain calm, to see clearly. Meditation is to be aware, and to try to help.

I like to use the example of a small boat crossing the Gulf of Siam. In Vietnam, there are many people, called boat people, who leave the country in small boats. Often the boats are caught in rough seas or storms, the people may panic, and boats can sink. But if even one person aboard can remain calm, lucid, knowing what to do and what not to do, he or she can help the boat survive. His or her expression—face, voice—communicates clarity and calmness, and people have trust in that person. They will listen to what he or she says. One such person can save the lives of many.

Our world is something like a small boat. Compared with the cosmos, our planet is a very small boat. We are about to panic because our situation is no better than the situation of the small boat in the sea. . . . Humankind has become a very dangerous species. We need people who can sit still and be able to smile, who can walk peacefully. We need people like that in order to save us. Mahayana Buddhism says that you are that person. . . .

The root-word “budh” means to wake up, to know, to understand. A person who wakes up and understands is called a Buddha. It is as simple as that. The capacity to wake up, to understand, and to love is called Buddha nature. [Christians would call this Christ nature, the Christ self, or the mind of Christ.] . . .

When you understand, you cannot help but love. . . . To develop understanding, you have to practice looking at all living beings with the eyes of compassion. When you understand, you love. And when you love, you naturally act in a way that can relieve the suffering of people.

Being Peaceful Change

July 28th, 2020

Nonviolence: A Spiritual Superpower
Tuesday,  July 28, 2020

Be the change you wish to see in the world. —Gandhi

My good friend, John Dear, is a devoted student of Mohandas Gandhi and has dedicated his life to the promotion of nonviolence through his activism and writing. John writes:

In his search for God and truth, Mohandas Gandhi [1869–1948] concluded that he could never hurt or kill anyone, much less remain passive in the face of injustice, imperialism, and war. Instead, Gandhi dedicated himself to the practice and promotion of nonviolence. He concluded that nonviolence is not only the most powerful force there is; it is the spiritual practice most neglected and most needed throughout the world.

“Nonviolence means avoiding injury to anything on earth, in thought, word, or deed,” Gandhi told an interviewer in 1935. But for Gandhi, nonviolence meant not just refraining from physical violence interpersonally and nationally, but refraining from the inner violence of the heart as well. It meant the practice of active love toward one’s oppressors and enemies in the pursuit of justice, truth, and peace. “Nonviolence cannot be preached,” he insisted. “It has to be practiced.” For fifty years, Gandhi sought to practice nonviolence at every level in life, in his own heart, among his family and friends, and publicly in his struggle for equality in South Africa and freedom for India. It was the means by which he sought the ends of truth; in fact, he later concluded that the ends were in the means, or perhaps they were even the same. In other words, the practice of nonviolence is not just the way to peace; it is the way to God.

Gandhi’s nonviolence was a religious duty. It stood at the center of his spirituality, all his spiritual teachings, and his daily spiritual practice. Gandhi concluded that God is nonviolent, and that God’s reign is the reign of nonviolence. “Nonviolence assumes entire reliance upon God,” Gandhi taught. “When the practice of nonviolence becomes universal, God will reign on earth as God reigns in heaven.” After years of studying the various religions, Gandhi concluded too that nonviolence is at the heart of every religion. It is the common ground of all the world’s religions, the hidden ground of peace and love underlying every religion. . . .

Gandhi thought that the force of nonviolence was more powerful than all nuclear weapons combined and that if we all practiced perfect active nonviolence, we could unleash a spiritual explosion more powerful than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. “I am certain that if we want to bring about peace in the world,” Gandhi told a group of visitors a few months before his death, “there is no other way except that of nonviolence.”

“Nonviolence is the greatest and most active force in the world,” Gandhi wrote. . . . “My optimism rests on my belief in the infinite possibilities of the individual to develop nonviolence. The more you develop it in your own being, the more infectious it becomes till it overwhelms your surroundings and by and by might oversweep the world.

Story from Our Community:
As I read the daily meditation this morning, I felt as if something bigger than me was telling me everything is going to be okay. My kids and I have just moved to a new town after leaving an abusive husband. It was not easy, and these first few days have been a struggle. We are healing, and I see this time in my life as more than just a change of address or a new job but as a transformation. I’ve been through the dark night, the fire, and I will be stronger. I am excited to see what our new lives will include. Thank you for the daily meditations. —Name withheld

Change Comes From the Inside

July 27th, 2020

Being Peaceful Change

Change Comes from the Inside
Monday,  July 27, 2020

As we come to know our soul gift more clearly, we almost always have to let go of some other “gifts” so we can do our one or two things with integrity. Such letting go frees us from always being driven by what has been called the “tyranny of the urgent.” [1] Soon urgency is a way of life, and things are not done peacefully from within. What if we choose to simply do one or two things wholeheartedly in our lives? That is all God expects and all we can probably do well. Too much good work becomes a violence to ourselves and, finally, to those around us.

