Meditation from the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene
There is an story, told in the Orthodox Church, about Mary Magdalene: the first witness to Christ's Resurrection, and thus often called the Apostle to the Apostles. She, too, made her own missionary journeys and, like Peter and Paul, eventually came to Rome, where she somehow gained access to a banquet with the Emperor himself. Picking up a plain white egg from the dinner table, she proclaimed the good news of Christ's resurrection to Emperor Tiberius, who was amused by this strange woman's gullibility. "It is no more possible," he said, "for a man to have risen from the dead, than for that egg in your hand to turn red." Mary only smiled, holding out the egg – which was now bright red.
An egg instantly changes from white to red: a miracle. How?
The obvious answer might be, "by faith". Indeed, we hear Jesus say again and again to those he heals: "your faith has made you whole (Mark 5:34)". And he can "do no mighty work (Mark 6:5)" in his hometown of Nazareth because of the people's lack of faith. But what kind of faith is meant?
Today, we as Christians are often urged to "hold onto our faith" at all costs against the assaults of historical skepticism or reductionistic science. We sometimes see ourselves as desperately clinging "tooth and nail" to our religious beliefs, determined not to yield an inch to our great enemy, that is, Doubt. Is this the faith that Christ requires?
Yet: "Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein” (Luke 18:17). Surely there could be nothing less like the faith of a little child than this desperate, "gritted teeth" sort of struggle.
In all four Gospels we read of a woman, historically identified with Mary Magdalene, who pours a vessel of very rare, very costly ointment over either Jesus's head or his feet: an extravagant, childlike gesture. As she bends and wipes his feet with her long hair, the disciples grumble above her with their adult objections about expenses and proper market value and sensible investments. Yet Jesus defends her: "for in that she has poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial (Matt 26:12)". Following the philosopher Boethius, we might say that the disciples saw with the gaze of ratio – closed, logical, discursive reasoning – while Mary's gaze was that of intuitus –the open, intuitive, spiritual vision which perceives in a flash that which ratio sees only in part. Perceives that, too, which is of eternal value, against which all the world's material standards fall short: the Pearl of Great Price, for which one is ready to sell all one has. Perhaps this is why the pearl, like the egg, is a symbol of Mary Magdalene.
A childlike, intuitive, open faith: a faith capable of perceiving the risen Christ. Yet out of Mary Magdalene, we are also told, seven demons were cast. What are we to make of this?
We might, like Pope Gregory the Great, interpret the seven demons as the seven deadly sins, from which we all must be cleansed: pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. Or, in light of modern medicine, we might re-classify such accounts as, say, epilepsy. Or we might understand Mary's demons as what our modern world generally terms "mental illness" (a possibility explored in the poem "Magdalene – The Seven Devils", by Marie Howe, that Father Ingalls sent out during Lent this year; I cannot read it right now due to time constraints, but I highly recommend it). And here my reflection takes a personal turn.
Most of you, I think, know that I have spent time in a mental hospital over the past year and a half, on more than one occasion. As one might expect, this was difficult (to say the least) and stressful in many ways, both for me and for my family and friends. Yet, I cannot wish those events undone since, for all that they were deeply traumatic, they were also transformative – due in part, of course, to the love and support of so many here, for which I am profoundly grateful. Due as well, though, to the extraordinary individuals whom I met in my time in hospital, who helped me to learn a different way of viewing others and the world – a mode of seeing which our society has largely lost, and which it desperately needs. One characterized by, in a word, openness.
By "openness" I mean several things. Firstly, I found rather to my surprise that most of my fellow patients were willing, even eager, to talk honestly about their own situations, their challenges, their failings. Compare the world of social media, or even many conversations with friends, in which we present a carefully tailored version of ourselves to the world. Those I met had largely dispensed with this; perhaps they felt it was no longer worth the effort, or perhaps they realized the importance of open, honest sharing. In any case, they were willing to let others see them as they were, warts and all.
Secondly, they were unusually open in their acceptance of others. We are often so quick to classify people into groups: "us" and "them" – where "them" are people who look or dress or smell funny, who act a little "strange", who were born into or spend time with the "wrong crowd". In a mental hospital, there is simply no point. Everyone has spent time in prison, or knows someone who has. Everyone is or knows someone who has sold hard drugs, or someone who has severe schizophrenia. Your mental barriers and prejudices come crashing down, and you end up spending time with those who you would formerly have ignored or feared – or even having fun.
And finally: they were uniquely open to the unexplained and wondrous in the world around them. Open to not only the possibility but the reality of miracle, having directly experienced the unseen, spiritual world which our scientific, rational culture largely rejects. One woman told me about her own experience: "Yes," she said, "I'm psychotic, and sometimes I hallucinate things that aren't there. And I also see visions. The hallucinations aren't real, but the visions are." Others told me about, say, angels or other spiritual beings they had seen or sensed, or experiences of telepathic communication or supernatural knowledge: stories which in mainstream society are often mocked or dismissed out of hand.
A child's gaze of faith, open to wonder: intuitus. The gaze that can look upon our world and our fellow human beings, diverse and complex as they are, and cherish them in all their unexpected and startling strangeness.
What are those of us, then, who do not suffer from mental health issues, to take from this? Surely madness is not the path (or at any rate the only path) to enlightenment?
I think not – though I do wonder at times whether any human being is truly what the psychiatric profession today would term "normal". Yet perhaps we have not all experienced what Mary Magdalene did. But we have all been children; all, too, have had visions, for we all dream. Even in our waking life, we have all felt moments of indescribable intensity – love, sorrow, penitence, joy; experienced the eternal suddenly breaking through into this world, in moments of inexplicable coincidence or profound transformation: for instance, in this very Eucharist. We need not try to force, with gritted teeth, such moments to happen (indeed, this is, in my experience at least, largely self-defeating); we need only be open and ready to accept them when they occur.
As Francis Thompson wrote in his poem “The Kingdom of God”:
The angels keep their ancient places;
Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
'Tis ye, 'tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendored thing.
Or, as we heard in the Introit Psalm today (Psalms 139:6-7):
Whither shall I go then from thy spirit? / or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I climb up into heaven, thou art there: / if I go down to hell, thou art there also.
The wonder is there; the Risen Christ stands before us. Let us pray that we, like Mary Magdalene, are capable of seeing Him. Amen.