Let’s just use our different gifts to create a unity in the work of service (Ephesians 4:12–13), and back one another up, without criticism or competition. Only in our peaceful, mutual honoring do we show forth the glory of God.

The Gospel is not about being nice; it is about being honest and just, and the world doesn’t like those two things very much. Our job is to learn how to be honest, but with love and respect. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us that before we go out to witness for justice, we have to make sure that we can love and respect those with whom we disagree.

Imagine the surrender necessary for those who have been oppressed for hundreds of years to continue to work peacefully for justice. Frankly, I don’t know how anyone can do it without contemplation. How do we get to that deep place where we do not want to publicly expose, humiliate, or defeat our opponents, but rather work, as King said, for win-win situations? Seeking win-win solutions, not win-lose, takes a high level of spiritual development and demands spiritual conversion.

When we are hurt, we want to hurt back. When we are put down, we want to put down the opponent. This is our ego’s natural defense mechanism. We all move toward the ego, and we even solidify it as we get older if something doesn’t expose it for the lie that it is—not because it is bad, but because it thinks it is the whole and only thing! We change from inside—from the power position to the position of vulnerability and solidarity, which gradually changes everything.

True contemplation is the most subversive of activities because it undercuts the one thing that normally refuses to give way­­–our natural individualism and narcissism. Once we are freed from our narcissism that thinks we are the center of the world, or that our rights and dignity have to be defended before other people’s rights and dignity, we can finally live and act with justice and truth. People don’t really change by themselves. God changes us, if we can expose ourselves to God at a deep level.

Being Peaceful Change

Inner Unity
Sunday,  July 26, 2020

Before you speak of peace, you must first have it in your heart. —Francis of Assisi

Generations of Christians seem to have forgotten Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence. We’ve relegated visions of a peaceful kingdom to a far distant heaven. We hardly believed Jesus could have meant for us to turn the other cheek here and now. It took Gandhi, a Hindu, to help us apply Jesus’ peace-making in very practical ways. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968), drawing from Gandhi’s writings and example, brought nonviolence to the forefront of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

The nonviolence of Gandhi, like that of the civil rights activists, affirmed a unity of peaceful ends and means. Thomas Merton, reflecting on Gandhi’s nonviolence, wrote:

Non-violence was not simply a political tactic which was supremely useful and efficacious in liberating his people from foreign rule . . . the spirit of non-violence sprang from an inner realization of spiritual unity in himself. The whole Gandhian concept of non-violent action . . . is incomprehensible if it is thought to be a means of achieving unity rather than as the fruit of inner unity already achieved. [1]

Training in nonviolence helps us admit that our secret inner attitudes are often cruel, attacking, judgmental, and harsh. The ego seems to find its energy precisely by having something to oppose, fix, or change. When the mind can judge something to be inferior, we feel superior. We must recognize our constant tendency toward negating reality, resisting it, opposing it, and attacking it on the level of our mind. This is the universal addiction.

Authentic spirituality is always first about you—about allowing your own heart and mind to be changed. It’s about getting your own who right. Who is it that is doing the perceiving? Is it your illusory, separate, false self; or is it your True Self, who you are in God?

As Thomas Keating said:

We’re all like localized vibrations of the infinite goodness of God’s presence. So love is our very nature. Love is our first, middle, and last name. Love is all; not [love as] sentimentality, but love that is self-forgetful and free of self-interest.

This is also marvelously exemplified in Gandhi’s life and work. He never tried to win anything. He just tried to show love; and that’s what ahimsa [the Hindu principle of nonviolence out of respect for all living things] really means. It’s not just a negative. Nonviolence doesn’t capture its meaning. It means to show love tirelessly, no matter what happens. That’s the meaning of turning the other cheek [Matthew 5:39]. Once in a while you have to defend somebody, but it means you’re always willing to suffer first for the cause—that is to say, for communion with your enemies. If you overcome your enemies [through force and violence], you’ve failed. If you make your enemies your partners, God has succeeded. [2]

Come and See

July 24th, 2020

Mary Magdalene

Come and See
Friday,  July 24, 2020


At our Universal Christ conference in 2019, artist Janet McKenzie shared her paintings, including her work “Jesus of the People.” In her presentation, she shared how rewarding and difficult it can be to disrupt people’s preconceived notions of who someone is and how they should behave. Our expectations are often bound by class, race, culture, gender, and in this case, religious tradition. Any resistance we might feel to changing our perspective of the role Mary Magdalene played in Jesus’ life or the early church probably stems from that same discomfort of having our preconceived notions challenged. With that in mind, I want to share what Janet McKenzie has to say about her painting, “Mary Magdalene with Jesus, the Christ”—our banner for this week’s meditations.

I painted Mary Magdalene and Christ seated side by side as visionaries and spiritual teachers with their hands open in the universal gesture of prayer—gifts offered and received—as icons of the sacred. Jesus, the Christ, sent to live among us as the Word Made Flesh, and Mary Magdalene, the first one sent to proclaim the resurrection, are models for the community of disciple-companions sent “to the ends of the earth” [Acts 1:8] to tell and become the Good News for all. [1]

Susan Calef, a professor of theology at Creighton University, wrote this commentary about McKenzie’s painting.

The One Sent: Mary Magdalene with Jesus, the Christ. The very words recall the climactic scene of the Gospel of John, that of Mary Magdalene’s dawn encounter with the Secret Gardener. “Mary! . . . Go, tell my brothers and sisters . . .” (John 20:16‒17). For centuries artists have rendered the scene familiar: The Risen Christ stands above and Mary kneels below, her outstretched hand reaching for him as he rebuffs her. “Do not cling to me,” the image speaks.

In striking contrast, The One Sent images not a Gospel scene but a vision, a vision of the Wisdom-Word that dwells in the deep of John’s Gospel. From the opening words “In the beginning” to its climactic return to a garden, the fourth Gospel evokes a new creation, worked and signed upon the world by the Word-Made-Flesh. For those eyed to see by John’s Gospel telling, the image set before us speaks, not “Do not cling to me,” but “Come and see.” [2]

Spend a few moments simply gazing at this painting. Is it possible that “Do not cling to me” may not have been a rebuke but an invitation for Mary Magdalene to see her beloved rabbi and friend from a new perspective? Could it be that the same invitation applies to us as well?

Mary Magdalene

July 23rd, 2020

Great Love
Thursday,  July 23, 2020

One of the lessons we might learn from the Gospel stories of Mary Magdalene is that, in the great economy of grace, all is used and transformed. Nothing is wasted. God uses our egoic desires and identities and leads us beyond them. Jesus’ clear message to his beloved Mary Magdalene in their first post-resurrection encounter is not that she squelch, deny, or destroy her human love for him. He is much more subtle than that. He just says to her “Do not cling to me” (John 20:17). He is saying “Don’t hold on to the past, what you think you need or deserve. We are all heading for something much bigger and much better, Mary.” This is the spiritual art of detachment, which is not taught much in the capitalistic worldview where clinging and possessing are not just the norm but even the goal. In her desire to cling to Jesus and his refusal to allow it, we see ourselves reflected as in a mirror. We are shown that eventually even the greatest things in our lives—even our loves—must be released and allowed to become something new. Otherwise we are trapped. Love has not yet made us free.

Great love is both very attached (“passionate”) and yet very detached at the same time. It is love but not addiction. The soul, the True Self or Whole Self, has everything, and so it does not require any particular thing or person. When we have all things in Christ, we do not have to protect any one thing. The True Self can love and let go. The separate, small self cannot do this. I am told the “do not cling to me” encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene is the most painted Easter scene. The artistic imagination knows that a seeming contradiction was playing out here: intense love and yet appropriate distance. The soul and the spirit tend to love and revel in paradoxes; they operate by resonance and reflection. Our smaller egoic selves want to resolve all paradoxes in a most glib way. We only have to look around at all the struggling relationships in our own lives to see that it’s true. When we love exclusively from our small selves, we operate in a way that is mechanical and instrumental, which we now sometimes call codependent. We return again and again to the patterns of interaction we know. This is not always bad, but it is surely limited. Great love—loving from our Whole Selves connected to the Source of all love—offers us so much more.

The ego would like Mary Magdalene and Jesus to be caught up in a passionate love affair. Of course they are, in the deepest sense of the term, but only the True Self knows how to enjoy and picture a love of already satisfied desire. The True Self and separate self see differently; both are necessary, but one is better, bigger, and even eternal.

Story from Our Community:
During this global pause, I am navigating a life-threatening illness which brings daily suffering. As I consider the gentle, calm, lifegiving words from James Finley in [a recent] meditation, I am reminded of the power of the breath and each moment even while managing and moving through pain. Inhaling God’s Love in each breath, exhaling love. The atmosphere changes. I am changed. —Michele R.

Faithful to the End

July 22nd, 2020

Faithful to the End
Wednesday,  July 22, 2020
Feast Day of Mary Magdalene

Diarmuid Ó Murchú is an Irish poet, author, friend, and member of the Sacred Heart Community. This poem highlights the presence of Mary Magdalene and the women at Jesus’ death and resurrection and invites us to question why we have not honored their role more fully. Poetry is so much better heard than simply read, so for full effect, read these words aloud, perhaps several times.

What happened [to] the women on the first Easter Day
Breaks open a daring horizon,
Inviting all hearts to discern.
Mid the grieving and trauma of loss,
The horror to stand at the foot of a Cross.
A body we think was buried in haste,
And a tomb that was empty but restless in taste.
Empowering a strange group of women. [stanza 2]

What happened to those on the first Day of Easter,
The faithful disciples by Magdalene led?
A subverted truth the patriarchs dread.
Beyond all the theories that time has construed,
Beyond the oppression we have too long endured.
The first ones commissioned for Easter proclaim
A woman-led mission we’ve brutally maimed.
But we can’t keep subverting empowerment. [stanza 5]

Resurrection still flourishes and always it will,
Imbued with a truth that time will fulfil.
What women empowered at the dawning breakthrough
will bear fruit in season
despite all the treason.
’Cos justice will render what deserves to endure. [1]

Ó Murchú reflects:

Of all the Gospel material related to women, none is more enigmatic and empowering than the role of the women in post-Resurrection space . . . I [wrote of] the women on Calvary remaining faithful to the end. For those women, it was anything but an end. Even when the male disciples fled in fear, they remained to await a new frightening dawn that would propel them into a mission transcending all other missionary endeavors recorded in Gospel lore. The early church seemed unprepared for the archetypal breakthrough and proceeded to consign the women to historical invisibility.

Richard again: I think this is a perfect example of how we cannot see what we aren’t told to look for. For most of history, Christians glossed over the presence of the women at Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. We weren’t wrong; we were simply paying attention to what we were told to look at—the men—by other men (priests, theologians, and even the Gospel writers themselves). We skipped over the faithfulness of the women and focused instead on the faithlessness (and the Easter morning foot race) of the men. Mary Magdalene and the other women were the first witnesses to the resurrection because they remained present for the entire process, from death unto new life, exactly what is necessary to witness resurrections in our own lives as well.

She Does Not Run

July 21st, 2020

Tuesday,  July 21, 2020

She Does Not Run

Tuesday,  July 21, 2020

One of my favorite things about Cynthia Bourgeault is the way she poses questions that get right to the heart of the matter. Her brilliant scholarship comes from the fullness of her being—body, heart, and mind. Her study of Mary Magdalene is no exception, as evidenced by the questions she asks at the end of this passage. Bourgeault writes: 

[After seeing the risen Christ,] Mary went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord, and this is what he said to me” (John 20:14–18).

It is on the basis of this announcement that Mary earned the traditional title of “Apostle to the Apostles.” The first to witness to the resurrection, she is also the one who “commissions” the others to go and announce the good news of the resurrection. . . .

All four gospels witness to Mary Magdalene as the premiere witness to the resurrection—alone or in a group, but in all cases named by name. Given the shifting sands of oral history, the unanimity of this testimony is astounding. It suggests that among the earliest Christians the stature of Mary Magdalene is of the highest order of magnitude—more so than even the Virgin Mother (mentioned as present at the crucifixion in only one gospel and in none at the resurrection). Mary Magdalene’s place of honor is so strong that even the heavy hand of a later, male-dominated ecclesiology cannot entirely dislodge it.

All four gospels insist that when all the other disciples are fleeing, Mary Magdalene stands firm. She does not run; she does not betray or lie about her commitment; she witnesses. Hers is clearly a demonstration of either the deepest human love or the highest spiritual understanding of what Jesus was teaching, perhaps both. But why, one wonders, do the Holy Week liturgies tell and re-tell the story of Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus, while the steady, unwavering witness of Magdalene is not even noticed?

How would our understanding of the Paschal Mystery change if even that one sentence that I finally heard at Vézelay was routinely included in the Good Friday and Palm Sunday Passion narratives? What if, instead of emphasizing that Jesus died alone and rejected, we reinforced that one stood by him and did not leave?—for surely this other story is as deeply and truly there in the scripture as is the first. How would this change the emotional timbre of the day? How would it affect our feelings about ourselves? About the place of women in the church? About the nature of redemptive love?

And above all, why is the apostle to the apostles not herself an apostle? [1]

Richard again: Let’s hold Cynthia’s questions in our minds and hearts that they might stir us to “epiphanies” of our own on the nature of steadfast love. Mary Magdalene’s love for Jesus shows what it means to have one person hold fast to us in our hour of need, despite the apparent hopelessness of it all.

Go Back to the Gospels

July 20th, 2020

Go Back to the Gospels
Monday,  July 20, 2020

Today, Cynthia Bourgeault, a member of the CAC’s teaching faculty, shares an epiphany she had about the significance of Mary Magdalene’s presence at the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

I was spending Holy Week 2005 on a “working retreat” with the Fraternités monastiques de Jérusalem, the innovative young monastic order in residence at the basilica in Vézelay [France]. This mixed community of men and women monks is well known for the imagination and beauty of its liturgy, and toward the end of the Good Friday liturgy I witnessed an unusual ceremony that changed forever how I understood my Christianity.

The liturgy was long and intricate, performed with meticulous reverence by the brothers and sisters. . . . As sunset fell, one of the monks began to read in French the burial narrative from the Gospel of Matthew. . . . I allowed the sonorous French to float by my ears while I drifted in and out, catching what I could. . . . Out of the haze of words came “et Mary Magdalene et l’autre Marie restaient debout en face du tombeau . . .”

That’s when I did my double take. Mary Magdalene was there? That was in the scripture? Why hadn’t I ever noticed it before?

Thinking that maybe my French had failed me, I went back to my room that evening, took out my Bible, and looked it up. But yes, right there in Matthew 27:61 it read: “And Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained standing there in front of the tomb.”

Suddenly the whole picture changed for me. I’d thought I knew the tradition well. As an Episcopal priest I’d presided over many Good Friday liturgies, and as a choral musician, I’d sung my share of Bach Passions. I’d thought I knew the plot backward and forward. How could this key point have escaped my attention? No wonder Mary Magdalene came so unerringly to the tomb on Easter morning; she’d stood by in silent, unflinching vigil the whole time Jesus was being laid to rest there. Maybe she never left . . . Since that moment I have literally not heard the Passion story in the same way. It inspired me to go back to the gospels and actually read the story in a new way. . . .

Like myself, a great many Christians have absorbed most of what they know about Mary Magdalene through the dual filters of tradition and the liturgy, which inevitably direct our attention toward certain aspects of the story at the expense of others.

Mary Magdalene

Love and Knowing Become One
Sunday,  July 19, 2020

This week I’m excited to share another wonderful model of action and contemplation, Mary Magdalene. One of Jesus’ closest disciples, the Catholic Church celebrates her feast day on July 22.  My friend Cynthia Bourgeault tells a story about the moment when she told an older priest friend that she was writing a book about Mary Magdalene. She recounts, “He looked at me long and hard, as only an old friend can, and then said, ‘Go gently. Try not to leave me behind.’” [1] I, too, will try to “go gently” in these meditations on Mary Magdalene, yet at the same time, I want to challenge our preconditioned and possibly mistaken ideas about who this woman was.

For over a millennium, Mary of Magdala was misidentified as the woman with the alabaster jar who was called a “sinner” and who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair (Luke 7:36–50). While we may never know for certain if those two women were the same or separate individuals, the conflation has confused Christianity’s view of them. Either way, Jesus shows both Gospel women nothing but respect, forgiveness, and love.

What we do know about Mary Magdalene is that she was the woman who was closest to Jesus. She was “possessed by seven demons” and Jesus healed her (Luke 8:2). She is mentioned in the Resurrection accounts by name in all four Gospels, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of other women. [2] She was the first to meet the risen Christ. The fact that she immediately went to embrace him is a testament to the closeness of their relationship, the mutual regard and affection they must have shared. When Jesus said to her “Don’t cling to me” (John 20:17), he was indicating that the time for physical closeness was in the past. Mary’s love had to release the finite in order to reach a more expansive, spiritual dimension.

Mary Magdalene is the person in the Gospel who most needs love to be stronger than death and so she is the first to know it—and perhaps at the deepest level. She is the first one who symbolically comes to “consciousness,” as it were, of Jesus as the risen Christ and thus is the clear “witness to the witnesses.” She is the real knower; in fact, love and knowing have become one in her. Mary is the archetypal name for all those who have been led by love into awareness of their True Selves and know its Source.

Mary Magdalene is the icon and archetype of love itself—needed, given, received, and passed on. She is a stand-in for all of us who seek an intimate and loving relationship with the divine. Jesus’ appearance to her first and alone is the clear affirmation of the wonderful and astounding message that we do not need to be perfect to be the beloved of Jesus and God.